Allegations that Syrian government troops used chemical weapons against civilians outside Damascus on 21 August 2013 come at a time when the country's civil war has entered a particularly dangerous phase. Opposition forces that advocate overtly religious platforms couched in virulently sectarian rhetoric have shouldered aside the few non-sectarian guerrilla formations and emerged as the vanguard of the anti-regime coalition on the ground. Skirmishes between such groupings and the security services, pro-regime thugs and regular armed forces (STR) have resulted in, or set the stage for, targeted killings of civilians of one sectarian affiliation or another, most often of Sunnis by the STR and 'Alawis and other Shi'is by Islamist radicals. The rising incidence of brutal collective punishment has prompted both sides to express a thirst for vengence that borders on reciprocal calls for ethnic cleansing.
In November 2012, a new umbrella organization of opposition movements took shape, calling itself the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. The NCSROF supplanted the old Syrian National Council (SNC), which critics charged had been dominated from the outset by the Muslim Brothers. Ironically, the NCSROF immediately elected as its head a prominent representative of the Muslim Brothers, Ahmad Mu'azz al-Khatib. The SNC had been careful to choose as its successive leading figures a secularist, Paris-based academic and a Kurdish activist who was a long-time resident of social-democratic Sweden. A modest broadening of the base of the opposition's flagship organization therefore accompanied a pronounced assertion of the Muslim Brothers's grip over its agenda and decision-making process.
Nevertheless, the NCSROF (like the SNC before it) enjoyed few if any connections to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the various Islamic formations fighting inside Syria. Relations between the external leadership and the FSA proved rocky from the beginning. SNC leaders repeatedly ordered the FSA to subordinate itself to the civilian wing of the opposition, while FSA commanders insisted that they needed to retain total freedom of action in order to prosecute the revolt effectively. When the SNC at last set up a military structure of its own, the FSA not only refused to merge with it but even took steps to undercut the new command's efforts to co-ordinate operations among the autonomous militias that owed their primary allegiance to the internal leadership of the uprising, the Local Co-ordinating Committees. Attempts by the NCSROF to set up a unified command apparatus proved equally unsuccessful. An initial effort to impose orderliness on the FSA in December 2012 quickly fizzled out.
Persistent rivalries among key components of the NCSROF paralyzed the organization and energized radical Islamist formations that have seized control of the battlefield. Primary among these is the Assistance Front for the People of Syria (most often referred to as the al-Nusrah Front), which expresses particular hostility toward members of the 'Alawi community and tends to refer to the United States and Israel as "enemies of Islam." But this militia is only one of several radical groups that gained strength during the winter of 2012-13. The Free Syria Brigades, whose adherents call for the replacement of the secularist Ba'th Party-led order with an "Islamic" system of government, constitutes a major actor in the countryside northwest of Homs. Just as prominent in rural areas around Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur is the Hawks of Syria, which appears to be more concerned with overthrowing the country's current political elite than it is with eradicating 'Alawis per se. Elements of the Hawks of Syria have been especially ruthless in their treatment of captured soldiers and party functionaries. Horrific videos of the executions of unarmed prisoners get released sporadically by the militia as evidence of its commitment to punish all defenders of the Ba'thi regime.
Despite their success in the field, the radical Islamists steadily alienated large segments of the Syrian public during the first half of 2013. In the first place, Islamist formations did not hesitate to engage in fights with other opposition forces. On 9 January 2013, members of the Assistance Front ambushed and killed the commander of the FSA's al-Faruq Brigade in the town of Sarmada. The attack most probably occurred as retaliation against the FSA for the September 2012 assassination of the Islamist leader Firas al-Absi, and took place in the context of reports that the Assistance Front was organizing propular protests against the FSA in northern districts that had fallen out of government control. At the same time, the Assistance Front started to challenge Aleppo's pre-eminent Islamist militia, the Unity Brigade, and put sustained pressure on other autonomous bands of fighters to obey orders issued by the Front's local commanders.
Second, radical Islamist formations generated widespread outrage by brazenly assaulting Syria's minority communities. Human Rights Watch reported in January 2013 that one unit of Islamist militants had destroyed meetinghouses used by devout Shi'is to commemorate the martyrdom of al-Imam Husain, and that other units had raided and looted Christian churches across Latakia province. In May a group of radical Islamists desecrated the tomb of Hujr bin 'Adai, a companion of the Prophet particularly revered by Shi'is, and stole his remains. Syria's mainstream Sunnis found themselves subject to the wrath of the radicals as well. The Guardian reported on 17 January that members of the Assistance Front had vandalized a number of tombs around the northern town of A'zaz, on the grounds that the monuments were "too pretentious for Islamic traditions."
