Posted by Aron Lund on Saturday, March 16th, 2013
by Aron Lund, for Syria Comment
Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?
All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.
They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist.
The original FSA: a branding operation
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.
The heyday of the FSA was in early/mid 2012, when new factions were being declared at a rate of several per week. But by mid-2012, the brand seemed to have run its course, as people soured on Col. Asaad and his exiles. The FSA term slowly began to slip out of use. By the end of the year, most of the big armed groups in Syria had stopped using it altogether, and one by one, they dropped or redesigned the old FSA symbols from their websites, logotypes, shoulder patches and letterheads. Their symbolic connection to the FSA leaders in Turkey was broken – and since no connection at all had existed outside the world of symbols, that was the end of that story.
The FSA brand name today
Today, the FSA brand name remains in use within the Syrian opposition, but mostly as a term for the armed uprising in general. It’s quite similar to how a French person would have employed the term “La Résistance” during WW2 – not in reference to a specific organization fighting against Hitler, but as an umbrella term for them all. With time, many people inside and outside Syria have started to use the FSA term to distinguish mainstream non-ideological or soft-Islamist groups from salafi factions. The salafis themselves used to be divided on the issue, but they aren’t anymore. The more ideological ones (like Jabhat el-nosra and Ahrar el-Sham) never used it, but at the start of the uprising, others did (like Liwa el-Islam and Suqour el-Sham).
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.
Free Syrian Armies
But is there no FSA organization at all? Oh, of course: there are many. Syria and Turkey currently host a whole bunch of defected officers who claim to be leaders of the FSA, or who are described as such by the media. Here’s a non-exhaustive list:
- First, there’s Col. Riad el-Asaad and his associates (such as Malik el-Kurdi, Ahmed el-Hejazi, and others) from the original FSA faction. This was the original FSA leadership, with a clearly defined command structure at the top. It just never got around to having any fighters. Nowadays, Col. Asaad has left the army camp in Turkey, moving back and forth across the border, but he seems to have been confined to the margins of rebel politics. He wasn’t even invited to the most recent rebel unity conferences. Never a quitter, though, he continues to give interviews as top FSA leader.
- Second, there’s his old rival, Brig. Gen. Mostafa el-Sheikh, who heads the FSA Military Council. After US, Qatari, Turkish and other pressure, Sheikh went into a joint FSA structure with Riad el-Asaad in March 2012, but that didn’t work out. After celebrating their newfound unity, both men continued to do their own thing. Sheikh remains active as a minor player in rebel politics, and an associate of his, Louai Meqdad, is frequently quoted in the media as “the FSA spokesperson”.
- Third, there’s Col. Qasem Saadeddine, who is the leader of a military council in the Homs Governorate (there are at least two such councils, and neither of them seems to function). In early 2012, he declared the creation of a unified internal command for the FSA, supposedly backed by five regional military councils, which would snatch command from the hands of Riad al-Asaad and the exiles. The whole thing almost instantly collapsed back into just representing Saadeddine and his sidekicks, but he’s still using the title.
- Fourth, there’s a Turkey-based guy called Bassam al-Dada, who is nowadays often quoted in the media as “the political advisor of the FSA”. No one seems to be quite sure which commander or group it is that Dada is advising, but he’s getting a lot of media attention anyway.
- Fifth, do you remember that thing about a “new name for the FSA”? In September 2012, the Syrian National Army was declared by Gen. Mohammed Hussein el-Hajj Ali, on the premise that it would absorb the FSA and all other armed groups into a single command structure. This was a huge project which actually got a lot of commanders to sign on, but it imploded just days after its creation, partly because Col. Riad el-Asaad and various Islamists sabotaged it by withholding support. It hasn’t been heard from since.
- Sixth, there’s also Gen. Adnan Selou, who defected in June 2012. A month later, he declared himself “Supreme Commander of the Joint Military Leadership”.
- Seventh, there’s a slightly mysterious American NGO called the Syrian Support Group (SSG). Many Syrians seem to believe that this is a CIA front, which is certainly possible, but I’ve seen no evidence either way. Since 2012, the SSG has been marketing a select set of pro-Western commanders in the so-called Military Council structure, by presenting them as the “real FSA” to the Western media. Most well-known among these commanders is Abdeljabbar el-Ogeidi, a mid-size leader in the Aleppo region.
- Eighth, in September 2012, a group of Military Council commanders and assorted rebel leaders gathered to create a Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils. This was set up by the salafi sheikh Adnan el-Arour and a couple of his sidekicks, including people associated with Mostafa el-Sheikh (see above). Sponsorship also probably came from Qatar, and there were at the very least some quiet nods of support from the USA. This group didn’t use the FSA name, but the media still decided it was the FSA. It quickly ran into internal problems, and has now been succeeded by:
- Ninth, in December 2012, a Saudi-backed conference in Antalya, Turkey, set up a General Staff of the Supreme Joint Military Command Council, led by Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss. This group doesn’t formally use the FSA name, but the media has invariably described Idriss as “the newly appointed leader of the FSA”, thereby giving the term another lease on life. The General Staff got the support of most of the factions that had already been receiving Western and Gulf State support in some way.
So, what do all of these groups have in common? Two things: all of them keep appearing in the media as representatives and leaders of the FSA, and none of them have any boots on the ground.
Well, to be fair: some of these commanders may enjoy the formal allegiance of a few tiny factions inside Syria, either paid for by foreign sponsors, or adopted through political alliances. For example, Riad el-Asaad has belatedly attached himself to the Muslim Brotherhood, and is now showing up at their conferences to grant an FSA stamp of approval to Ikhwani armed units. But that doesn’t really make him a significant rebel commander.
