Posted by Aron Lund on Sunday, November 8th, 2015
by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis
“We are ready to support from the air the patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently told Russian state television. But, he said, Moscow is currently unable to do so, since it cannot figure out who leads the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the United States won’t help identify them. Lavrov’s comments were met with derision and scorn by Syrian rebels, including many self-declared FSA members, who complain that the Russian Air Force has been bombing them since September 30.
But lo and behold—on October 25, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that other members of the FSA are ready for “dialogue” in the hope of Russian “assistance.” The agency quoted Fahd al-Masri, whom it described a founder of the FSA, as saying that the two sides “need to facilitate a new meeting, so we could express our position and discuss our joint actions.” Masri’s comments were widely echoed in media friendly to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, including Iran’s Press TV, which quoted Masri as saying that “it is in the interests of Russia and FSA to hold this meeting as soon as possible.”
Suddenly, rumors were everywhere that FSA reprsentatives were en route to Moscow. The Syrian exile opposition tried to deny them, but no use. Russian state media kept going. On October 26, Sputnik News referred back to Masri’s purported proposal for a Russia-FSA conference in Cairo and then dropped a diplomatic bomb: ”Moscow has confirmed that Free Syrian Army (FSA) envoys had visited Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday.”
A few days later, on October 30, Bogdanov spoke on the sidelines of a meeting on Syria in Vienna to explain that Russia wants the FSA to be included in future peace talks, while ”one of the founders of the so called FSA,” who once again turned out to be Fahd al-Masri, was heard praising Moscow’s newfound flexibility in Russian state media.
On November 3, we were told that the Russian military is now in touch with a large number of opposition groups, which have begun feeding the Russians battlefield coordinates to help them take out “terrorists.” Then, finally, on November 5, Sputnik News brought on one Mahmoud al-Effendi to announce that officials from the Russian foreign and defense ministries will meet with the FSA leaders in Abu Dhabi next week.
Is this the long-expected Syrian game changer? Is the Free Syrian Army, Syria’s much-vaunted moderate mainstream opposition, now defecting from its Western and Gulf allies to instead hook up with Russia and Bashar al-Assad?
No, not quite.
These reports come as Russian officials are trying to manage the political fallout of President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to claim that its attacks target the so-called Islamic State, an extremist group that is hostile to both Assad and other rebels, the geographical pattern of Russian Air Force strikes shows no attempt (or ability?) to distinguish between rebel groups. Islamic State-affiliated groups are in fact a small minority of the targets and some of the very first strikes seem to have hit an American-backed faction. In other words, the Kremlin is trying to play on Western fears of terrorism as political cover for a mission designed to shore up Assad’s government.
Of course, wartime propaganda is not an exclusively Russian domain. When the United States was occupying Iraq, senior Bush administration officials like Washington Don kept blaming “terrorists” of the “Baathist dead-ender” or “al-Qaeda” variety for everything new setback. To be sure, Baathists and al-Qaeda loyalists were a prominent part of the mix, and they would later become dominant. But in the early days, Iraq’s insurgency seems to have been considerably more diverse than what we now see in Syria. In 2003-2004, it consisted of innumerable little local groups that spanned the full range of ideologies from secular nationalism to jihadism; they would even on occasion bridge the Sunni-Shia divide. And yet, U.S. President George W. Bush could get away with telling his people that the Iraqi resistance was all “al-Qaeda types, Ansar al-Islam types, terrorist groups” and conclude that it was better to “fight them there than here.”
A decade later in Syria, the roles are reversed. Russian politicians will contemptuously label any Syrian who has taken up arms to stop the depredations of Bashar al-Assad’s army a “jihadi terrorist” and in lieu of a political strategy, they smirk and puff their chests and say “bring ‘em on.” Their American counterparts sound like the anti-Iraq War tankie left in 2003-2004, eyes darting nervously around the room as they try to explain that there are good salafi insurgents and bad salafi insurgents. Give it a year more, and they’ll be complaining about Russia’s “cowboy attitude.”
Not that their respective supporters seem to notice, or care. But if you’re not a die-hard partisan of either Vladimir Putin or of the late and unlamented presidency of George W. Bush, you will by now have noticed that the Kremlin’s “anti-terrorist” discourse is essentially indistinguishable from the bullshit shoveled into the media by the American White House ten years ago, and equally self-serving, misleading, and destructive. And it, too, works beautifully.
