Free Syrian Army
As of early 2017 there were some 15,00 fighters loyal to the FSA, according to estimates. As Syrian President Bashar al Assad's hold on western parts of Syria solidifies, the CIA lessened its support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). No military assistance will be delivered to the FSA by the CIA "until matters are organized," a source on the ground in Syria told Reuters in February 2017 . Specifically, FSA commanders said that the agency could be worried that, with growing jihadist assaults across the region, including the mass execution of up to 200 last week, the CIA is wary of putting cash and weapons into the hands of combatants that could then be given to regional terrorists.
Officials familiar with the CIA-led program said the decision to freeze aid has nothing to do with US President Donald Trump replacing President Barack Obama, even though Trump has indicated skepticism about the nature of US support of rebels in the region, saying that the US should focus efforts on Daesh, not Assad. The FSA would continue to receive aid, however, from nations that receive weapons from the US and who oppose the Assad administration. While US aid to the FSA had been severed, at least temporarily, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and NATO-member Turkey continued to pour weapons and money into groups aligned with the FSA.
The Free Syrian Army, a self-declared non-sectarian group, was the largest and most established opposition faction. Numbering about 50,000 people by one 2013 estimate, it is a hybrid of former military and civilian fighters. Charles Lister of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center estimated in September 2013 that the jihadists numbered about 10,000 mainly foreign fighters, and that Islamist militias were able to muster 20,000 to 35,000. At that time, Aram Nerguizian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank stated that "If you take the four big [Free Syrian Army] brigades, you are talking on paper of 100,000 to 120,000 people..."
The Free Syrian Army has remained a brand name only, despite efforts of its leadership and supporters to create a central command and to link it to regional and local military councils. Growing numbers of people in Syria, under continued and escalating assault by the Assad regime, have taken up arms to defend themselves and organized armed resistance under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the strong central authority the al-Assad regime built and institutionalized during four decades has been rapidly crumbling. Yet the factors that made Libya's uprising succeed - a united and organized opposition, sparse population patterns and a weak army - are absent in Syria. Divisions between rebel leaders and the political opposition — such as the Syrian National Council — are likely to destabilize the political climate post-Assad as neither are united and both feel it is their right to govern the country.
The opposition in Syria is very fractionated. There is not a national movement, even though there is a Syrian National Council, but a lot of that is external, exiles and the like. But there is not a unitary connected opposition force. It's very local, on a community by community basis. In fact in some communities, the opposition is actually providing municipal services as though it's running the community and -- and trying to defend itself against attacks from the Syrian regime controlled military.
The Free Syrian Army is kind of a blanket, generic name that's sort of applied to the collection of oppositionists, is itself not unified. There are internal feuds about who's going to lead it. The Syrian National Council really didn't have command and control of the opposition's groups. The shift toward violent tactics intensified pressure on the regime’s security and military assets, and it risked alienating Syrians opposed to the violent overthrow of the regime, dividing the political opposition, and increasing widespread sectarian tension.
The Free Syrian Army is a separate organization, not connected to the Syrian National Council. Rebel units number in the dozens. Some are secular, while others call for an Islamic state in Syria. All are vying for weapons and territory. What unites them is their shared goal of defeating the Syrian regime. This mutual interest will likely change when the regime falls.
July 2011 marked the establishment of formal military resistance to the al-Assad regime. Those in Army uniform that fled, forming the Free Syrian Army in late July 2011, were for the most part stationed in Syria’s mountains. They are manned by lower ranked officers and non-officers. Defectors were a relatively small number, although reports trickled in of armed groups on the rise in Syria and coming out of protected areas in Turkey. Members of the Free Syrian Army cross the border into Lebanon for supplies and medical assistance forcing the Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF] to expend resources internally as well as focus on security along these borders.
