[Dehai-WN] Jamestown.org: The Turn to Armed Rebellion in Syria: The Rise of the Free Syrian Army

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Sun, 18 Dec 2011 00:05:45 +0100

The Turn to Armed Rebellion in Syria: The Rise of the Free Syrian Army

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 46

December 16, 2011 03:52 PM Age: 1 days

frelation_pi1%5Bauthor%5D=316> Chris Zambelis

Tensions in the Levant remain at a fever pitch as the uprising against the
regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presses ahead into its ninth
month in the face of a relentless government crackdown and a rising body
count Occurring on the back of the popular revolts launched against
incumbent autocrats that have taken the Arab world by storm, opponents of
the sitting Baathist regime operating under the auspices of the Syrian
National Council (SNC) are leading the charge to forge a unified political
front against the regime. Led by Paris-based professor Burhan Ghalioun and
composed of a disparate array of activists based in Syria and abroad,
including Islamist organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the SNC
serves as an umbrella movement agitating for the fall of the Baathist
regime. [1] The SNC continues to petition the international community to
levy additional punitive measures against Damascus. In a sign of its
growing clout, SNC leaders recently met with U.S Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton in Geneva, her second meeting with the group.

While domestic and international pressure builds on Damascus, the Baathist
regime continues to demonstrate its resilience. The regime's resort to
suppressing dissent with violence, however, has triggered a violent response
in kind by a murky network of defectors from the Syrian Army and other
sections of the security apparatus as well as civilian volunteers who have
collectively dubbed themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Having
established formal contacts with the SNC, the FSA has steadily gained
traction as the official armed wing of the Syrian opposition (al-Jazeera,
November 16).

A Call to Arms

In the FSA's July 29 inaugural statement, FSA commander Riyad Musa al-Asa'd
and seven other defecting officers outlined the FSA's positions and mission.
Al-Asa'd is a Syrian Air Force colonel who defected from his position after
refusing to follow what he alleges were orders to open fire at unarmed
protesters. In a call to arms, al-Asa'd implored members of the Syrian Army
to join the FSA while lambasting the actions of the Syrian Army: "The Syrian
Army now represents only the gangs that protect the regime" (al-Sharq
al-Awsat, August 1). Remarking on the officers' decision to defect from
their posts, al- Asa'd added:

Proceeding from our nationalistic sense, our loyalty to this people, our
sense of the current need for conclusive decisions to stop this regime's
massacres that cannot be tolerated any longer, and proceeding from the
army's responsibility to protect this unarmed free people, we announce the
formation of the Free Syrian Army to work hand in hand with the people to
achieve freedom and dignity to bring this regime down, protect the
revolution and the country's resources, and stand in the face of the
irresponsible military machine that protects the regime" (al-Sharq
al-Awsat, August 1).

Al- Asa'd followed with a threat to his former military colleagues: "As of
now, the security forces that kill civilians and besiege cities will be
treated as legitimate targets. We will target them in all parts of the
Syrian territories without exception" (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1). [2]

A Budding Insurgency

The FSA has staged a number of attacks on Syrian military and security force
targets. The FSA has also struck civilian facilities linked to the regime,
including offices associated with the ruling Baath Party. The formation of
the FSA signals an attempt to unify the multiple pockets of armed resistance
that are being formed by defectors from the Syrian Army and other armed
factions. As is often the case with nascent insurgencies, accurate reports
regarding the number of FSA fighters are hard to find, but estimates range
from the high hundreds up to 25,000 men organized into 22 battalions across
Syria - the latter a bold exaggeration likely crafted to amplify the
perception of the FSA's capabilities (al-Jazeera, December 2). FSA leaders
operate from refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border in Turkey's
southern Hatay Province, although Ankara insists that it is not lending the
group operational support. Hatay and other regions in southern Turkey are
host to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence back home. In
spite of Turkish denials of support, FSA fighters are exploiting the
relative safety they enjoy in southern Turkey to mount attacks against
Syrian forces (Hurriyet [Istanbul], December 6). The FSA is also alleged to
have established bases in northern Lebanon and northern Jordan, regions that
have similarly witnessed an influx in Syrian refugees (al-Jazeera, October
28). Overall, the FSA appears to be growing in strength and scope.

