Neither an Army nor Free

SYRIA IN CONTEXT, 18 Nov 2013

Ali Örnek, International Network for Justice – TRANSCEND Media Service

FSA terror

The “Free Syrian Army”, acting as an umbrella organization for the rebels, is composed of dozens of factions, each of which is distinct from the other and is independent of a central leadership. Being infamous for their war crimes, these groups act upon the interests of the countries that fund them.

One of the most widespread fallacies in the war, which is about to leave behind 30 months now in Syria, is to comprehend the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a homogenous formation. In fact, the FSA is composed of different factions, which act under the leadership of their own commanders and determine their priorities according to the interests of the countries that back them. Moreover, this organization consists of a wide range of commanders competing with each other, who have become the voice of their financier countries.

It seems that the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have recently agreed on a single name. It is none other than Salim Idris, who is the leader of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) that was formed last December in Antalya with the aim of turning it to the general staff of the FSA. Idris, former member of the Syrian Army, has no effect in the field even though he is the key to the arm flow to Syria.

Who Comprises the FSA?

The first armed groups emerged towards the end of March in 2011 when the events in Syria had just begun. Armed militants, particularly backed by Salafist movement in Lebanon, began attacking Syrian security forces in Tel Kelah in Homs and in Banyas in Tartus. However, the greatest attack came in Jisr al-Shughur in Idlib in 6 June 2011, which became the turning point of the conflict in Syria. This attack, in which 120 troops and policemen were killed, was initially reported as a “massacre by the Syrian Army in rebel towns”. Yet, the journalists in the region reported that the townsfolk were blaming the militants infiltrated Syria from the Turkish border.

As the attacks increased in June, so did the defectors from the Syrian Army. While a part of these figures was close to the Muslim Brotherhood undertaking underground activities, the other part was taking the advantage of “generous” donations of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On the 29th of June, Riad Al-Assad, former member of the Syrian Army, escaped to Hatay and announced that he had also defected. Along with other defectors, he declared the formation of the Free Syrian Army in Hatay in July 2011.

The first militants of the Free Syrian Army consisted Salafi groups in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood and various tribes affiliated with trafficking along the border with Turkey and Lebanon.

Upon the Syrian Army’s victory in the summer of 2012, resulting in the removal of the FSA from its stronghold in Bab Amr in the province of Homs, the flow of mercenary fighters began with the help of financial aids by the countries that backed these groups.

Jihadists pouring in from Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and even Afghanistan quickly strengthened the groups united under the FSA. However, these mercenaries soon began joining the fighting forces linked with Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups.

So-Called Titles

The swift growth of the FSA resulted in insufficient leadership of Riad Al-Assad. Hundreds of brigades consisting of a handful of militants had been formed by the end of 2012. These groups usually declared that they were affiliated with the FSA in order to guarantee the flow of money and weapons. In most cases, however, they continued to operate independently. It was this time during which the FSA’s commandership in Turkey began falling apart and the higher ranks of the FSA, which had aligned itself to various financior countries, ended up in a power struggle.

Today, the FSA’s Riad Al-Essad, Ahmad Al-Hijazi and Malik Al-Kurdi group do not recognize Salim Idris. Apart from this group, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Al-Sheikh, commander of Suqoor al-Sham, one of the biggest brigades in the battlefield, stays distant from both Riad Al Assad and Salim Idris.

Also, there is another force formed under Salafi Sheikh Adnan Al-Aroor from Saudi Arabia, which calls itself the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Council.

Different Strategies

The power struggle between these factions on the command-level usually reflects itself in the field with deadly internal competition among these groups. Because of lack of coordination, the FSA-affiliated brigades receive major losses at the hand of the Syrian Army. Speaking of the the FSA’s presence totally becomes impossible particularly in northern Syria. In this region, there are various big brigades mostly operating independently, although they claim that they act under the FSA. Most of these brigades cooperate with Al Qaeda-linked groups and with other radical Islamist brigades. Al Tawhid and Suqoor al-Sham with 15.000 militants participated in attacks particularly against Kurds and Alawites in cooperation with Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).

Moreover, these groups can remain neutral in violences of ISIS and other FSA brigades. When the FSA-affiliated Northern Storm Brigade, consisting former traffickers, was attacked by the ISIS in September in Azaz-Aleppo, the Tawhid Brigade, the strongest fighting force in the region, declared its “neutrality” and acted as a mediator for ceasefire between the two groups. The Northern Storm, identified as “moderate” due to the attack it exposed, later joined the Islamic coalition, which was formed at the end of September and also consisted Al Nusra Front, another Al Qaeda-linked group. Declaring that it will fight for Islam, this new coalition does not recognize the Syrian National Coalition and involves the largest brigades of the FSA. This fact contradicts with the claim that the FSA has a contrary line to Al Qaeda.

In South Syria, in Daraa, hundreds of militants from the brigades affiliated with the Supreme Military Council, which was formed through vigorous efforts of the US, have joined Al Nusra Front because it is equipped with high quality weapons and a better financial structure. Yet, it was claimed that these groups trained by CIA in Jordan were composed of the “tribes distant to Al Qaeda”.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 18 Nov 2013.

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