Free Syrian Army Seeks To Unite Rebel Factions

To keep up with other opposition groups as well as the regime army, the Free Syrian Army is trying to bring together splintered groups and new leadership.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they take up position prior to an offensive against forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor, July 11, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

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syrian, saudi, jabhat al-nusra

Jul 18, 2013

The opposition Syrian National Coalition is prolonging losing control over the country’s north to safeguard what remains of its influence there in the face of chaos and the Salafist jihadist threat.

During the past few hours, Michel Kilo, a member of the coalition’s political committee, headed to Riyadh to meet with Deputy Defense Minister Fahd bin Abdullah, and the director of Saudi intelligence Bandar bin Sultan, who was expected to arrive in Paris within hours on the first leg of a European tour. This is similar to the tour he carried out a month and a half ago, and he was expected to meet with diplomats and security officials in France, Germany and Britain.

In his lightning European tour, the director of Saudi intelligence will resume his efforts to mobilize the Europeans into implementing the decision reached in the last Paris meeting. During this meeting, it was agreed that participants would work together towards restoring a military balance between the FSA and the regime army, prior to taking steps aimed at finding a political solution, in addition to seeking a continued commitment to supply the FSA with advanced weapons, instructors and experts.

Kilo needs to deal with two crucial issues that the coalition and the areas controlled by the opposition must contend with in the country sides of Idlib, Aleppo, Raqqah, Jabal al-Zawiya, and some other regions adjacent to the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as parts of Homs and Hama’s countrysides. Despite that the coalition lacks a clear political agenda, Kilo carries with him a two-pronged plan, containing both military and political components. This plan is meant to meet al-Qaeda’s expected move of establishing an Islamic state in Syria’s north, as well as the Kurds, who are beginning to put their house in order in the areas that they control to declare self-rule following local elections, which are currently being organized and are expected to take place within the next three months.

Militarily, Kilo seeks to include the dissident Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass into the FSA’s new command structure, where Tlass would hold an important position among its chiefs of staff. Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Salim Idris would be moved to the Defense Ministry’s executive body, which will be established to run the areas controlled by the opposition. Tlass arrived recently in Istanbul via Jordan, where he met with a number of FSA and American officers to persuade them to include officers belonging to minority groups into his command. His Istanbul meetings were also expected to focus on the same issue.

Tlass’ return may encourage the assimilation of hundreds of dissident Syrian officers and soldiers into the new structure, particularly, according to Kilo’s plan, Alawite and Christian officers who preferred fleeing to refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan to joining the ranks of the FSA. The latter lacks coordination between its brigades and its armament is inferior to the jihadist factions. Additionally, hundreds of dissident officers and soldiers returned to Turkish camps to escape the latest battles in Aleppo.

Coalition members and supporters all agree that it is imperative to stand up to al-Qaeda, which is reorganizing in the Syrian north. The hope is that reshuffling the military structure of the FSA, and integrating a number of dissident and trained professional officers and soldiers, would restore military power while reducing the influence of civilians who lack the military expertise needed in this period of “restoring balance with the [regular] Syrian army.”

The coalition will not be able to discuss restructuring the regular Syrian Army by demanding that members of the FSA be integrated into its ranks — in the context of a political solution to the crisis — without attracting high-ranking officers who prefer the hospitality of Turkey’s Yayladagi and Altinozu camps to the battlefields of Aleppo, Idlib and Homs.

In this regard, Kilo said: “The FSA must be capable of operating as a true standing army. It currently is composed of a number of officers and a large quantity of civilians. Hundreds of dissident officers currently in Turkey and Jordan will be asked to return to Syria to play an important part in the coming few months. We have enough reserve forces to conduct lengthy military operations, and, in the end, President Bashar al-Assad is the one who will be vanquished.”

Such a wager necessitates finding sources of financing independent of those coming from Saudi Arabia, which, thanks to Bandar bin Sultan, has become the coalition’s main sponsor. Kilo expects such independence to be achieved through “revenues from activities taking place inside the liberated areas, which can generate $5 billion to $7 billion in yearly revenue. This would allow us to buy our own weaponry.”

But the coalition’s Saudi sponsor is hedging its bets. In fact, a prominent opposition figure with close ties to Riyadh said that the Saudis were not only wagering on the FSA to restore [military ] balance with Damascus. Saudi intelligence services were also actively arming jihadist factions in the north of Syria, such as the Ahrar ash-Sham (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), and others. Furthermore, during the past week, more than 1,500 jihadist militants crossed the Turkish border on their way to Aleppo’s countryside to bolster the ranks of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria movement, with 300 of them continuing on to Iraq, according to Syrian opposition sources.

The French Le Canard Enchainé daily wrote that last week, the French Foreign Ministry received diplomatic and security reports from Beirut indicating that 400 Pakistani Taliban fighters had crossed via Turkey to the north of Syria. But it remains unclear whether the Turks would surrender to the the coalition or whether the Saudis would give up the army of Syrian refugee officers and soldiers that they control, having rejected in the past similar demands to mobilize those men and put them at the service of the coalition.

On the political front, Kilo, who succeeded in wrenching the coalition away from Qatari and Muslim Brotherhood domination by establishing a democratic foothold with Saudi support, resumed his plan to develop the coalition’s activities. He did this by reviving a proposal presented by its former president, Moaz al-Khatib, to form an executive body responsible for administering northern Syria. Ever since Ghassan Hito was removed and an end was put to Qatar’s running of the coalition — and since the rejection of the Qatari proposal to form a mini-government to run the north of Syria, where the opposition controls large swaths of the countryside adjacent to the Turkish border — Kilo revived Khatib’s plan to form an executive body. This body would be tasked with administering those areas where Syrian shelling and air bombardments prevent the establishment of a stable regime that is independent from Damascus.

It should be noted that Hito failed to form his interim government as a result of a lack of agreement on its makeup between the coalition’s different factions, and the FSA’s refusal, with Saudi prodding, to join such a government. The same hurdles will stand in the way of the executive body, which will be comprised of 10 “ministers” from outside the coalition. But the real obstacle, away from any disagreements among coalition members and supporters, will result from the lack of any mechanism by which this “ministry” would exercise its authority, even if it were confined to areas controlled by the FSA, which are but a few and non-contiguous islands of influence located in Syria’s north.

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