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.

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Topics: Military • Syria

soundoff (146 Responses)
  1. RUSSIAN STAT IS EVIL

    CHINA AND RUSSIA REPRESSED THE OPPOSITION IN THIER COUNTRIES AND NOW THEY HELPING TERRORISTS IN SYRIA IRAN AND HIZBOALLAH.....THEY ARE PURE EVIL AND WE MUST ISOLATE RUSSIA ECONOMECLY

    February 1, 2012 at 9:55 am | Reply
  2. bigmac

    Let the arabs deal with it, but if the US decides to help lets not stop with Assad, lets get rid of all the dictators,kings and despots the world over.

    February 1, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
  3. Toby R

    we should send a card that reads "good luck"

    February 1, 2012 at 10:53 am | Reply
  4. joseph

    no USA should not arm the syrian let the arab countyr and the gcc arm them this a country that will defy all the norms of peace let the people of sysria decide if what kind life they want to their future. let the USA face the more danger country which is iran, although iran can be defeated but they will create a more problem . iran is country of no regards to a country that they want to destroy.

    February 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply
  5. Fred Mertz

    The United States must not veto the vote for a free Palestinian State.

    Israel has not been an honest partner as it is doing all it can to block any peace deal while it builds illegal settlements. It is obvious it is trying to split the West Bank in half as they occupy more land with illegal settlers.

    There is no negotiation going on as long as Israel continues to build on land it has no right to occupy.

    One thing I agree with the Tea Party about, we need to get out of the affairs of other countries and stop foreign aid. $3 BILLION DOLLARS aid to Israel only buys us lies and insults from Netanyahu.

    February 1, 2012 at 12:27 pm | Reply
    • Cember

      What does the US not voting for recognition of a Palestinian Arab state have to do with arming the SFA?

      Why should the US get involved in ANYONE'S civil war? Much as I see Putin as a traditional Russian despot, and much as he, himself wouldn't hesitate if he thought it would be in his/Russia's interest, he's right about one thing. Intervention by any outside force in Syria is a major assault on the concept of sovereignty.

      One doesn't see the 'international community' clamoring for 'regime change' in China despite the fact that Hu Jintao has used arbitrary imprisonment, torture, 'disappearing' and sanctioned murder at least as often as Assad. Could this be because China has more retaliatory options than does Syria?

      February 1, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  6. SolidSnake

    I got this.

    February 1, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
  7. bobalu

    Let the Sunnis or Turkey, Lebanon, Iraw and the rest of the arab world arm them. It is not our fight.

    February 1, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  8. Joe Smith

    The US should quit dealing with other countries issues and solve our own. The economy at the moment is not good enough to give aid to every little country that is having issues. If we help them now and they win, then they will remain dependent on the US. We fought our own war for independence, if they want to let them, but don't make us clean up your messes.

    February 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      That is true but don't forget, the French helped us win our revolution. where would we be without them? And as for your point on dependence, are we asking the French for aid?

      February 1, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  9. Joe Smith

    That was true back hundreds of years ago but the situation is different now. We have been helping out every country, whether they ask for it of not. think of Iraq, they still don't have real stability even after the decade that we spent over there.

    February 1, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  10. Subhash

    STAY OUT OF IT

    February 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
    • Sweet Heart

      You can stay out of for now.
      But, prepare to be in it thru the nose when Iran will have full control in the region supported by Russia.
      The price at that time will truly unaffordable.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:30 am | Reply
  11. RUSSIAN STAT IS EVIL

    the freedom fighters move now to attack russian interest any where in the world as they are evil helping evil , russia helping terrorists hizboallah and bashar al asad, the blood on their hands so syrian now will attack russian troops and embassies and economic intersts any where wait and see mark my words , russian evil hands will not go un punished by the fighters USA SHOULD HELP THEM NOW SO THEY can destroy rusiia evn more and take putin with him.
    usa must stand for justic and freedome, evil russia and chian stand for repression.

    February 1, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      RUSSIAN STAT IS EVIL: are you a wife of ATTACK RUSSIAN INTERESTS NOW, or you are three altogether different people? I do have difficulty with Korean names – I understand that the family name is somewhere in the beginning and all other names move around somehow, so excuse my naive question.

