X

Create an account to continue reading.

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles
For unlimited access to The Spectator, subscribe below

Registered readers have access to our blogs and a limited number of magazine articles

Sign in to continue

Already have an account?

What's my subscriber number?

Subscribe now from £1 a week

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
 
View subscription offers

Already a subscriber?

or

Subscribe now for unlimited access

ALL FROM JUST £1 A WEEK

View subscription offers

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Login

Don't have an account? Sign up
X

Subscription expired

Your subscription has expired. Please go to My Account to renew it or view subscription offers.

X

Forgot Password

Please check your email

If the email address you entered is associated with a web account on our system, you will receive an email from us with instructions for resetting your password.

If you don't receive this email, please check your junk mail folder.

X

It's time to subscribe.

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access – from just £1 a week

You've read all your free Spectator magazine articles for this month.

Subscribe now for unlimited access

Online

Unlimited access to The Spectator including the full archive from 1828

Print

Weekly delivery of the magazine

App

Phone & tablet edition of the magazine

Spectator Club

Subscriber-only offers, events and discounts
X

Sign up

What's my subscriber number? Already have an account?

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

Thank you for creating an account – Your subscriber number was not recognised though. To link your subscription visit the My Account page

Thank you for creating your account – To update your details click here to manage your account

X

Your subscriber number is the 8 digit number printed above your name on the address sheet sent with your magazine each week.

Entering your subscriber number will enable full access to all magazine articles on the site.

If you cannot find your subscriber number then please contact us on customerhelp@subscriptions.co.uk or call 0330 333 0050.

You can create an account in the meantime and link your subscription at a later time. Simply visit the My Account page, enter your subscriber number in the relevant field and click 'submit changes'.

Please note: Previously subscribers used a 'WebID' to log into the website. Your subscriber number is not the same as the WebID. Please ensure you use the subscriber number when you link your subscription.

Coffee House

Yes, there are 70,000 moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Here’s what we know about them

27 November 2015

10:20 AM

27 November 2015

10:20 AM

Yesterday David Cameron told Parliament that there are ‘about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups’ who could help fight Islamic State. 

The Prime Minister’s number was the result of an internal assessment made by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), backed up by serving British diplomats overseas whose jobs focus on the Syrian opposition. Such a large number struck many as political exaggeration. The chairman of the Defence Committee, Julian Lewis, said he was ‘extremely surprised’. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn may issue a formal demand for clarification. So do these fighters exist and who are they?

Of course, the debate primarily centres around the issue of what it means to be a ‘moderate armed opposition group’ in Syria. Notwithstanding the storm surrounding this morning’s statement, this question has become particularly pertinent in recent days, as international diplomats discuss who should – and should not – be involved in a future Syrian peace process. 

As diplomatic efforts for Syria gain pace and as Saudi Arabia prepares to host a major conference bringing together 60-80 representatives of a broad spectrum opposition, the definition of “moderate” has been shifting. The most effective definition now must be based upon a combined assessment of (a) what groups are acknowledged as being opposed to ISIL and (b) what groups our governments want, or need to be involved in a political process.

Having studied Syria’s armed opposition since the first months of the country’s uprising in mid-2011, I can say with confidence that the Prime Minister and the JIC are about right.

[Alt-Text]


Many of the groups who fall within both these categories are armed factions the Islamist-averse United States’ CIA has already ‘vetted’ and assessed as ‘moderate’ enough to receive lethal assistance. Some others are recognised by Syrians as ‘mainstream’ members of the revolution – some moderately Islamic – and crucially, as being strongly rooted within local societies. Combined, these factions likely represent roughly 65,000 fighters. Representatives of all these groups look set to be invited to Saudi Arabia’s internationally-facilitated opposition conference in early-December. They are as follows:

Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 19.38.51

While unlikely to be invited to grand opposition conferences abroad due to their comparatively smaller size, there are roughly 25-30 additional factions that would fall under this ‘moderate’ label. Combined, these factions represent another 10,000 fighters.

Making a total of 75,000 fighters, these 105-110 factions broadly represent what one could today label as ‘moderate’ in Syria’s context. This means they are explicitly nationalist in terms of their strategic vision; they are local in terms of their membership; and they seek to return to Syria’s historical status as a harmonious multi-sectarian nation in which all ethnicities, sects and genders enjoy an equal status before the law and state. They remain focused on fighting the Assad regime, however, as it represents a more immediate priority for most, in terms of self-protection, the defence of civilian populations and of course, pursuing the revolution’s ultimate objective. Beyond these factions, it becomes more complicated.

The biggest challenge for policymakers today is ensuring that any future political agreement on Syria is agreed and signed onto by those genuinely capable of enforcing it on the ground. Beyond the aforementioned armed factions, two ‘supergroups’ currently dominate opposition dynamics in Syria – Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham. Both are avowedly conservative Islamist movements and combined, field a total of roughly 27,500 fighters. Although the U.S. has for several years banned its diplomats from engaging with the more conservative of the two – Ahrar al-Sham – both it and Jaish al-Islam look set to be invited to Saudi Arabia’s opposition conference. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia even tried to bring leading representatives of both factions to the most recent ministerial talks in Vienna, on 14 November.

Both of these groups and perhaps a small number of others are definitely not natural Western allies, no doubt about it. But they vehemently oppose ISIL being in Syria and have fought it successfully in the past – with far better results than our currently favoured allies, the Kurds. They have also proven willing behind the scenes to submit themselves to being single components of a broader opposition – or revolutionary – movement. Should they be included in a formal political process, they will become one of many factions involved. Should they be excluded, they could become immensely powerful spoilers. 

Had the West more definitively intervened in Syria early on, we would undoubtedly have more moderate, more cohesive and more natural ally-material opposition to work with. Unfortunately, things took a different path. Our subsequent obsession with the extremists and refusal to tackle Syria’s complexity has clouded our vision. A ‘moderate’ opposition in culturally attuned terms does exist in Syria, we need only open our eyes to it. Only these groups – and certainly not Assad – will ensure the real extremists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda eventually lose their grip on power in Syria.

Charles Lister is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and a Senior Consultant to The Shaikh Group. He has spent the past two years coordinating an intensive process of face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups, as one component of a multinationally-backed Track II process. His new book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency was published in November 2015.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


Show comments
Close