Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
The Free Syrian Army Does Exist and is Growing Stronger by the Day
by *Koert Debeuf
for Syria Comment, March 19, 2013
When I read the piece of Aron Lund, ‘the FSA doesn’t exist’, I was utterly surprised. Of course the FSA does exist. And it is changing rapidly.Over the last few months, the FSA has transformed itself from a loose structure into a functioning organization. In fact, what Lund describes is an era of the FSA that no longer exists. It ignores the developments of the last several months and the present reality on the ground.
Last month, I visited Northern Syria three times with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I spoke to many generals who had defected from the Syrian Army, to commanders on the ground,to people in the headquarters of the FSA and to military-civilian organizers of humanitarian aid of all parts of Syria. I also spent many hours with Dr. Brigadier General Salim Idriss, Chief of Staff of the FSA; I was in the middle of a battle at Quweris airport, then one of the main front lines.
Many points Lund is making, were correct three months ago. But not now. Col. Riaad Assad for example is completely out of the picture, whatever he himself might say. Another example is Qasem Saadeddin. He did indeed try to create some unity in Homs and had difficulties in doing so. But that too is history. Today he is a Commander of one of the five fronts under the umbrella of the FSA and he is working very closely with Chief of Staff Salim Idriss. It is also not true that Idriss would not use the ‘brand’ FSA. One example is the fact that he recently started his own twitter and Facebook account as well as one for the headquarters, using @FSAHQ.
Nevertheless, I must admit that at first sight, the structure of the FSA is utterly confusing. Whomever you talk to on the ground will pretend he is the most important commander in Syria. He will denounce formal structures and glorify his own past as a freedom fighter. I learned that the best strategy is smiling. And waiting. After an hour of ranting, the real story comes out. Every time. Then it appears that the FSA does have a structure, that these commanders do operate within this structure, but that it is not fully established. The FSA is not just a brand. It does exist. The FSA building has been framed in, but remains under construction.
The French Resistance
Aron Lund compares the FSA to the French Resistance in the Second World War. Spot on, I would say. But again while his piece fits with the beginning of the French Resistance, the reality is that the FSA can be compared with the Free French Forces in a later, more organized stage.
The Free French Forces, established by Charles De Gaulle in London in 1940, was nothing more than a name and a few officers. In 1941, one year later, little groups started to unite. However, it was still impossible to talk about a “Free French Army”. There was not only a fragmentation in structure and command, but also in ideology. Call it the Riad Al-Assad era of the Free French Army.
It was only in May 1943 that (thanks to the work of Jean Moulin) the resistance forces were unified, militarily and politically in the Conseil National de la Résistance (CNR) under the leadership of Charles De Gaulle. It took the Free French Forces three years to unite. After the unification not all difficulties were gone. After the unification it took again some time to become fully operative on the ground. Call it the Salim Idriss era.
The FSA Aron Lund is describing is the FSA of the Riad Al Assad era, not the current one of the Salim Idriss era. At best one could say his description lies somewhere in between the two, but it is certainly not describing today’s reality.
The Riad Al Assad era or the former structure of the FSA
Up until a year ago, there was no structure at all in the Syrian armed rebellion. Every little group was called a battalion, whether it consisted of 20 or 200 fighters. The creation of the FSA by Col. Riad Al Assad in July 2011 was just as symbolic (but also as important) as the creation of the Free French Forces by De Gaulle in 1940. On 23 October, the FSA merged with the Free Officers Movement, becoming the main organization for military defectors. Pure branding or not, it deserved the credit of at least trying to do something about the fragmentation. It gave the signal to the many battalion commanders that co-operation is the only way to go.
That is exactly what happened the next year. From July 2011 until September 2012, there were many initiatives in order to create larger entities. We saw the birth of brigades like Liwa Al Tawheed and Farouk. We saw the creation of military councils, administrative councils, revolutionary councils and civilian councils. Some initiatives were pushed by the Friends of Syria or by individual countries. Aid, money or weapons were promised if the resistance would only get organized.
Unfortunately, these international actions lacked co-ordination as well. The result was that the Syrian opposition on the ground created several parallel structures. Another problem was the split between defected soldiers on the one hand, and civilians who took up arms on the other. Defected officers from the Syrian army organized themselves in military councils, while the civilians created revolutionary councils. In some places, like in Homs, there were even two military councils. Although these councils often co-operated in battles on the ground, the lack of unity created a clear disadvantage when it came drawing up a military strategy.