The Russian Defense
Since anyone with access to a map of Syria can easily confirm that the Russian government is lying about its activity in Syria, the international media has started to raise questions. Reuters, for example:
Almost 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Islamic State, a Reuters analysis of Russian Defence Ministry data shows, undermining Moscow’s assertions that its aim is to defeat the group.
When faced with such accusations, Moscow has responded in a chaotic fashion. Instead of settling on a single political message, officials have presented different and often contradictory explanations of what they are doing in Syria, why they are doing it, and why they said they would be doing something else. Some now claim that the intervention was never only about the Islamic State, which would be an excellent defense if not for the fact that the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to falsely claim that it is attacking … the Islamic State. Others prefer to simply change the subject. Still others will continue to retell the original lie and shrug off any objections, since they are well aware that their core audience—largely made up nationalistic and/or apolitical Russians, plus Western tabloid scribblers and conspiracy theorists—neither knows nor cares about the truth.
For example, here’s an actual headline from the British Daily Express on Oct. 30, 2015: “More than 800,000 refugees RETURNING to Syria as Putin OBLITERATES Islamic State.” All of it is nonsense, based off of the tall tales told by Russian officials, but what do they care?
And in Russia, an independent poll shows that 48 percent of respondents think their air force is attacking the Islamic State, and only 13 percent think that the targets are mostly other Syrian opposition groups, while Putin’s own approval ratings have soared to more than 90 percent, according to a state-run pollster.
No need to be surprised. This is how propaganda works. Its primary purpose is to mobilize the base and produce talking points for those already inclined to support you. A secondary purpose, however, is to keep your opponent uncertain, uncommitted, and off balance. And this is where Fahd al-Masri and the FSA come into the picture.
A Meeting in Paris
On October 7, a week into its Syrian campaign, the Russian Foreign Ministry suddenly announced that it would begin talks with the FSA. That same day, a meeting took place at the Russian Embassy in Paris, which brought together Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov—who is a chief architect of Russia’s policy in Syria—with a very interesting cast of characters: “Fahd al-Masri, who is the coordinator of the National Salvation Group in Syria, the retired American general Paul Vallely, and his adviser on Middle Eastern affairs, Nagi Najjar, who is a former intelligence officer.” (We know that the meeting took place since Russian authorities have confirmed that Bogdanov was in Paris at the time, also speaking to French officials and a Syrian Kurdish leader, and Vallely has released a photograph of himself with Bogdanov.)
After the October 7 meeting, the Russian press began to float stories about a Moscow-FSA connection. In two articles, Kommersant cited Masri’s press statement and referred to him as “one of the founders of the Free Syrian Army,” while the state-owned Sputnik News took it a step further: “The Free Syrian Army is ready to establish contacts with the Russian leadership.” Masri was also brought up in another Sputnik News article headlined “Russia Reaffirms Readiness to Cooperate With Free Syrian Army.”
A couple of weeks later, the campaign was turned up a notch, when Russian state media released the information cited at the start of this article, about Fahd al-Masri’s overtures to the Kremlin, his proposal for a political conference in Cairo, and the mysterious FSA delegation in Moscow.
In other words, the meeting with Fahd al-Masri, Paul Vallely, and Naji Najjar has suddenly become part of the Russian government’s claims of a budding relationship with the FSA. But who are they and in what way could they represent the FSA?
Before we answer that question, let’s first step back and define what we mean by “FSA.”
A Brief History of the Free Syrian Armies
The Syrian insurgent movement has always been composed of many different factions. Today, there is about ten or twenty larger organizations, but most of them remain regionally focused and they are continually fragmenting on the fringes, with additional hundreds of smaller rebel bands drifting and out of local alliances.
Many of these groups refer to themselves as part of the FSA, and when the United States and other Western governments provide support to the rebels, they also talk about aiding the FSA. Much of the media has thrown the FSA term around for years, only rarely trying to clarify what’s meant by it except to say that the FSA is a “moderate rebel group” or a “loosely aligned movement” or some such. The confusion stems from the fact that there is no straightforward definition and that many different people, groups, and countries use the word “FSA” to apply to many different things.
The concept of a “Free Syrian Army” first emerged in July 2011, when a “Supreme Command for the Free Syrian Army” was launched by Syrian military defectors in Turkey. Their highest-ranking member, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, took the title of FSA Supreme Commander. Col. Asaad’s FSA group was backed by Turkey and others in order to channel funds to local rebels and create a more cohesive insurgency—one that would be able to topple Assad by some combination of disciplined military action and negotiation. This strategy failed. The insurgency remained chaotically divided, and Col. Asaad’s FSA never evolved far beyond the role of “a fax machine in Turkey,” pouring out press releases in which it claimed credit for attacks staged by others.
