ISTANBUL — In the Syrian war of attrition, the rebels once again have the advantage. After leaning towards the regime for more than a year and a half, the balance of forces is now shifting in the other direction.
The changing fortunes have been attributed to a new military alliance, Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), that has been gathering jihadists, Salafist fighters and others close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The rebel forces have recently taken possession of the major part of the Idlib Governorate, in northern Syria, along the border with Turkey.
Several Syrian war experts say this resurgence of the rebellion is a result of a pact between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, at the instigation of new Saudi King Salman, who took power in January. After years of mutual distrust, these three regional powers, fiercely hostile towards the Syrian regime, started joining efforts.
This rapprochement, which led to a new but limited round of weapon deliveries, is part of a much more active diplomacy Salman initiated to counter Iran's growing influence in the Middle East. In the same way that he's leading the Arab coalition against pro-Iranian Houthi militias in Yemen, the Saudi monarch seems eager to strengthen the rebels, to hasten the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran's key regional ally.
"There's a very clear Salman effect," says Ahmed Tomeh, prime minister of Syria's interim government formed by the opposition, which indirectly controls parts of the country. "The coordination between Riyadh, Ankara and Doha has improved. The Saudi intervention in Yemen restored hope for Syrian rebels. They sense that important change is coming."
Jordanian security analyst Fayez al-Doueiri, who is in regular contact with the rebels, agrees. "The Doha-Riyadh-Ankara triangle has started working. Salman's positioning as new commander of the Arab world is pushing the brigades to reorganize themselves."
These two sources, along with a third one who works closely with Qatar's authorities, say that anti-Assad forces are now in possession of anti-tank weapons, including Tow missiles. But none of these sources reports any mass arrivals. Osama Abu Zayed, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the moderate branch of the rebellion, says it hasn't "received anything in five months." But he acknowledges that this could change very soon. "Saudi, Turkish and Qatari friends are considering supporting us."
Al-Shamia rebel fighters in Aleppo, Syria — Photo: Twitter account
As a sign of this renewed rebel confidence, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition political group, announced it would not send an emissary to Geneva, where special Syrian UN envoy Staffan de Mistura wishes to consult separately with each player in the crisis. "Assad is retreating," SNC President Khaled Khodja, recently told the Turkish press.
The first signs of the turnaround began on Dec. 15, 2014. That's when the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, and the Islamist movement Ahrar ash-Sham — the two formations at the origin of Jaish al-Fatah — took control of the northern Wadi Deif military base, a critical cornerstone of Assad's regime.
The turnaround was confirmed during the winter, when fighters of the al-Shamia Front, Aleppo's main rebel force with close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, fought off the loyalist attack aiming to surround the eastern part of the city. And it accelerated at the end of March, with the collapses, one after the other, of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and the nearby al-Qarmeed military camp.
This change in dynamic coincided with the emergence of a new regional order. Initiated by Salman, who was convinced the Brotherhood represented a far less urgent danger for Saudi Arabia than Iran, Saudi Arabia reached its hand out to both Qatar and Turkey.
The mended ties with the two countries came at the expense of Saudi Arabia's relationships with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, on which Saudi Arabia had relied until then. "The Riyadh-Abu Dhabi-Cairo axis gave way to the Riyadh-Ankara-Doha axis, which is a lot more favorable to the anti-Assad forces," explains Qatar professor and defense expert Andreas Krieg. "Qatar Emir Tamim once again has significant leeway in Syria, whereas in 2014, by fear of displeasing King Abdullah, he had to revise downwards all his ambitions in the country."
During the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, held in Riyadh last week, Tamim was photographed chatting with Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who is said to be very fond of Qatar. The logical approach would be for the city-state to increase its aid to Ahrar ash-Sham and the al-Shamia Front, while Saudi Arabia increases support towards the Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) Salafists, its main clients in Syria, ubiquitous in the outskirts of Damascus.
As for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he is expected to arrive in the Saudi capital soon for his third visit this year. The left-wing opposition accuses him of providing logistical support to the al-Nusra Front, which he unconvincingly denies. According to the Turkish press, the Saudi monarch promised to support the creation of a no-fly zone in northern Syria, a measure that Turkey has been demanding for a long time.
The new Saudi-Qatar-Turkey alignment doesn't necessarily guarantee that the collapse of Assad's regime is near. In the short term, it is bound to lead to an escalation of clashes in the coming weeks. Determined to avenge the insult that was the loss of Jisr al-Shughur, an access point to the coastal zone, Damascus has launched an attack to retake control of the city.