FSA in Northern Syria Devoid Of Structure, Authority

The Free Syrian Army in northern Syria still operates like a "headless body" without a clear organizational structure, and with different groups reporting to foreign countries and disregarding established opposition leaders, reports Tareq al-Abed.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters transport weapons on a donkey after clashes with forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, in Harem near Idlib October 22, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Redwan al-Homsi.

Topics covered

syrian, idlib, aleppo

Nov 30, 2012

Though Syrian National Council President George Sabra started his tenure by requesting arms on three occasions, and while the head of the opposition National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib continues to demand military support, it seems that, at least in some areas of northern Syria, calls like these are no longer given much consideration.

The recent developments that accompanied the fighting in Aleppo and Idlib reinforce this idea. The militants are no longer demanding a buffer zone, a no-fly zone or direct intervention, even though they would have been able to achieve this amid the state of massive military chaos sweeping Aleppo. This chaos is offset by a state of semi-order prevailing in Idlib and the rural areas surrounding Latakia. As for the Kurdish areas, political score-settling has been postponed, pending a likely agreement between the fighters and the Kurdish parties.

As a result, a group of combat battalions dubbed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) came into existence. But it is more like a headless body with no structure. It communicates with foreign countries before domestic sides. Its members sometimes disregard the many formal leaders — divided between the Turkish border and locations inside Syria — who have no authority.

At first glance, this mixture appears to be homogeneous. However, an in-depth look reveals sharp contradictions between moderate Islamists, domestic Islamic Salafists and foreign jihadists. This opens the door to an imminent conflict between the groups that are seen by the the international community as a single body.

A military distribution map

Some might think that the northern areas of the country are being shared by the combat battalions in a way where each battalion controls an area. But this is not how things are. More than one combat group can be detected in one area, and they work to achieve different objectives in many cases.

For example, one of the battalions may carry out an operation as a media stunt to attract the attention of the press, while others take on the task of protecting the “liberated” area.

Despite this, the Idlib countryside is witnessing a significant presence of Salafist groups, particularly near the Turkish border. These groups extend to northern Latakia, though in smaller numbers. It is noteworthy that most of the fighters in Idlib hail from the same countryside and generally enjoy broad social support.

In Latakia, the militants come from different coastal villages and towns, and even other Syrian cities. However, those in rural Aleppo are battalions that were formed from the heart of the rural areas and supported themselves with their own human and financial resources, taking advantage of the familial bonds and social solidarity that are generally present in the countryside.

Here, too, religious fanaticism does not appear clearly. Most of these battalions have come to enjoy excellent relations with the city brigades, which are mostly comprised of fighters coming from the Aleppo countryside, and then fighters from the Idlib, Hama and Homs countrysides.

In contrast to the state of discipline in Idlib, Aleppo is living in overwhelming chaos, which some attribute to the spite felt toward the city because of its delay in joining the revolution. Others attribute it to the large area of Aleppo and the emergence of gangs that are actually made up of criminals posing under the banner of the FSA. According to the accounts of activists in the district of Sayf al-Dawla, this state of chaos led to demonstrations in some areas that explicitly demanded the departure of the FSA from their territory, an end to the disregard for civilian lives and control over the killings, kidnappings and executions.

As for fighters coming from abroad, activists classify them into two categories. The first includes those who are Syrian in origin and have decided to end their expatriate lives and return to fight at home. Their numbers are significant, but they quickly blend into the military life of the fighters. The second category includes Arabs traveling to Syria to fight. They are very few, and most of them support Salafist groups or the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

In contrast, while some battalions announce coordination and solidarity with each other, other groups seem to be going at it alone, even after the formation of military and revolutionary councils and military leadership. These have claimed to be capable of uniting the armed opposition groups, at the forefront of which are the Salafists.

For example, despite the announcement from the Ahrar al-Sham Brigades that they are coordinating with FSA leadership, sources close to both parties assert that the Ahrar al-Sham brigades are acting as if they were the only force on the ground in the fighting. The same applies to the Al-Nusra Front.

And even at the level of internal coordination, the vast majority of activists in Aleppo, Idlib and the Latakia countryside explicitly say that these battalions make their decisions alone or in agreement among each other, if there is contact between them.

Accordingly, the military leadership, including the Military Council or the Joint Command and even FSA commander Riad al-Asaad seem to be in one valley, and the battalions in another. Thus, most battalions refused to adhere to the cease-fire proposed by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Sources close to the battalions attribute this to considerations of the battlefield. Others note that the salaries of fighters were only distributed once and then stopped, and the fighters have not received a single lira in several months. This does not necessarily mean that any factions have managed to organize themselves financially.

An activist close to the FSA said, “In fact, the military leadership has not provided anything. Thus, the leaders depended on themselves and their foreign relations to secure funding, and in some cases, on media shows to introduce the world to them."

Finding support and arms

The arms capacity of the battalions varies among the factions. This is dependent on one of two things: either their ability to communicate with the outside world — and thus buy arms directly — or their ability to acquire them from their military operations against the regular army, which is still in control of many of the main facilities in key cities. The Salafists remain the most capable of obtaining semi-regular funding, as well as massive military equipment that would enable them to execute major operations, such as the explosion in the Saadallah al-Jabiri Square in the heart of the city of Aleppo.

Sources close to them note that they are mainly supported by expatriate figures and combat groups abroad, and by associations that support the Salafist jihadist ideology. The remaining battalions have similar sources of funding and purchasing arms.

However, some get specific support from foreign countries, most notably Liwa al-Tawheed, which is greatly backed by Turkey and is considered to be the most powerful group on the ground in Aleppo. The Al-Farouq battalions enjoy Saudi support, while the Qataris tend to support other smaller groups.

In the event that a state disagrees with the group that represents it, it would have no problem switching to another direction. An activist points to this in while commenting on the statement issued by a group of brigades in Aleppo, in which they refuse to recognize the National Coalition and call for the establishment of an Islamic state. The activist notes that a number of factions that signed the statement did so in an attempt to get closer to the Al-Nusra Front and the Salafist current in order to obtain similar support after facing a decline of their foreign support. But this did not happen due to the public anger over the factions’ attempt to impose power by arms, and their rush — particularly by the Al-Tawheed Front — to evade signing it.

The key to the armament operations remains the anti-aircraft missiles that seem to have reached the fighters, either through covert purchasing operations (activists on the ground in northern Syria and Turkey confirm that the rocket sale deals take place by approval from the Turkish and US intelligence services, which barred it in previous months), or by looting them from military bases and air-defense battalions.

Although the fighters possess these missiles, it is still too early to declare the north a liberated zone. Yesterday [Nov. 28], the regime’s aircraft approached the Turkish border, shelled border areas and then returned to their bases. Activists present at the scene said that the Turkish planes only flew and formed a line of white smoke as a border signal along the Syrian airspace.

Few expect that the Patriot missile system will create a no-fly zone that supports the work of the anti-aircraft missiles that can only reach Aleppo and Idlib. In the meantime, there is no information coming out of the western areas north of Latakia, nor out of al-Raqqa on the opposite side. This is at a time when the situation is still tense in the far northeast Kurdish areas.

However, a transformation might happen, given that the fighters have managed to gain control of military sites belonging to the regime in the countryside, and have managed to take control of various weapons and ammunition. They managed to gain — for the first time — tanks and artillery, in addition to downing an aircraft in Idlib.

This is expected to increase the power of the FSA in general, but only some battalions will receive it. This opens the door to a conflict emerging among the combat battalions and the Salafists, both with one goal: military unity.

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Tareq al-Abed