Saturday, 19 November 2016
Foreign Backers and the Marginalization of the Free Syrian Army
'During the summer of 2016, the Syrian regime scored two strategic victories over opposition forces: it took control of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, and imposed a siege on Aleppo. On both these fronts, major factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) were conspicuous by their absence. Since mid-2015, most non-jihadist rebel factions have been marginalized in the fight against the regime, not so much because the FSA no longer exists, as sometimes claimed, but because their backers ask them to deescalate the fight against Assad forces to be able to focus on other enemies instead. This marginalization has two consequences. First, it has made Assad and his allies confident enough in their capacity to militarily defeat the rebellion that they felt no need to seriously take part in political negotiations or abide by negotiated truces. Second, it has left the jihadist and Salafist factions of the rebellion practically alone on the battlefields, granting them near monopoly over the revolutionary discourse.
The FSA is a collection of brigades, usually organized locally without a centralized chain of command. These brigades are sometimes part of larger coalitions comprising several thousand fighters. Their political orientation varies from secular nationalism to Muslim-brotherhood-style Islamism, with a clear majority of them being non-ideological. Most are military defectors and former civilians motivated to overthrow the regime. “FSA factions” can simply be defined as those who claim to be part of the FSA, without referring to any leadership on a national level, as opposed to “Islamist factions” who do not claim to be part of the FSA and tend to be aligned with some national or international leadership. Taken as a whole, the FSAaligned brigades make up the majority of the rebel forces. However, their inability to define a common agenda or strategy is their main weakness. This has made them particularly exposed to pressure to serve foreign interests rather than their own, particularly those of Turkey, Jordan and the United States, each of which has priorities other than to fight the Assad regime or to confront Russia.
The example of Harakat Hazm is particularly telling of the USA’s goal of turning effective rebel forces into mere proxies. Harakat Hazm was created in early 2014 by various rebel groups, many of which had played a central role in expelling ISIS from northwest Syria in the winter 2013-14 and had advanced combat experience against the regime. Harakat Hazm have always had bad relations with Jabhat al-Nusra (which, unlike ISIS, is supposedly allied to the FSA), and the two groups often clashed. Hazm was long considered to be one of the USA’s favoured groups in northern Syria,5 but it was left without support when, at the end of 2014, it came under attack and was eventually destroyed by Jabhat al-Nusra. When the author asked a former member of Harakat Hazm why the USA didn’t support them when they were attacked, he explained that “by September 2014 the United States started to pressure us to leave the battle field against Assad and to send all our forces to fight ISIS. We had no problem to go fight ISIS, but wouldn’t agree to stop fighting Assad. From then on, our relations with the Americans went from bad to worse and eventually they stopped backing us. When Jabhat al-Nusra attacked us, we had already lost all foreign support. We lost because we dared to disobey the Americans.”
While the strategy of selecting factions to pull away from the battlefield so that they could fight jihadists had proved to be a failure, the alternative strategy was to impose nationwide truces with the regime. On two occasions, a Russian-American deal was reached to impose a truce on belligerent forces. While the truce of February-March 2016 led to a reduction of fighting for over a month, the one in September 2016 was never effectively implemented. The Assad regime and Russia clearly had no intention of respecting their engagements and saw the truces simply as a way to gain time and to test the determination of the rebellion and its supposed allies. For the regime, truces are not a first step towards a political negotiation but rather a step towards the complete surrender of rebels, as was the case for local truces in Damascus and Homs.
While almost all of the opposition forces rallied to the principle of a political solution and de-escalation with the regime, Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham reclaims the revolutionary discourse and presents itself as the only force striving for the definitive fall of the Assad regime. Those accepting compromise with Assad were called defeatists, if not traitors. The failure of the truces proved the jihadists right. The regime had no intention to respect them and diplomacy has not could not save Aleppo. Only the military action led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in August was successful in breaking the siege. During the regime’s major offensive in Aleppo since April 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham seems to be the only force capable of facing Assad forces. Within FSA factions, morale was at its lowest. During the so-called truce of spring 2016, Jabhat al-Nusra recruited fighters by the hundreds, mainly among die-hard FSA fighters who were convinced not by the ideology of the group but rather by its will to fight.
In southern Syria, the rebellion managed to keep a rather nationalist identity and limit the influence of Salafist and jihadist factions. FSA groups are deeply rooted within their local community and largely dominated by military defectors. The “Southern-Front” operation room gathered over 50 factions and 15,000 to 30,000 fighters. It could have served as a counter-model to the jihadist-dominated Jeish al-Fateh coalition which is dominant in the north, but the “Southern-Front” factions have achieved little in the last year. The “Southern-Front” was seen as the opportunity to build an organized army that was independent of jihadist influence and could break the siege of the southern suburbs of Damascus, seriously challenging Assad in the capital and forcing him to make concessions and enter real negotiations. Instead, the policy of the MOC (Military Operations Centres) was to de-escalate the fight against the regime and to have the factions that it supports focus on clearing and securing the Jordanian border. The factions of the “Southern-Front” have also been extremely weakened by the inconstancy and irregularity of the support provided by the MOC. Thus, these factions have had very little autonomy and nearly no leverage on the strategy decided in the MOC and imposed upon them. The MOC exerts its control over the factions using a carrot and stick policy. When it is decided that a front should be opened, munitions, weapons, salaries and access to Jordanian hospitals are provided. When the MOC decides that a battle should stop, military support is cut, and access to Jordanian hospitals is closed. Jordan publicly cooperates with Russia on the Syrian file, and there is a serious fear among southern factions and civilians that a refusal to cooperate with Jordanian authorities would cause the Russians to step up and strike the south with the same intensity as it strikes the north.
