The Free Syrian Army emerged in late July 2011 after a number of officers defected from the Syrian army in protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s use of military force to suppress peaceful protests that had erupted March 18 that year in Daraa to demand his ouster and shortly thereafter spread across the country. Numerous formations and armed factions in northern and southern Syria now operate under FSA's umbrella, which espouses a national rhetoric and first raised the revolutionary flag with three stars. The FSA is currently fighting on two major fronts: against Assad and his allies, and against the Islamic State. On Jan. 10 via Skype, Al-Monitor interviewed Osama Abu Zeid, the FSA's legal adviser, who discussed the army's current situation, relations with the United States and Russia and views on Syria's future.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: Who comprises the FSA? In which areas does it operate? Which factions does it include?
Abu Zeid: The FSA is deployed from Syria’s south to its north. It is mostly present in Daraa and Quneitra, represented by the Southern Front, and in the capital, Damascus, the FSA is positioned in the Jobar neighborhood, one of the most contested areas. Al-Rahman Corps and the Shuhada al-Islam Brigade [Martyrs of Islam Brigade], which are also part of the FSA, are stationed in western and eastern Ghouta. In northern Syria, the FSA is significantly present in Aleppo, represented by Thuwar al-Sham, al-Sham Front and Sultan Murad Brigade. [The FSA-affiliated] Jaish al-Nasr [Victory Army], the Glory Army and the Central Division are stationed in Hama’s countryside, while the largest number of FSA fighters deployed on the coast is represented by the 1st and 2nd Coastal Squads and the 10th Brigade.
The FSA consists of many factions, which are all participating in the tireless efforts to establish a military council, alongside moderate Islamic factions led by Jaish al-Islam, which recently started to issue joint statements with the FSA under the banner of the revolution. I would like to note that the absence of a unified FSA leadership is not due to any internal reason. Rather, it is due to supporters’ policies, which exploit our need for weapons.
Al-Monitor: The FSA has recently returned to the forefront. Its role re-emerged in the battles in Latakia, Hama and Aleppo. How do you explain the timing of the resurgence?
Abu Zeid: The true face of the Syrian revolution is the one that returned to the fore after the Russian aggression. Russia is known to be in disputes with the European Union and the United States. Thus when Russia enters any region, the media is bound to focus on it. When the focus is on Syria, it is only normal for the public to take notice when revolutionaries are fighting a global force, like Iran and Russia, and the thousands of foreign fighters in addition standing their ground against IS.
The FSA has not changed since the outbreak of the revolution, and we will fight anyone who stands in the way of Syrian demands, whether in the name of religion, such as IS, or under a secular banner, such as Russia, both of which have come to destroy the Syrian revolution under false slogans.
Al-Monitor: Turkey announced its desire in September 2014 to create a safe zone in northern Syria. What is hindering the establishment of this zone? Would it stop the flow of refugees leaving Syria?
Abu Zeid: The one hindering the establishment of this safe zone is none other than the US. This is not just an allegation. Rather, repeated statements were issued in this respect, [including] by Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, who said on July 1, 2015, that at that moment, the US did not see a need for the establishment of a safe zone in Syria.
Meanwhile, the regime’s air force dropped dozens of barrel bombs on Aleppo and Darayya, and the killing of civilians led to daily waves of displacement. Indeed, if a safe zone were established, more than 70% of the people heading to Europe by sea would change their minds. Syrians are not thrilled about the suicide journey to Europe, but they are in search of a safe haven. If such a zone is established, many Syrians will return to this region. We are people who love their country, and we have our culture and our own professions.
The only reason Syrians are migrating is that for four years now, we have been killed by the deadly weapons of Assad’s regime, and we have lost hope of being saved by the international community.
Al-Monitor: In December 2015, the FSA made significant progress against IS near the Turkish border in northern Aleppo. Can we link this progress to the safe zone? Do you think it might be established soon?
Abu Zeid: The FSA has been fighting IS since before 2014, even before anyone in the world ever thought of fighting this organization. Our fight against IS in the northern countryside of Aleppo and in other areas is independent of any international plan. We will continue our battle whether there is a safe zone or not. As a matter of fact, we do not feel that a safe zone is a viable option, at least at the current stage.
Al-Monitor: Why did the Pentagon’s project to train and equip Syrian opposition groups to fight IS fail?
Abu Zeid: Simply because we are independent and responsible toward our people to the extent that we can say no, even to the US, which sought through this program to make us fight IS only and to forget the criminal called Bashar al-Assad, who has killed more than 300,000 Syrians over the past years, displaced 10 million and is still detaining more than half a million Syrians.
Although the US gave us some support, we refused its offer and confirmed that this program would fail, and it ultimately did, since it is a US project that does not meet the aspirations of the Syrians. We have a Syrian project to combat all forms of terrorism, including IS and Assad, and we accept any offer of help.
IS cannot be eliminated without the FSA. We have a history of struggle against all of those who killed Syrians. Therefore, no one can question the FSA’s objectives when it fights IS, because its project is purely Syrian, and it aims to protect Syrians rather than serve other agendas.