Yet, the FSA was wildly successful as a branding operation. The name and the associated logotype caught on among the rebels and is still in widespread use today. It is typically used to refer to those rebels that accept Western and/or Gulf State support, publicly profess some level of belief in democracy and Syrian nationalism (as opposed to pan-Islamism), and maintain a healthy distance from al-Qaeda.
Since the creation of Col. Asaad’s original outfit, and its swift decline, there have been repeated foreign-backed attempts to create a new central node for the rebellion, or at least for its more pragmatic and moderate factions. Most of these projects have used the FSA brand.
In December 2012, several countries pooled their efforts to set up something called the General Staff, which had an appended Supreme Military Council. This evolved into the “new FSA,” under the leadership of Brigadier General Salim Idriss. While Idriss’s FSA command would become far more successful than previous unification attempts, it remained a virtual army at best—a kind of political superstructure resting on top of a Gulf Arab-Western-Turkish funding stream for selected Syrian factions, which lacked any central control over them. After limping along for a year and a half, this version of the FSA finally imploded in 2014.
Successive attempts to rebuild this type of central FSA leadership have fizzled. Most recently, we’ve seen the Revolutionary Command Council set up in December 2014 and the reincarnated FSA Supreme Military Council of July 2015. Another project, the FSA High Command , is backed by the exile opposition, but it remains a work in progress. The list will surely continue to grow.
Behind the Scenes: MOM and MOC
The failure to produce an official FSA leadership does not mean that there are no material structures connecting these segments of the insurgency. Thousands of rebel fighters have by now been vetted, trained, and approved for material support via two Military Operations Centers, which feed the insurgency from across the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The one in Turkey is colloquially known as the MOM, for Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, while its Jordanian counterpart is called the MOC, after its English initials.
Apart from Turkey and Jordan, these centers gather representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, and a bunch of other governments. Their role is to coordinate and supervise the flow of arms and ammunition to a select number of rebel groups. Foreign intelligence services, chief among them the CIA, collaborate through these centers to pick which groups should be eligible for support. They will not receive a stamp of approval until their members have been vetted for suspicious contacts, declared that they will stay away from alliances with al-Qaeda, and showed some interest in a negotiated solution to the conflict. The groups involved enjoy different levels of trust and approval, but many also receive “unofficial” support on the side from, for example, Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or various private funders.
So far, this arrangement has been accepted by something like a hundred rebel factions all in all, although a head count is complicated by the fact that they are often folded into overlapping regional umbrellas. While each faction is typically quite small and few of them enjoy national name recognition, they collectively make up a fairly significant segment of the armed opposition. In southern Syria, MOC-funded groups seem to account for a majority of the insurgency. The northern MOM-backed factions enjoy less influence than their southern counterparts, but they are still a considerable force around Aleppo, and some have used U.S.-manufactured missiles to establish themselves in an important niche role as anti-tank units in the Idleb-Hama region.
These groups are what the U.S. government typically refers to when it talks about “the FSA” and there is indeed a very considerable overlap between MOM/MOC-backed factions and factions that self-designate as “FSA.” This crude definition (MOM + MOC = FSA) is also increasingly used by the Syrian exile opposition, the rebels themselves, and others who follow this conflict.
All Those Other People Who Call Themselves “FSA”
Still, there isn’t a perfect correspondence. Anyone can raise an FSA flag without having the approval of the MOM/MOC structure. Some factions do so because they see it as a way to underline their moderate nature and curry favor with foreign funders. Others claim the FSA heritage as part of their revolutionary identity, and say that it shouldn’t be reserved for foreign-backed factions. Conversely, there are MOM/MOC backed factions that do not use the FSA name or symbols, or at least do so very infrequently. This is typically because they previously rejected the FSA brand and developed their own political identity, typically along Islamist ideological lines, and now prefer to maintain that distinction even after being coopted into the MOM/MOC network.
Many groups mean different things when referring to the FSA and use the term opportunistically. For example, when nearly fifty rebel groups recently issued a statement on behalf of the FSA, the signatories included many well-known MOM/MOC affiliates, but also the Islam Army, an Islamist faction that does not normally use FSA insignia and often rejected the label.