In the face of such assaults, Syria's Kurdish community at last mobilized to protect itself. The great majority of Syrian Kurds had adopted a neutral posture during the early months of the uprising, so the first rounds of the civil war by-passed the region around al-Hasakah and al-Qamishli. At the end of 2011, however, the authorities in Damascus tolerated, and perhaps even encouraged, the rise of a radical Kurdish organization throughout the northeastern provinces. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), which represents the present incarnation of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), subsequently took charge of a broad zone stretching from the town of Ras al-'Ain on the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Clashes between the armed wing of the PYD, known as the Popular Protection Units (YPG), and Islamist fighters became more frequent and intense during the late winter and spring of 2013. At the same time, a rival Kurdish militia, the West Kurdistan People's Defense Forces, skirmished repeatedly against Islamist units along the border with Turkey.
Meanwhile, armed tribespeople affiliated with the Jazirah and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria (JEF), operating separately from the FSA, launched a renewed offensive against Islamist and Kurdish militants in the eastern provinces of al-Raqqah and al-Hasakah. The four-way struggle among the JEF, FSA, YPG and radical Islamists prompted militia units of the first three of these movements to grab important oil-producing facilities between al-Raqqah and Dair al-Zur in early March. In conjunction with the race to capture the oil fields, FSA brigades and Islamist formations moved into the adjacent city of al-Raqqah. Districts of the city that fell into the hands of the Assistance Front were forced to follow particularly strict notions of public piety.
It was under these circumstances that the STR in June 2013 drove opposition fighters out of the strategically-situated town of al-Qusair on the Lebanese border, ushering in the current phase of the war. Government troops immediately advanced on the opposition strongholds of al-Rastan and Talbisah outside Homs, and made preparations for a large-scale offensive against rebel positions around Aleppo. Islamist commanders responded by threatening to make greater use of suicide bombings, particularly against concentrations of 'Alawi soldiers and civilians; on 19 June a massive explosion rocked a military facility in the largely 'Alawi southern suburbs of Latakia. FSA units simultaneously attacked a pair of Shi'i villages on the outskirts of Aleppo, whose residents appealed to the Lebanese Shi'i movement the Party of God (Hizbullah) for support.
In a move dripping with sectarian symbolism, the STR then turned its attention to opposition enclaves encircling the shrine of al-Sayyidah Zainab on the edge of Damascus, a site venerated by Shi'is. Government forces were joined in the operation by members of the pro-regime Abu Fadl al-Abbas militia, whose ranks include large numbers of Iraqi Shi'is. At the same time, a radical Islamist formation sliced through the Shi'i village of Hatla outside the eastern city of Dair al-Zur, killing some five dozen of its inhabitants and torching the local mosque; members of the militia then posted a video on YouTube in which they called on Sunnis to "massacre" Shi'is wherever they might be found.
Skirmishing between radical Islamists and the Kurdish YPG escalated at the end of June. Islamist fighters ambushed YPG cadres outside 'Amudah, prompting PYD officials to impose a curfew on the town. This action elicited criticism from representatives of the NCSROF, who disputed the PYD's right to issue regulations governing "liberated" territory. By mid-July, the PYD was calling for the creation of a unified Kurdish administration for opposition-held districts in the northeastern provinces, whose officials would be elected directly by the local population. At the same time, YPG units resumed the campaign against the Assistance Front at Ras al-'Ain, and succeeded in pushing its fighters out of the town. The victory at Ras al-'Ain encouraged YPG commanders to strike Islamist positions around the oil fields. By mid-July the fighting had spread to Tal Abyad in the northern marches of al-Raqqah province. FSA commanders tended to see such clashes as evidence that the YPG was actively collaborating with the regime, heightening mistrust and animosity between the two forces.
Kurdish efforts to push the Assistance Front out of the northeast encouraged local residents to mobilize against radical Islamist formations in neighboring areas. Anti-Islamist protests erupted in Minbij and three surrounding towns in Aleppo province on 10 July, some of which were reported to have involved violence. A day later, a high-ranking FSA commander was killed by fighters of the Assistance Front in a firefight at a checkpoint outside Latakia. Cadres of the Front opened fire on anti-Islamist protesters in the town of al-Dan'a on the Turkish border, then disarmed the local FSA battalion and executed its commander. By early August, competing factions inside the Assistance Front were reportered to be at loggerheads with one another over the movement's immediate objectives.
