January 31st, 2012
12:18 PM ET

Should the U.S. support the Free Syrian Army?

Editor's Note: Andrew J. Tabler is the Next Generation Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.

By Andrew J. Tabler – Special to CNN

Last weekend’s sharp spike in death tolls in Syria has come hand in hand with the rise of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - opposition members who believe armed struggle is the most efficient way of deposing the Assad regime.

Over the past two weeks, as Arab League monitors visited Syria, the FSA has expanded the scope and scale of their operation, wresting control of towns - and for a time neighborhoods of Damascus - from the Assad regime.

While the FSA is largely a franchise rather than a centrally commanded militia, it now represents a major force within the Syrian opposition that Washington is struggling to reckon with.

The FSA emerged last summer as a collection of Syrian military defectors who fled to Turkey. Once dismissed as a mere Internet phenomena, the FSA and other domestically based groups of armed defectors joined forces to carry out attacks against regime forces throughout the country.

Anti-regime protestors braving live fire have earned the respect and diplomatic support of the international community, but not a military intervention akin to Libya. Without a light at the end of the protest tunnel, local Syrians (many with military backgrounds) calling themselves the FSA began picking up arms to defend protesters from regime fire.

While many operate outside of a central command, this loose association of armed oppositionists, with weapons smuggled over from neighboring Lebanon (as well as Turkey and Iraq) or weapons seized from Assad regime depots, have captured and held the border town of Zabadani and (until the Assad regime moved in full force) neighborhoods on the outskirts of Damascus and into the Ghouta in the countryside of the Syrian capital. The FSA is active in Idlib, Homs and Dera governorates, amongst others.

The question Washington is now wrestling with is: What to do with the FSA?

For months, U.S. policy has been to support non-violent means of opposing the Assad regime as, quite rightly, the opposition has much more political leverage keeping the high moral ground and the regime has the armed opposition heavily outgunned. Nevertheless, the international community’s inability thus far to get Assad to stop shooting his way out of the crisis, as well as its reticence to intervene on the ground like Libya, means that more and more Syrians are looking to the FSA not as an alternative to the protest movement, but rather as a way to support and overall revolutionary effort.

Will Washington follow suit? What kinds of assistance can and should the United States and its allies provide the FSA as part of an overall strategy of helping to achieve President Obama’s goal outlined last August to get Assad “to step aside”? Or should Washington subcontract that such support to regional allies who may share our short term goal of changing the Assad regime, but differ significantly on what political forces should rule a post Assad Syria? What do you think?

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Andrew Tabler.

Post by:
Topics: Military • Syria

soundoff (146 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    U.S. should stay OUT as Ron Paul is saying-arn't we broke enough ? This looks too much like Lybia. Has anyone tried peaceful solution ? We have been trying to undermine the government of Syria for many years now. He is a Socialist , but we prefer to support kings.He does not want to play ball with us so we try to destroy him. In the meantime we have a government in the U.S. that does not represent its people which keeps us in endless wars, got us broke. People are demonstrating here in the U.S. but it does not seem to be newsworthy. The media prefers Syria as the tabloid of the day. Just like Orwell described in 1984.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:31 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      No, Syria is not like Libya, it's more complicated. Hence the U.S. should endorse regional players like Turkey and the Gulf States to deal with Bashar al Assad.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
      • Adam

        Of course we should be arming the "Free Syrian Army". The Supreme Commander of the FSA is "Colonial Riad al-Assad",a staunch ally of the Turks, who are themselves (Turkey) are the 2nd largest member of NATO. Additionally, in a 2009 NIE report, Bashar al-Assad's regime was found as providing insurgents in Iraq with weapons. The dictator in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, has murdered American troops and has the blood of many US Marines on his hands. We should do everything to support these Western-Friendly rebels and put an end to this stooge of the Ayatollahs.

        January 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
      • nogood

        The Saudis and Qataris who have been paying suicide bombers in Iraq and beyond can be trusted to put a humane government in Syria that protects it minorities. Or the Turks, who have killed millions of Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians, and are currently at war with the Kurds.

