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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The “Free Syrian Army” Challenges Assad

Filed under: Syria

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the rebel force fighting Syria’s President Bashar Assad, has included “Raising the flag on Iwo Jima” – depicting the bravery of U.S. Marines in World War II – on its official Facebook page. This appears together with the FSA logo which reads: “We will vanquish or die!”

Eight months after the beginning of the popular uprising, the Assad regime in Syria seems to be headed down a descending slope with no hope of return. With more than 4,500 civilians killed by Assad’s Praetorian guard since the beginning of the protests and hundreds of his loyalists killed by opposition forces, Syria seems to be immersed in a bloody civil war whose sides are not always clear and whose end can only be through a violent confrontation between loyalists and rebels.

Assad is facing mounting international isolation as Syria’s membership in the Arab League has been suspended. Except for Iran and Hizbullah, Assad has no other friends to rely on. Even Russia and China have expressed their reservations, though they are not yet ready to join the international community led by the U.S. and Europe in boycotting the regime and sanctioning it over its inhumane behavior.

Assad’s regime has shown a blatant incapacity to quell the rebellion against the regime. The gradual involvement of regular army units together with the continuous presence of internal intelligence and security forces famous for their cruelty and savagery (the Shabiha – the phantoms) has not brought the regime any relief. The more the violence has increased, the more individuals choose to join the opposition. The harsh behavior of the regime has provoked a snowball reaction. The rebellion, which was limited in the beginning to a few areas in Syria, has gained much terrain and involves both remote areas and those close to the center of power in Damascus. The rebels are active in rural areas where the government finds it difficult to reach and to operate in force and fight, as well as in main urban areas such as Homs, Hamat, Latakia, Damascus, Dar’aa, Dir el Zor, and others.

Adopting the Libyan precedent, while being aware of the limitations of power of the West, the FSA has called for a no-fly zone and two buffer zones with international backing, one in the north on the Turkish-Syrian border and another in the south near the border with Jordan.

Most important, the rebels have secured a formidable ally: Turkey. Indeed, after having had a brief “honeymoon” with Assad, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has chosen not only to distance himself from the Syrian Alawite regime, but has provided all the facilities for the opposition forces on its territory, which serves both as a refuge and as an area of organization, a country funds can be raised. The official FSA website even gives the details of bank accounts in Turkish banks.

The cracks in the Syrian regime’s structure, which were invisible or non-existent at the beginning of the protest, have become clearer. The Assad regime has always had to face opposition forces and has managed over the years to ignore them officially while fighting them behind the scenes.  The innovation today is that dissident Syrian officers have organized into a structure – the FSA – which is fighting the regime openly.

The FSA recently formed an interim military council headed by dissident Col. Riyad al-Ass’ad and nine other colonels. It is headquartered in a camp in Turkey’s southern province, close to the Syrian border and its field command inside Syria. Al-Ass’ad’s deputy is Col. Malik Kurdi, and Col. Ahmad Hijazi is the chief-of-staff.

According to opposition sources, the FSA exceeds 20,000 troops in total and is organized in 23 fighting battalions (see Appendix), each carrying the name of an Islamic hero or of “martyrs” killed by forces loyal to Assad.

The birth of the FSA on July 29, 2011, and its ongoing covert and open military actions is a development that cannot be underestimated or ignored. Exactly as in the Libyan case, if the regime falls, it will probably fall only in the aftermath of the defeat of the forces loyal to the present regime. Until now, the opposition forces were led by civilians. But today the armed confrontation is in the hands of rebel professional soldiers who seem to attract new recruits to their forces day after day. The objective is well-known and well-defined: to bring down the regime.

Riyad al-Ass’ad has emphasized that the FSA has no political goals except the liberation of Syria from Bashar Assad’s regime. The FSA has also stated that the conflict is not sectarian and that their ranks include Alawis who oppose the regime. On September 23, the FSA merged with the Free Officers Movement (Harakat al-Dubbat Al-Ahrar) and became the main opposition military group.

