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Divided Syrian opposition tries for unified army again

As the Syrian opposition faces major setbacks on the battlefield, the Syrian Interim Government and FSA factions have been discussing the formation of a unified national army in hopes of changing the tide.

ALEPPO, Syria —The Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in Aleppo’s countryside, Idlib and Ghouta as well as the Southern Front factions in the southern Daraa and Quneitra provinces and the Syrian Desert have been holding intensive discussions with the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government since the beginning of September, several sources told Al-Monitor.

The talks aim to form a national army that would unite all armed factions under one umbrella, except extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In addition, a general staff for said army will be shaped and a new defense minister for the Syrian Interim Government will be appointed, since the FSA factions do not support the current minister of defense, Asaad Mustafa.

The Syrian Interim Government was established following meetings between the National Coalition for the Revolution and Opposition in Istanbul on Nov. 11, 2013. Its headquarters remained in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, as it received financial support from friends of the Syrian revolution and the opposition’s international supporters. However, in 2016, most of its members relocated back to FSA-controlled areas after gradually starting to lose funding in September 2015.

Abdullah Halawa, a military leader in the FSA-affiliated Hamza Division, told Al-Monitor that the talks will soon come to an end, as the Syrian Interim Government has secured the approval of the majority of FSA factions.

“The talks addressed all details that would speed up the process of forming a unified national army, as well as appointing the chief of staff and the defense minister, whose names will be announced in the coming stage when practical measures to form the unified national army are taken,” Halawa said.

Several FSA factions in Aleppo’s countryside and Idlib announced earlier this month their approval of the initiative to form the unified national army, which was originally suggested by the Syrian Islamic Council and the Syrian Interim Government on Aug. 30.

The factions that agreed to take part include al-Jabhat al-Shamiya (the Levant Front), Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Legion, al-Naser Union, Nureddin Zengi Brigade, Free Idlib Army, the Central Division, the Sultan Murad Brigade, the 13th Division, the 1st Coastal Division and the Hamza Division.

On Sept. 2, the FSA-affiliated Lions of the East Army and Forces of Martyr Ahmed al-Abdo stationed in the southeastern Syrian Desert announced their agreement to form a unified national army, in two separate statements.

Jaish al-Islam, the largest faction in eastern Ghouta, and al-Rahman Legion, also stationed there, welcomed the initiative with arms wide open.

The coordinator of the FSA factions, Yahya Mayo, confirmed that 44 FSA factions out of 63 have announced their willingness to join the ranks of the unified national army.

“This initiative aims to unite manpower and military resources in all Syrian areas where FSA fighters are stationed. We are calling on dissident officers in Syria, neighboring countries and abroad to be part of this national formation as well,” Mayo told Al-Monitor.

“The importance of forming a unified national army at this difficult time in the Syrian revolution lies in improving the performance of the FSA factions on both the political and military levels. This will also counter all media campaigns questioning the ability of the Syrian opposition to manage Syria if [Bashar] al-Assad’s regime falls, particularly since international forces are trying to help the regime regain control over large areas in Syria and convince the international community to keep Assad in power as a fait accompli,” Mayo added.

Forming a unified national army made up of all the FSA's factions is not easy. The Syrian opposition, both militarily and politically, is aware of the magnitude of the challenges it faces. In early September 2015, it tried to establish a national army that would bring together all Syrian opposition military components affiliated with the FSA, but it failed to achieve that goal in light of divisions among FSA factions. After losing large areas to the regime between 2015 and 2017, the opposition is now reiterating its attempt to form a national army in the face of the regime and its allies, mainly Russia and Iran, and hopes that it will succeed this time.

The minister of services in the Syrian Interim Government, Abdullah Razouk, told Al-Monitor, “The FSA factions have been very responsive during the talks with the Syrian Interim Government delegation, headed by Prime Minister Jawad Abu Hatab. All FSA factions have a desire to end the division between them and become part of the unified national army as the last chance to save the Syrian revolution.”

Razouk added, “If the unified national army project succeeds, it will have a positive impact on all institutions of the Syrian opposition, such as the National Coalition for the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, as well as the High Negotiations Committee and the Syrian Interim Government, and it will support its position in the eyes of all international forums. The unified national army will end the division that has been plaguing the Syrian revolution at the political and military levels, both internally and externally.”

The success of the FSA-affiliated unified national army project needs to be supported by the friends of the Syrian revolution and its allies such as the United States, Turkey, Qatar and other countries, which are yet to express support in forming this army.