Salim Idriss and the General Staff
A semi-exception to the rule is the General Staff of Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss, which is the most recent attempt to create a mainstream Western/Gulf-backed military leadership. Call it FSA if you want to.
The General Staff has received a formal pledge of allegiance from many commanders who themselves have a substantial personal following. Examples include Ahmed el-Sheikh of the Suqour el-Sham salafi group in Idleb, and his local partner-cum-rival Jamal Maarouf of the Shuhada Souriya faction. If all the factions which have declared in favor of Idriss were added up, they’d count at least 50,000 men, perhaps many more. But in reality, of course, they only follow their own leaders, and won’t take orders from Idriss. The elaborate command structure which has been released by the General Staff is a figment of the imagination, intended to create the impression of a unified organization that isn’t there.
Still, 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.
What we talk about when we talk about the FSA
So, to conclude: The FSA term is now used by the media in mostly four ways:
- Many lazy reporters use the FSA name to describe Syria’s leading, secular guerrilla group. That group doesn’t exist, so please stop making it up.
- Other (non-lazy) reporters will often feel compelled to use the FSA term when referring to certain self-designated FSA leaders and spokespersons (like Riad el-Asaad, Bassam el-Dada, Qasem Saadeddine, etc). This is fine – in fact, it’s even a journalistic necessity, since quotes should of course be properly attributed. But one should also make an attempt to clarify to readers/viewers what this purported “FSA” representative actually represents. It’s not likely to be a calculable percentage of the rebel force inside Syria. (If you want that, it’s better to talk to commanders or press officials of the rebel groups who do the actual fighting on the ground. Many of them have posted phone numbers, e-mail addresses and Skype IDs to their websites and Facebook pages, and they’re generally eager to communicate with reporters.)
- Some will also use the FSA term to mean Syria’s armed opposition in general, or perhaps specifically the Western/Gulf-funded segments of it. That’s OK, but then you should also make note of the fact that you’re not talking about a real organization, or even an alliance with a joint leadership or common ideology. The lack of clarity on this point has misinformed public opinion for about a year now, and that needs to stop.
- And finally, many reporters will use the FSA term to refer to those rebels inside Syria that do in fact themselves use the FSA label. This is technically correct, I suppose, but it would be a lot more helpful to identify such factions by their full names or by the names of their commanders. That they also happen to use the FSA label tells us virtually nothing about who they are or what they’re fighting for, but it does create the false impression that FSA faction X in Aleppo is somehow linked to FSA faction Y in Deraa, and to FSA spokesperson Z in Istanbul. In 95 percent of cases, that’s not true.
Shorter version of the above: Let’s say it again, the FSA doesn’t exist – at least not as commonly perceived. Global Syria coverage would be a lot less confusing if journalists didn’t persist in pretending that it does.
There are of course insurgent alliances that actually do exist. For example, we’ve recently seen the creation of the Syrian Islamic Front (homegrown Syrian salafis, who don’t take Western money, and don’t call themselves FSA), and there’s the Syrian Liberation Front (a loose collection of Western/Gulf-funded salafis and more moderate Islamists. Before creating the SLF, these groups used to call themselves FSA, and they still tend to be lumped in with the FSA by many news reporters), the Shields of the Revolution (Muslim Brotherhood affiliates, who themselves occasionally use the FSA term), or the locally based Ansar el-Islam Gathering (an Islamist coalition in Damascus, members of which used to call themselves FSA, but don’t anymore).
But these groups have so far received near-zero coverage in the Western media. All we ever hear about is the FSA and Jabhat al-Nosra, as if these two organizations represented two rival wings of the insurgency. Since only one of them actually exists, it would be one wing at best, and that doesn’t fly.
My modest proposal
So here’s my suggestion to journalists and editors who, like me, are writing about the Syrian war from a distance:
Instead of saying that the “FSA” has conquered this or that village, just report the names of the groups involved. If they say that they’re the “Fulan ibn Fulan Battalion of the FSA”, then write the full name, not just “the FSA”. The distinguishing “Fulan ibn Fulan” part is more likely to be operationally relevant than the semi-fictional alliance name they’ve tagged to the end of their name.
And, if the recent video statement on “a glorious battle of conquest” from the “Joint Command of the Super Power Islamic Hawks Battalion of the Free Syrian Army (Idleb Wing)” seems a little over the top, you could just stick to reality. Better write: “According to photographic evidence seen by this reporter, it seems like ten guys from a tiny village outside Idleb have recently been lobbing mortar shells at a blurry target in the distance while shouting ’Allahu Akbar’.”
Or, if information’s missing, as is often the case, just attribute the action by using a non-specific identifier – e.g. rebels, revolutionaries, insurgents, terrorists, paramilitary opposition factions, armed groups, freedom fighters, anti-Assad guerrillas, or whatever you think they really are.
This kind of calibration might take a little bit more research than simply slapping the FSA label on every opposition member with a gun in Syria. But at least your articles won’t be, you know – wrong.
Truth be told
All this said, I wish that the FSA did exist.
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-Qaida – 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.
Unfortunately, my mere wishing won’t make it so. But neither will sloppy and distorted news reporting.
— Aron Lund
Aron Lund is author of a report on Syrian jihadism for the Swedish Institute of Foreign Affairs, a shorter version of which is at Foreign Policy: “Holy Warriors: A field guide to Syria’s jihadi groups,” He also is author of Drömmen om Damaskus (“The Dream of Damascus”) and a regular contributor to Syria Comment.