However, the FSA has a fundamental disagreement with the Syrian National Council (SNC), a body that represents all the political forces opposed to Assad, over the principle of militarizing the “revolution,” since the SNC is committed to maintaining peace. Moreover, there is no agreement between the two bodies as to the participation of the military in the political process that will follow Assad’s removal from power.

Indeed, in a statement published by the military council one can clearly discern the growing antagonism between the civilians and the military. In their statement, the officers claim that the council will exercise the functions of an amnesty committee, seeking to override all judgments and sentences undertaken by military and civilian courts concerning the events in Syria since their outbreak. The military council’s headquarters will be in Damascus, and it will also adopt the same flag chosen by the Syrian National Council. The military council would have the right to contact foreign governments, organizations or individuals, or military entities within Syrian territory or abroad. It has also announced the formation of a military tribunal for the revolution in order to hold accountable members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killings or attacks on Syrian citizens, or the destruction of public or private property. Col. al-Ass’ad has appointed a judge for this purpose, and military court provisions will be applied to the tribunal.

Finally, beyond the considerations related to relations between civilians and the military, the fate of the revolt against Assad will be sealed only if growing segments of the Syrian population join the fight against the regime. One such group is the Kurds. Although they are alienated from the growing role Turkey is playing today in support of the Syrian opposition to Assad, the Kurds do represent a sizeable presence in the backbone of the fighting against the regime. Some even assess that the fate of the revolution may reside in the hands of that community. Syrian Kurds make up between 15 and 20 percent of the total Syrian population, making them Syria’s largest minority group. As in other Arab countries and in Turkey, the Syrian Kurds have been a repressed minority. Besides laws against the use of their own language and against their holding passports and ID cards, Syria has confiscated their land and given it to Arab Bedouins.

Kurds have been involved in the fighting against the regime since the beginning of the protests. The assassination of Kurdish opposition member Mishal Tammo in early October in the northern city of Qamishli hardened many Kurds’ resolve against the regime. However, as much as the Kurds appeared willing to turn against Assad, they have been very suspicious of the SNC, which did not give the Kurds proper representation in the SNC Council and General Assembly (4 seats in the 29-member secretariat and 22 seats in the 230-member body).

It is still too early to assess the positions of the FSA and the SNC in international affairs beyond the basic fact that these two bodies carry a growing hostility toward Iran and its ally – Hizbullah, while being open to a deep relationship with Turkey and probably with the U.S., France, and the UK. It seems they are trying to follow the Libyan example. (Libya’s Transitional National Council [TNC] has been the only international body to recognize the Syrian opposition.) This means, in other words, that the Syrian opposition is relying greatly on the West to help topple the Syrian regime; hence, the use of the symbol of Iwo Jima.

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As of October 2011, the Free Syrian Army claims to have twenty-three battalions:

  • Abd el-Rahman Al-Shaykh Ali battalion
  • ‘Omari battalion (Daraa/Hauran)
  • Sultan Basha Al-Atrash battalion (As-Suwayda)
  • Qashoush battalion (Hama city)
  • Ahmad Nayif Al-Sukhni battalion (Ar-Raqqah)
  • Mo’az Al-Raqad battalion (Deir ez-Zor province)
  • ‘Omar Ibn al-Khattab battalion (Deir ez-Zor city)
  • Khalid bin Walid battalion (Homs city)
  • Hamzah Al-Khateeb battalion (Idlib city)
  • Al-Harmoush battalion (Idlib province)
  • Salaheddine Al-Ayoubi battalion (Jisr ash-Shugur)
  • Abil Fidaa battalion (Hama province)
  • S’aad Bin Mo’az battalion (Hama province)
  • Mo’awiyah Bin Abi Sufian (Damascus city)
  • Abu ‘Obeidah bin Al-Jarrah battalion (Damascus province)
  • Houriyeh battalion (Aleppo city)
  • Ababeel battalion (Aleppo province)
  • Qassam battalion (Jableh)
  • Suqur battalion (Latakia)
  • Samer Nunu battalion (Baniyas)
  • Mishaal Tammo battalion (Qamishli)
  • Odai Al-Tayi battalion (Hasakah)
  • Allahu Akbar battalion (Abu Kamal)

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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.