Since emerging on the scene, the FSA has boasted of engaging Syrian security
forces across the country in armed skirmishes, hit-and-run ambushes,
assassinations, and other operations conducted in and around hotbeds of
opposition such as the cities of Homs and Hama (located in the west-central
part of the country), and the northwestern Idlib Province along the
Syrian-Turkish border (al-Jazeera, September 27). It was the FSA's November
16 attack against a Syrian Air Force Intelligence facility in Harasta
(approximately six miles northeast of Damascus) that elevated the group's
profile in Syria and beyond. Previously seen as a ragtag assembly of
fighters, the attack using rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and coordinated
small arms fire against a hardened target like the intelligence facility at
Harasta demonstrated a new level of operational sophistication for the FSA.
The symbolism behind the attack is also noteworthy: Syrian Air Force
Intelligence works in concert with other sections of Syrian Military
Intelligence to root out dissent within the armed forces (al-Jazeera,
November 16). The FSA attacked an additional Air Force Intelligence
facility on December 1 in Idlib Province, killing at least eight members of
the unit (al-Akhbar [Beirut], December 2). Elsewhere the FSA has executed
attacks against Syrian military and police checkpoints and armored vehicle
convoys. Fixed installations such as police stations are also being struck
with increasing regularity.

The FSA and SNC appear sensitive to allegations directed against them by the
regime and their detractors in Syria and abroad that they are harboring
criminal or terrorist militants with radical Islamist or other insidious
agendas within their ranks. SNC head Ghalioun and other key figures in the
opposition recently met with FSA leaders in Turkey to convince them to
restrict their activities to what Ghalioun labeled "defensive" as opposed to
"offensive" operations to maintain the "peaceful nature" of the uprising.

During a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal outlining the
opposition's position on a number of key issues, Ghalioun expressed his
concern about the role of the FSA in a post al-Assad scenario: "We do not
want, after the fall of the regime in Syria, armed militias outside the
control of the state" (Wall Street Journal, December 2). A December 8
attack in the region of Tal Asour against a major pipeline that transports
crude oil to the refinery in Homs and similar attacks targeting Syria's
economic infrastructure have elicited a fierce reaction from the regime,
which blames "terrorists," a euphemism for the FSA and the broader
opposition. The FSA has not claimed responsibility for the attack against
the pipeline. Opponents of the regime allege that the pipeline was
sabotaged by Damascus, possibly in an effort to discredit the opposition in
the eyes of the residents of Homs (al-Akhbar, December 8). The FSA has also
engaged in a series of lengthy firefights in recent weeks, including a
battle in the northern town of Ain al-Baida along the Syrian-Turkish
frontier that followed an attempt by 35 FSA fighters to infiltrate Syrian
territory from Turkey (al-Akhbar, December 7). The FSA engaged Syrian
forces in another major confrontation in the southern towns of Busra
al-Harir and Lujah near the Syrian-Jordanian border (al-Akhbar, December 11;
al-Jazeera, December 12).

In spite of claims by the regime and its opponents that it is receiving
foreign support, the FSA appears to be relying on light automatic weapons,
RPGs and explosives, essentially the weapons carried by servicemen prior to
defecting from the Syrian Army. A brisk trade in arms between Lebanese
smugglers with access to Lebanon's copious arms market and their Syrian
counterparts is also helping to replenish FSA weapons and ammunition stocks
(al-Akhbar, December 4). It is unclear if the FSA is receiving intelligence
support or other forms of assistance to bolster its operational
capabilities. The FSA has expressed its wish for foreign military support
akin to the assistance NATO and other members of the international community
provided to Libyan insurgents during their struggle against the regime of
Mu'ammar Qaddafi regime (Hurriyet, October 8). The FSA has also called for
the international community to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (al-Jazeera,
November 20). With an eye toward winning over international public opinion,
the FSA operates an extensive information section issuing regular
announcements online through its official Facebook page as well as a network
of websites sympathetic to its cause. The FSA has also posted video footage
of its attacks on YouTube and other online social media outlets. FSA
leaders as well as regular members frequently engage with journalists to
make their case.

Filling the Ranks

A great detail of uncertainty surrounds the composition of the FSA and its
ultimate intensions. The Islamist component of its SNC partner has elicited
similar concerns regarding the overall trajectory of the Syrian opposition.
Specifically, the sectarian makeup of the FSA, a group dominated by
low-ranking conscripts and officers of the Sunni Arab majority, has led many
to examine the potential influence of ultraconservative Salafists or even
al-Qaeda-style militants on the movement. The public role of the banned
Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC is already well known (al-Arabiya [Dubai],
November 17). The dominant role of the Alawis, an Islamic sect viewed by
many orthodox Muslims as heretical, is a source of widespread resentment
within the Sunni community. President al-Assad is an Alawi and many of the
most influential positions in politics, the economy, and the security
services are dominated by his Alawi allies. The specter of creeping
sectarianism in Syria has left many fearful of the prospects of a
sectarian-driven civil war.