In northeastern Syria, there is also a number of self-identified FSA groups that fight the Islamic State alongside the American-backed Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG, in turn, is a front for the pan-Kurdish PKK movement, which has excellent working relations with Moscow. These “FSA” groups are mostly small Arab splinter factions or tribal groups that have been coopted by the PKK to provide extra manpower and put a multi-ethnic face on what is in reality a wholly Kurdish-run project. Some of them also call for Russian intervention, and a prominent Syrian rebel leader who works for a MOC-backed group has claimed that these Kurdish-backed factions are responsible for some of the chatter about “the FSA” visiting Moscow. (Perhaps in connection with some small service to the PKK?)
Then, there are the exiles. The decaying remains of former “FSA leaderships” cover the hotel lobbies of southern Turkey like jellyfish on a shore. Hundreds of defected Syrian military officers still whirl around the exile circuit and most seem to consider themselves to be part of the FSA in some fashion. Some will happily appear in the media as “FSA members,” “FSA advisers,” or even “FSA commanders,” whatever their actual relationship to the insurgency on the ground. Among them, there are indeed those who work closely with the MOM/MOC or its associated factions, but others claim the mantle merely by virtue of past association with some long-since collapsed FSA unity project, often dating back to the pre-Idriss era. For example, the FSA brand’s original inventor in 2011, Col. Riad al-Asaad, still toils in obscurity in Turkey as one of several self-declared “supreme commanders of the FSA.”
In other words, the term “FSA” can mean a great many things. If it is to have any sort of substance and be relevant to the war in Syria these days, it means a rebel group backed by the MOM/MOC structure. Nine out of ten times that you hear about “the FSA” having done something on the Syrian battlefield, it means those groups. But among the groups actually fighting in Syria, there are also the PKK-backed FSA groups and various other claimants, particularly among the exiled officers. Some of their now-defunct unity projects were at one point genuinely representative of armed groups on the ground, while others were ephemeral creatures of Facebook.
As for Fahd al-Masri, he ran one of the latter.
Meet Mr. Masri
The name Fahd al-Masri first came to my attention around six or seven years ago, when I was writing a book on the Syrian opposition. Born in the Midan Quarter of Damascus, he had left Syria in the mid-1990s and ended up in Paris, where he sought work as a journalist. In 1996, he worked for about six months as a technician at the Arab News Network, a satellite channel controlled by Refaat al-Assad, Bashar’s exiled uncle (who recently visited Moscow). When I ask him about this, Masri tells me that he simply needed a job and that he does not support a “murderer” like Refaat al-Assad. He was also seen as close to Syria’s former Vice President Abdelhalim Khaddam, who, after being kicked out of office by Bashar al-Assad in 2005, had moved to Paris and begun to bankroll opposition activity. By the end of the 00s, Masri was hosting a talkshow on Barada TV, a London-based anti-Assad satellite station (which was covertly funded by the U.S. State Department). He returned to Paris in late 2010 or early 2011.
All in all, Fahd al-Masri was a minor figure at the time—a small shard of Syria’s great tragedy, as one of tens of thousands of political émigrés huddled around Europe and the Middle East, human byproducts of the Assad family’s machinery of fear, wealth, and power.
With the advent of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Fahd al-Masri’s stature began to grow. Media outlets all over the world began a frantic search for representatives of the budding insurgency in Syria, but only a small number of long-time correspondents, nerds, and academics seemed to have any idea about who was who in the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the Assad government, many different opposition groups, regional intelligence services, and what at times appeared to be a global army of narcissists were all jostling to get in front of the cameras. The results were confusing, at times tragic, and occasionally hilarious—such as the media uproar over Mohammed Rahhal’s 2011 declaration of war, or the Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a straight man in Edinburgh.
Into this chaos stepped Fahd al-Masri. As early as August 2011—when most of the mainstream political opposition still clung to nationalist-democratic rhetoric and peaceful protest—he would appear on al-Arabiya from Paris to demand a foreign intervention in Syria. He didn’t represent any known activist group or political party, but some combination of availability and incendiary statements still made him a sought-after commentator.
The FSA Joint Command
Masri has told me that in late 2011, he promoted an aspiring rebel leadership known as the FSA Supreme Military Council, which was headed by Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh. Briefly considered a Saudi favorite, Sheikh’s group fizzled in mid-2012 and he later went into exile in Sweden. But by that time Masri, who does not appear to have had any official link to Sheikh’s group, had already moved on. In this period, “[h]e tried to build himself up as FSA spokesman, but it didn’t work out,” says a person who has worked with Masri. “The officers he had allied himself to all flopped.”
