The ranks of the Syrian defectors who streamed into southern Turkey recently read like quite the roll call: a brigadier general, two colonels, two majors, a lieutenant, and dozens of soldiers, along with their families, according to press reports. Some 200 people in all, a logistical feat across an increasingly tense border between once friendly neighbors. The defections were announced shortly after the spectacular desertion of a Syrian fighter pilot who flew his Mig into Jordan, where he has been granted political asylum. Dramatic developments, to be sure, but how significant are they in terms of the larger battle between Syrian rebels and loyalists? What do these defections add up to?
The upper-echelons of Assad’s formidable military and intelligence apparatus have remained largely intact, in part because of shared interests, but also shared culpability. Those are bonds cemented with blood, bonds shared given that much of the upper officer corp is stacked with Assad’s Alawite co-religionists as well as select elites from other sects. The other glue keeping the security forces together is fear of retribution against a defector’s family.
While the defections are contributing to the slow erosion of Assad’s army, the FSA has serious cracks of its own, particularly with regard to command and control. It has always been a loose franchise organization, comprised of localized groups of defectors and civilians waging an escalating guerrilla campaign in their hometowns and cities. There is minimal centralized control from the so-called leadership sequestered in a Turkish refugee camp and many units inside Syria, while pledging allegiance to the FSA, don’t take orders from its leadership in exile.
As’aad has been very publicly sidelined by the FSA’s military council in the embattled city of Homs, which has said that exiles have no right to speak for the armed opposition fighting and dying inside Syria. The splits within the franchise are not merely between high-ranking defectors inside and outside Syria, there have been sub-splits within those groups. In the past, high-ranking breakaways who have joined other officers in the Apaydin camp, like General Mustafa al-Sheikh, have been viewed as rivals by other senior earlier defectors like As’aad. The two men only recently buried their differences by forming a joint military council in late March.
There has also been a recent and serious effort by disparate FSA units inside Syria to organize themselves at the local level. The moves, which have been weeks, and in some places, months in the making, are partly to convince the international community that the units are structured and more than just a ragtag group of militiamen, but also to appear serious enough to be given a share of new weapons being funneled into Syria by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
A small team of Syrian rebels has been charged with distributing the armaments, which are mainly rocket-propelled grenade launchers, Kalashnikov rifles, BKC machine guns and ammunition. There is competition for resources, and rivalries persist. Weapons shipments traveling within Syria to a particular rebel group are sometimes intercepted by other FSA groups, one of the distributors, a young man from Damascus who requested anonymity, said. “We are being attacked by those inside, about why some groups are getting help and others aren't,” he said from Istanbul, where he recently based himself after leaving the Syrian capital. “Sometimes the routes are changed and goods are intercepted by other groups. There is a lot of trouble.”
The distributor said he and his colleagues were aware of the dangers of arming a disunited opposition. “Our priority is to be able to control the weapons after the regime falls so that there won't be chaos and weapons falling into hands that will shoot, kill each other,” he said. At the moment, the FSA’s guns, as well as those of other armed opposition groups, are more or less pointed in the same direction. What will happen when the common enemy of the regime eventually falls?
This could be where the high-ranking defectors may be of most use, if they can overcome their own rivalries. The FSA has made efforts to become better organized, but much remains to be done. In the past, As’aad and other senior defectors have chafed at efforts by civilians in the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Council, to bring the armed opposition under their control. Still, taking orders from civilians is one thing, but ignoring a group of generals is quite another. Military men, after all, are used to military hierarchies.