        January 31, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
      • ms1234

        Hasn't anyone heard of Iran-Contra? Doesn't anyone remember the outcome when we arm the other side of something? Stupidness reigns. Nosy, gotta be right in the thick of anything, anywhere. The generals and DD forget that just because thats their life, its not everyones 24/7. Just because they think they need something new to do, doesnt mean we actually should go get involved to satisfy their need to act on their position.

        February 1, 2012 at 7:25 am |
      • Marek Boudain

        nogood: Please carry your lies and propaganda elsewhere. Such forums are not places to repeat the nonsense you heard despite they are all unproven accusations and you are clueless about whether they took place or not. Anyone can come up with random utter nonsense, and any and every empire has all sorts of accusations against them from the losing parties of wars throughout history who want to get back at the remnants.

        February 1, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
      • Peter

        I think what this amounts to is class warfare. If you notice, the neighborhoods where these people are shot are inner city slums. And apparently most of the victims are Sunni Muslim. I am in favor of arming the rebels, at least they will have some chance to defend themselves. Not lined up for slaughter as the Assad regime would like.

        February 1, 2012 at 9:44 pm |
      • Richard

        Idiot FSA are terrorists

        March 7, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
      • Thomas

        A year ago, when this story was was published, the FSA was a born from a legitimate Syrian civil uprising. Now the fight has been corrupted by every surrounding power and terrorist organization.

        June 8, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • ted

      Russia sells $20 Billion to a brutal regime of Assad, and US can not? Ron Paul supporters are as lunos as the master.

      January 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Reply
      • Terry

        Are you suggesting the FSA could afford $20 billion in weapons? If we armed the FSA, it would be a generous gift from US tax payers.

        January 31, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
      • Charles

        US should stay away from Syria, just look at Libya and make your up mind. We are not the world Police we can not afford it. It's non of our buisness period. Let them fight it out.

        February 1, 2012 at 9:22 am |
    • Adam

      Here goes again the puppet-paid-for-to-spell-sins and spread death. The US should arm the Syrian-Qatari-financed criminals? Have you heard of the entropy, Mr Zakaria know-it-all? What ever you do will ultimately come back at you, we are in a closed system.

      January 31, 2012 at 7:24 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      Just because you are exercising your right to speak doesn't mean you have anything to say. I've seldom seen such a fatuous stream of misinformed BS.

      January 31, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
    • john5021

      Time for the Arab league to step in and do the right thing without our help. Geesh, these are their people, have they no sense of rightness? Mobalize and get your selves to the boarders. Don't depend on everyone else to do what you need to be doing.get some b##ls and step up to the plate and act like a decent human being.

      January 31, 2012 at 10:15 pm | Reply
    • Dilaudid King

      No, U.S. should lead the way on this issuae– seems Mrs. Clinton & Ms. Rice have the right mindset– anyone who denies the urge to get Assad out of power is only aiding him in the massacres & killings. There is no 'in-between' concept there.

      January 31, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Reply
    • John

      It is funny to hear that Assad is a socialist. Mr Assad had inhereted the country from his father who ruled the country with bloody hand and killed 40000 in Hama 1982 in just 3 days. The socialist you speaking about has over 70 billion $US outside the country (his father comes from a very poor family who barely had 2 donkeys). Over 10 million left the country because of this regime in the last 40 years. Over 150000 were killed, over 17000 were dismissed just in the 1980s. And I am telling you here that Assad family was ruling Syria under the hidden agreement with the USA and Israel. No body in Syria believe that USA want Assad to go, but now there is no choice anymore to have him on power. GOD BLESS ASSAD's SOCIALISM HAHAHA

      January 31, 2012 at 11:35 pm | Reply
    • urit

      We armed Osama Bin Laden against the Russians; then he turned on us. Who is to say that the FSA would not do the same. Leave this fiasco to the Eastern Hemisphere. We have our own crisis with the Mexican drug cartels.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:27 am | Reply
    • dandman