In March 2012, Masri was invited to the founding congress of a new rebel unity project, the FSA Joint Command of Colonel Qasem Saadeddine. Masri then began to appear as the FSA Joint Command’s media spokesperson, although it is not clear to me whether this was approved by the group itself. Some have claimed that Col. Saadeddine’s group fired him after only a week. While Masri disputes that, he certainly seems to have drifted away from the rest of the leadership at some point.
As a military coalition, the FSA Joint Command soon declined into irrelevance, but not before endowing Col. Saadeddine with name recognition and useful foreign contacts, which he would later trade in for a position in Salim Idriss’s Western-endorsed FSA network.
By that time, the FSA Joint Command had been forgotten by everyone—except its erstwhile spokesperson. In an e-mail to me, Masri says the creation of the Idriss-led FSA in December 2012 was part of a plot by the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood” to “gain hegemony over the FSA” and insists that many officers involved with the FSA Joint Command had refused to accept its dissolution. Therefore, he says, “we continued our work despite the withdrawal of Col. Qasem Saadeddine and others.”
In reality, this version of the FSA Joint Command seems to have consisted of Fahd al-Masri alone. The Idriss-led FSA and the FSA-branded rebel factions inside Syria would invite journalists to travel with their troops and they often uploaded videos from the battlefield. Masri’s own FSA Joint Command could produce no such evidence. Though Masri often hinted that he represented tens of thousands of military defectors on the battlefields in Syria, “security reasons” prevented him from naming them.
Instead, the FSA Joint Command remained restricted to a ghost-like virtual existence, maintained by the generous distribution of online statements. Every week or so, people interested in Syria would receive a formal-looking Arabic-language communiqué in their mailbox, signed by Fahd al-Masri, who called himself head of media relations for the FSA Joint Command. The content was always savory stuff.
Masri would often call for foreign intervention—although he later changed his mind—or rail against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. In February 2014, for example, he announced that the FSA Joint Command had declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and would arrest any member who dared set foot in Syria. On other occasions, the FSA Joint Command would share secret intelligence about chemical weapons, “revealing” that Assad had smuggled them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. More and more often, Masri would condemn the internationally recognized opposition bodies, such Idriss’s FSA leadership, the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition, and its Turkey-based exile government. These statements would soon be the source of innumerable media reports about opposition disunity and “splits in the FSA.” Typically, some rebel commander in Turkey or Syria would be quoted saying this or that, only to be swiftly contradicted by “another FSA representative,” namely Fahd al-Masri.
Some of his critics suspect Masri of working on behalf of a third party, though no one seems sure of exactly which one that would be. “Knowing Fahd, he doesn’t do anything for free,” says the person who once worked with Masri. “He’s not crazy, just a conman, a chancer. There’s many of them in the Syrian opposition.”
When asked about his sources of funding, in late 2013, Fahd al-Masri told me that he funds his activism from his own pocket, although he added that hosting organizations or governments sometimes pay travel and accommodation for conference visits. This may very well be true, since Masri’s activism cannot have been very expensive: a Hotmail account is free to register and media appearances will often come with a small honorarium. However, Masri also told me that certain ”well-known Syrian citizens” and ”Syrian friends who believe in the importance of what I do” have helped him and his family financially, enabling him to work full time for the Syrian revolution. He did not name them.
Spokesperson of the Revolution
Even though Masri’s FSA communiqués had at most a coincidental relationship to reality, journalists ate them up like tabbouleh. Soon, FSA Joint Command Media Director Fahd al-Masri had become one of the most frequently employed talking heads of the war—the voice of the Syrian revolution, or perhaps its ventriloquist.
In the past few years, he has appeared as a representative of the FSA, or the opposition more generally, on any number of Arabic- and French-language talkshows and newscasts. TV channels include the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, Qatar’s Aljazeera, Russia Today, the British BBC, American channels like NBC News, Fox News, and al-Hurra, the Colombia-based NTN24, Turkey’s TRT, France24 and TF1 in his own country of residence, Egypt’s ONTV, and Lebanon-based channels like al-Mayadin, OTV, and MTV, as well as religious channels like al-Safa… and the list goes on.
He has been a frequent source for the printed press, too. Whether pulled from his e-mailed communiqués, copied off newswires, or extracted through interviews, Fahd al-Masri’s many colorful declarations and revelations have found their way into the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, the Daily Star, al-Ahram and al-Ahram Weekly, al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Hayat, Haaretz, the Times of Israel, the Jordan Times, Kommersant, Izvestia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Le Monde, Le Figaro, El Mundo, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, and many other newspapers.