This lack of unity and strategy not only meant a disadvantage in the field, it also helped Assad’s propaganda. Even as the FSA had no communication strategy at all, the Assad machine knew very well what to do: discredit the FSA. There are three lines of attack:
- The FSA is chaos. So it’s Assad or chaos in Syria and the region;
- The FSA is a danger to minorities. Assad is the only guarantee for the security of minorities in Syria;
- The FSA is extremist. Assad is the only one who can keep out Al Qaeda.
I have been surprised to see how well-organized the Assad communication machine is.
In every country in the West, media groups are working on spreading these three messages. Meanwhile, the FSA, which has too many self-appointed spokespersons (as Aron Lund correctly spells out) and lacks a clear message on what it wants and who it is, is slowly loosing the communication war. One could say the FSA was in this position from July 2011 until December 2012. It is the same situation in which the Free French Army found itself from 1940 to 1942.
The Salim Idriss era or the new structure of the FSA
On 7 December 2012, 260 officers of the FSA gathered in Antalya in Turkey. They elected a Higher Council of Revolutionary and Military Forces and a Chief of Staff, Dr. Brigadier General Salim Idriss. General Idriss defected in June 2012. The main reason why he was elected is his talent for persuading people in a softly-spoken way. He is more a Montgomery than a Patton. Col. Riad Al Assad wasn’t present at the meeting. They decided he would keep the title of General Commander of the FSA, but this would be a symbolic, rather than an operational title. His era is over now.
In Antalya, the revolutionary and military components were merged. So instead of military councils and revolutionary councils, there are now civilian-military councils. They also organized the FSA into five fronts: the Northern Front (Aleppo and Idlib), the Eastern Front (Raqqa-Deir Ezzor and Al Hassakah), the Western Front (Hama-Latakia-Tartus), the Central Front (Homs-Rastan) and the Southern Front (Damascus-Dar’a-Suwayda).
Each front has its civilian-military council and its commander. Each region/city within the front has its deputy commander, with, again, its own civilian-military council. I met with two front commanders: Qasem Saad Eddin, commander of the Central Front and Abdelbasset Tawil, commander of the Northern Front, and with his deputy commanders. They showed me detailed, strategic military plans. They also showed me lists of who received which weapons. It was clear that they were in close contact with Salim Idriss. Because of the strategic importance of Homs, Qasem Saad Eddin has an office next to the one of Salim Idriss in the headquarters of the FSA. So Saadeddin is not a loose canon (anymore) as Lund is writing.
The Higher Council of Revolutionary and Military Forces consists of 30 people. Every front has six representatives in the Council, three military and three civilian ones. They are mainly responsible for the search for and the distribution of ammunition. Contrary to what has been promised, very few weapons are coming in. I have seen how the FSA had to fight cluster bombs in Quweris with self-made arms.
Just like the Free French Forces in 1943, Salim Idriss has now also started creating a political line for the FSA. Until recently, we only knew what they were fighting against: Assad. Now they are trying to formulate what they are fighting for and get their spokesmen on the same line. This message in English and Arabic of Salim Idriss on the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution is an example of how they are moving forward on this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEBHVCjxYQ0
FSA is a bottom-up unification, still in construction
No-one will deny that, while the FSA has made big steps forward, there is still a long way to go in order to become a well-functioning, united force like the French resistance in 1943. Idriss has to unify battalions that are used to work independently. It takes a huge effort to convince them to walk in the same direction. What are the main problems?
1. There is hardly any communication infrastructure. Today commanders have to communicate through Skype. In many places there is no Internet connection. That is why many officers have to travel to the headquarters in order to exchange information. It is very difficult to organize and unify an army in these conditions. That is why we should not be surprised if at a certain moment one of the battalions is acting on its own or is making a strategic mistake.
2. There are hardly any arms coming in. I was present during two days at the headquarters of the FSA. I saw officers coming from Homs, Deir Ezzor and many other places who wanted to meet with Chief of Staff, Salim Idriss, in order to get weapons. They were all pretty desperate. I heard many times: “How can we win the war, if we don’t have arms against these planes or tanks?” A Chief of Staff only gets recognition and authority if he can arm his own soldiers. This is basic. De Gaulle didn’t unify because of his charisma either.