Al-Monitor: How do you perceive US policies in the region?
Abu Zeid: The US is gradually moving from a neutral position toward being a partner in crime as it allows Assad and his allies to kill Syrians. Scary massacres are being committed against Syrians, who have been left to starve to death under siege in the city of Madaya and [killed] by chemical weapons. Syrians are paying a high price as a result of the US policy failure in Iraq and its weakness in the Middle East in general.
It is not required that the US send fighters on the ground. This is not what we want. What we want is for Assad to be prevented from targeting civilians and for the [supporters] of the Syrian revolution [i.e. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia] to be allowed to provide rebels with qualitative weapons. The US supports the Syrian Democratic Forces, which include al-Sanadid Army, one of the regime's militias. We, however, do not trust these forces, and they not surprisingly getting weapons that are hundreds of times more numerous than the weapons received by the FSA.
Al-Monitor: The FSA factions supported the decisions from the Riyadh conference, which brought together the Syrian opposition on Dec. 10, 2015. Do you think it is possible to reach a political solution with the regime? What is the solution, in your opinion? What system are you trying to recreate in the new Syria?
Abu Zeid: As rebels, we believe that Assad and his allies will not contribute to any solution that will ultimately lead to the departure of Assad and his clique. The assassination of Jaish al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush — a former member of the negotiating body that supported a political solution — is clear evidence that the Russians are not seeking a political solution. The FSA is making every effort toward a political solution based on the Geneva I communique regarding the formation of a transitional governing body, the departure of Assad and his clique, the dismantling of the security establishment and the restructuring of the military establishment. These points cannot be disregarded.
As far as the regime is concerned, the Syrian people will determine its shape in the new Syria. Our sole current mission is to topple the Assad regime. When the revolution achieves its objectives, it will form a committee to draft a constitution and present it to the people. Only the people, not us or anyone else, will have the final say on the form of government.
Al-Monitor: The FSA receives support from several countries in the region, and you are accused of being influenced by foreign countries. What do you say to such allegations?
Abu Zeid: My response is part of this interview. We refused to take part in the US training project, and the US is the biggest power in the world, which confirms that the FSA is independent. The withholding of sophisticated arms such as anti-aircraft [weaponry] is evidence that there are a lot of concessions that we declined to make.
Why haven’t we until this day had arms airdrops for the FSA, like the ones received by the regime forces? This is simply because the FSA does not believe in the same [things] as the international forces, but it shares the same [hopes] as the Syrian people. We advocate any proposal or solution that advances the interests of the Syrian people.
Al-Monitor: About three months have passed since the beginning of Russia’s military intervention in Syria. It seems that the Russian airstrikes have been concentrated on the opposition-controlled areas. How has this affected you?
Abu Zeid: True. The airstrikes held off the advance of the FSA in favor of IS. The Russians' almost daily airstrikes targeted our locations on the demarcation line in Aleppo's northern countryside in the towns of Marea, Jarez and Ihras, among others. However, the greatest impact of the Russian raids was the destruction of the infrastructure of the liberated areas and the killing of larger numbers of civilians, causing waves of displacement, as was the case in Aleppo's southern countryside and the northern Hama countryside.
Al-Monitor: In the first military operation by the Syrian regime in the wake of the Russian intervention, a violent attack was waged in northern Hama without making any progress. However, the regime took over large and strategic areas in the southern countryside of Aleppo. How do you interpret that? Are you able to hold off the regime with your weapons?
Abu Zeid: The difference between Aleppo and Hama is simple. In Hama, we are fighting against the regime and its allies on a single front, while in Aleppo there are three fronts [IS, Kurdish militias and the regime and its allies]. Nevertheless, our retreat favoring the regime in southern Aleppo was not because of direct confrontation, but because of the heavy shelling and shooting.
The regime and the militias fighting alongside it have a renewable supply of human resources, bringing in mercenaries from outside Syria — from Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan and recently from Africa. The balance of weaponry is tilted in favor of the regime, which has the sophisticated Russian air force at its side in addition to advanced armored vehicles. Some are made in the US and are from Iraqi militias fighting us in Syria, such as the Hezbollah al-Nujaba movement and the [Brigade] of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, among others. As for us, on the other hand, the most advanced weapons we have are TOW missiles, available in limited quantities. We also confront different enemies, each with a different and particular tactic in fighting. I can objectively affirm, however, that the military balance is indeed tipped in favor of the regime, but the confrontations are in our favor because of our faith in the cause we are sacrificing for.
Al-Monitor: In several television interviews, you have rejected working with Russia. The chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Vasilevich Gerasimov, said, however, on Dec. 14, 2015, that Russia is providing air cover to some of the FSA groups. Is this true? Did you change your position?
Abu Zeid: I personally refused to meet with the Russian president's special representative for the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, in Geneva about two months ago. Perhaps, in the eyes of Russia, Assad is the commander of the Syrian revolution. Russia’s declaration that it supports the FSA is ridiculous as all facts prove the contrary. Russian airstrikes are ongoing around the clock, targeting our sites and locations. Our position is clear: We will not coordinate or cooperate with Russia.