International officials would also occasionally try to bring the FSA Joint Command into their political schemes and peace processes, such as when UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Fahd al-Masri in Paris in August 2012.
By October 2013, Idriss’s FSA General Staff had grown so frustrated that it issued an official statement in which it denied any connection to Masri. This did nothing to clear up the confusion—instead, it led to garbled reports about Idriss having fired his longtime media spokesperson. Masri’s FSA Joint Command hit back by calling for Idriss to be arrested, which led to another round of reports about splits in the FSA. A few months later, Masri appeared on Lebanese television to announce a startling discovery: information had emerged to prove that Salim Idriss’s leadership was infiltrated by Hezbollah.
And on it went.
From the FSA Joint Command to the National Salvation Group
Then all of a sudden, Fahd al-Masri dropped out of the FSA representation business. What happened isn’t clear—and Masri says it was a voluntary decision—but perhaps he had finally taken his game too far. Certainly, there must be downsides to provoking an armed guerrilla movement backed by the government on whose territory you reside.
On March 31, 2014, the FSA Joint Command issued one final grandiloquent statement entitled “To Whom It May Concern,” in which Fahd al-Masri announced his decision to “cease my voluntary work in the Central Media Administration of the FSA Joint Command” and return to his previous vocation as an independent activist. Since then, nothing more has been heard of the FSA Joint Command.
And yet, Masris’ e-mailed statements kept coming. In the first few months, they were signed only by himself, as an individual activist, but institutional affiliations soon began to crawl back onto the letterhead. In summer 2014, he represented a “Preparatory Committee for the Creation of the Independent National Commission for Inspection, Oversight, Accountability, and the Struggle Against Corruption,” which kept up the attacks on other opposition movements. Then came the “Center for Strategic, Military, and Security Studies in Syria,” which has, among other things, been considered a reliable source on the Islamic State by the Daily Mail.
Sometime in late 2014, Masri also launched a “Project for National Salvation,” which then reconstituted itself as “the National Salvation Group in Syria.” It portrays itself as a broad political umbrella for Syrians on the inside and in the diaspora. But just like the now-vanished FSA Joint Command and the other groups mentioned above, the National Salvation Group only seems to exist in the form of statements from its coordinator, Fahd al-Masri.
Masri’s Own Version
In Masri’s view, he has done nothing wrong and has not deliberately misled anyone. If you look closely at what he has been saying, he has in fact never claimed to represent any political or military body except those listed above, which are of his own invention. When I asked him about this in late 2013, he responded (swiftly and professionally) with a frank admission that he had absolutely no ties to the internationally recognized FSA leadership of Salim Idriss; indeed, he condemned Idriss and his men as “blood merchants” and tools of foreign conspiracies. Still, he insisted that he had every right to represent the FSA as a concept and argued that any confusion that might result from this would be entirely in the eye of the beholder:
I was among the first who spoke in the name of the FSA, before Idriss’s General Staff was formed, so I don’t need the approval of either Salim Idriss or his General Staff. I am one of the founders of the FSA Joint Command and my role is in leading the media war on the regime.
Masri stuck to his guns when I contacted him again in October 2015, a year and a half after he terminated his FSA Joint Command:
I know myself and my history in opposing the regime well, and I know my role in supporting the revolution and the FSA. Thus, it doesn’t matter to me what this person or that person may say and I have no need to defend myself, because my history is well known. […]
The FSA is not a regular military institution that could issue an authorization for this or that party [to speak on its behalf]. The FSA is a national and revolutionary condition and I was one of its founders, or a leadership for the FSA. [However,] I announced more than a year ago that I have stopped my work as media spokesperson for the FSA, as a protest against the regional and international powers that restrict support to the FSA in favor of Islamic and extremist organizations.
When I asked about the recurring rumors about him leading FSA delegations to Moscow—they have made the rounds many times, including winter 2013, summer 2015, and again in October 2015—Masri denies ever having visited Moscow. He also made a clarification that puts a rather different spin on the stories peddled by Russian state media:
When I invited Russia to a meeting in Cairo, I didn’t issue the invitation in the name of the FSA and I didn’t claim to represent the FSA or any of its factions. Rather, I spoke in the name of the National Salvation Group in Syria, of which I am a representative.
What to make of this is up to you. I cannot claim to know anything about Fahd al-Masri’s rationale for doing what he does and it is possible that his intentions are perfectly sincere. But, to me, it seems perfectly clear that he cannot be considered a spokesperson for the insurgency on the ground in Syria, or any part of it. It is equally clear that this will be obvious to anyone who spends a moment researching the matter. Indeed, most of the major news organizations that cover Syria no longer pay any heed to his statements, even if they have reported them at some point in the past.