      February 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm | Reply
  12. Andrey

    What goes around, goes around and comes around.
    US already supported some free army: Al Qaeda. But who would remember that!
    Some people would never learn. They could not even remember what happened in Lybia – so, what am I talking about!

    February 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  13. Chris

    Will we never learn. We are always trying to impose our way of life on the rest of the world.In the mean time unemployment is up, the number of homeless is up, taxes are up, national debt is up. Wake up people we need to start cleaning up our mess and let everyone else worry about their messes..

    February 1, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • Time

      Let Iran own a nuclear bomb and see where oil prices will be. Hence, employment, GDP economy etc.
      FSA support is not because we only love freedom and hate dictatorship. This is in the best interest of the US.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:26 am | Reply
  14. forreal89

    These people are a bunch of maniacs. They have no backbone, One minute the love the U.S when they need something then cheer when a terrorist incident occurs, We should stay out and not help a population of barbaric backward thinking people.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • Mercy

      We don't want to support FSA for the sack of their love to the US.
      We want to support them to make sure Iran will not control the region, oil source, oil supply and make western economies, our standard of living and prosperity hostage to their mercy.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:23 am | Reply
  15. Kerry

    It's not our business. I don't see Europe rushing to their defense. Who would pay for this? The President certainly cannot justify using tax dollars if he wants to keep his job. It is folly to intervene.

    February 1, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • Tiwster

      This is in the core of US interest in the region. If this uprising fails; Asaad and its allies (Iran, Hizbullah) will control the region and impose a major risk to Israel and Oil supply.
      Short term, it is not of our business. Long term will pay a hefty price if Asaad regime survives.
      Syria and Lebanon Hezbollah are on the borders of Israel; furthermore, Iran will be controlling the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hurmoz, where 40% of world oil pass thru.
      This is the most important intervention that the US can make; much more important than Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya wars and with zero cost; no ground troops and no money spent.
      Rich Arab Gulf States are more than willing to support Sunni Muslim FSA; they merely need Turkish/ Jordanian logistics and green light from US State Department and you will be surprised how fast this regime will collapse.

      February 2, 2012 at 2:52 am | Reply
  16. Ryan

    Screw the whole middle east.Take all our troops out, and let those people deal with their own problems. We have bigger problems in our own country!!!

    February 1, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
    • Sandstorm

      Middle East is not important because it is the birthplace of Jesus! Middle East is important because of it is strategic location and where more than 75% of proven oil reserve is.

      Let the Syrian revolution down and Asaad regime survivor and prepare to pay U$10/ gallon.

      February 2, 2012 at 2:56 am | Reply
  17. The Last of the Jedi

    Execute order 66

    February 1, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Reply
  18. RCDC

    Let them ( ASSAD, Its government and the opposition) sit down together. And propose a new election.Problem solve.

    February 2, 2012 at 1:46 am | Reply
  19. The thinker

    This is not a simple question to answer with yes or no.
    If the purpose of supporting the FSA is merely to help Syrians win their war against a dictatorship regime then the answer is probably no; cause the US and its Tax Payers are not a charity.
    However, if the purpose is to topple a regime that is the connecting point between Hizbullah in Lebanon and Iran, where both inflict a major risk to the security of US allies in the region (Israel and Arab Gulf States that provides the west with over 50% of oil) then this is a golden opportunity that should not be wasted.
    The current Syrian regime will not be part of any peace treaty with Israel as they will lose their legitimacy being the spearhead of “resistance”.
    FSA represents Sunni Muslims and if the revolution came out victorious, this will break the chain of Shia Muslims control in region (Iran, Shia Iraq, Asaad Regime and Hizbullah in Lebanon).
    If Asaad regime came out victorious then Iran/ Shia Iraq/ Asaad/ Hizbullah alliance will get stronger and next step is a major threat to Israel and small/ weak Arab Gulf States; hence, jeopardizing oil resources and inflecting a major blow to the western economies.
    The failure of the Syrian revolution is a major blow to west interests in the region and a major win for Iran, its nuclear program and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

    February 2, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
    • Prince of England

      Excellent analysis. Well said.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:17 am | Reply
  20. 樊哥

    独裁者都颤抖吧!