The FSA is largely a collection of defected Syrian army soldiers and local civilians who grouped together to fight the Bashar al-Assad government in their immediate neighborhoods and towns. The FSA is not a unified entity, and as a result there will be difficulties restructuring or disbanding these forces in a new political system. Many FSA battalions are clan- and tribe-based, organized around a specific geographical area — such as a town, village or city district. Fighters answer to local commanders — often a respected member of the local community — not to a central command. In many respects, this operational system has worked to their advantage in a guerrilla war against the Syrian army.
As the proficiency of Syria’s armed opposition increased, the Syrian military had to employ heavier weapons against the rebels. By January 2012, the regime had initiated large-scale artillery operations across Syria. In April 2012, al-Assad reacted to unexpected FSA gains in Idlib and Aleppo by dispatching helicopters to engage“liberated” villages. Towards the end of May 2012, as the opposition mounted offensives, the regime began consistent use of helicopter gunships to compensate for its reduced mobility caused by the rebels’ effective interdiction of roads with bombs and ambushes. This elevated employment of helicopters culminated on 12 July 2012 during a massacre in the village of Tremseh.
On February 24, 2012, the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Saud bin Feisal, called providing weapons to the Syrian opposition “an excellent idea … because they have to protect themselves”. On February 27, 2012, the Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, said of the Syrian opposition, “I think we should do whatever is necessary to help them, including giving them weapons to defend themselves.” On March 1, 2012, the parliament of Kuwait voted overwhelmingly on a resolution calling on the Government of Kuwait to support the Syrian opposition, including by providing weapons.
On March 1, 2012, Admiral James Stavridis, commander of United States European Command and Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, during testimony before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate, agreed with the statement that “the provision of arms, communication equipment, and tactical intelligence” would “help the Syrian opposition to better organize itself and push Assad from power”. On March 6, 2012, General James Mattis, commander of United States Central Command, testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that Bashar al-Assad will “continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people”.
On March 6, 2012, General Mattis testified before the Committee on Armed Services of the Senate that there is “a full throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppressing his own people” in Syria, including “providing the kinds of weapons that are being used right now to suppress the opposition,” as well as “listening capability, eavesdropping capability … and experts who I could only say are experts at oppressing”.
On March 16, 2012, opposition activists inside Syria staged protests calling for “immediate military intervention by the Arabs and Muslims, followed by the rest of the world”. On March 16, 2012, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said that the Government of Turkey was considering setting up a “security” or “buffer zone” along its border with Syria.
As of early 2013, the Syrian civil war had resulted in more than 60,000 deaths, 2.5 million internally displaced persons, and in excess of 600,000 refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon. President Bashar al-Assad maintained his position in part because of his ability to control the skies and strike opposition targets—including civilians. Evidently, the Syrian regime embraced Douhet’s major premises and utilized airpower to target civilians first by means of helicopters and later fixed-wing aircraft, initially enabling al-Assad’s forces to impede the FSA’s advances and delay the regime’s collapse. However the rebels adapted to the threat, employing better tactics and more effective antiaircraft weapons, and have since enjoyed a greater degree of tactical success.
Limited public backing from Westerns states made the rebel movement often appear a product of, or at least sponsored by, Gulf states - Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two conservative and un-democratic countries. Saudi Arabia was at the forefront of Arab efforts to see an end to Al-Asad’s minority Alawite regime in Syria, calling openly for the arming of the opposition Free Syrian Army. From seeking accommodation with Al-Asad, the Saudis have turned to focusing on his downfall. Their motive has nothing to do with promoting democracy, however, but to bringing to power a Sunni majority government that it hopes will end Syria’s alliance with their arch enemy, the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.
Newly formed armed opposition groups were less likely to attach themselves to the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many operate independently from existing groups or are affiliated to Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Government forces, along with supporting militia, were focussing now on securing control of main cities – particularly Aleppo and Damascus – while limiting their actions in the countryside to shelling and aerial attacks. There are fewer accounts of Government forces engaging in ground actions. The Kurds, who live predominantly in the north-eastern al-Hasakah governorate, have remained relatively autonomous due to their fighting ability and independent supply lines. They have clashed with Government forces and anti-Government armed groups over control of territory.
