Yesterday, thirteen Islamist rebel groups issued a declaration of independence from the Syrian Opposition Coalition. Repudiating secularism and a political leadership that exists almost wholly outside of war-torn Syria, the declaration, read out by the political chief of Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest and most effective mainstream rebel group in Aleppo, called for an "Islamic framework based on sharia." As such, the thirteen groups would now form their own Islamic Coalition and sever all ties to the Western-backed opposition. Liwa al-Tawhid alone issued the announcement and stressed that at the top of the list of signatories certifying this new alliance was Jabhat al-Nusra, the earliest, and still mainly homegrown, al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
It was no coincidence that this repudiation of Syria's Washington-backed leadership followed swiftly from several major turning points. The first was the calamitous US climb-down from direct military action for the Assad regime's August 21 chemical weapons attack in East Ghouta. The majority of yesterday's rebel signatories had been hoping for weeks for US airstrikes on regime installations - however minor or symbolic these might have been - because they would have at least afforded the chance for opportunistic ground assaults. Two weeks ago, while on assignment in Antakya, I interviewed half a dozen fighters who felt, not for the first time, completely disillusioned with the United States for a promised intervention that got un-promised overnight - and all because John Kerry was said to have put his foot in his mouth.
The formation of the Islamic Coalition also came less than a week after a major escalation in fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the other al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army. Tensions rose after the Islamic State seized control of the Azaz border-crossing in Aleppo from the FSA's Northern Storm Brigade and then spread to other parts of Syria including Raqqa, the province where al-Qaeda's footprint is deepest. Protests against the Islamic State - and counter-protests in support of it - erupted throughout the country.
Significantly, what began as a rebel vs. jihadist showdown soon transformed into a jihadist vs. jihadist one. The Islamic State even battled Nusra in Hasakah, reifying months of simmering hostility between the more hardcore and veteran Zarqawist branch of al-Qaeda (the Islamic State was established a decade ago in Iraq) and the comparatively more "pragmatic" junior partner (Nusra came into existence in late 2011), which has since been overshadowed by it. And, just to complicate things further, an entire "division" of the FSA defected to Nusra in Raqqa last Thursday. According to local activists cited by the Syria Deeply website, the FSA's Division 11 felt hopelessly outgunned and terrified by the Islamic State and saw Nusra as their only safeguard against annihilation. This was doubly interesting, in fact, because the Islamic State had expelled Nusra from Raqqa last spring. Nusra only returned on September 7 and evidently in enough force to become the second-most powerful militia in the province in a matter of days.
In a just world, it would fall to Lewis Carroll rather than your humble servant to explain why moderate rebels would align with al-Qaeda in order to close ranks against al-Qaeda. The last fortnight has produced so many new declensions in a conflict defined less and less by a common struggle to dislodge a dictator and more and more by a race to cannibalize that common struggle. It really is useless to refer to any such thing as the Syrian civil war when FUBAR more adequately characterizes what's happening now. It's obvious enough to say that this all benefits Bashar al-Assad enormously. And yet, there's an important context, or conspiracy, to the latest state of chaos, and it all began with a principal chaos merchant: Ayman al-Zawahiri.