Lost in Fighting? Dynamics of Interaction between Armed Opposition Groups in Syria (2012 – 2017)

The Syrian civil war recently entered its 7th year. Its defining features have been the multiplicity of actors on both belligerents' sides which is connected to a high degree of internationalisation of the conflict, the early dominance of armed opposition groups with an Islamist agenda and the intense bombing of civilian population centres by the regime and its allies combined with a strategy of sieges and forced population exchanges. All these dimensions are crucial in explaining the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. For students of non-state armed groups the first characteristic is particularly intriguing. Concerning the number of armed actors involved, a common distinction in the literature is between a two-party and a multiparty civil war. However, I contend that this characterisation fails to capture important features of the Syrian war. While some reporting spoke of more than 1000 groups, there are many minor factions included not relevant for the larger conflict dynamics. Hence, I agree with other scholars that besides the mere number of groups the degree of institutionalisation and the distribution of power should also be considered when discussing the fragmentation of an insurgent movement.

In my project I analyse how armed opposition groups in multiparty civil wars draw the line between ally and enemy among their own kind. In Syria allies are defined by a specific subset of groups that fight on the same side of the war, that is Sunni, Arab and Turkmen factions. These are groups ranging from Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and its successor organisations Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to independent Islamist and Salafist groups such as Jaish al-Islam and Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya to local battalions using the FSA-label. Three consequential ruptures in the insurgent arena constituted this set of actors: first, the split among the Kurdish-majority groups with their agenda of separatism and the other insurgents. Second, the complicated divorce between the so-called Islamic state and the more hardline Islamist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, and most recently (in 2017) the completion of the distinction between a 'mainstream' rebel camp and Tahrir al-Sham, the successor of al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. I trace how these three ruptures constituted the set of actors fighting on the same side and why particularly the last one has been delayed so much and was plagued by so many difficulties.

Not surprisingly, these three divides are connected to sometimes violent conflict between groups. If and how these conflicts are solved defines who is part of the set or not. A common characteristic of an 'insider' is the call for solving disputes with him within an arbitration committee agreed upon by both parties. While these conflict resolution mechanisms almost always failed to settle conflicts with al-Nusra, I argue that it is the invitation to such a committee and the wording to refer to the belligerent which makes an actor belong to the opposition side or not. The starkest example here is the shift in referring to the 'Islamic state' with its self-given name to Khawarij, the earliest Islamic sect that engaged in campaigns of harassment and terror against other Muslims who did not share their views and was opposed equally to ʿAlī and Muʿāwiyah as caliphal candidates. In the conflict between JN and the other same-side groups international dynamics such as foreign interventions or the peace process also play a strong role. I argue that while the ideology of the former al-Qaeda affiliate is certainly crucial in its attacks on other often less ideological groups, the timing and targets can be explained much better by looking at these macro-level factors and their connection to dynamics on the ground.

The interaction between groups along these lines is not only taking place in the military realm, but also in two other semi-autonomous fields, an insurgent administration and a judiciary. While the latter two have seen strong competition between same-side groups, which sometimes even turned violent, the military field has seen high degrees of cooperation, although often short-lived. In my PhD thesis I analyse how the dynamics in these different fields are connected to the ruptures discussed above.

Looking at the interactions between opposition groups in this way also explains why we saw both a great deal of conflict and competition but also different forms of cooperation (ranging from transactional to more sustained cooperation) while they were belonging to one camp (and sometimes even beyond camps). This is more fruitful than a perspective only focusing on one side, usually violent infighting.

In my work I use a mixed methods approach both at the level of data collection and analysis. In my field research I combined the collection of thousands of primary documents published on social media and interviews with former and current members of major armed opposition groups, Syrian journalists and researchers, civil activists, members of local councils, lawyers, former judges and religious figures.

Concerning the connection to the terms 'terrorism' and 'terrorist', my interview partners often used them when referring to Daesh, the regime and sometimes Jabhat al-Nusra, although concerning the latter they usually distinguished between followers (who are normal Syrians that want to fight the regime) and leaders (who are foreign to a great extent and have their own agenda). In my research the two terms or related ones such as Khawarij, Daesh and 'dogs of hellfire' are strongly connected to the 'boundary making' between groups that belong to the opposition camp and groups that do not.

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