Daraya is a town in the suburbs of Damascus which served as a model for the Syrian revolutionary movement. Despite years of siege and intense shelling, it kept strong social and civil activities, and was a rare case where the local council maintained control over the armed groups. This model of political-military cooperation with locally rooted factions is still serving as an example to revolutionary forces striving for autonomy from Islamist factions and foreign agendas. The Battle of Daraya continued until the end of August when the regime’s Republican Guards finally forced the last rebels and civilians out of the town. In the meantime, the tens of thousands of fighters from the “Southern-Front” were not allowed by their backers to attack the regime, even though they stand only 30km away from Daraya. Even months after the end of the truce, the MOC-backed factions were not allowed to engage battle with the regime and had to concentrate on clearing the Jordanian borders of small ISIS-affiliated factions.
In the north of Syria, a similar situation is happening, as rebels are used to clear Turkey’s border and fight its enemies instead of fighting Assad. Turkey had until now held one of the most hawkish anti-Assad positions in the international community, but eventually its other priorities began to overcome those of the Syrian opposition. While Assad forces were consolidating their positions in Aleppo, besieging nearly 300,000 people, Turkey pushed thousands of FSA fighters into the battle of Jarablous against ISIS and against the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The ultimate goal of this operation is to cut the SDF’s progress along the border and prevent the Kurds from unifying the territories that they held. Once again, as in the south, significant manpower and firepower are used to secure the borders and serve the direct interest of a foreign actor. The consequence of this is the marginalization of FSA brigades as they concentrate nearly all their forces on a secondary battle at a time when Aleppo is about to fall back under the regime’s control. The Turkish-backed “Euphrates Shield” operation is ultimately leaving the space wide open for the regime and the jihadists to fight the central battles in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.
The marginalization of the FSA from the central battles has provoked strong reactions within the revolutionary movement. By June 2016, a statement called “The Hauran call for help” was signed by 50 of the most prominent figures of the revolution, including military leaders, clerics, activists and intellectuals. Symbolically, the first signatory was Abo Jamal, the FSA leader of the armed resistance in Daraya. The statement called on revolutionaries in the south to start the fight again. All through the summer, as the regime was progressing in Daraya and Aleppo, leaders of the “Southern-Front” were compared to traitors, cowards and contrasted with Islamists in the north who were continuing the battle. In July, a fatwa issued by 54 clerics, including some close to Al-Qaeda such as Abdullah al-Muhseiny of Jeish al-Fateh, declared it illegal (haram) to be a member of a faction that is not fighting the regime. In the meantime, Ahrar al-sham’s spokesman called on people to overthrow the leaders of the “Southern-Front”.
In 2016, two coups by FSA fighters against their own leaders took place in two of the most important factions in the south: Liwa Shabab alSunna in August and Jabhat Thuwar Souriya in September. In early August, Ahmad alAuda, the leader of Liwa Shabab al-Sunna in Bosra al-Sham, was deposed by fighters of the brigade and some civilians. A few days later, the MOC quickly reacted and had factions of the “Southern-Front” attack the group’s headquarters in Bosra al-Sham to put Ahmad al-Auda back in his position.18 An FSA fighter told the author that “everyone hates Ahmad al-Auda, but the MOC wants him there. He is not a revolutionary. He is the slave of the MOC”.
In the north, criticisms of “Euphrates Shield” operations are rising. The FSA is trying to convince itself that a second phase of these operations consists of taking back Aleppo from Assad. But they are under fierce criticism from other factions, mainly jihadists, who are excluded from the Turkish-backed operation, and who feel left alone on the fronts of Aleppo and Hama. Despite the successes of the operation against ISIS and Kurdish forces, many rebels are wondering whether it is really a priority to take Tel Rifaat or al-Bab, when Aleppo is besieged. An FSA faction from Idlib withdrew from the “Euphrates Shield” operation, according to their statement, because of the situation on the fronts against the regime.22 Several FSA fighters who took part in the first days of the operation went back to their local brigades to protect their community from the regime.
The Syrian war has become an internationalized conflict in which local actors struggle to have some leverage on the course of the events. Fighting without outside support has become impossible. However, what is important is for all actors in Syria to be allies of foreign backers instead of mere proxies.'