Russian airstrikes in Syria are pushing moderate and radical Syrian rebels closer together. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Since Russian warplanes entered the conflict two weeks ago, three local rebel alliances have emerged across the provinces where President Bashar al-Assad aims to regain ground and consolidate control. Although such alliances have been short-lived in the past, rebels said more were expected in the coming weeks.
Opposition factions including U.S.-backed rebels and Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, have come together to counter a regime offensive across several fronts in the northwest, while others continue to fight Islamic State militants.[..]
After the first day of Russian airstrikes, which antigovernment activists and rebels say targeted moderate rebels and killed dozens of civilians, 41 rebel groups jointly called for unified ranks and an end to their quarrels in the face of a common enemy.
These alliances could fall apart as quickly as they formed. As the Journal notes, the Syrian rebel forces have been disorganized and fractious since the start of the civil war. But if the alliances do stick, they may prove to be as much of a curse as a blessing. As Walter Russell Mead and Nicholas M. Gallagher noted yesterday, one of the great risks of the current Russian-Iranian advance in the Middle East is that it will make Sunni radical groups look more acceptable to their coreligionists. This will likely hold both internally in Syria and across the region. Within Syria, radical groups such as al-Nusra are better organized than their moderate counterparts, and so may well come out the dominant partners in any alliance. Regionally, Gulf oil money could start to flow in even greater volume toward the radicals than it already does.
Moscow likely sees of all of this as a feature of its policy, not a bug. Putin is, after all, a descendant of the Soviet empire that spoke of “heightening the contradictions.” And he has made it clear that in entering Syria, he aims to pit himself on one side and the “terrorists” on the other. The end result, he hopes, will be a binary choice of Assad on the one hand and radical Islam on the other. That would be an ugly, humiliating dilemma for the West—and one that will likely grow sharper as Russian planes, Shi’a troops, and Sunni money continue to flood into Syria.