When a conference on Syria was held at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in January 2018, Russian organizers insisted on the participation of a handful of opposition figures who were either longtime protégés of the Kremlin or who had expressed willingness to do business with Moscow. Ahmad al-Jarba, former president of the Syrian National Coalition, was one of them. 

When he appeared on the podium at Sochi to sign off on Russia’s version of the Syrian endgame, hardliners in the opposition dismissed Jarba as a “traitor,” saying that he had no future in post-war Syria. One year later, however, the 50-year old native of Qamishli is back in the spotlight, peddling an idea that suddenly makes him very relevant to decision-makers in Moscow. 

Long considered a protégé of Saudi Arabia, Jarba is now suggesting raising an army of Arab tribesmen, similar to the US-backed Awakening Councils created in Iraq in 2005 to fight al-Qaeda in Anbar province. Their job in Syria would not be to fight, but to serve as a buffer force between the Kurds, Turks, and Syrians, who will soon find themselves facing one another at gunpoint when the Americans complete their withdrawal from the Syrian northeast. 

Two years ago, Jarba came up with a similar idea, suggesting that his fellow tribesmen—known as the Elite Forces—spearhead the battle for the then-ISIS capital Raqqa, rather than the Kurds. According to his own estimates, his forces numbered 3,500 in March 2017, although others put the number at anywhere between 650-1,000 tribesmen.

He insisted the Kurdish presence in Arab cities like Manbij and Raqqa was unsustainable, and that the only peoples capable and willing to run these cities and keep ISIS at bay were their original Arab inhabitants. It was these very same tribes that caved into ISIS back in 2014, taking up arms with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to protect themselves from the dangers of the Syrian desert and the rising number of splinter militias that mushroomed with the breakdown of law and order. 

Jarba’s selling card is that he is a prominent chief within the powerful Shummar tribe, which bestrides the deserts of Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. He knows the terrain and is well acquainted with fighters on the battlefield. That single credential landed him his former role as head of the Syrian National Coalition in 2013-2014, but he soon parted ways, setting up his own party called “Syria’s Tomorrow Movement” in March 2016. He chose Cairo, rather than Riyadh, Ankara, or Doha as the headquarters for his new movement, given Egypt’s relative neutrality in the Syrian conflict.

From his new base, Jarba reached out to the Russians, claiming to have more influence over Arab tribes than any other politician in Syria. This led to his landmark attendance the Sochi talks last January, where all talk of regime change was scrapped in favor of a political process that would lead only to a cabinet of national unity and a new constitution for Syria, in accordance with UNSCR 2254.

Marketing to all sides

In recent weeks, Jarba has visited Moscow, Ankara, Baghdad, Qamishli, and Erbil to discuss his proposal with top decision-makers, saying that his troops are acceptable to all sides in the Syrian conflict. His forces, he emphasizes, have fought with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the past, making them favorable to the Kurds, who fear an upcoming Turkish assault on their strongholds east of the Euphrates River. Recep Tayyip Erdogan would also favor their deployment along the border over PKK-aligned Kurdish forces.

Jarba is trying to talk him into postponing his forthcoming operation on cities like Ras al-Ayn, Kobani, and Tel Rifaat, saying that his troops would do the job of clearing the border area of any Kurdish presence. The proposal would likely meet with support from Arab states, since it would limit the dramatic influence of Turkey in the Syrian northeast, and thus, that of Iran as well. It was Iran’s expanding influence that prompted countries like Bahrain, the UAE, and Sudan to reach out to Damascus in recent weeks, hoping to lure it away from the Iranian orbit and to challenge the influence of Tehran and Ankara at Turkish-hosted peace talks.

Syrian authorities have yet to comment on the proposal, but according to Beirut-based al-Mayadeen TV, Jarba has asked the Iraqi authorities to carry a message on his behalf to Damascus, saying that his troops would carry the official flag of Syria, rather than the tri-color of the Syrian opposition, and that he would be willing to send a delegation to talks in Damascus.

With the Americans walking out, however, and with Turkish ambitions facing an increasingly cautious Arab world, the only person who can make or break the Jarba initiative is Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

The Russians have long signaled that only politicians who are Moscow-backed or Moscow-friendly will be eligible to join a Russian-led political process. By coming up with such a proposal, Jarba is making himself useful to the Russians and putting himself—and his troops—at their service, saying that not only is he willing to abide by their rules of engagement, he can also help them achieve peace in a volatile territory that is likely to explode once abandoned by the Americans. The proposal is one that decision-makers at the Kremlin will be unlikely to ignore.