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Syria's Armed Opposition: Free Syrian Army

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Members of a Free Syrian Army group on the front lines at Bustan Al Qasr May 18, 2013 in Aleppo, Syria.
Antonio Bolfo/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Free Syrian Army: Who Are They:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was the first organized attempt at armed opposition against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The FSA was formally announced in July 2011 by defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces loyal to Assad, after months of government repression against a peaceful uprising of Syrians demanding political freedoms .

The FSA initially attracted two types of recruits:
  • Army deserters: The bulk of the fighting force consists of rank-and-file soldiers and mid-ranking officers who have deserted the army after refusing to take part in the bloody crackdown on anti-government protests. Online videos of officers defiantly brandishing their military IDs and denouncing the regime became one of the hallmarks of the Syrian uprising.

  • Local militias: Growing numbers of civilians are also joining armed opposition, typically in areas that have witnessed violent suppression of mass protest. These are essentially local defense forces or militias, though often led by a former army officer or joined by local deserting soldiers.

Free Syrian Army Command:

Syrian opposition parties united in the Syrian National Coalition have little influence over the armed resistance. Free Syrian Army’s headquarters are based in Turkey’s southern Hatay province, but its control over military operations inside Syria is under severe strain due to lack of equipment and resources.

Combine this with a steady flow of recruits and you get serious operational problems. Hundreds of armed groups have sprung up across Syria, with little coordination on the national level, and plenty of local rivalries over the access to funds or weapons seized from government forces. And while many of these militias swear allegiance to the FSA, the fluid conditions on the ground dictate that they operate more or less independently from central command.

Free Syrian Army Strength:

The FSA is a patchwork of lightly armed, local fighting units. FSA brigades mount simultaneous hit-and-run attacks across the country in a war of attrition against the more powerful, but overstretched enemy. There are daily ground attacks on army bases, military airports, checkpoints, as well as assassinations and bombings against government targets.

The FSA has strong support in rural areas, particularly among the Syria’s Sunni majority, and in the suburbs of the capital Damascus. There are perhaps over 100 000 armed rebels in Syria, but faced with the regime’s air power and heavy artillery, the poorly organized militias have yet to make a credible attempt to take over the capital.

The New York Times has this report on the troubles facing the rebel forces.

Who is Funding Syrian Rebels?:

And this is where foreign support comes into play. Most of the funding for Syrian rebels comes from wealthy Syrian businessmen, but more substantial material support is expected to be facilitated by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and possibly Turkey. Various Islamist groups in Syria's neighbouring countries are also believed to be backing individual fighting units, by-passing the formal FSA command in Turkey.

However, an influx of massive funds from Bashar al-Assad’s regional adversaries may not necessarily shape Syria’s armed opposition into a more cohesive military force. It’s quite possible we’ll be seeing foreign actors scramble for loyalty of various armed groups within the Free Syrian Army, in the process creating powerful local warlords that will pay little attention to civilian opposition.

Read more on why Saudi Arabia supports Syrian opposition.

Can Free Syrian Army Defeat Assad:

By early 2013, various rebel groups scored significant gains against retreating government troops in northern and eastern Syria, overrunning military bases, taking over border crossings with Turkey, and capturing roughly half of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital.

However, many of these successes have been the work of Islamist militias, including Al Qaeda-linked groups such as the infamous Al Nusra Front. The FSA itself has largely faltered as an organized insurgent force.

In fact, a report commissioned by the US State Department in late 2012 painted a bleak picture of the chaotic situation in rebel-held areas of Syria’s north. “There are hundreds of small groups (10-20 fighters) spread all over the area of Aleppo," says the report, noting that the "rebel violations are becoming a normal daily phenomenon, especially against civilians, including looting public and private factories, storage places, houses and cars.”

The FSA formal command seems ill-equipped to prevent radical Islamists from stepping into the vacuum left behind by a collapsing regime and a divided Syrian opposition.

Read more on the dangers of militarization facing Syria.

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