Damascus regularly attributes a role to criminal gangs, domestic and foreign
terrorist organizations, and international rivals such as the United States,
Saudi Arabia, and Qatar in sustaining the FSA and the broader opposition
movement (Syrian Arab News Agency, November 30; December 10). Concerns
about radical Islamist influence within the FSA and the opposition were
frequently conveyed to this author in discussions with Syrians living and
working in Beirut, including many who sympathize with the demands of the
opposition. [3] FSA and SNC leaders categorically refute reports of radical
Islamist influence within their ranks.

Battleground Lebanon

A consideration of Syria's alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas - the
so-called "Axis of Resistance" - against the backdrop of the uprisings that
are upending the regional status quo provides insight into the multiplicity
of interests at play. The regional fallout stemming from the ouster of
Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the concurrent displays of dissent in
Bahrain and other U.S. allies is a trend viewed by many as strengthening
actors such as Iran and Hezbollah even as their ally Syria contends with its
own crisis. In spite of their popular appeal among wide segments of Syrian
society, the actions of the FSA and its SNC partner must also be considered
in the context of the greater rivalry between the United States and its
regional allies on one side and Iran and Syria on the other. The reaction
of key actors in neighboring Lebanon to events in Syria, a country whose
fortunes are tied so closely to Syria, also reflects this trend.

Support for the FSA and the Syrian opposition is being broadcast out of
Lebanon. Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli, a traditional center of
Salafist activism, has seen a number of protests against Syria. Prominent
radical Salafist clerics in Tripoli, including Dai al-Islam al-Shahhal, have
called on Syrian Sunnis to join the uprising against the Baathist regime
(Daily Star [Beirut], July 9). Beirut has also witnessed a number of
protests in recent months by anti-Syrian demonstrators. Lebanon's U.S.- and
Saudi-aligned March 14 Alliance (which includes former Lebanese prime
minster Sa'ad Hariri's Sunni-dominated Future Movement) is in the forefront
of organizing anti-Syrian activities in Lebanon. March 14 dominates the
political landscape in Tripoli, where it enjoys a loyal following among the
local Salafist community.

The March 14 Alliance's rival in Lebanon is the March 8 Alliance, which
features Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria and Iran. Hezbollah has not shied
away from affirming its support for Damascus. To mark the occasion of
Ashura on December 6, the day when Shi'a Muslims mourn the death of Hussein
during the Battle of Karbala in 680 BCE, Hezbollah Secretary General Shaykh
Hassan Nasrallah made a surprise public appearance in Beirut's southern
suburb of Dahiyeh, his first public appearance since 2006. Reiterating
Hezbollah's support for the Syrian president, Nasrallah declared: "We remain
in our stance; we support the reforms in Syria, and we are with a resisting
government," adding that "some people want to destroy Syria and compensate
for their loss in Iraq" (al-Manar [Beirut], December 12)


Syria has fast emerged as a battleground for the wider currents angling to
shape a new geopolitical map of the Middle East in their favor. Damascus
believes that the FSA and its SNC partner are acting to shore up the
position of the United States and its Gulf allies following the resilient
displays of dissent in Egypt and other pro-U.S. authoritarian regimes, the
perceived gains made by Iran in Iraq and the wider Gulf region, and the
growing influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon. On the surface, SNC head
Ghalioun's intention to steer Syria away from its strategic military
relationships with Iran and Hezbollah in a post al-Assad scenario in favor
of friendlier relations with Gulf countries appears to vindicate the
Baathist regime's claim that the FSA and the opposition in general have a
duplicitous nature.

Syria, in essence, sees the FSA and SNC as illegitimate proxy forces acting
at the behest of hostile foreign interests. Many of the objectives and
interests of the FSA and SNC clearly converge with those of Syria's rivals,
a reality that strengthens the regime's narrative of domestic and regional
events. At the same time, the reality of having to confront a widening
insurgency that is becoming progressively more aggressive and effective in
the midst of sustained international pressure does not bode well for the
regime's long-term stability.

Chris Zambelis is an author and researcher with Helios Global, Inc., a risk
management group based in the Washington, DC area. He specializes in Middle
East politics. The opinions expressed here are the author's alone and do not
necessarily reflect the position of Helios Global, Inc.


1. See <http://www.syriannc.org/> http://www.syriannc.org/. See also
Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 15, 2011.

2. The FSA's inaugural videotape statement is available at

3. Lebanese expressed similar concerns regarding the extent of radical
Islamist influence inside the Syrian opposition and the potential of
spillover of instability into Lebanon in the event that the regime falls.
Insights gleaned through numerous discussions with members of the Syrian
community in Beirut, as well as Lebanese, Beirut, Lebanon, November-December




Defectors from the Syrian national army join the Free Syria Army


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