      We absolutely should send the Free Syrian Army money AND weapons! Not once in my 38 years have I seen a more clear-cut moral reason to support the overthrow of regime.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • ColinD

      I cannot believe the view people have towards what is happening in Syria. Syria is assuredly not another Libya. I would probably agree with the depiction that it is more complicated and a situation that is much more time consuming. When we intervened in Libya, the leader was already on the ropes, while in Syria al-Assad is still going strong and striking down the masses like it's nobodies business. I think if we were to send assistance in the form of international organizations, such as MEPI or IMET training, I believe it'll be a much more successful transition. I don't believe that arming the FSA will do much.

      I think the disturbing comparison between what is happening in Syria and what is happening in the US is completely ridiculous. The situations couldn't be any more varied. People are fed up with leadership in the United States and are tired of the large economic divide being built in our nation. It is NOTHING compared to al-Assad murdering thousands of Syrian citizens. It's not a choice of tabloid, it's a choice of reporting a situation that is utterly heinous. If we were to follow the logic of only reporting national affairs, we would be a crippled and ignorant nation.... oh wait... that's what is happening. I believe in the reporting of the Syrian crises because it's critical. If it's ignored, then nothing will ever change. People need to become aware of one of the most disturbing news stories of the current day.

      February 1, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Batwoman

      You can stay out of Syria and let Iran control the area where majority of oil reserves is in this region.
      You can do this if you are ready to cycle your way to work 🙂

      February 2, 2012 at 2:58 am | Reply
    • Stone Cold

      Support the FSA to prevent Iran from controlling oil and world economy. This is the most affordable winnable, strategic war that the US needs to engage with.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:36 am | Reply
    • Obamarama

      How right you are!!!!

      February 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • mojacar

      does anybody believe the u s is not arming these new so called freedom fighters?

      February 7, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  2. joe anon 1

    gps and the world need more essays, opinions, comments by israelis re arab, muslim countries/govts.

    we can never have enough racist, war mongering, lying, blather.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  3. Masterson, richard

    No, we should not arm the Syrans. The united states has to turn away from being a death merchant in global struggles. We are always blamed for being involved and in many instances we end up on the wrong side of the struggle, Afganistan (arming the Taliban, then fighting them), is the latest. Go back as far as Cuba & Fidel Castro. I could go on and on, Cyprus, Iran, etc.
    The people of the United States morally object to the roles that 'our Leadership' chooses to support for whatever reasons they may have at the time. Let's get out of the arms business and return to being a people that are admired.

    January 31, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Don't worry, the U.S. would not get itself involved directly in Syria, because the U.N. Security would not let any military intervention happen, thanks to Russia's veto. Assad's regime is much hated in the region. His Sunni neighbours are more than happy and will do everything to get rid of him.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Reply
      • Abwab Alsham

        Here goes the senseless “thinkers” spreading their ignorance in an attempt to brainwash (btw, they are themselves brainwashed) readers and mislead them about Syria. FYI, Syria is a secular country and that is exactly why the oil-suni-Arabs are driven crazy. It is going to be, almost, a year and Syria and most Syrians including the National Army (which is a collection of all Syrians regardless of faith or geography) are still high and resisting billions spent on media war against them.

        Look at those terrorist thugs calling themselves Free Syrian Army what atrocities they are committing: slaughtering Syrians, bombing public and private properties; even mosques and churches were spared. God Bless Syria, Syrians, The National Army and leaders.

        January 31, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
      • The Last of the Jedi

        Who cares what Russia and China threaten?I say drop an EMP bomb over damascus.Then watch Iran's husband Assad cry.Evil wins when good people listen to Russia,and China

        February 1, 2012 at 11:52 pm |
    • Strait of Hurmoz

      Don't arm FSA. Don't send money. Don't send troops.

      Just give the green light to the rich Arab Gulf States to do so and to Turkey and Jordan to provide "paid" logistics.
      The world will be safer, no Iran nuclear threat and possible peace treaty with Israel.