There are over 1,000 militias. By early 2013 Darwinian slection was taking place and certain larger coalitions are emerging out of this factionalism on the ground. There was an Islamist front led by Salafists, with al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra to the right of them, and then the Supreme Military Command that the United States helped put together and that is linked to the civilian opposition. The regime’s chagrin can assert itself militarily, but cannot “clear and hold” areas where the opposition operates.
All elements of the Syrian opposition continued to advocate direct US intervention in Syria – air strikes, no-fly zones, humanitarian corridors and safe havens. France and Britain are both pressing for the relaxation of an arms embargo on Syria so that arms can flow to outgunned rebels waging a two-year-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The embargo expires on 01 June 2013 and both countries say it should be allowed to lapse.
More than a dozen rebel factions - including some of the biggest armed groups in the Syrian insurgency – said September 24, 2013 they had formed a new Islamic Alliance and would no longer recognize the leadership of Western-backed political exiles. The term "Islamic Alliance" [ al-Tahaluf al-Islami ], may be descriptive, rather than a formal name. The move underscored the increasing disarray among the Syrian rebels, who have been battling for nearly three years to oust President Bashar al-Assad. Participants included the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham and moderate-Islamist groups Liwa Tawhid, Liwa Islam, Suqour al-Sham, Haqq, and Furqan Brigades.
Having towed politically pragmatic lines since their emergence onto the scene in Syria, the key Islamist middle-ground players – SILF-affiliated Liwa al-Tawhid and Liwa al-Islam, and Suqor al-Sham – bringing them into a new formal alliance with hardline Islamist brigades. This made clear where their allegiances lie, with huge implications for the moderate opposition. Other supporters were several secular-moderate outfits, including the Northern Storm Brigade, which had recently hosted US Sen. John McCain. The new Alliance did not include the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), which had been battling some FSA units in northern Syria.The exclusion set up a split among jihadist factions and further complicated the opposition dynamic in Syria. It also excluded several powerful secular or moderate Islamist units did not sign the declaration, including the Farouq Brigades or Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades.
According to Daniel Nisman writing in the Wall Street Journal, "Of the Syrian rebels' estimated 100,000-plus headcount, 30,000 to 40,000 of these fighters now fall under the Islamic Alliance banner. Yet while these fighters do not make up the majority of the rebels, their units are among the most well-trained, organized and combat-effective, particularly in relation to the less-disciplined and less-funded units affiliated under the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council (SMC) structure."
The Western nations' refusal to use military force in Syria or increase arms supplies contributed to this shift among moderate opposition elements. This move will hamper long-running efforts of the West to boost the insurgency’s exiled political leadership and to shape a more moderate rebel military force inside Syria. The new alliance against the political leadership of the Syrian National Coalition gutted Western strategy on Syria. It represented the rebellion of a large part of the ‘mainstream Free Syrian Army’ against its purported political leadership, and openly aligned these factions with more hardline Islamist forces. The defection from the Syrian National Coalition of large brigades seriously depleted the strength of the FSA, undermining its military reach and the authority of its overall military head, General Salim Idriss, a defector from the Syrian army.
The announcement of the new bloc came online with a video statement from Abdelaziz Salame, one of the leaders of the mainly Aleppo-based brigade Liwa al-Tawhid, one of the largest in the FSA. Salame declared that 13 rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, had agreed to form the new bloc and no longer would consider the National Coalition as representing the rebellion. The groups are committed, he said, to fighting under an “Islamic framework” and want to establish a post-Assad Syria based on “the rule of sharia.”
Aron Lund noted September 24th, 2013: "While this may be more than just a statement, it is not – as far as we know – an organized structure at all. It is a “bloc” or an “alliance” mainly in the sense that several groups now share a position and may continue to collaborate politically. It could evolve into something more substantial in the future, but there’s nothing to indicate that an organization has been formed at this moment."
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