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Inside the Free Syrian Army
by Ilhan Tanir
February 2, 2012
The information in the
following report was gathered during a trip to the suburbs of Damascus,
including Harasta, Saqba, Hamoriye, Misraba, and Douma, between January 12-26,
2012, before Syrian security forces arrested and deported the author on January
26th. Over one dozen Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders were
interviewed, as well as FSA armed members and activists affiliated with the
media campaign arm of the uprising called “tensikiyat.”
On January 21st, the Free Syrian Army (FSA)
generated enough support from the local people of Douma to retaliate against
the Syrian regime forces and force them out. As of January 24th, the
Damascus suburbs of Douma, Misraba, Hammuriye, Saqba and Erbin, all less than
thirty minutes from central Damascus, were under FSA control. Checkpoints are
manned by militias while the Syrian army is situated on the outskirts of
Eastern Ghouta, the region in which all of these suburban cities lie.
Early this week, regime forces began an anticipated assault on these cities to try to regain their control. Thus far, they have taken back Harasta, the closest city to the heart of Damascus, and there are ongoing clashes between the FSA and regime forces in Douma, Saqba, Hamoriye and Misaraba. The FSA has since gained international recognition as a key opposition force in Syria, but still very little is known of its organization and composition.
Having visited over half a dozen suburbs of Damascus and witnessing Free Syrian Army (FSA) branches in each, I have found that the Free Syrian Army branches operate independently, each with their own structure and tactics. According to FSA leaders and informed parties, only central Damascus is without such a force due to difficult conditions and the overwhelming security presence there. Each local chapter has unique characteristics: while cities like Homs, Hama and Zabadani have enough men and resources to face the regime forces, others such as Qaboun, Harasta, Hammuriyah and Saqba only serve to monitor the streets in the evenings to protect civilians during protests. Some of the FSA branches have set cameras on local roads in cities where they operate in order to receive information about the regime’s security forces’ movements.
Each branch intentionally operates independently of the others. In the present security climate, in which torture by regime forces is very much a reality, the golden rule is: the less one knows the better. Such independence makes it nearly impossible to name FSA members from other cities.
An inside source who provides logistical support for the FSA said that there are 20 main branches of FSA throughout the country and 450 subsidiary branches under them. In addition, there are thousands of affiliated safe houses, some of which I had the chance to see during my stay in Saqba and Douma. Though branches operate independently from one another, FSA leaders in four of five cities that I visited stated that they talk to Riad Al-Assad, the leader of FSA, every week on Skype.
Who is the FSA?
The Free Syrian Army was created to protect innocent
civilians when protests began and Syrian security forces and irregular armed
thugs, or ‘shabbiha,’ responded by attacking unarmed civilians. One leader
explained that recruits swear on the holy Quran before being recruited that
they will give up their guns once the revolution has succeeded. When
individually asked, militias couldn’t confirm the swearing upon recruitment,
but they said that they are expected to return their guns after the revolution
The FSA is comprised of defected Syrian soldiers, youth
from cities, as well as former gang members. Though unconfirmed, estimates of
total FSA soldiers number between 30,000 to 50,000. Some FSA members still
serve in the Syrian National Army and provide logistical support and
intelligence for the FSA.
FSA leaders insist that there is no presence of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) within their ranks and that this is simply propaganda spread by the regime. Though activists and people connected with the FSA admit that between 5-10% of the FSA could be comprised by Salafis or the MB, it is currently impossible to confirm. On the other hand, other Syrian opposition activists insist that there is not a single MB member left in the country since they were dispelled years ago. My own informal polling suggested that, given Syria’s Sunni majority, if the MB were to participate in the first election in a post-Assad period, it would earn a considerable percentage of the vote.
Relations with the Broader Opposition and the Arab League
Local FSA leaders do not hide their frustration with the
National Syrian Council (NSC). I was told repeatedly that the NSC is too far
removed from the streets. The FSA branches I met with have no direct
communication with the NSC and they appear to have no interest in future
communication. The consensus within the FSA is that a “No Fly Zone” or a
“Buffer Zone” is necessary. Disagreement within the NSC on this point is
reflective of the division within Syria, but it is slowing down FSA efforts.
FSA leaders have said that they are “running out of patience” waiting for the
NSC to catch up. One leader noted that the time was coming soon when the FSA
might denounce them (NSC) altogether and “put them in the same category with
Similarly, both the FSA and activists on the ground are dissatisfied with Arab League monitors and their mission. They criticize the mission, saying that it has failed to go to the cities under siege and its monitors have not spoken to the true victims of torture. FSA sources insist that he Arab League has been manipulated by security forces, who have gone so far as to change road signs to misguide the mission.
Artillery and Supply
The FSA has two primary sources for weapons according to internal sources: First, the personal cache of defected soldiers, and second, mercenaries from within the Syrian regime’s security forces. FSA leaders claim that they are unaware of weapons provided by foreign governments, but Syrian expats in Qatar, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia send money to bolster resources. Among the weapons I surveyed were Kalashnikovs, Uzis, and Belgian-made hand guns. A spike in the cost of Kalashnikovs and bullets since the revolution began has meant that local FSAs are in constant search for money to supply ammunition.
FSA leaders reject the assertion that there are foreign fighters within the country, though they don’t hide their disappointment with the lack of financial or material support provided by foreign governments.
The FSA and a Post-Assad Period
FSA leaders are aware of the tenuous situation at hand with the Alawite population and other minority groups within Syria. They admit that the fear of recriminations makes it far more difficult for Alawites and residents of Damascus to participate in protests. Given that many Alawites see their survival as linked to that of the regime, support for Assad continues. The opposition has made clear that all Syrians will have a place in the post-Assad period; however, those who actively supported the regime’s brutality against Syrians will be punished accordingly. The FSA maintain that they are not after any minorities within Syria and they want to maintain amicable relations with them.
While the FSA plans for a post-Assad period, the recent brutal offensive taken by the regime makes it difficult to foresee such a reality. Without the active support of foreign governments, it would appear that the Assad regime will continue to use all of its resources to crack down on the rebel forces.
Ilhan Tanir is the Washington correspondent for Turkish daily Vatan and a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News.