    February 2, 2012 at 8:11 am | Reply
  21. Retired Floridian

    Simple course of action: the U.S., Europe, Arab league nations need to start supplying weapons, ammo, supplies, finds, and intelligence ASAP by airdrops or through the Turkish border to the SFA and civilian patriots fighting for their very lives against the Syrian Regime!

    February 2, 2012 at 8:47 am | Reply
    • Obamarama

      I'd suggest that you fly from your comfortable retirement home and do the delivery yourself! Or send your kids to die!! US stay out. You are the problem with our unnecessary foreign wars. People like you do not know that the cold war is over. Foreign policy is in our hands now- you retired folk just keep quiet. You had your chance.

      February 2, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Sunshine

      Agree with you. You are absoluetly right.

      February 2, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  22. SHIIE3A AND IRAN ARE EVIL

    Let the arabs deal with it, but if the US decides to help lets not stop with Assad, lets get rid of all the dictators,kings and despots the world over.
    so why you help the libyan terrorists? why you helped ben laden aganist the russian in afganistan!?? why dont get red of iran now as those 5 evil still in the world RUSSIA , CHINA, IRAN, SYRIA AND HIZBOALLAH.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  23. Obamarama

    US stay out! Let their citizens and neighbors fight this one! Look at Libya! This is none of our business

    February 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  24. Leader2050

    Saudi Arabia and Qatar told U.S " We will pay the value of arms for F S A " My colleagues who wrote the previous comments, and opposed the arming F S A dont know this information. If they know that Saudi Arabia and Qatar will pay for F S A , they will surely change their minds. U. S will not lose one dollar as long as Saudi Arabia and Qatar will pay the price for arming F S A . Moral obligation on the U. S arming F S A to deter Syrian dictator who kills the Syrian people to stay in power. The right of the Syrian people to get on democracy and freedom. If Syria become a free, democratic, Syria will sign a peace treaty with Israel and cut off ties with Iran and Hezbollah. F S A needs to Stinger missiles to shoot down aircraft used by the Syrian dictator to bomb innocent civilians. F S A also needs communication devices, protective clothing of the bullets and anti-tank missiles. Also should provide intelligence information to F S A . In addition to medical drugs and food. U. S should not abandon the Syrian people, who call for democracy, and exposed every day to the massacres and brutality of the bad dictator. I thank CNN.

    February 2, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • White Swan

      100% correct and right on. I fully support this.

      February 2, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  25. RUSSIA=CHINA=IRAN=SYRIA-EVIL

    Russia and china interests , embassies and economic departments will be under attack in the middleast and any where in the world
    as they defend the killers in Syria and iran those evil must be dealt with on grass root level and must be hit hard before we hit bashar al asad of Syria, the resistant are working hard now to find the targets inside Russia and Russian targets inside middleast .,..wait and see ... bashar al asad killed 9345 almost 10,000 people already as his father before him who killed 30,000 in one week, those killers must be hanged, Saddam was hanged because he order to kill 40 spies, so al asad must be hanged 40 time over and over again

    February 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  26. wake up Obama and smeal the coffee

    obamaram dont Barry you head in the sands , people like you and chicken like you did the same when Hitler took over country after country until it was too late be on the side of justice and dont be on the side of the wrong history
    in the end all the cowards will be in the garbage of history....we own it to those who die defending the freedom of USA any where and USA interest. smeal the coffee Obama

    February 4, 2012 at 1:15 pm | Reply
  27. IRQI SHIIE3A, IRAN AND HIZBOALLAH SENDING MONEY AND WEAPONS TO SYRIA GOVERNEMTN

    1. ذكرت في الحلقة السابقة ( السادسة ) اطمئناني لإخواني المترجمين العاملين في القواعد العسكرية الأمريكية الذين اتصلوا بي ليعنوا في رسائلهم توبتهم الى الله والوطن والشعب والذين تم تسميتهم بالأرقام بدلا من أسمائهم الحقيقية حرصا على أمنهم وحياتهم من قوات الاحتلال الأمريكي , وعاهدتهم بأنني سأقوم بتحويل أسمائهم والمؤشرة إزاء كل منهم أرقامهم السرية الى الجهات الخاصة المتعاونة مع المقاومة العراقية وهم كل من :

    أ. المترجم التائب رقم ( 10) محافظة نينوى .