Growing rivalry among radical Islamist forces set the stage for a hectic assault against predominantly 'Alawi villages outside Latakia. The attack included elements of the Assistance Front, the Free Syrian Brigades, the Hawks of Syria and at least three other militias, one of which consisted of Libyan veterans of the war that ousted Muammar al-Qaddafi. A leader of the Free Syrian Brigades, Shaikh Anas 'Airut, told reporters that the goal of the operation was to "drive ['Alawis] out of their homes like they drove us out. They have to feel pain like we feel pain." More than 200 village residents were captured during the initial days of the campaign, many of whom were summarily executed. Among those killed was a prominent 'Alawi religious scholar, Shaikh Badr al-Ghazzal.
Civil rights activists inside Syria, who rally around the National Co-ordinating Committee of the Forces for Democratic Change (NCCFDC), condemned the slaughter that resulted from the offensive around Latakia. Some NCCFDC members expressed the view that the perpetrators of the killings were not Syrians, but rather outside agitators intent on stirring up regional hatreds. The views of the inside opposition clashed with that of the head of the FSA's military command, General Salim Idris, who made a quick tour of the captured villages and took responsbility for co-ordinating the operations of the forces involved.
Government troops retook almost all of the villages around Latakia by the third week of August, but the scale of the fighting demonstrated the increasing potency of the weaponry deployed by opposition forces. Islamist formations were reported to have bombarded the Latakia countryside with captured GRAD surface-to-surface missile batteries, and videos posted on-line showed militants operating Soviet-built T-54 and T-62 tanks outside Aleppo. Anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar made more frequent appearances on the battlefield as well.
In the northeast, the PYD steadily consolidated its control over large bands of territory. Planning for the creation of a regional Kurdish administration proceeded, and overtures were made to the Turkoman and Christian minorities to encourage them to accept such an arrangement. PYD supporters lobbied Kurdish officials in northern Iraq to restrict the flow of refugees out of Syria, so that enough residents would remain in the country to provide a firm foundation for an administrative apparatus. Fighting between Kurdish militants and radical Islamists nevertheless remained fierce, as YPG units resorted to mortar barrages to dislodge Islamist formations entrenched outside Ras al-'Ain and along the Iraqi border. Assistance Front fighters retaliated by kidnapping Kurds in outlying villages. A visiting reporter from al-Jazeera remarked that YPG personnel at highway checkpoints tended to sport buttons bearing the picture of Abdullah Ocalan of the PKK.
It is into this maelstrom that the United States is considering direct military intervention in retaliation for the deaths by chemical agents of hundreds of residents of the Damascus's suburbs of Jobar, Zamalka, 'Ain Tarmah and Mu'adamiyyah. An earlier use of the nerve gas sarin that killed two dozen people at Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province had been traced by Russian intelligence agencies to an obscure radical Islamist militia, which built a crude missile to deliver the toxin. US officials told Foreign Policy magazine that the incidence of suspected chemical attacks fell off dramatically in the aftermath of the government's capture of al-Qusair in June 2013.
Why the Syrian authorities would resort to chemical weapons at a time when the government armed forces are gaining momentum on all fronts represents a crucial puzzle. Close observers of local affairs have speculated that the order to fire rockets with chemical warheads against civilian targets may have come from President Bashar al-Asad's brother, Mahir al-Asad, who commands both the powerful Fourth Armoured Division and the elite Republican Guard. One can imagine that Mahir might have unleashed a chemical attack in order to make it impossible for his brother to engage in serious negotiations with the opposition, now that the regime has gained a significant advantage on the battlefield. It is possible that the president has at last shown his true colours, and can be expected to inflict collective punishment on those who supported the opposition if the uprising falters. Perhaps the sustained missile barrage carried out by the regular armed forces inadvertently detonated caches of chemical agents that had been stored by the government, the rebels or both.
What is certain is that foreign military intervention will have no unambiguous allies on the ground, as it did in Libya, and no well-defined territories to secure. Tactical co-ordination with Turkey will most likely run into problems in the northeastern provinces, where tensions between Ankara and the PYD simmer just below the surface. The steadily increasing sectarianization of the civil war threatens to drag not only Hizbullah but also Iraqi Shi'is into the conflict to protect their co-religionists. And if outside intervention actually does manage to destabilize the Ba'thi regime, who knows what additional horrors might be inflicted upon vulnerable communities all across Syria?
Fred H. Lawson is professor of government at Mills College. He is contributing editor of Middle East Report, and the author of, among other books, Global Security Watch—Syria (2013) and Why Syria Goes to War (1996).