Free Syrian Army losing ground

Article Summary
Amid a rise in extremist groups and internal splits, it seems the Free Syrian Army no longer maintains a significant presence on the ground, at least in its previous form.

“The old, supposedly moderate, opposition has been marginalized. Its plan since 2011 has been to force a full-scale Western military intervention as in Libya in 2011 and, when this did not happen, they lacked an alternative strategy.” (Patrick Cockburn - The Independent).

Cockburn, one of the most prominent Western journalists specializing in the Middle East, repeated what has already been leaked about Western intelligence agencies’ views regarding the situation in Syria. In principle, there is no longer a real need to refer to such reports. One can argue that the developments that swept across the Syrian fronts for months are more than enough to talk about the “marginalization of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).” The FSA is practically over, at least in the sense of its previous form and constituent protocol. What is happening today is nothing more than recycling the function of the army, as a prelude to a new phase, whose features are still unclear.

Reading the FSA’s fate requires reviewing the stances and events that highlighted the fact that the fate of the FSA was strongly linked to the disposition of regional players, who are proving day after day that they are the biggest influences on the Syrian movement, especially since it has taken a military turn. The militarization option was made possible through money, media, religious rhetoric and in view of a very complicated regional situation. This has veered the first demonstrations of the country off course.

Two years after its founding, the FSA’s rhetoric continues to be based on the will of its regional supporters, who are looking after their own interests. The symbols of the army were mere fantasies, promoted by those players. The contradiction between facts and considerations was even greater every time bets were lost and expectations failed. This is not to mention the change of equation, especially the identity of the actors on the ground, which necessitated changes in the vision of these regional players. Their reading of the events has changed since the beginning of the uprising, as the popular rhetoric lost ground and was no longer able to justify the turn of events.

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During the first year of the conflict, the FSA ruled out any possibility of importing militants to fight in Syria. In fact, FSA founder Riad al-Asaad stressed that these claims [regarding foreign fighters] were nothing more than fabrications on the part of the regime, and that Syrians were capable of protecting themselves and ousting the regime without the intervention of individuals, states or groups from outside (in the interview with Middle East Voices website in December 2011). He then banked on the Western rhetoric, psychological and media wars against the regime, expecting it to fall by the end of the first year of the uprising (Al-Majalla magazine, which is issued in London, February 2012).

Asaad was keen to refute all concerns about al-Qaeda's growth, confirming that it does not have a popular base [in Syria]. "Those who are acting on behalf of al-Qaeda are former convicts released by the regime to serve its interest," he said to Al Jazeera in June 2012. "The Syrian people will not accept any of the so-called mujahedeen and terrorists in their territory," he also said to Radio Sawa in September 2012.

However, the facts on the ground made the FSA founder take a different stance to reconcile reality with his previous statements, so as to not lose credibility in the eyes of the large majority of the public. Thus, he backtracked on his first stance regarding the armed opposition. Two years after the beginning of the uprising, he said that Jabhat al-Nusra is the "sincere faction" among the warring forces (in a videotape recorded in March 2013). These statements came after he had been fed up with the empty promises made from abroad and the uprising representatives, who were staying in hotels.

After the decision to marginalize him, and following the assassination attempt that forced him to have his legs amputated, Asaad decided to reveal the positions of certain parties that remained undisclosed until that time. He accused the Syrian National Council of "hijacking the revolution" and making serious attempts along with the Syrian Nation Coalition to assassinate him.” (Okaz newspaper, September 2013).

The truth of the matter is that Asaad was no longer in the equation of the big players, as was the case of the head of the FSA military council, Brig. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, who had previously said, "As long as the world is not supporting the Syrian opposition, its members will turn into a group of terrorists." (The Daily Telegraph, November 2012).

The West was partially behind the renewal of bloodshed of the FSA. This is in line with the desire of the Gulf states to tip the balance of power in favor of groups with similar ideologies, without losing grip of the situation, so that the army will not lose credit as was the case of al-Qaeda and the like.

Brig. Gen. Salim Idris was elected president of the unified military leadership of a group that included militants, whose ideology is removed from al-Qaeda's and closer to the Muslim Brotherhood's approach, backed by Qatar and Salafists who are on good terms with the rest of the Gulf states.

As Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and similar groups gained ground, Saudi Arabia took up the reins of the armed opposition instead of Qatar, willing to belittle the Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed by both Doha and Ankara. It feared the repercussions of a settlement between the United States and Iran and started to form a force outside the FSA, which it can solely control.

With the absence of prominent field leaders — following the resignation a few months ago of Abdul-Jabbar Alkaidy, the head of the military council in Aleppo — and the assassination a few weeks ago of Abdul Kader Saleh, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, this plan has become easier.

Saudi Arabia sponsored the announcement last month of the Islamic Front, which includes seven opposition battalions. In its founding protocol, the front describes itself as a "comprehensive, military, political and Islamic group that seeks to completely overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and build an Islamic state, governed by Sharia as the only prevailing law."

While the FSA is facing rivalry by a more radical rhetoric, its field operations proved to have hit rock bottom as the army's secretary-general, Amar Wawi, was arrested by ISIS a few days ago. The FSA also failed to protect its weapons stores on the border with Turkey.

There are many indications suggesting the imminent end of the FSA, at least in its previous form. Confusion and uncertainty characterize the FSA's rhetoric today. Meanwhile, the main concern of the army's leader, Idris, is to deny the claims that the FSA is ready to cooperate with the Syrian army to face al-Qaeda and the news saying that Idris has left Syria, fleeing from al-Qaeda.

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Found in: syria, opposition, muslim brotherhood, islamic state of iraq and al-sham, gulf states, free syrian army, al-qaeda
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