    ب. المترجم التائب رقم ( 15 ) محافظة بابل .

    ج‌. المترجم التائب رقم ( 20 ) محافظة التأميم .

    د. المترجم التائب رقم ( 50 ) محافظة بغداد .

    هـ. المترجمة التائبة رقم ( 75 ) محافظة بغداد .

    و. المترجمة التائبة رقم ( 100 ) محافظة بغداد .

    ز. المترجم التائب رقم ( 125 ) محافظة صلاح الدين .

    2. أرسل لي المترجم رقم ( 50 ) من محافظة بغداد معلومات خطيرة عن عملاء مزدوجين للقوات الأمريكية والإيرانية وموثقة بالوثائق والصور التي تثبت ذلك وهم :

    أ. العميل ( حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) مهنته ضابط شرطة متقاعد – محكوم سابق في زمن النظام السابق بتهمة مخلة بالشرف ( الرشوة والاختلاس ) لمدة سنين في سجن أبو غريب أثناء حكم النظام السابق .

    عمله الحالي – عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية .ويكلف الى الآن بمهمات استخباراتي داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق

    عنوانه : يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء

    ب. العميل ( أمرو ألقيس حسن سعيد الكليدار ) قضى حياته في السرقة والنصب والاحتيال – هارب من الخدمة العسكرية أيام النظام السابق – خدم كجندي في الجيش الأمريكي في فرقة الخيالة الثالثة – كان من ضمن الفرقة القتالية التي اقتحمت الفلوجة – أنتسب الى الجيش الأمريكي عام 2003 والى الآن .

    يعمل حاليا ضمن الاستخبارات الأمريكية في خدمة الجيش الأمريكي – عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية – ويكلف الى الآن بمهمات استخباراتية وقتالية داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق .

    – لديه ورشة تبريد لتغطية أعماله الإجرامية

    -عنوانه : يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء.

    ج. العميل ( مروان حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) خدم مترجم لقوات الاحتلال الأمريكي – أنتسب عن طريق أبوه ( حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار ) الى الاستخبارات الأمريكية عام 2004 – والآن منتسب الى الاستخبارات الأمريكية

    – يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء .

    د. صديق عائلة حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار العميل المزدوج ( مازن التميمي ) يسكن مدينة السماوة ويعمل معهم ويرافقه في كل شي وهو احد أعضاء المجلس الأعلى للثورة الإسلامية (فيلق بدر)

    د. صهر امرؤ ألقيس أي زوج بنت حسن سعيد واسمه العميل ( إبراهيم حربي إبراهيم القيسي ) وهو نائب ضابط سابق في الجيش العراقي ويعمل الآن مع القوات الأمريكية وقد نسبته القوات الأمريكية لحماية امن السفارة الألمانية وبعدها عمل في المنطقة الخضراء وكان يركب سيارة كولف حمراء .

    عنوانه : منطقة المنصور حاليا .

    3. إليكم الوثائق الموثقة بالصور أدناه للعملاء الجواسيس أعلاه ومعهم الكثير من العملاء العراقيين الذين باعوا دينهم وشرفهم للمحتل الكافر الأجنبي من الضباط والجنود الذين خدموا الاحتلال الأمريكي راجيا من أبناء العراق النشامى وفي حالة معرفة كل من يظهر في هذه الصور ان يزود المقاومة العراقية بأسمائهم ومناطق سكناهم او تزويد الشبكات والمواقع التي ستنشر هذه الاعترافات بأسمائهم وعناوين سكناهم وأية معلومات أخرى يعرفونها عنهم , والوثائق هي :

    • اسمه ( أمرو ألقيس حسن سعيد الكليدار ) قضى حياته في السرقة والنصب والاحتيال – هارب من الخدمة العسكرية أيام النظام السابق .

    • خدم كجندي في الجيش الأمريكي في فرقة الخيالة الثالثة

    • كان من ضمن الفرقة القتالية التي اقتحمت الفلوجة

    • أنتسب الى الجيش الأمريكي عام 2003.

    • يعمل حاليا ضمن الاستخبارات الأمريكية في خدمة الجيش الأمريكي .

