Can FSA leadership be relevant again in Syria?
October 10th, 2012
03:04 PM ET

Can FSA leadership be relevant again in Syria?

By Daniel DePetris, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Daniel R. DePetris is an independent researcher. The views expressed are his own.

For the first time since the Syrian rebellion began, the leadership of the opposition Free Syrian Army is making a concerted effort to unify the dozens of armed factions fighting under its name. The announcement by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, leader of the Free Syrian Army, that the FSA will be relocating its staff headquarters inside of Syrian territory is widely seen as a step in the right direction.  Whether the move will make any practical difference in the fight, however, remains to be seen.

Al-Asaad was once a mid-level commander in the Syrian military, but his defection last year, and his attempt to form a band of former soldiers willing to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, steadily changed the nature of the conflict. He is often considered by Syrian activists and deserters to be the first really high-ranking commander to flee the Syrian army in protest over the crackdown, and his actions appear to have inspired thousands of conscripts to follow in his footsteps: the FSA now includes more than two dozen former Syrian generals.

Yet despite being the first to stand up to al-Assad’s regime, Riad al-Asaad and his advisers have lost an enormous amount of credibility as the conflict has entered its 19th month. For much of that time, al-Asaad has been safely tucked away at an undisclosed location along the Turkish southern border, guarded by security forces and far removed from the bloody stalemate that has defined the Syrian civil war.

Indeed, it is not the FSA leadership, but the insurgents on the ground that are doing the actual fighting and dying, advancing into new territory at the same time that they are taking losses. As the number of civilian casualties has grown, the rising physical and psychological toll has tested the patience of the FSA battalions and has driven a wedge between the fighters on the front-lines and the senior defectors supposedly leading them.

Technically, al-Asaad is the top commander of the Free Syrian Army. But in actuality, his orders are nothing more than guidelines and suggestions.  Communication between the FSA leadership based in Turkey and anti-al-Assad battalions inside Syria is improving, but remains lackluster. There appears to be no command-and-control in the traditional sense, nor is the FSA a conventional army. Hierarchy is there, but is often not respected.  Even when communication occurs and the FSA leadership issues a command, it is seldom taken as gospel. Instead, local branches of the FSA appear to be making decisions on their own, based on their own circumstances at any given time. Such confusion further undermines any prospect of Western military support to the opposition.

It seems highly doubtful that moving its headquarters from Turkey to Syria will resolve any of these dilemmas for the FSA. Certainly, no doubt sensing that its influence is waning and that the power of local commanders is increasing, the upper echelons of the Free Syrian Army appear to be making a dramatic move to shift closer to the front-lines. The hope is that the independent armed groups pressing the offensive will do more than just listen to their advice. But with the makeup of the civil war shifting fast, the young men dodging bullets and air strikes in the narrow alleys of Aleppo and in the plains of Deir al-Zor may be way out ahead of the FSA.

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Topics: Middle East • Syria

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Marine5484

    This carnage didn't have to go on like this and wouldn't have if had both the Arab League and the West( the NATO allies) not wormed their way into this conflict! Without outside interference, probably the rebels and the Assad regime could have somehow gotten together and worked out a peace plan. Shame on the bullheaded, right-wing politicians in Washington!

    October 10, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
    • Andrey

      Syrian conflict provide legitimate channels for Saudi's to directly finance al-Qaeda and for Turkey to arm al-Qaeda fighters! For USA the continuation of the conflict is viewed as an opportunity to weaken both Syria and Islamic extremists at the same time: as they keep fighting and bleeding each other! How can they allow this conflict to ever end!

      October 13, 2012 at 6:52 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    The FSA has no more than 10.000 fighters, who are poorly armed and have only basic military training. They can't directly confront the Syrian army, which has approx. 200,000 soldiers. The army's rank and file is largely Sunni and its leadership is largely Alawite. With fightings intensified, the growing number of defections and bomb attacks in Damascus will weaken the military and strengthen the FSA.

    October 11, 2012 at 5:13 am | Reply
    • Andrey

      Keep dreaming! The only flag that will eventually unite Syrian opposition is al-Qaeda's black flag of Jihad! Do you really want that? Do you want al-Qaeda getting its hands on Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons: it looks like you do!

      October 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
      • Frenk

        Andrey, you said that Saudi and Turkey are supporting al-Qaeda. Taking the fact that these both countries are a good ally of the US, are you saying that the US is supporting al-Qaeda too? If so, is that bad or good for the US? I don't understand why the US would arm someone to attack the US and help al-Qaeda to grow in a country next to Israel.

        October 16, 2012 at 11:02 am |
  3. MobileJAL

    This is a case where we need good gravity. Ofthe us state dept cleared the way for creating new business infrastructure in Libya, and made it happen quickly, the FDA would see a clear vision for the future. We need Jon huntsman to have a chat with h.clinton on what it means to create jobs growth in new areas.

    October 11, 2012 at 8:37 am | Reply
    • Lyndsie Graham

      Such is to be expected from someone like you with your obvious limitations, MobileJAL. You sound like another ignorant Tea Partier preaching American intervention where it has no business! That's why Syria is such a mess right now along with Iraq!

      October 11, 2012 at 10:36 am | Reply
  4. deniz boro

    In this case I believe "Turkey is too much in the son; a little more than kin and lest than kind". I shall stick to such comments till USA elections are over and the winner takes over the Arabic Fall.

    October 12, 2012 at 6:13 am | Reply
  5. deniz boro

    But meanwhşle, I did not know that Muslim sects had a mass.

    October 12, 2012 at 6:16 am | Reply
  6. rightospeak

    The legitimate government of Syria is fighting terrorists supplied from the outside with money , propaganda and arms.There are no national security issues for the US there. The national security issues for the US are offshored jobs, open borders, unsustainable deficits which can never be paid. The bankrupcy looming over the USA is a very dark cloud. Unless our borders are closed to illigal immigration, jobs from India and China return, all endless wars stop immediately -as a nation we shall self destruct. Only fools can not see that.

    October 14, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  7. anyonenoticethat

    Has any one noticed the similarity between the FSA and "Whites" from the Russian Civil War?

    The Whites were a bunch of separate armies held only together because they opposed their government and eventually lost due to disunity amongst the armies, didn't coordinate in attacks and because of no direct foreign intervention.

    I think history is going to repeat itself there.

    October 18, 2012 at 12:45 pm | Reply
    • Total2199

      "Whites were a bunch of separate armies held only together because they opposed their government ...."
      Whites were fighting Reds because they wanted to restore authority of the Provisional Government overthrown by Bolsheviks. Whites never opposed the elected Government. Are you sure about your analogy?

      December 10, 2012 at 11:21 pm | Reply
  8. Luke Weyland

    What kind of 'freedom' is the motly Free Syria Army promoting?
    Freedom to test new weaponry on Syria's people?
    Freedom for US corporations to take Syrian resources?
    Freedom for Wahabiists to enforce their misogynist version is Islam?

    December 10, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Reply

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