In my recent post on the arming of anti-Assad rebels via Croatia and Jordan, Syria Comment’s Aron Lund raised several important points I’ve discussed in earlier articles, but not recently, about how label- and media-driven coverage of the fighting in the country has become - often at the expense of the non-military anti-Assad efforts still going on in the country that I interviewed Stephen Star on a few months ago. Lund’s report in part builds off on a discussion he and I had over the piece, where he pointed out that “there isn’t an actual FSA organization” and that unless the FSA label is better explained, “[i]t serves more to confuse readers than to clarify organizational links.”
Lund’s post is a good breakdown of the anti-Assad rebels’ organizations two years into the conflict, so I’d like to highlight a few points from the primer he has written for Syria Comment.
The first part is a reiteration of how the “FSA” came to be:
The FSA was created by Col. Riad el-Asaad and a few other Syrian military defectors in July 2011, in what may or may not have been a Turkish intelligence operation. To be clear, there’s no doubting the sincerity of the first batch of fighters, or suggest that they would have acted otherwise without foreign support. But these original FSA commanders were confined to the closely guarded Apaydın camp in Turkey, and kept separate from civilian Syrian refugees. Turkish authorities are known to have screened visitors and journalists before deciding whether they could talk to the officers. While this is not in itself evidence of a Turkish intelligence connection, it does suggest that this original FSA faction could not, how shall we say, operate with full autonomy from its political environment.
From summer onwards, new rebel factions started popping up in hundreds of little villages and city neighborhoods inside Syria, as an ever-growing number of local demonstrators were provoked into self-defense. The most important recruiting tool for this nascent insurgency was not the FSA and its trickle of videotaped communiqués on YouTube. Rather, it was Bashar el-Assad’s decision to send his army on a psychotic rampage through the Syrian Sunni Arab countryside. As the corpses piled up, more and more civilians started looking for guns and ammo, and the rebel movement took off with a vengeance.
While the new groups almost invariably grew out of a local context, and organized entirely on their own, most of them also declared themselves to be part of the FSA. They adopted its logotype, and would often publicly pledge allegiance to Col. Riad el-Asaad. As a branding operation, the FSA was a extraordinary success – but in most cases, the new ”FSA brigades” had no connection whatsoever to their purported supreme commander in Turkey. In reality, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.
Then there’s the fact that different armed groups observed in the conflict use the Free Syrian Army moniker as a “brand name” when it suits them:
One can’t disregard the fact that many Syrian opposition fighters will casually refer to themselves as FSA members, or that some armed factions actually self-designate as ”a brigade of the FSA”. But that does not mean that they belong to some Syria-wide FSA command hierarchy: it’s still just a label, typically intended to market these groups as part of the opposition mainstream.
With time, then, the generally understood definition of the FSA term has gradually narrowed from its original scope, which encompassed almost the entire insurgency. Today, it is understood to apply mostly to army defectors (ex-Baathists), non-ideological fighters, and more moderate Islamists. But the dividing line is not really a question of ideology or organization, it is political. The FSA label is increasingly being used in the media as shorthand for those factions which receive Gulf/Western support and are open to collaboration with the USA and other Western nations.
That still doesn’t describe an actual organization, but at least it’s closer to a working definition of what the ”FSA” would mean in a Syrian opposition context – a definition that can’t really decide what it includes, but which clearly excludes most of the anti-Western salafis, all of the hardcore salafi-jihadis, and, for example, the Kurdish YPG militia. Further in, Lund includes a rundown of the main groups calling themselves “FSA” or some variant of that, either until recently or at this very moment, and advice on how to better explain what “FSA” means in the context of specific political initiatives and geographical areas of operations.
Lund also expands on one of the core problems facing the rebels now that they are receiving greater (though still limited) outside support, both military and non-military: distribution.
No matter how shallow and ephemeral their allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss may be, no other opposition figure can point to a similar show of support from the armed movement inside Syria. The reason for this widespread endorsement of Brig. Gen. Idriss isn’t his personal charm, good looks or presumed brilliance as a military strategist – it’s a lot simpler than that. See, there was an immediate payoff for attending the Antalya conference and pledging allegiance to Brig. Gen. Idriss and his General Staff: You got guns.
Just when the Antalya conference to create the General Staff was held, in December 2012, fresh shipments of weapons & ammo started pouring into northern Syria, secretly shipped in from Croatia and other sources (this has been well covered by bloggers like Brown Moses and correspondents like C. J. Chivers). And what do you know, both the General Staff’s Antalya conference and these Croatian guns seem to have been paid for by Saudi Arabia. Coincidence? Not likely. Judging from who’s been seen firing the weapons, they seem to have been distributed more or less among the commanders who endorsed the General Staff. And that was always the idea: The General Staff was set up as a flag to rally the Western/Gulf-backed factions around, and probably also a funding channel and an arms distribution network, rather than as an actual command hierarchy. Idriss’s foreign sponsors do of course hope that it will eventually solidify into the latter, but we haven’t seen it happen yet. As Chivers has speculated on his own blog, it may be that this is how the pitch was made in Washington, but it’s very likely that on the ground, the distribution system is allowing those non-Syrian actors doing the legwork - for the most part, hired Iraqi and Turkish hands along with the intelligence services of the Arab monarchy, rather than the CIA or DIA - to play favorites better than the EU or US have.
It does not appear that the arms supply effort – whether it has been 4 or 75+ planeloads of ex-Yugoslavian Army gear flown from Zagreb to Amman – has been able to substitute for the lack of organization among rebel fronts (or, on the field, yet match Assad’s qualitative advantage in planes, artillery and armor). Lund concludes:
A unified rebel leadership would spare Syria much of the bloodshed that lies ahead. Not just because an organized rebel army would pack more of a punch in the struggle against Bashar el-Assad’s fascist dictatorship, and could put a leash on the most unpleasant salafi extremist factions. But also – and this matters a lot more than the fate of either Assad or al-Qaeda – because only a functioning opposition leadership will be able to minimize the period of Lebanon-style armed anarchy and sectarian bloodshed that lies ahead for Syria, and help reestablish a central government when Assad’s is gone for good.