      No Hezbollah of Lebanon having arms/ militia beyond Lebanese government control and threatening regional peace with Israel.

      Don't want to do that; then expect a war in the region and to pay $8/gallon.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:16 am | Reply
  4. anon

    The US already is – through the Qatar and Saudi Islamic theocracies.

    Also Obama is currently selling arms to the Bahrain regime.

    January 31, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Yes indirectly the U.S. will be arming the Free Syrian Army.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  5. Hypocrisy

    Ask the GOP! They seem to have all the answers! That is except for those to why we are still in Afghanistan more than a decade later and why the Iraqi war lasted ten years and why we are dealing with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And while you're at it, just ask the GOP why they haven't yet drank Cool-Aid for all their mishaps!

    January 31, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • George Patton

      Well put, Hypocrisy. It's nice to see a lot intelligent people posting here instead of all those idiotic, war-loving Tea Partiers who always favor U.S. armed intervention all over!!!

      January 31, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • yuri pelham

      The Republican debates are the equivilent of kool ade . It's a real pleasure watching the Republican immolation.

      January 31, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  6. rad666

    Yes, hurry and get more weapons in al Qaeda hands.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
    • nono1

      The Libyan NTC was teaching Boko Haram how to make bombs last year according to the UN. Thank you Obama for spreading all the killing and terrorism to Nigeria.

      January 31, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  7. TonyP

    Yes, they should arm the Syrians with water pistols and have them charge the government troops. The revolution will soon be over and we can all re-focus on X Factor.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
  8. rad666

    And get free military weapons to Americans. I have a shopping list I would like filled.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  9. joe

    Send in a drone attack and that out the leader of Syria, then let the peieces fall.

    January 31, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  10. Socalmatt661


    January 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  11. Mark

    1) No, why do we keep repeating the same mistakes? 2) We are very selective in what dictators need to go 3) Heaven forbid we actually go after a big country.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:08 pm | Reply
  12. Daniel Serwer

    Nonviolence increases the odds of success and improves the outcomes, see Chenoweth and Stefan "Why Civil Resistance Works." The FSA should confine itself to immediate protester security and counter-intelligence efforts. Anything more than that will discourage the public from joining the protests and help Bashar al Assad to maintain his ability to apply his superior organization and fire power.

    Daniel Serwer

    January 31, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
    • dale

      'Finally a breath of fresh air. If it takes violence (arming the rebels) to destroy violence, the result is...violence.
      Only by breaking the cycle of violence, through non-violent resistance, can the old brutality be replaced with
      peace. Syria needs not more weapons, more killings, but a Ghandi or Dr. King to challenge the reign of terror. This may sound idealistic (impractical) but in fact it works, and escalating a civil war is guaranteed to fail to bring peace and unity.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
  13. donjoy

    So here we go again,same problems different day.why does the us stick their nose in everything and where does it say that the us has to fix things.these people don't like us yet when it's needed they cry help but only if it's their way.some day the us will stick its' nose in the wrong hole.when and where does the line get drawn?frankly i'm tired of the hypocricy,the loss of our sirvicemen&women fighting a never ending and sensles war.what's going on in iraq(don't hear much anymore).businessmen are sucking on water pipes as you read this.they say hey lets call bush and find where to start trouble cause we're bored and we don't care if troops get – – – – – – there's always a replacement."And the beat goes on".

    January 31, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  14. mipolitic

    NO , NO , NO , arms to syria.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  15. yuri pelham

    Actually they are quite capable of killing each other without our help. Be patient. If the death toll rises high enough, long enough there will be no more Syrians a plus for world peace. They are and have been an evil country which has been a festering sore on the body politic. They support Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and have undermined Lebanon. May they soon cease to exist.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
    • Kevinexcess

      Says the clueless racist as he looks up from his copy of Mein Kampf.

      February 1, 2012 at 11:08 am | Reply
    • dale

      Yuri, you are condemning the people for the sins of an evil regime. You are confusing the country with the ruling class.
      You seem to be applauding genocide, a terminal form of cynicism. Or is this satire?