Regarding his interactions with the Russians, however, Fahd al-Masri seems to be telling the truth. When reviewing the statements and media reports of the past few weeks, it becomes clear that it is the Russian side that has consistently sought to portray Masri as a representative and/or founding member of the FSA. Even though Masri tries to highlight his own National Salvation Group, Kremlin-friendly media sources invariably use his statements to promote the Russian government’s own narrative of a Moscow-FSA rapprochement.
The Rest of the October 7 Troika
Fahd al-Masri was not alone in his meeting with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He was flanked by two other persons, supposedly invited to discuss Russia-FSA connections: former U.S. Major General Paul E. Vallely and his Lebanese associate Naji Najjar. When asked about these two individuals, Masri says he was introduced to Vallely through Najjar, whom he met in Paris around two months ago.
Paul E. Vallely is indeed a former U.S. major general, as advertised, but with a strong emphasis on “former.” His current role is as a political commentator on the fringes of American conservatism. Having left the military nearly 25 years ago, Vallely now runs “a network of patriotic Americans” called Stand Up America, which seems to envisage itself as a foreign policy arm of the Tea Party movement. Its website features a heady mixture of military news, Muslim-baiting, and conspiracy theories. To provide some indication of his place on the political spectrum, Vallely has claimed in a radio interview that the “corrupt and treasonous” Barack Obama was illegally installed as president with the aid of billionaire George Soros and a faked birth certificate, in order to make the United States a socialist country.
Najjar is a former member of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian group in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and claims to have been an intelligence official of some sort. Since the end of the civil war, he has been involved with a variety Lebanese-Christian, anti-Assad, and pro-Israel groups. Among other things, he apparently ran a group that defended the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila and advocated against the war crimes prosecution of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Najjar now appears to be Vallely’s link to Syria, through an amazingly shady entrepreneurial entity called the Syria Opposition Liaison Group, which claims to be involved in Syrian politics and hostage negotiations. To what extent this is true, I don’t know.
In 2013, Vallely and Najjar traveled into northern Syria, shook hands with a lot of rebels, and met with Col. Riad al-Asaad, the man who first came up with the FSA name in July 2011. It must have been an interesting trip and it has provided plenty of fodder for online conspiracy theorists, but this little publicity stunt does not indicate that either of them could serve as a useful link to today’s real-world FSA insurgents, namely those backed by MOM and MOC. In other words, while Vallely and Najjar have enough curious political connections to make a LaRouchie weep with joy, neither they nor Masri ever commanded a single fighter inside Syria.
Yet, there they are, at the center of Russian public diplomacy. In fact, according to Masri (who has repeated this story to me personally, in an e-mailed statement, and on Turkish television), the Russians were sufficiently impressed by the meeting with Bogdanov to immediately ask for a follow-up session. The next day, he says, “we received a phone call from a Russian military official who asked for an urgent meeting at the request of the Russian minister of defense. We accepted the invitation and gathered in Paris in a meeting that lasted for nearly three hours.”
Mahmoud al-Effendi and the Abu Dhabi Meeting
The latest bid, on November 5, is the announcement via Russian state media of a meeting in Abu Dhabi. It will supposedly bring together ”28 brigades of the FSA in the suburbs of Damascus, Qunaitra, Hama and the western suburb of Homs, as well as the northern front from the suburbs of Aleppo and Idlib with the representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Defense Ministry” to discuss how these groups can negotiate a separate peace with the Syrian government and establish a permanent collaboration with Russia.
The source of this amazing piece of information was the meeting’s official coordinator, Mahmoud al-Effendi, who doubles as head of “the Popular Diplomacy Movement.” Little known in Syrian dissident circles, Effendi has trundled around the exile opposition for a while and most recently popped up in Astana, Kazakhstan, at an event called by a number of ostensible Syrian opposition groups.
In fact, the Astana meetings (there have been two so far) are political theatre directed from Moscow and/or Damascus. The attendees are mostly elderly leftists who seek a compromise with Assad based on limited reforms. Some of them are surely sincere, but others are essentially proxies of the Russian or Syrian intelligence services. They are estranged from most of the rest of the opposition and have no relation at all to the insurgency raging on the ground in Syria. Any actual FSA brigade that they encountered would be more likely to shoot them than to accept their conference invitations.
