The Turn to Armed Rebellion in Syria: The Rise of the Free Syrian Army

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 46

Defectors from the Syrian national army join the Free Syria Army

Tensions in the Levant remain at a fever pitch as the uprising against the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presses ahead into its ninth month in the face of a relentless government crackdown and a rising body count  Occurring on the back of the popular revolts launched against incumbent autocrats that have taken the Arab world by storm, opponents of the sitting Baathist regime operating under the auspices of the Syrian National Council (SNC) are leading the charge to forge a unified political front against the regime.  Led by Paris-based professor Burhan Ghalioun and composed of a disparate array of activists based in Syria and abroad, including Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the SNC serves as an umbrella movement agitating for the fall of the Baathist regime. [1] The SNC continues to petition the international community to levy additional punitive measures against Damascus.  In a sign of its growing clout, SNC leaders recently met with U.S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva, her second meeting with the group.

While domestic and international pressure builds on Damascus, the Baathist regime continues to demonstrate its resilience. The regime’s resort to suppressing dissent with violence, however, has triggered a violent response in kind by a murky network of defectors from the Syrian Army and other sections of the security apparatus as well as civilian volunteers who have collectively dubbed themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA).  Having established formal contacts with the SNC, the FSA has steadily gained traction as the official armed wing of the Syrian opposition (al-Jazeera, November 16).   

A Call to Arms

In the FSA’s July 29 inaugural statement, FSA commander Riyad Musa al-Asa’d and seven other defecting officers outlined the FSA’s positions and mission. Al-Asa’d is a Syrian Air Force colonel who defected from his position after refusing to follow what he alleges were orders to open fire at unarmed protesters. In a call to arms, al-Asa’d implored members of the Syrian Army to join the FSA while lambasting the actions of the Syrian Army: “The Syrian Army now represents only the gangs that protect the regime” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).  Remarking on the officers’ decision to defect from their posts, al- Asa’d added:

Proceeding from our nationalistic sense, our loyalty to this people, our sense of the current need for conclusive decisions to stop this regime’s massacres that cannot be tolerated any longer, and proceeding from the army’s responsibility to protect this unarmed free people, we announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army to work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down, protect the revolution and the country’s resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the regime”  (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

Al- Asa’d followed with a threat to his former military colleagues: “As of now, the security forces that kill civilians and besiege cities will be treated as legitimate targets.  We will target them in all parts of the Syrian territories without exception” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1). [2]

A Budding Insurgency

The FSA has staged a number of attacks on Syrian military and security force targets.  The FSA has also struck civilian facilities linked to the regime, including offices associated with the ruling Baath Party. The formation of the FSA signals an attempt to unify the multiple pockets of armed resistance that are being formed by defectors from the Syrian Army and other armed factions. As is often the case with nascent insurgencies, accurate reports regarding the number of FSA fighters are hard to find, but estimates range from the high hundreds up to 25,000 men organized into 22 battalions across Syria – the latter a bold exaggeration likely crafted to amplify the perception of the FSA’s capabilities (al-Jazeera, December 2).  FSA leaders operate from refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border in Turkey’s southern Hatay Province, although Ankara insists that it is not lending the group operational support.  Hatay and other regions in southern Turkey are host to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence back home.  In spite of Turkish denials of support, FSA fighters are exploiting the relative safety they enjoy in southern Turkey to mount attacks against Syrian forces (Hurriyet [Istanbul], December 6).  The FSA is also alleged to have established bases in northern Lebanon and northern Jordan, regions that have similarly witnessed an influx in Syrian refugees (al-Jazeera, October 28).  Overall, the FSA appears to be growing in strength and scope.

Since emerging on the scene, the FSA has boasted of engaging Syrian security forces across the country in armed skirmishes, hit-and-run ambushes, assassinations, and other operations conducted in and around hotbeds of opposition such as the cities of Homs and Hama (located in the west-central part of the country), and the northwestern Idlib Province along the Syrian-Turkish border (al-Jazeera, September 27).  It was the FSA’s November 16 attack against a Syrian Air Force Intelligence facility in Harasta (approximately six miles northeast of Damascus) that elevated the group’s profile in Syria and beyond.  Previously seen as a ragtag assembly of fighters, the attack using rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and coordinated small arms fire against a hardened target like the intelligence facility at Harasta demonstrated a new level of operational sophistication for the FSA.  The symbolism behind the attack is also noteworthy: Syrian Air Force Intelligence works in concert with other sections of Syrian Military Intelligence to root out dissent within the armed forces (al-Jazeera, November 16).  The FSA attacked an additional Air Force Intelligence facility on December 1 in Idlib Province, killing at least eight members of the unit (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 2).  Elsewhere the FSA has executed attacks against Syrian military and police checkpoints and armored vehicle convoys.  Fixed installations such as police stations are also being struck with increasing regularity. 