3. Getting totally fragmented forces onto the same page takes a lot of time. Quite some battalions, certainly the revolutionary ones, have no experience in fighting in a hierarchy. So, although they might recognize the authority of the Higher Military Council, they still don’t always understand what that exactly means in the day-to-day battle. Give them some time.
4. The growing importance of extremist battalions like Jabhat Al Nusra is a problem for the image and the organization of the FSA. Lund writes they do not use the brand of the FSA. Of course they don’t and they will never do. They are no part of the FSA and will never be. The fact that the other groups do use the name of the FSA means they distance themselves from Nusra and its Jihadist ideology.
The FSA deserves our support
It is fair to say that the FSA is not the well-oiled force some are dreaming of. But it is unfair and incorrect to say that the FSA does not exist and that it is not more than a brand. The reality is that the piece of Lund describes an era of FSA that doesn’t exist anymore.
Just like in France during the Second World War we can’t expect a bottom-up resistance to become a unified front in a few months. Becoming cynical now or even giving up on the FSA would be one of the biggest strategic mistakes the West could make.
Last month’s work is done and a lot of progress has been made. If the international community decides to support the FSA, it will help them even more to unify, strategize and avoid mistakes. There is a structure of command. The headquarters will only provide arms to those battalions that follow their instructions. But they are still waiting for those arms. What is coming in is peanuts compared with what they need in order to win this war against one of the most brutal dictators of the world. What are we waiting for?
* Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo where he represents the Liberals and Democrats of the European Parliament in the Arab world.
Aron Lund Responds
Koert Debeuf seems to have read my post a little carelessly. I did not deny the existence of (many) factions using the FSA name. Rather, I discussed the media’s use of the FSA term, and stated that “the FSA” does not exist, if understood as a single organization. The wording might have been a little provocative, but the fact itself should be uncontroversial, for anyone who is following events in Syria.
There are undoubtedly many groups calling themselves FSA in Syria today, and indeed outside of Syria. They include both purported leaders and spokespersons, and fighting units on the ground. Some are closely linked to each other, and some work on their own. This reflects the way that the term is used as a synonym for “the resistance” by many Syrians, and not necessarily to refer to a cohesive organization.
The problem I tried to address in my post is that different media organizations have been relying on several different “FSA” spokespersons and leaders, few of whom represent any significant segment of fighters on the ground. They are routinely allowed to speak on behalf the FSA (generally understood to make up most of the armed insurgency) without reporters making any attempt to define their real (and most often marginal) role within the insurgency. This has created an extreme lack of clarity in reporting, and it continues to confuse both regular newspaper readers and top officials.
When Debeuf complains that I haven’t understood that Col. Riad el-Asaad “is completely out of the picture, whatever he himself might say” – then to the contrary, that was exactly my point. Despite his complete lack of control over the armed insurgency, Col. Asaad is still routinely being interviewed by major news organizations as a commander of the FSA, misleading the general public into believing that his statements represent some significant portion of the armed movement in Syria. They do not.
I will gladly admit that Debeuf makes some interesting arguments, and that he corrects a couple of faults of mine. His travels in northern Syria have put him in contact with a few of the most well-known rebel representatives and commanders. As an outside observer of events in Syria, I can’t claim to have this kind of experience – I work with what I’ve got, and I’m always eager to hear from people who bring new facts to the table.
For example, I wasn’t aware that Col. Qasem Saadeddine collaborates so closely with Salem Idriss, and I humbly stand corrected on that count.
Debeuf is also right that Salim Idriss and his General Staff now use the FSA term – despite the fact that the organization did not emerge under that name, and many of its member units have previously renounced the FSA label. In my defense, the Twitter Account and other statements that Debeuf refers to had just been made when I wrote my post, and I wasn’t aware of them at the time. But bottom line, he’s right, and I was wrong.
Even so, I believe Debeuf is far too optimistic in his view of the Salim Idriss network as a functioning nation-wide leadership, and that he has accepted too uncritically the explanations provided by his contacts in Syria. I’ve read Debeuf’s original reports from Syria for the ALDE political group in the European Parliament. I note that he then presented the FSA as a neatly two-pronged structure of defected military and civilian revolutionary commanders. This seems wildly implausible, and contradicts most reporting from reporters and opposition members on the ground in Syria.
