The increased strategic differences between Syrian rebels and regional powers are pushing them apart.
There is a general perception that rebel backers have total control over their Syrian allies. Rebel groups are even viewed as mere proxies. This led, among other reasons, to direct negotiations, on multiple occasions, between the relevant regional and international players without the presence of any Syrian.
Nonetheless, the recent merger of rebel groups with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, in northern Syria and the ongoing anti-regime offensive in Daraa happened against the will of their regional patrons, namely Turkey and Jordan. These developments indicate the limits of regional sponsors’ influence.
The fragmentation among local actors and their total dependence on outside support had, until recently, given their backers the upper hand. The rebel patrons largely shaped their military strategies, their priorities and even relations between rebel groups. They also influenced the insurgents’ participation in the political negotiations as well as selecting their negotiating teams. Because they shared the same strategic goal of overthrowing Assad, rebel groups were willing to put up with this state of affairs.
The Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015 has dramatically transformed the Syrian conflict and its dynamics. It also shaped the approaches and the priorities of rebels’ donors. Jordan was among the first regional actors to reach with Russia, in late 2015, a 'gentleman’s agreement' to alleviate violence and destruction in southern Syria. Amman, in return, has been pushing for the de-escalation of the fight against the Assad regime. The new strategy aims to prioritize fighting radical groups along the Jordanian border to stabilize the area and control the flow of Syrian refugees.
Turkey also has restored its relations with Russia in the second half of 2016 to secure its border from both ISIS and the Syrian Kurds. The fall of Aleppo in December 2016 was widely perceived to have been coordinated with Turkey in exchange for a safe passage for its military-led operation in Syria. Some rebel groups were also pressured to prioritize fighting against ISIS alongside the Turkish offensive over fighting Assad.
These policy shifts made it clear to rebels, or at least to some of them, that the Syrian conflict has become a chess game against everyone. Those insurgents, as a result, started thinking about how to protect their interests from their allies.
Read more from the source article published in the Expect Comment Section of Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs Feb. 22 2017