Why is one alleged truce between Syrian rebels and the Islamic State around Damascus worth our attention?


On September 12, 2014, reports surfaced about a truce[i] around Damascus between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic rebels on one side, and the Islamic State (IS) on the other. Such a truce seemed to challenge president Barack Obama’s strategy of arming moderate rebels. It also showed desperation in the ranks of the opposition fighters. However, later reports by U.S. officials and rebel leaders denied the truce had ever been stipulated. Nevertheless, the attention the alleged truce attracted underscored the importance of such an event if it were to happen. Its implications would probably affect the balance between regime forces, moderate rebels, and jihadists in Syria. Although the international coalition substantiated its commitment to the fight against jihadists on September 23, by striking them in Syria, moderate rebels seem unable to profit from the situation. It is still not possible to rule out the possibility of them allying with hardline jihadists in the future in order to fight the regime.

As the International coalition led by the United States commenced strikes against IS, Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria), and the Khorassan group (affiliated with al-Qaeda) during the early hours of Tuesday, September 23, [ii] rebels fighting the regime were still worried about the future of their struggle.  Meanwhile the coalition fell short of striking the Bashar al-Assad regime, risking on the short term to strengthen it and its portrayed fight against terrorism in Syria. A few days before this drastic event, the internal dynamics of Syria’s civil war caught international attention: reports surfaced about an alleged truce between moderate and Islamist rebels on one side, and the IS on the other side in al-Hajar al-Aswad, a densely-populated city on the southern outskirt of Damascus.

According to numerous reports, the truce primarily concerned the Syrian Revolutionaries Front[iii] (SRF, an ally of the FSA, and an ally of the U.S.), and Jaysh al-islam (“the Army of Islam”, an Islamic rebel faction, often fighting alongside the FSA against the IS) on the one hand, and the IS on the other.[iv] Other less-famous brigades were also part of the truce according to a report.[v] The pact would have provided that the parties “[would]respect a truce until a final solution is found and they promise not to attack each other because they consider the principal enemy to be the Nussayri regime”  (in reference to the Assad alawite regime). [vi] The same report mentions strong local support for the truce, because of weariness from prolonged fighting in the city.

Two days later, other reports surfaced, [vii] citing Syrian opposition and U.S. officials[viii] (including Syrian rebel commanders mentioned in the truce), denying the existence of such a pact. “It is fantastical to think that rebels outside Damascus would expend lives and resources to rout ISIS from the Damascus suburbs; besiege the group for over a month; wait until two days after Obama announces he will aid the rebels to fights ISIS; and then sign a deal with ISIS (the first ever) while the group was besieged in its last holdout”, said Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, director of government relations for the Syrian American Council, a Washington NGO that works with the Syrian opposition and the FSA.[ix] SRF leader Jamal Maarouf could also be seen in videos,[x] a couple of days prior to the rumours about the truce, telling his troops that the front will continue its war against the IS. Other footage shows fierce battles between rebels and the IS in al-Hajar al-Aswad, [xi] little more than a month prior to the alleged truce, portraying the reality on the ground. In this context, it seemed that rumours might have been sparked by a 24-hour truce between the parties, that took place in order to retrieve bodies of dead fighters from each side[xii].

Although the information proved to be false, examining the dimensions of the alleged truce could prove interesting. Why did one particular truce raise so many concerns inside and outside Syria? Many have been signed since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war.[xiii] First, the non-aggression pact seemed to have been exaggerated. Reports about a tactical truce started to resemble a strategic alliance, raising fears of further radicalization – especially in Washington. Indeed, the U.S. administration, which recently engaged in arming and training 5,000 Syrian rebels labeled as moderates,[xiv] seemed in a bad position, having to re-think its arming plans, as “moderate rebels” were siding with the IS. Nevertheless, the rushing of Syrian opposition and American officials to deny reports about the truce highlights the potential impact it would have had. American lawmakers opposed to arming Syrian rebels also jumped on the occasion to discredit President Obama’s strategy, underlining the risks of having weapons delivered to “moderate rebels” fall into the hands of Islamist jihadists.

In terms of net gain, the truce seemed to only benefit the IS. Faced with an imminent threat by the newly formed international coalition, and having to fend off growing attacks by the Syrian regime while still having to fight off moderate and Islamist rebels in many areas in the country, the IS could not hope for a better opportunity around the strategic capital Damascus. In addition, the timing of such a truce did not seem ideal for the moderate rebels. Why sign a truce when the international coalition is about to provide them with weapons and training? Wouldn’t such a deal make the coalition reluctant to support them in the future? Moderate rebels are indeed disillusioned by Western intentions towards the Syrian conflict, and some rebel leaders clearly stated that their fight is not against jihadists, but rather against the regime.[xv] But this did not prove sufficient for them to strike a truce with the IS. Above all, if moderate and Islamist rebels were to sign a truce with the IS, they would undoubtedly confirm the Assad regime narrative that it is fighting terrorists, discrediting all rebels by designating them as such.

So far, the international coalition seems to be strongly pushing forward with its strategy against the IS and other jihadist groups. However, it is still too early to assess the outcome of the coalition’s plan of arming and training thousands of moderate rebels.[xvi] It is thus not clear to what extent the rumours of the truce in question have negatively impacted the rebellion. One thing is clear; distrust plagues the relationship between moderate rebels and the international coalition. If events in Syria unfold in favour of the Syrian regime, rebels might find themselves with one solution left: siding with the hardline jihadists of the IS, confirming previous fears about a truce between the two sides. Will they side with the IS? If so, for how long? Will such tactics prove effective and morph into a strategy? These questions cannot be answered yet as events unfold dramatically in Syria. Notably, no rumours about a solid truce between moderate rebels and the Syrian regime have surfaced yet.

[i] Global post, Agence France Press, “Syria rebels, IS in ‘non-aggression’ pact near Damascus”, September 12, 2014, (updated September 14, 2014) http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140912/syria-rebels-non-aggression-pact-near-damascus

[ii] Helen Cooper, Eric Schmitt, The New York TImes, “Airstrikes by U.S. and Allies Hit ISIS Targets in Syria”, September 22, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/world/middleeast/us-and-allies-hit-isis-targets-in-syria.html?_r=0

[iii] Aron Lund, Carnegie Middle East Center, The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, December 13, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910

[iv] Josh Rogin, The Daily Beast, “Syrian Opposition Blasts Reports It Signed a Truce With ISIS”, September 14, 2014, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/09/16/syrian-opposition-blasts-reports-it-signed-a-truce-with-isis.html

[v] Imad Gebril, Orient News, “Al-Hajar al-Aswad : Mu’ahadat Solh Bayn al-Jaych al-Horr wa Aanasser Tanzim al-Dawla, الحجر الأسود: معاهدة صلح بين الجيش الحر وعناصر تنظيم الدولة,  September 12, 2014, http://www.orient-news.net/?page=news_show&id=81133

[vi] Global Post, AFP, op. cit.

[vii] Josh Rogin, the Daily Beast, op.cit.

[viii] Sam Stein, Jennifer Bendery, Huffington Post, White House Denies Truce Between Syrian Rebels And ISIS, September 14, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09/15/white-house-syria-rebel-isis_n_5824200.html

[ix] Ibid.

[x] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pAg5Htk_iA, September 7, 2014

[xi] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVLJZPrz4Ok, July 23, 2014

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW4wyrGlQIg, July 23, 2014

[xii] Sam Stein, Jennifer Bendery, Huffington Post, op. cit.

[xiii] Daniel Abdallah, posted by Joshua Landis, “Does the Truce Between ISIS and Suqour al-Sham Mean an End to Syria’s Inter-Rebel War?” By Daniel Abdallah, February 7, 2014, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/truce-isis-suqour-al-sham-mean-end-syrias-inter-rebel-war-daniel-abdallah/

Paul Adams, BBC, “Syria rebels agree Azaz ceasefire”, September 20, 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-24173618

[xiv] Paul Kane, Ed O’Keefe, The Washington Post, “Senate votes to approve Obama’s plan to fight islamist militants, September 18, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/senate-expected-to-give-approval-to-obamas-plan-to-fight-islamist-militants/2014/09/18/f7fc229e-3f3e-11e4-9587-5dafd96295f0_story.html

[xv] World Bulletin, Free Syrian Army will not join US coalition, September 13, 2014, http://www.worldbulletin.net/world/144294/free-syrian-army-will-not-join-us-coalition

[xvi] Roger Runningen, Michelle Jamrisko, Bloomberg, “Rice Says Months Needed to Begin Training Syrian Rebels”, September 19, 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-09-19/rice-says-months-needed-to-begin-training-syrian-rebels.html

Image credit: Flickr, Creative Commons


About Author

Matthieu Karam

Matthieu Karam is a contributor to the International Security Observer (ISO). He is a web journalist at the French-speaking Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour in Beirut. Karam holds a Master‘s degree from the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po, with a focus on Intelligence and the Middle East, and a BA in Political and Administrative Sciences from Université Saint Joseph (USJ) in Beirut. He has interned at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where he worked on the Syrian crisis focusing on grassroots movements and military brigades. He also interned for several Lebanese ministries and participated in the launch of a Lebanese observatory of international conflicts in the Arab world. Karam is a native French and Arabic speaker, fluent in English, with an elementary knowledge of German.

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