The FSA and SNC appear sensitive to allegations directed against them by the regime and their detractors in Syria and abroad that they are harboring criminal or terrorist militants with radical Islamist or other insidious agendas within their ranks.  SNC head Ghalioun and other key figures in the opposition recently met with FSA leaders in Turkey to convince them to restrict their activities to what Ghalioun labeled “defensive” as opposed to “offensive” operations to maintain the “peaceful nature” of the uprising. 

During a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal outlining the opposition’s position on a number of key issues, Ghalioun expressed his concern about the role of the FSA in a post al-Assad scenario: “We do not want, after the fall of the regime in Syria, armed militias outside the control of the state” (Wall Street Journal, December 2).  A December 8 attack in the region of Tal Asour against a major pipeline that transports crude oil to the refinery in Homs and similar attacks targeting Syria’s economic infrastructure have elicited a fierce reaction from the regime, which blames “terrorists,” a euphemism for the FSA and the broader opposition. The FSA has not claimed responsibility for the attack against the pipeline.  Opponents of the regime allege that the pipeline was sabotaged by Damascus, possibly in an effort to discredit the opposition in the eyes of the residents of Homs (al-Akhbar, December 8).  The FSA has also engaged in a series of lengthy firefights in recent weeks, including a battle in the northern town of Ain al-Baida along the Syrian-Turkish frontier that followed an attempt by 35 FSA fighters to infiltrate Syrian territory from Turkey (al-Akhbar, December 7).  The FSA engaged Syrian forces in another major confrontation in the southern towns of Busra al-Harir and Lujah near the Syrian-Jordanian border (al-Akhbar, December 11; al-Jazeera, December 12). 

In spite of claims by the regime and its opponents that it is receiving foreign support, the FSA appears to be relying on light automatic weapons, RPGs and explosives, essentially the weapons carried by servicemen prior to defecting from the Syrian Army.  A brisk trade in arms between Lebanese smugglers with access to Lebanon’s copious arms market and their Syrian counterparts is also helping to replenish FSA weapons and ammunition stocks (al-Akhbar, December 4).  It is unclear if the FSA is receiving intelligence support or other forms of assistance to bolster its operational capabilities.  The FSA has expressed its wish for foreign military support akin to the assistance NATO and other members of the international community provided to Libyan insurgents during their struggle against the regime of Mu’ammar Qaddafi regime (Hurriyet, October 8). The FSA has also called for the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (al-Jazeera, November 20).  With an eye toward winning over international public opinion, the FSA operates an extensive information section issuing regular announcements online through its official Facebook page as well as a network of websites sympathetic to its cause.  The FSA has also posted video footage of its attacks on YouTube and other online social media outlets.  FSA leaders as well as regular members frequently engage with journalists to make their case.    

Filling the Ranks

A great detail of uncertainty surrounds the composition of the FSA and its ultimate intensions.  The Islamist component of its SNC partner has elicited similar concerns regarding the overall trajectory of the Syrian opposition.  Specifically, the sectarian makeup of the FSA, a group dominated by low-ranking conscripts and officers of the Sunni Arab majority, has led many to examine the potential influence of ultraconservative Salafists or even al-Qaeda-style militants on the movement.  The public role of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC is already well known (al-Arabiya [Dubai], November 17).  The dominant role of the Alawis, an Islamic sect viewed by many orthodox Muslims as heretical, is a source of widespread resentment within the Sunni community. President al-Assad is an Alawi and many of the most influential positions in politics, the economy, and the security services are dominated by his Alawi allies. The specter of creeping sectarianism in Syria has left many fearful of the prospects of a sectarian-driven civil war.