      February 8, 2012 at 2:39 am | Reply
  16. wvelez

    NO! ...

    January 31, 2012 at 5:47 pm | Reply
  17. TruthWolf

    How about No CNN?

    January 31, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
  18. Nick

    i would say no because we need tp stay put of other peoples buisness, but a thought dawned on me. WE got a little help during our revolutionanry war from countries such as france. makes you think twice, then 3 times about if we should or should not.

    January 31, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply
    • Nick

      im still thinking no though.....but just added that to make people think

      January 31, 2012 at 5:53 pm | Reply
  19. Ed

    Mr. Holder? You have another customer waiting........

    January 31, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  20. Guest


    January 31, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • dale

      Who is "em?" You are very sick.

      February 8, 2012 at 2:41 am | Reply
  21. Propoganda! What Propoganda?

    Isn't the U.S. and NATO arming them already??
    Saudi Arabia and Qatar are spending 150 million dollars per week to arm the terrorists i.e. FSA in Turkey so they can kill innocent people and destroy Syria's infrastructre and shout Allah ou Akbar!!
    Where do you think they are buying the arms from?? Russia????!!!!.....

    January 31, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Reply
  22. Hasselhoff

    Um yeah. The only way they have a fair fight. Either that or time for intervention this is gone on long enough. Syrians can't defend themselves. This conflict will get way worse if no one intervenes. Screw Russia and what they think.

    January 31, 2012 at 6:46 pm | Reply
    • Mike Hardman

      Intervention now that's a word the US knows very well, but has not learnt. Korea, bloody nose, Vietnam, bloody nose, ethiopia, bloody nose, Iraq, nose still bleeding, Afghanistan, nose still bleeding.

      February 1, 2012 at 2:33 am | Reply
  23. vinny

    I would hope we learned our lesson after arming the cavemen in Afghanistan years ago. I have no quarrel with giving them food. I have a big problem like most americans with giving them guns that they may turn around and fire at us later on

    January 31, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Reply
    • Miami1111

      Well you need a geography/history lesson. Syrians are not Afghans; they are not "cavemen". They are a highly educated and secular people. Arming the FSA would be very different than arming the Taliban.

      January 31, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Reply
  24. Yurihater

    Yuri, you are out of your mind. You are basically supporting genocide of people who are actively opposing the very government you are criticizing. It sounds like you may have a bit of an Israeli bias on this issue. Are you sure you're not posing as GW? It sounds an awful lot like something George Bush used to say while in the white house, "Let's attack everyone who's ever crossed us or didn't support our views."

    January 31, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
  25. Adam

    Mr Zakaria, sorry for you. You lost again your GPS! Like in Lebanon, America can do nothing because your "free syrian friends" will bite the dust before the next full moon. That region around the zionist state is the Anti-americana. Your pro-America is in Qatar, Bahrain and the SA among other Muppets.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  26. Terry

    Are you suggesting the FSA could afford $20 billion in weapons? If we armed the FSA, it would be a generous gift from the US tax payers.

    January 31, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Reply
  27. Miami1111

    Yes. The Baathists had it coming!! That's what happens when money/power gets to your head. You're ready to do anything to keep it... In the case of Assad, it went too far... he tortured children and took off their genitals!! This man and his regime must be TOPPLED.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  28. longlivefreedom

    Before you take a stance about what we should or shouldn't do with regards to Syria, go to youtube and type in something like "syria" or "syria raw" or "syria footage" or even "syria graphic." Just watch the footage that is coming out of there, and think long and hard about what you have just witnessed. Just try to put yourselves in these people's shoes. It will make the problems we face, such as 9% unemployment, seem kind of trivial.

    Simply put, this is something that everybody has to see for themselves.

    January 31, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Reply
  29. sharif

    yes we should arm the syrians to get rid of this dictator

    January 31, 2012 at 9:23 pm | Reply
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