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Don't underestimate Free Syrian Army

The Free Syrian Army is playing a larger, more successful role in the revolution than media coverage reflects.

The topic of Syria has become a pawn in a game with many players, each with its respective ideology. Amid this situation, some media outlets have been trying to paint the revolution with colors of extremism by only mentioning Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), while the international media only reports news about jihadist factions.

What is more, the state-owned media have ignored the revolution throughout its four years, and have failed to acknowledge that army soldiers are defecting. These soldiers have become the pillars of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the revolution's military wing. The regime says only that it is fighting against extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and IS. It is as though these groups control all Syrian territories, and the Syrian army is battling against them day and night.

However, the reality is much different. Anyone who follows what is actually happening on the ground knows that there are no battles between the Syrian army and IS. The areas IS controls were won through short battles for wide spaces and large warehouses. This was the case in Palmyra, where IS confiscated the second-largest ammunition warehouse in Syria.

Meanwhile, the FSA is completely dismissed when it comes to media coverage. It was formed early in the revolution and developed into an army defending civilians in regions outside the regime’s control. From a defense group, it grew to become an attack force and took over areas previously controlled by the regime.

The FSA recently managed to expel IS forces completely from Idlib and its countryside, and did the same in Aleppo in late February. The battles are ongoing in Aleppo's northern countryside, in Mare city and its suburbs, where more than 30 FSA fighters died to keep the regime from taking over Aug. 10.

The 101st Division is one of the FSA groupings battling IS, and many of its members have died on the front lines while fighting the regime and IS.

The FSA — which has enough ammunition and discipline to rule a country — cannot be marginalized. It is, however, still classified as a militia, as it is incapable of using aircraft in its operations. The 101st Division resembles any military troop — technically and structurally — and includes around 2,000 fighters in its ranks, including 35 commanders who defected from the Syrian army. The remaining fighters are also defected militants or members who enlisted in the division by submitting applications. The troop follows a constitution and by-laws that govern the affairs of its members.

Cmdr. Mamoun al-Omar defected from the regime forces and is currently deputy leader of the 101st Division. In a telephone interview from the Syrian territories, he told Al-Monitor, “We conduct operations as per an internal constitution that organizes and determines the conduct of leaders and members and even journalists who work with us. The constitution specifies the duties and rights of each member in their capacity as an official fighter. This guarantees the rights of the members while they work with us and after they leave. We provide insurance for the families of martyrs and we treat the wounded in battles. This reassures the members of our support for them against all odds.”

He added, “We reiterate our compliance with the Geneva conventions regarding the rules of war and the UN human rights charters and agreements related to handling detainees. We also aim to inform new recruits of these laws."

At the onset of the revolution, FSA troops relied on real battles with the regime to gain fighting experience. Now, the FSA has its own camps where recruits receive military and physical training from veteran officers and sports trainers.

The 101st Division has received enlistment applications from Syrian young people. Omar said FSA recruiting gives the young people direction and keeps them from being seduced by extremist groups. According to Omar, those groups try to control young Syrians by brainwashing them, tempting them with money and power, and then throwing them into battles they might not survive, even though the young peoples are far from embracing or even understanding these groups’ real ideologies.

The FSA, Omar said, wants to keep the young people in the country and preserve their capacities so they can become the pillars for a national army that ensures the unity of the Syrian territories and seeks to build a democratic state.

At the end of September, the 101st Division was getting ready to graduate the first group of 50 recruits who were trained in its camps as fighters.

The 101st Division enjoys international support since it is not classified as an extremist group, but as a moderate one. Hassan Hamada, founder and head of the troop, was a colonel in the Syrian air force. He told Al-Monitor in Turkey, “We are certain the Syrian people are able to defeat the criminal regime, which has invested its military [might] to oppress the people’s revolution. We are also sure the people will win against terrorism, extremists and foreign fighters, who can only be crushed by the Syrians. The regions where we fought IS and expelled it have been cleansed of this organization, which will never return to them. However, the regions that the international alliance has been shelling [for] months are still a breeding ground for terrorist groups.”

Hamada defected from the Syrian air force in June 2012 by flying his military MiG 21 aircraft across the Jordanian border and landing at King Hussein’s military air base, in the northeast of Jordan. He then asked for political asylum in Jordan. He later returned to the military — this time in the ranks of the Syrian revolution — and formed the 101st Division.

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