Damascus regularly attributes a role to criminal gangs, domestic and foreign terrorist organizations, and international rivals such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in sustaining the FSA and the broader opposition movement (Syrian Arab News Agency, November 30; December 10).  Concerns about radical Islamist influence within the FSA and the opposition were frequently conveyed to this author in discussions with Syrians living and working in Beirut, including many who sympathize with the demands of the opposition. [3] FSA and SNC leaders categorically refute reports of radical Islamist influence within their ranks.

Battleground Lebanon

A consideration of Syria’s alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas – the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – against the backdrop of the uprisings that are upending the regional status quo provides insight into the multiplicity of interests at play. The regional fallout stemming from the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the concurrent displays of dissent in Bahrain and other U.S. allies is a trend viewed by many as strengthening actors such as Iran and Hezbollah even as their ally Syria contends with its own crisis. In spite of their popular appeal among wide segments of Syrian society, the actions of the FSA and its SNC partner must also be considered in the context of the greater rivalry between the United States and its regional allies on one side and Iran and Syria on the other.  The reaction of key actors in neighboring Lebanon to events in Syria, a country whose fortunes are tied so closely to Syria, also reflects this trend. 

Support for the FSA and the Syrian opposition is being broadcast out of Lebanon.  Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, a traditional center of Salafist activism, has seen a number of protests against Syria.  Prominent radical Salafist clerics in Tripoli, including Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, have called on Syrian Sunnis to join the uprising against the Baathist regime (Daily Star [Beirut], July 9).  Beirut has also witnessed a number of protests in recent months by anti-Syrian demonstrators.  Lebanon’s U.S.- and Saudi-aligned March 14 Alliance (which includes former Lebanese prime minster Sa’ad Hariri’s Sunni-dominated Future Movement) is in the forefront of organizing anti-Syrian activities in Lebanon.  March 14 dominates the political landscape in Tripoli, where it enjoys a loyal following among the local Salafist community.  

The March 14 Alliance’s rival in Lebanon is the March 8 Alliance, which features Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria and Iran.  Hezbollah has not shied away from affirming its support for Damascus.  To mark the occasion of Ashura on December 6, the day when Shi’a Muslims mourn the death of Hussein during the Battle of Karbala in 680 BCE, Hezbollah Secretary General Shaykh Hassan Nasrallah made a surprise public appearance in Beirut’s southern suburb of Dahiyeh, his first public appearance since 2006.  Reiterating Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian president, Nasrallah declared: “We remain in our stance; we support the reforms in Syria, and we are with a resisting government,” adding that “some people want to destroy Syria and compensate for their loss in Iraq” (al-Manar [Beirut], December 12)

Conclusion

Syria has fast emerged as a battleground for the wider currents angling to shape a new geopolitical map of the Middle East in their favor.  Damascus believes that the FSA and its SNC partner are acting to shore up the position of the United States and its Gulf allies following the resilient displays of dissent in Egypt and other pro-U.S. authoritarian regimes, the perceived gains made by Iran in Iraq and the wider Gulf region, and the growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.  On the surface, SNC head Ghalioun’s intention to steer Syria away from its strategic military relationships with Iran and Hezbollah in a post al-Assad scenario in favor of friendlier relations with Gulf countries appears to vindicate the Baathist regime’s claim that the FSA and the opposition in general have a duplicitous nature.

Syria, in essence, sees the FSA and SNC as illegitimate proxy forces acting at the behest of hostile foreign interests.  Many of the objectives and interests of the FSA and SNC clearly converge with those of Syria’s rivals, a reality that strengthens the regime’s narrative of domestic and regional events.  At the same time, the reality of having to confront a widening insurgency that is becoming progressively more aggressive and effective in the midst of sustained international pressure does not bode well for the regime’s long-term stability.       

Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with Helios Global, Inc., a risk management group based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle East politics. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.

Notes:

1. See http://www.syriannc.org/. See also Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 15, 2011.

2. The FSA’s inaugural videotape statement is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZcCbIPM37w.

3. Lebanese expressed similar concerns regarding the extent of radical Islamist influence inside the Syrian opposition and the potential of spillover of instability into Lebanon in the event that the regime falls.  Insights gleaned through numerous discussions with members of the Syrian community in Beirut, as well as Lebanese, Beirut, Lebanon, November-December 2011.