    • عميل مزدوج للاستخبارات الأمريكية والإيرانية – ويكلف الآن بمهمات استخباراتية وقتالية داخل بغداد وخارجها وخارج العراق .

    • لديه ورشة تبريد في منطقة المنصور لتغطية أعماله الإجرامية .

    • يسكن بغداد – الجهاد حي الأطباء.

    والعميل الجاسوس : امرؤ ألقيس حسن سعيد حسن الكليدار : هو من مدينة سامراء ومن عائلة الكليدار التي تسكن المدينة وهي عائلة مشهورة بالالتزام الديني والتقيد بالعادات والتقاليد , نشأت هذا العميل في بغداد , والده شرطي واسمه حسن وهو معروف بسقوطه الأخلاقي وانحرافه وقد حكم عليه سابقا بالسجن (10)سنوات بتهمة الاغتصاب والرشوة وطرد من الخدمة .

    February 8, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
  28. IRQI SHIIE3A, IRAN AND HIZBOALLAH SENDING MONEY AND WEAPONS TO SYRIA GOVERNEMTN

    NORI AL MALEKI IN IRAQ GAVE 10 MILLION USA DOLLARS TO BASHAR AL ASAD OF SYRIA, AND IRAN SENDING HEAVY WEAPONS TO SYRIA FROM IRAQ AND SENT 150 MILLION DOLLARS TO THEM, IRAQ ALSO SENDING MELTIA TO FIGHT ALONG SIDE OF BASHAR AL KALB KILLING CIVILIANS EVERY DAY SO THE BLOOD IN THE HANDS OF BASHAR AL ASAD AND NORI AL MALEKI AND ALSO THE SHIIE3A OF IRAQ AND IRAN, RUSSIAN HANDS FULL WITH OUR BLOOD AND THOSE HANDS WILL BE CUT OFF VERY SOON. EVERY THING IS IN THE TABLE THEY WANT TO KILL US WE WILL KILL THEM AND WE WILL CHOICE THE TIME AND THE PLACE ANY WHERE IN THE WORLD.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:06 am | Reply
  29. IRQI SHIIE3A, IRAN AND HIZBOALLAH SENDING MONEY AND WEAPONS TO SYRIA GOVERNEMTN

    HIZBOALLAH FIGHTERS ARE TERRORISTS ORGINIZATION NOW FIGHTING ALOND WITH SYRIA BASHAR AL ASAD KILLING CIVILIANS. WHY WE ARE WATCHING DOING NOTHING. AS WE DID WHEN HITLER KILLED THE JEWS WHY? WE MUST ACT NOW.

    February 8, 2012 at 10:07 am | Reply
  30. Elio

    This analysis like part one is one of the best I have read on this. I hope you are wrong of csuore in your conclusion that we are looking for a graceful way to surrender but I think it is very likely that we are right.The goals for Iraq should be: 1.) a situation where Iraq is allied with the US in the Global War on Terrorism and 2.) is a stable country. Implementation of the surrender plan you lay out may well lead to a stable Iraq but it will be allied with America's enemies. If America fails to achieve the two things mentioned above, it will be the end of America as a major power. Also, it will likely place the very survival of the country in grave danger. The very best result from failure in Iraq will be the end of the US as a major power. If the US loses its status as a major power, this will result in a major life style adjustment for most Americans. In other words, many of the things we take for granted will no longer be available or they will not be affordable. The last sentence of your post sums it up perfectly. If we surrender to our enemies, in the region, the war will follow us home. Frankly the very survival of our country will probably be placed in grave danger.The policy you describe seems to be the one we may be following. The policy you describe involves undermining our two most valuable allies in the region. These are the Israelis and the Kurds. A policy that undermines your friends and empowers your enemis is no way to run a war. As I stated before, I hope the analysis is wrong but I think it is highly possible that you are right. Clearly much prayer is needed. America and Western civilization face an existential threat and few leaders within the Western world seem willing to face this threat. Finally, the only way we could possibly isolate ourselves from the Middle East would be if Congress would open the 140 billion barrels of oil or so for drilling that is available in the continental US and in US coastal waters. If we opened this oil for drilling, this would give us some leverage when dealing with Middle Eastern despots.

    March 13, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Reply
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