In his reports, Debeuf also claimed, on the subject of FSA organization, that one “Ahmed Abeit” has been “elected the general commander of all revolutionary structures for the whole of Syria”. That was certainly news to me, and I imagine that it will be news to most Syrian revolutionaries as well. While I can’t know for sure, it seems to be a reference to Ahmed Abeid, a rebel leader in Azaz. He might be a big guy around those parts, and among the rebels Debeuf traveled with, but he is certainly not the main internal commander of the Syrian insurgency.
What the Homsi said
Returning to Col. Qasem Saadeddine, Debeuf also notes that he is the General Staff’s commander of the “Central Sector”. That’s certainly the official line, but how can such a claim be taken at face value?
The General Staff’s Central Sector sector mainly includes Homs, formerly the main front of the uprising, which has been devastated by Assad’s bombardment. The insurgency in this area is notoriously divided, not only due to the crippling government siege of Homs City, but also because of internal disagreements among the rebels.
Below is a list I recently compiled of factions currently active in Homs City and the surrounding countryside. It is far from exhaustive, and runs in no particular order. Note also that many if not most of these groups are themselves composed of semi-independent subfactions:
Liwa Talbisa, Liwa Rijal Allah, Liwa Fajr al-Islam, Kataeb Ahl al-Athar (part of the Jabhat al-Asala wal-Tanmiya, a salafi alliance), Katibat Shuhada Tal-Kalakh, Katibat Mouawiya lil-Maham al-Khassa, Liwa al-Quseir, several subunits of Kataeb al-Farouq, several other small Syria Liberation Front factions which are allied to Kataeb al-Farouq, al-Murabitoun (the armed wing of the Homs Revolutionaries’ Union), Firqat al-Farouq al-Mustaqilla, Liwa al-Nasr, Katibat Thuwwar Baba Amr, Harakat al-Tahrir al-Wataniya, Jund al-Sham (Lebanese jihadis), armed groups affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood (like Liwa Dar’ Ahrar Homs, Liwa Dar’ al-Haqq, and Liwa Dar’ al-Hudoud), Jabhat al-Nosra, the Syrian Islamic Front (including the five Ahrar al-Sham factions Katibat Junoud al-Rahman, Katibat al-Hamra, Katibat Ansar al-Sunna wal-Sharia, Katibat Adnan Oqla, and Katibat Ibad Allah; and Liwa al-Haqq and its subfactions, such as Katibat al-Ansar, Katibat al-Furati, etc) … and many others.
How does the FSA come into the picture? Sure, some of these groups use the FSA label to refer to themselves and their allies, but most do not. Some clearly receive arms through the Salim Idriss network, and some clearly do not. Some of the commanders in the Homs region have publicly declared their support for Salim Idriss, or allowed their representatives to be appointed to the General Staff’s on-paper hierarchy – but others consider him a foreign-based usurper of revolutionary legitimacy.
We can quibble about how to classify these Homs factions, and what percentage could legitimately be subsumed under the “FSA” label. But to imagine that Col. Qasem Saadeddine – or anyone else – exerts any real control over this sprawling mass of rebel factions is, frankly, delusional.
What this means for policy-makers
The fact of the matter is that the Syrian insurgency was always and remains deeply disorganized, despite persistent (and commendable) attempts by many Syrian opposition politicians and rebel commanders to form a joint leadership.
This is a tragedy, both for the opposition, and for Syria as a nation, but to recognize this fact is not, as Debeuf implies, a way to support the Syrian government. In fact, one can draw very different policy conclusions from the divided nature of the rebel movement.
One could argue that the lack of opposition unity speaks against arming the revolutionary movement, since there’s no guarantee that weapons will be used effectively or stay in “approved” rebel hands. But one could also legitimately argue that the only way to help midwife a central rebel leadership is by sponsoring a core network from abroad – to turn it into a “magnetic pole” which will attract other factions. (This is what’s now being done with Salim Idriss and the General Staff.) Both these positions are valid, in their own way, and merit careful consideration.
At the end of the day, however, I do believe that whatever side you’re on in the Syrian conflict, and whatever political strategy you prefer to see implemented, good policy must be based on a careful examination of the available facts – not on political spin, rumors, or emotional arguments. Clearing up the extreme confusion surrounding the FSA term is only one of many steps to take, if a sensible Syria policy is ever to emerge.
– Aron Lund