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‘Frogs’ and ‘Geckos’: Syria’s Jihadists Speak the Language of Rebellion
‘Frogs’ and ‘Geckos’: Syria’s Jihadists Speak the Language of Rebellion
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts as he attends a news conference after a meeting with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow, 23 March 2016. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

Russia’s Choice in Syria

Many questions surround Moscow’s surprise announcement of a force reduction in Syria. Yet it clearly enhanced Russia’s leverage over the regime and provided a much-needed dose of credibility to the nascent political process. Avoiding further regional unravelling and spiralling radicalisation, however, and pushing the conflict toward an initial settlement will require further adjustments in Russia's strategy, including addressing the Assad conundrum.

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I. Overview

In announcing Moscow’s intent to withdraw the “main part“ of the military assets that it deployed to Syria since last September, President Vladimir Putin again caught much of the world off-guard, this time allies and adversaries alike. Having decla­red victory while maintaining its war-fighting capacity in Syria, Russia has left key questions unanswered: will it actually reduce its military role and, if so, to what extent, where and against whom. But if it implements the announcement in a meaningful way, this could create the best opportunity in years to push the conflict toward an initial settlement, especially on the heels of Moscow’s decision to help implement a “cessation of hostilities”.

This much is clear: Putin’s announcement underlined crucial points distinguishing Russian aims from those of the Assad regime and enhanced Moscow’s leverage over Damascus. It also, for the moment at least, increased Russia’s investment in the fledgling, fragile political process it is co-sponsoring with the U.S.

This much is unclear: having battered Syria’s non-jihadist rebels nearly to the brink of defeat but not over it, what sort of political and military arrangements will Moscow seek? Will it aim to cement battlefield gains, while maintaining a less aggressive posture in the hope that reduced violence will encourage the U.S. to drop any active opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and to increase coordination with Moscow against jihadist groups? This option is consistent with Russia’s general approach to the conflict, but would entail an open-ended military commitment, offer little prospect of improved stability and possibly play to the jihadists’ advantage.

Alternatively, will Moscow push for a more robust settlement that has a chance of stabilising the country – at least those parts the regime and non-jihadist rebels control? That would require an additional, political outlay: most importantly, delinking its own interests in Syria from the person of Assad – and, ultimately, convincing Iran to do the same. If Moscow wishes to avoid further regional unravelling and spiraling radicalisation, this is an investment worth making.

Istanbul/New York/Brussels, 29 March 2016

‘Frogs’ and ‘Geckos’: Syria’s Jihadists Speak the Language of Rebellion

Originally published in War on the Rocks

A Turkish-Russian agreement last month forestalled a potentially disastrous Syrian military attack on the country’s northwestern Idlib governorate, the Syrian opposition’s last major stronghold. Yet the agreement also required Turkey to “remove” the Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other hardliners from much of the northwest, a possible first step toward separating them from the rest of the opposition. So far, results are reportedly mixed. Whether the group continues to comply, and how it resolves its own dual transnational-local identity, could be a matter of life or death for the northwest’s nearly three million residents.

A recent video release from Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, helps show how it has integrated into Syria’s opposition, and how it translates its ideological worldview into the language of Syria’s war. The Sept. 17 video features a roundtable discussion between three of the group’s top leaders and members of its advisory Shari’a Council as they expound on what the Syrian government calls “reconciliation” — the negotiated surrender of opposition-held areas. As they do so, they also engage in a seemingly unscripted discussion of politics, war, and religious law. And they repeatedly touch on language, and how the vocabulary of Syria’s war corresponds to their particular religious-jurisprudential lexicon.

Click here to read the full article at War on the Rocks.