The Free Syrian Army Follows Orders From Turkey

The FSA was the Syrian rebels’ great hope to topple Assad, but this faded when the group split among militias, with some focusing more on the Islamic State and the Kurds.

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Free Syrian Army fighters ride on a truck decorated with a Turkish flag in the rebel-held town of al-Rai near Aleppo, Syria, October 5, 2016.
Free Syrian Army fighters ride on a truck decorated with a Turkish flag in the rebel-held town of al-Rai near Aleppo, Syria, October 5, 2016. Credit: Khalil Ashawi, Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The founder of the Free Syrian Army, Col. Riad al-Assad, lives in Antakya in southern Turkey’s Hatay Province and keeps up with news from the field. He's visited by many friends, he takes part in Ankara’s committees to coordinate with the Syrian opposition refugees’ living conditions, and of late he has had little to do. Assad hasn’t been involved in combat for three years.

In 2013 he survived an assassination attempt but lost a leg. Col. Assad sounds despondent, not only about the war against Syrian President Bashar Assad but also about the infighting among the opposition militias. And above all there’s the violent power struggle among factions in the Free Syrian Army, which he established on July 29, 2011.

“The revolution was stolen from us by an opposition that steered it in wrong directions,” the colonel told the opposition website Kuluna Shuraka, also known as All4Syria, two months ago.

Recently a violent struggle erupted between two Free Syrian Army factions for control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing between Turkey and Syria. The disagreement was over the division of import duties on goods brought into Syria from Turkey and permits letting Syrians enter Turkey. The dispute was preceded by a power struggle between two factions for control of the eastern Damascus suburb Ghouta. Hundreds of fighters from both sides were killed.

The Free Syrian Army began with a core group of senior officers who defected from the Syrian army and recruited thousands of soldiers and civilians. It was the great hope of the rebels, who believed that with sufficient funding and weapons from Arab and Western states it could bring down Bashar Assad’s army.

But that hope gave out three years ago, and the Free Syrian Army turned into a very different organization. It’s made up of six large militias, which are organized into brigades and battalions that operate in a number of areas in Syria without a central command. In effect, each militia that calls itself part of the FSA operates independently under its own command and with little coordination with its fellow militias.

The operations of these militias are divided between southern and northern Syria. In the south, they coordinate the Jordanian-American operations room based in Jordan, while in the north they coordinate with the joint command the militias run with Turkey.

Jordanian and U.S. pressure

The militias’ main task is protecting Syria’s borders with Jordan in the south and with Turkey in the north. “Coordination” is a fuzzy term because these militias are actually subordinate to the respective strategies of Amman and Damascus.

Jordan, for example, demands that they increase their presence along the border, partly to keep out Syrian refugees. When the militias express dissatisfaction with their assigned tasks, Amman applies pressure including closing the border to the sick and wounded and withholding funds, most of which come from Washington.

In a few battalions, officers rebelled against this state of affairs, but this strife was quelled under Jordanian and U.S. pressure. Officers who had been ousted were returned to their posts, but their command center was destroyed by airstrikes.

A member of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army stands next to a portrait of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Jarablus, Syria, October 19, 2016.Credit: Umit Bektas, Reuters

Posters recently appeared in southern Syrian cities on Muslim scholars’ ruling that bans adherents from joining militias that aren’t fighting the Assad regime. The reference is to those Free Syrian Army fighters who are seen as having abandoned their original goals in favor of serving the interests of foreign governments.

Turkey has recruited the Free Syrian Army on Syria’s northern border for the fights against the Islamic State and the Syrian Kurds. When Ankara launched its Operation Euphrates Shield in late August and Turkish forces crossed the Syrian border and advanced toward Jarablus, it was FSA soldiers who conquered the city. Turkish forces provided air cover and hit Islamic State forces with long-distance artillery.

Turkey, despite its tough talk toward the Syrian regime, asked the Free Syrian Army to pivot from attacks on Assad’s forces to the wars against the Kurds and the Islamic State. The FSA, which is funded mainly by Turkey, has little choice.

Although a few units defected to other militias, mainly Islamist militias, the rest must obey Turkey if they want to continue receiving money and military assistance from Ankara.

Turkey is expanding its military operations in northern Syria with the aim of capturing al-Bab. That city is in a strategic location, between the city of Manbij, which was captured by Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces, and Aleppo. The main ground forces fighting to take al-Bab are from the Free Syrian Army’s northern forces, which are also holding down most of the towns that the Turks have already captured.

U.S. aid barely exists

The United States, the first country to support the Free Syrian Army, has taken a step back, drawing down its financial and military aid. Spokesmen for the rebel army say there is very little contact with the Americans.

In a recent interview with an opposition website, a Free Syrian Army spokesman said U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s threat to cut aid to the Syrian rebels didn’t scare him, “because in any event that aid barely exists.” At the same time, FSA battalions are cooperating with the Levant Conquest Front (the former Nusra Front) in Aleppo’s besieged east.

In an effort to disrupt these new links, last week Assad advised Free Syrian Army fighters to leave the city, let the hundreds of thousands of civilians in the besieged areas flee, and leave the battlefield for the war between the Syrian army and the Islamist rebels. For now, the Free Syrian Army forces in Aleppo have refused to leave, in part because they don’t want to be seen as abandoning the fight against Assad, but also because the Levant Conquest Front is a well-equipped, generously funded partner to the FSA.

In fact, most of the military activity in Aleppo, in southern Syria, and in some of the other provinces, is carried out by the non-FSA Islamist militias. Chief among them is the Levant Conquest Front, which is considered not only the most significant force in the rebel movement but also the most important national force in the war against Assad, despite its religious-extremist identity.

The split within the Free Syrian Army actually gives Russia significant leverage in the combat zones. In addition to its massive airstrikes, the Russians are also mediating between the Syrian regime and the rebels. According to Russian reports, Russian officials at the Hemeimim air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia has achieved over 970 local cease-fires throughout Syria.

The principle is simple: In exchange for ending their fight against the regime, villages receive economic aid that includes hot meals and staple goods, and their farmers are permitted to leave the villages and tend their crops. Russia hopes to expand its program of local cease-fires into a comprehensive cease-fire that could eventually pave the way to renewed negotiations for a political settlement.

In some of the communities where cease-fires were reached, local councils have been set up and given the authority to get schools and medical clinics up and running again, to establish courts, register properties, issue birth and death certificates, conduct marriages and divorces and issue permits for real-estate transactions.

These councils receive aid from charities and funding from the militias controlling their communities, whether independent or under the Russian-brokered cease-fires. For Assad, the result is greater civilian rule and fewer military disruptions from the rebel forces, which are largely engaged in policing and in keeping out the Islamic State or the Levant Conquest Front. All this lets the Syrian and Russian forces focus on the main battle: control of Aleppo. This might determine the entire war.

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