As for the “Popular Diplomacy Movement,” it seems to be another single-member group (but I shall generously grant the possibility of a handful more) and whatever Effendi’s real role is, he is certainly not someone who can mobilize “28 brigades” of the Syrian guerrilla in service of Russian diplomacy.
While a few rebel factions apparently responded to the initial Russian approaches, only to then cut off contacts, the vast majority reject the Russian entreaties out of hand. On hearing the reports about Effendi’s upcoming Abu Dhabi meeting, FSA-branded groups immediately began to deny, condemn, and ridicule these claims. On November 6, most of the main rebel factions inside Syria—nearly fifty, all in all— issued a joint statement in the name of the FSA, in which they denied their participation and condemning the Russian operations in Syria. (Most of the groups that did not sign the statements were Islamist and jihadi factions like Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and others, who have never referred to themselves as FSA groups.)
A meeting in Abu Dhabi could very well take place anyway. It shouldn’t be that hard for Russia to buy over a commander or two, and then pad out the roster with minor non-MOM/MOC factions in search of funding, pseudo-FSA groups, PKK clients, various ex-rebels turned by Assad’s intelligence services, some oddballs-in-exile, and any number of disgruntled military defectors. Such a group could certainly be relied on to generate more headlines about Russia meeting with the FSA, but what it couldn’t do is to speak for any meaningful number of armed insurgents inside Syria.
Who Is Using Whom?
At this point, it should be obvious that someone is being conned, but I’m still not quite sure about who is is using whom. The deeper you dig into the connections between Russia and fringe figures in the Syrian diaspora, the more bizarre it gets; a world halfway between Joseph Conrad and Thomas Pynchon, only without the redeeming qualities of style and credible characters.
So what is actually going on here? I see two options.
Either we must believe that the Russian government, at cabinet level and despite the best efforts of SVR and GRU intelligence, is so grossly uneducated about Syrian politics that it would perceive Masri, Vallely, Najjar, the little PKK-backed Arab groups, or Effendi as credible links to the mainstream American-backed FSA, whatever the Russians may imagine that to be. If so, we would now be witnessing the government of Russia being played by a variety of Syrian, American, and Lebanese political entrepreneurs and charlatans, with the Kremlin a hapless victim of its own famously childlike innocence and wide-eyed trust in humanity’s best intentions.
The alternative, because fortunately there is an alternative, is to imagine this as a diversionary trick on the part of the Russians—a bit of political Maskirovka, or camouflage, in which Bogdanov takes time off from an otherwise busy schedule to talk to people whose influence in Syria he knows to be zero, because it is zero. By bestowing top-level attention on otherwise unimportant interlocutors, the Kremlin has produced the raw material that its propaganda factory needs to push products onto the Syrian rumor market.
Feeding the media with rumors, hints, and disconnected bits of genuine information about a Russian-FSA connection serves the Kremlin’s political agenda in two ways:
First, it tricks some people into believing that Russia is skillfully peeling away Syrian allies from the USA. It will mostly be people who know nothing about the politics of the Syrian insurgency, but then again, that’s most people.
Secondly, and no less important, Russia’s rivals cannot protest Moscow’s fraudulent claims without engaging in a debate about who actually should represent the FSA in talks with Assad, if it shouldn’t be Masri, Effendi, or the other candidates suggested by Moscow. Since there is no central FSA leadership and no consensus on which groups should be labeled “FSA,” that’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall.
It is a problem partly of the Americans’ own making. Indeed, one could say that the opposition’s backers are now falling victim to their own propaganda. For years, officials in the US, Europe, Turkey, and the Arab World have been promoting ”the moderate FSA” or even “the secular FSA” as Syria’s great hope for the future, without ever arriving at a better explanation of what that means than ”any damned armed group in Syria that we can work with.” It is undoubtedly a definition, of a kind, but how do you sell it to the general public? What do you do when journalists, voters, or even congressmen start to ask questions about who, exactly, is at the receiving end of all this taxpayers’ money?
The Russian government has now started to exploit this deliberately engineered ambiguity for its own purposes. By rebranding their own allies and all kinds of random exiles as “FSA representatives,” they are trying to wring a very useful fiction out of the hands of their enemies or, failing that, to destroy it by adding to the confusion.
As a poker-faced Bogdanov recently put it when discussing whether the FSA should be part of hypothetical future peace talks:
In general, we support their participation as a structure. We do not yet understand who will represent it. We are waiting for them to manifest more clearly or for our partners who maintain relations with the Free Syrian Army to tell us.
Some might call this diplomacy. I call it elite-level trolling.
- Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis