NEW YORK — The world may be focused on the big fight in Syria between the rebels and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but there is a smaller, albeit just as significant, second front going on.
Though many of the region’s leaders seem to have either ignored or forgotten it, the second fight in Syria is taking place among opponents of the Syrian government.
As the opposition continues to pick off regime soldiers and the government embarks on yet another counteroffensive around Damascus and Homs, the rebels themselves are starting to duke it out over the natural resources in Syria’s eastern plains, where the bulk of its crude oil is located.
As much as Syria’s military opposition likes to portray itself as a disciplined military organization with a sense of unity against the “criminal” Assad regime to its foreign donors, the scuffle over oil in the small Deir ez-Zor village of al-Musareb — between seemingly rival rebel brigades— is the most public illustration to date that Assad’s opponents are divided over some very large questions. How should Syria be governed after Bashar’s fall? Which ideology (Salafi, moderate Islam, or secular) will reign supreme in a post-Assad Syria? And how strong will democracy be in a nation that has been traumatized by two years of civil war?
The picture painted by al-Musareb, courtesy of the excellent reporting of the Syria Comment blog of Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at Oklahoma University, is one that is distressing for anyone who wants Bashar al-Assad’s clique gone from power. But it’s also a picture that was all but inevitable, given the fractious nature of the armed opposition since the uprising’s early days in the summer of 2011, and the increasing power and leverage that jihadist groups have had within its ranks as the war has gotten bloodier.
While the exact chain of events is not clear, the scuffle in al-Musareb allegedly started over a dispute about an oil tanker truck. The area’s major tribe, the al-Saf, was accused by Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist organization linked to Al’Qaeda in Iraq and designated as a terrorist organization by the United States last year, of buying an oil tanker that was stolen from its original owner. When members of Jabhat and the al-Saf met to mediate the dispute, violence quickly erupted between the two, resulting in the death of Jabhat’s leader in the region.
Why the tribe shot and killed the Jabhat leader is still a matter of dispute. Tribal members complained that Jabhat al-Nusra was trying to intimidate them with weapons; Jabhat claims that the tribe deceived them and killed their man as a preemptive measure.
What is certain, however, is that Jabhat al-Nusra felt it necessary to retaliate with a vengeance. A full-scale assault against the tribe was launched, and the invasion had the devastating effect of demolishing dozens of homes, capturing of locals in the village, and displacing a significant amount of people. Fifty people were reportedly killed in the fighting, which culminated in a retaliatory strike by the tribe against Nusra’s central headquarters in the region.
Depending on whom you ask, you get a different answer about which side started the violence. Yet the question is hardly relevant to the big picture: Jabhat al-Nusra, much like their jihadist cousins in Iraq, are clearly interfering with the daily lives of indigenous Syrians and overstaying their welcome.
This, perhaps, would not be a big deal if Syria had an effective and legitimate central government to mediate the dispute. But of course, government control in Deir ez-Zor is increasingly scarce, leaving various rebel groups and tribes to administer the affairs of a highly damaged society.
While it would be premature to say that the tribes of eastern Syria are preparing to mobilize and kick extremists such as Jabhat al-Nusra out of their towns and villages, the violence that erupted in al-Musareb is very similar to what happened in Iraq five years earlier, when the tribes of Anbar banded together to limit Al’Qaeda’s influence in that part of the country.
As US, European, and Arab leaders continue to meet on Syria, they all would be wise to take a deeper look into what is happening within the anti-Assad opposition. It has been difficult thus far to get Bashar al-Assad to waver, but it will be even more difficult if groups within the Syrian resistance fight among one another.
And when Bashar al-Assad leaves, Syrians may have to weather more violence for a while longer—this time, between militias with different agendas on how Syria should be resurrected.
Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher at Wikistrat, Inc.,a geostrategic analysis firm, and an independent analyst. He has written about Syria for CNN.com, the Small Wars Journal, and The National Interest.