A broad array of Syrian rebel factions has called for a unified front against Russian airstrikes, a pragmatic gesture that signals the disjointed rebellion is trying to draw together in the face of a new threat.
In a statement released Monday, 41 factions — including the powerful, hard-line Ahrar Al-Sham and Jaysh Al-Islam and several units linked to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army — condemned “the Russian-Iranian alliance occupying Syria,” a reference to foreign support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The group called on regional powers to form an alliance against the Russian military strikes that began on Wednesday and have targeted not just the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) but also a wide range of other rebel factions.
Russia’s sudden escalation has put Syria’s other rebels, who oppose both ISIL and Assad, in a bind. Washington, the wider Syrian opposition’s most important backer, appears to be waffling on how to respond. Moscow has justified its mission in Syria as an attempt to help the weakened Syrian regime fend off ISIL and what it called other terrorist groups, but analysts say that Russia’s choice of targets betrays its true priority: saving the regime from further losses.
Even as evidence piles up that Russian jets are targeting CIA-backed “moderate” factions, Barack Obama’s administration remains hesitant to ramp up support for the rebels, as its Gulf allies and Turkey have urged it to do. White House officials have told reporters that they fear sparking a proxy war with Russia that could spiral out of control.
At the same time, Washington does not wish to leave a power vacuum in Damascus by toppling the regime outright — despite Obama’s insistence that Assad must go. U.S. officials fear that Assad’s ouster would create space for groups like ISIL and Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), an Al-Qaeda-affiliate, to expand even further.
One notable omission from the unity statement was Jabhat Al-Nusra, a major player in northwestern Syria that has worked side by side with Ahrar Al-Sham to capture the provincial capital of Idlib and creep closer to Assad’s coastal heartland in Latakia. It wasn’t immediately clear why Jabhat Al-Nusra did not sign the agreement, but many rebels and members of the opposition have made the case that Russian strikes are targeting groups that cooperate with the group.
“They are using Nusra’s presence as an excuse to kill civilians and fight the opposition,” said Mahmoud al-Louz, a media activist in Homs province, which has been struck by Russian bombs for the past week.
Infighting and rivalries have undermined Syria’s rebels since the early days of the armed uprising, which was a peaceful protest movement until the regime cracked down on it. Various factions formed along ideological and sectarian fault lines as well as according to which foreign power is supplying it with arms — including the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But analysts say the rebellion has consolidated over the past year as big fish have swallowed up little ones and new coalitions have formed.
That has lead to a strengthening of factions like Ahrar Al-Sham, Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIL — which has seized control of 50 percent of the country — while groups favored by the U.S. have dispersed or been absorbed by other factions.
The Russian strikes have offered U.S.-backed rebels another window to raise a long-standing request: MANPADS — or man-portable air-defense systems, which are shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft missile launchers — to shoot down Syrian and, now, Russian planes.
Speaking via Skype from the Damascus suburb of Daraya, Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Islam Martyrs Brigade who uses a nom de guerre, told Al Jazeera that anti-aircraft weapons were the only thing “capable of countering the sophisticated Russian air force and Assad’s air force, which target civilians in broad daylight.”
The Gulf states have reportedly favored sending heavier weapons into Syria, but the White House has resisted for fear they could fall into the hands of Jabhat Al-Nusra or ISIL, as other U.S.-supplied weapons already have.
Despite the Russian strikes, analysts are not convinced that Washington’s calculations have changed significantly. “It’s no surprise that the rebels take this opportunity to raise their demand for anti-air weaponry again,” said Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Syria in Crisis. “But would Obama want to change this long-standing policy specifically in order to kill Russians?”
The rebels say they hope so. “The American role in Syria recently has been very weak,” said Abu Obeida, “but it’s looked especially weak before Russia."