Rebel vs. Rebel

Syrian jihadi groups are now kidnapping and killing one another. Is this the beginning of an all out war, or an opportunity for the moderates?

If the United States wants to move against jihadists in Syria, there has never been a better time. Tensions between moderate rebel groups and extremist forces are coming to a head across the country.

The potential of a U.S. military strike over the past several weeks -- which mainstream forces largely welcomed, and jihadists, fearing that the United States would target them, opposed -- appears to have exacerbated tensions between the groups. Full-blown clashes broke out in the north and east of the country today, with Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated groups in the city of Deir Ezzor battling with the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Meanwhile, ISIS also launched an offensive on the northern town of Azaz, which lies close to the Turkish border.

The clashes follow an ISIS announcement earlier this week declaring war against the FSA-affiliated Farouk Brigades in Aleppo, along with another moderate rebel brigade. Dubbing its operation "The Repudiation of Malignity," the jihadist group said its offensive was in response to an attack by the brigades against its headquarters in the northern city of al-Bab last week.

ISIS even appears to be picking fights with more radical brigades. The jihadist group reportedly kidnapped nine commanders from the Ahrar Souria group in the northern city of Raqqa on Sept. 12. It also killed a commander from the powerful Ahrar al-Sham militia, after the man objected to ISIS's kidnapping of Malaysian aid workers. In going after Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS is turning a former friend into an enemy: The Salafist group stood by ISIS last month when it clashed with Ahfad al-Rasoul, an FSA-affiliated rebel group, and as popular protests erupted against ISIS.

ISIS's feuding with moderate Syrian rebels seems to be sanctioned by the very top of the al Qaeda hierarchy. In an audio statement last week, al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri warned his followers in Syria to avoid cooperation with "secular groups that are allied to the West."

That's not to say that mainstream rebel groups can afford to shun al Qaeda affiliates entirely. In the absence of an international push to help the opposition, jihadists are still the rebels' most lethal weapon. Jihadist suicide attacks have been responsible for some of the most important strategic gains recently: Rebel groups besieged Mennagh military airbase in Aleppo for more than a year, for example, but were unable to completely capture it -- until ISIS dispatched its suicide bombers on Aug. 5. The same thing happened at the Hamidiya military complex in the northern province of Idlib last month.

But there is no doubt that rebel groups are growing increasingly uneasy with the behavior of al Qaeda affiliates, particularly in rebel-held areas in the country's north and east. Jihadists may be an indispensable asset on the front lines, but their behavior in liberated areas -- where they have kidnapped activists and aid workers, terrorized civilians, and tried to implement an alien form of Islamic law -- is alienating Syrians.

The eastern city of Abu Kamal, close to the Iraqi border, has emerged as a case study of the jihadists' limited appeal. Over the past several months, multiple residents told me that Syrians were growing increasingly restless over the jihadists' presence. They cited their tendency to interfere in people's personal affairs and force their own worldview on residents. But their central complaint was the extremists' focus on maintaining a monopoly over local resources: One resident from Abu Kamal and another from Aleppo told me that jihadists tend to claim anything under government control as spoils of war, from schools to telephone and water facilities.

Earlier this month, clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and FSA-affiliated groups. When the gunfire stopped, the moderates were able to negotiate a ceasefire deal that represented a body blow to Jabhat al-Nusra's influence in the area: The jihadist group agreed to ask foreign jihadists in its ranks to leave the city, "as there is no fighting in Abu Kamal and so there is no need for wearing masks or even carrying arms." The groups also agreed that security in the city must be handled exclusively by the "security brigade," and other FSA-affiliated rebel groups. Finally, it prohibited Jabhat al-Nusra from establishing checkpoints in the city, and stipulated that houses can only be raided through a court order and by FSA brigades.

Remarkably, Jabhat al-Nusra issued a two-page apology to the people of Abu Kamal, in which it blamed the FSA for forcing the war on the jihadist organization. It said that it had pulled its fighters from the frontlines to defend itself against "groups that seek to establish a secular state." Jabhat al-Nusra asserted in the apology that it could easily defeat the FSA -- but the fact that it tried to reach out to the public, rather than engage in further confrontation, suggests that it's mindful of growing public opposition.

Abu Kamal is predominantly tribal and more conservative than most areas in Syria, but this development proves that it's not a natural breeding ground for jihadist groups. Extremists have tried repeatedly to establish a foothold there -- when the regime's forces left the region, jihadists presented themselves as a force that could get things done. They distributed badly-needed cooking gas, fuel, and foodstuffs to the local population. Meanwhile, the FSA groups stumbled, neglecting the population and focusing on their own financial gain. Jihadists, however, are their own worst enemies -- as time passed, the local population grew restless of their medieval style of rule.

Al Qaeda's operatives in Syria have worked hard to avoid the mistakes they committed in Iraq, where they alienated potential supporters with brutal, indiscriminate tactics. The leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, has repeatedly called on his followers to be flexible on religious matters that are not usul -- or fundamentals -- to avoid antagonizing local populations. But that sentiment has not trickled down to rank-and-file jihadists. In addition to the fighting against fellow rebel brigades, they have shot at Syrians protesting outside their headquarters in Raqqa, executed a teenage boy in Aleppo, and detained Italian priest Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a longtime advocate of religious coexistence in Syria.

Jihadists know that the single greatest threat to their existence is not drone attacks or a regime military offensive, but rejection by local populations. They are paranoid about a repeat of the rise of "Awakening Councils," or sahwat, which began in Iraq's Anbar Province after al Qaeda alienated the Sunni population of the area. Sahwat is a pejorative term among jihadists, who believe that the Americans pitted Sunnis against each other in Iraq, only to betray them three years later by handing power to a Shiite government that marginalized their sect.

Syria has not yet seen the rise of sahwat -- but the jihadists' fears will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their attacks on rebel groups may be designed to forestall the very possibility of such an awakening: Many of the groups it has targeted are part of an umbrella organization known as Jabhat al-Asala wa Tanmia -- a Salafist-leaning group believed to be funded by private donors in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, which has been vehemently attacked by some Gulf citizens who support jihadi groups as sahwites.

Syrians' growing hostility towards jihadists is not the result of a push from outsider powers -- it comes from genuine public concerns about their presence. As people in rebel-held areas no longer have a need for the jihadists' ruthlessness in battle, moderate groups will have a new opportunity to win the hearts and minds of the local populations in liberated cities and towns, as well as on the front lines. If the world wants an ally in their fight against creeping extremism, they will find a broad array of Syrians willing to help them drive the jihadists out.

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images


The Drone War Comes to Asia

How China sparked a dangerous unmanned arms race.

It's now been a year since Japan's previously ruling liberal government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands to prevent a nationalist and provocative Tokyo mayor from doing so himself. The move was designed to dodge a potential crisis with China, which claims "indisputable sovereignty" over the islands it calls the Diaoyus.

Disregarding the Japanese government's intent, Beijing has reacted to the "nationalization" of the islands by flooding the surrounding waters and airspace with Chinese vessels in an effort to undermine Japan's de facto administration, which has persisted since the reversion of Okinawa from American control in 1971. Chinese incursions have become so frequent that the Japanese Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) are now scrambling jet fighters on a near-daily basis in response.

In the midst of this heightened tension, you could be forgiven for overlooking the news early in September that Japanese F-15s had again taken flight after Beijing graciously commemorated the one-year anniversary of Tokyo's purchase by sending an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) toward the islands. But this wasn't just another day at the office in the contested East China Sea: this was the first known case of a Chinese drone approaching the Senkakus.

Without a doubt, China's drone adventure 100-miles north of the Senkakus was significant because it aggravated already abysmal relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Japanese officials responded to the incident by suggesting that Japan might have to place government personnel on the islands, a red line for Beijing that would have been unthinkable prior to the past few years of Chinese assertiveness.

But there's a much bigger and more pernicious cycle in motion. The introduction of indigenous drones into Asia's strategic environment -- now made official by China's maiden unmanned provocation -- will bring with it additional sources of instability and escalation to the fiercely contested South and East China Seas. Even though no government in the region wants to participate in major power war, there is widespread and growing concern that military conflict could result from a minor incident that spirals out of control.

Unmanned systems could be just this trigger. They are less costly to produce and operate than their manned counterparts, meaning that we're likely to see more crowded skies and seas in the years ahead. UAVs also tend to encourage greater risk-taking, given that a pilot's life is not at risk. But being unmanned has its dangers: any number of software or communications failures could lead a mission awry. Combine all that with inexperienced operators and you have a perfect recipe for a mistake or miscalculation in an already tense strategic environment.    

The underlying problem is not just the drones themselves. Asia is in the midst of transitioning to a new warfighting regime with serious escalatory potential. China's military modernization is designed to deny adversaries freedom of maneuver over, on, and under the East and South China Seas. Although China argues that its strategy is primarily defensive, the capabilities it is choosing to acquire to create a "defensive" perimeter -- long-range ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft carriers, submarines -- are acutely offensive in nature. During a serious crisis when tensions are high, China would have powerful incentives to use these capabilities, particularly missiles, before they were targeted by the United States or another adversary. The problem is that U.S. military plans and posture have the potential to be equally escalatory, as they would reportedly aim to "blind" an adversary -- disrupting or destroying command and control nodes at the beginning of a conflict.

At the same time, the increasingly unstable balance of military power in the Pacific is exacerbated by the (re)emergence of other regional actors with their own advanced military capabilities. Countries that have the ability and resources to embark on rapid modernization campaigns (e.g., Japan, South Korea, Indonesia) are well on the way. This means that in addition to two great powers vying for military advantage, the region features an increasingly complex set of overlapping military-technical competitions that are accelerating tensions, adding to uncertainty and undermining stability.

This dangerous military dynamic will only get worse as more disruptive military technologies appear, including the rapid diffusion of unmanned and increasingly autonomous aerial and submersible vehicles coupled with increasingly effective offensive cyberspace capabilities.

Of particular concern is not only the novelty of these new technologies, but the lack of well-established norms for their use in conflict.

Thankfully, the first interaction between a Chinese UAV and manned Japanese fighters passed without major incident. But it did raise serious questions that neither nation has likely considered in detail. What will constrain China's UAV incursions from becoming increasingly assertive and provocative? How will either nation respond in a scenario where an adversary downs a UAV? And what happens politically when a drone invariably falls out of the sky or "drifts off course" with both sides pointing fingers at one another? Of most concern, how would these matters be addressed during a crisis, with no precedents, in the context of a regional military regime in which actors have powerful incentives to strike first?

These are not just theoretical questions: Japan's Defense Ministry is reportedly looking into options for shooting down any unmanned drones that enter its territorial airspace.

Resolving these issues in a fraught strategic environment between two potential adversaries is difficult enough; the United States and China remain at loggerheads about U.S. Sensitive Reconnaissance Operations along China's periphery. But the problem is multiplying rapidly. The Chinese are running one of the most significant UAV programs in the world, a program that includes Reaper- style UAVs and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs); Japan is seeking to acquire Global Hawks; the Republic of Korea is acquiring Global Hawks while also building their own indigenous UAV capabilities; Taiwan is choosing to develop indigenous UAVs instead of importing from abroad; Indonesia is seeking to build a UAV squadron; and Vietnam is planning to build an entire UAV factory.

One could take solace in Asia's ability to manage these gnarly sources of insecurity if the region had demonstrated similar competencies elsewhere. But nothing could be further from the case. It has now been more than a decade since the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China signed a declaration "to promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea," which was meant to be a precursor to a code of conduct for managing potential incidents, accidents, and crises at sea. But the parties are as far apart as ever, and that's on well-trodden issues of maritime security with decades of legal and operational precedent to build upon.

It's hard to be optimistic that the region will do better in an unmanned domain in which governments and militaries have little experience and where there remains a dearth of international norms, rules, and institutions from which to draw.

The rapid diffusion of advanced military technology is not a future trend. These capabilities are being fielded -- right now -- in perhaps the most geopolitically dangerous area in the world, over (and soon under) the contested seas of East and Southeast Asia. These risks will only increase with time as more disruptive capabilities emerge. In the absence of political leadership, these technologies could very well lead the region into war.