What is the Free Syrian Army? An inside look
By Koert Debeuf
Last month, I visited northern Syria three times with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
I spoke to many defected generals, commanders on the ground, people in the FSA headquarters and military-civilian organisers of humanitarian aid for all parts of Syria.
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I ate the modest food that they offered and slept on the ground among their soldiers.
I also spent many hours with brigadier general Salim Idriss, the FSA's chief of staff, and I watched the FSA in action at a battle at Quweris airport.
It was a rare honour - I was the first non-Syrian to be allowed into the headquarters of the FSA, where I spent two full days and one night.
Crossing the Turkish border into Syria is not easy. The Turkish police does not allow any non-Syrians to go in, unless you have an international press card.
The only way to cross the border is to follow a smugglers' track through olive fields, bribe Turkish soldiers and pretend that you are Syrian. The problem is that if you go in illegally, you also have to go back illegally or pay a fine.
I had to go back into Turkey twice, at night, running over a hill, following the smugglers. You have to hurry in order to be faster than police dogs. And when you arrive in the crossing point, a tiny border village in Turkey, you have to trust people you do not know to bring you back into the normal world. If you are unlucky, as I was on the second occasion, you have to change your route in order to avoid the crossfire in Syrian clashes.
Despite the risk, it is important to go and see on the ground what is happening.
And each time I was in Syria, I saw how the FSA is changing rapidly, so rapidly that many observers cannot keep up.
For example, the FSA's colonel Riaad al-Assad, said to be the FSA's original creator, is now completely out of the picture, whatever he himself might say.
Other self-proclaimed spokesmen or representatives of the FSA are also, in reality, speaking for themselves.
The FSA structure is utterly confusing, even if you do make the effort.
Whoever you talk to on the ground pretends he is the most important commander in Syria. He will denounce formal structures and glorify his own past as a freedom fighter.
I learned that the best reaction is smiling and waiting. After an hour of ranting, the real story comes out. Every time. Then it appears that the FSA does have a structure and that these commanders do operate within the structure, even though it is not yet fully formed. The FSA is not just a brand. It does exist.
The FSA and the French resistance
One could compare the FSA with the french resistance in the Second World War.
The Free French Forces, established by Charles De Gaulle in London in 1940, was at first nothing more than a name and a few officers. In 1941, one year later, little groups started to unite. But it was still impossible to talk about a "Free French Army."
There was not only a fragmentation in structure and command, but also in ideology.
Call it the Riad al-Assad era of the Free French Army.
It was only in May 1943 that (thanks to the work of Jean Moulin) the resistance forces were unified, militarily and politically in the Conseil National de la Resistance (CNR) under the leadership of Charles De Gaulle.
It took the Free French Forces three years to unite. After the unification, difficulties remained. It took some time to become fully operational on the ground.
Call this the Idriss era.
The Riad al-Assad era, or the former FSA structure
Until one year ago there was no structure at all in the Syrian armed rebellion. Every little group was called a battalion, whether it consisted of 20 or 200 fighters. The creation of the FSA by Riad al-Assad in July 2011 was just as symbolic (and also as important) as the creation of the Free French Forces by De Gaulle in 1940.
On 23 October 2011, the FSA merged with the Free Officers Movement, becoming the main organisation for military defectors.
Pure branding or not, it deserved the credit of at least trying to do something about the fragmentation. It gave the signal to the many battalion commanders that co-operation is the only way to go.
That is exactly what happened the next year.
From July 2011 until September 2012, there were many initiatives in order to create larger entities. We saw the birth of brigades like Liwa Al Tawheed and Farouk. We saw the creation of military councils, administrative councils, revolutionary councils and civilian councils.
Some initiatives were pushed by the Friends of Syria, an international opposition group, or by individual countries. Aid, money or weapons were promised if the resistance would only get organised.
Unfortunately, these international actions lacked co-ordination as well. The result was that the Syrian opposition on the ground created several parallel structures. Another problem was the split between defected soldiers on the one hand, and civilians who took up arms on the other.
Defected officers from the Syrian army organised themselves in military councils, while the civilians created revolutionary councils. In some places, as in Homs, there were even two military councils.
Although these councils often co-operated in battles on the ground, the lack of unity created a clear disadvantage when it came drawing up an overall military strategy.
This lack of unity and strategy not only meant a disadvantage in the field, it also helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's propaganda.
Even as the FSA had no communication strategy at all, the Bashar al-Assad machine knew very well what to do: discredit the FSA.
It has three lines of attack:
1. the FSA is chaos. So it is Bashar al-Assad or chaos in Syria and the region;
2. the FSA is a danger to minorities. Bashar al-Assad is the only guarantee for the security of minorities in Syria;
3. the FSA is extremist. Bashar al-Assad is the only one who can keep out terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
I am surprised at how well-organised the Bashar al-Assad propaganda machine is.
In every country in the West, media groups are working on spreading these three messages.
Meanwhile, the FSA, which has too many self-appointed spokespersons and lacks a clear message on what it wants and who it is. It has been slowly losing the communication war.
One could say the FSA was in this position from July 2011 until December 2012. It is the same situation in which the Free French Army found itself from 1940 to 1942.
The Idriss era, or the new FSA structure
On 7 December 2012, 260 officers of the FSA gathered in Antalya in Turkey.
They elected a Higher Council of Revolutionary and Military Forces and a chief of staff, Idriss.
Idriss had defected in June 2012. The main reason why he was elected is his talent for persuading people in a softly-spoken way. Going back to World War II analogies, he is more like the British general Montgomery than the US general, Patton.
Colonel Riad al-Assad was not present at the Antalya meeting. They decided he would keep the title of general commander of the FSA, but this would be a symbolic, rather than an operational title. His era is now over.
In Antalya, the revolutionary and military components were merged.
So, instead of military councils and revolutionary councils, there are now civilian-military councils.
They also organised the FSA into five fronts: the northern front (Aleppo and Idlib), the eastern front (Raqqa-Deir Ezzor and Al Hassakah), the western front (Hama-Latakia-Tartus), the central front (Homs-Rastan) and the southern front (Damascus-Dar’a-Suwayda).
Each front has its civilian-military council and its commander.
Each region/city within the front has its deputy commander, with, again, its own civilian-military council.
I met with two front commanders: Qasem Saad Eddin, commander of the central front and Abdelbasset Tawil, commander of the northern front and with Tawil's deputy commanders. They showed me detailed, strategic military plans.
They also showed me lists of who received which weapons. It was clear that they were in close contact with Idriss. Because of the strategic importance of Homs, Qasem Saad Eddin has an office next to the one of Idriss in the headquarters of the FSA.
Meanwhile, the Higher Council of Revolutionary and Military Forces consists of 30 people.
Every front has six representatives in the council, three military and three civilian ones.
They are mainly responsible for the search for and distribution of ammunition. Contrary to what has been promised, very few weapons are coming in. I have seen how the FSA had to fight cluster bombs in Quweris with self-made arms.
Just like the Free French Forces in 1943, Idriss has now also started creating a political line for the FSA. Until recently, we only knew what they were fighting against: Bashar al-Assad.
Now they are trying to formulate what they are fighting for and get their spokesmen on the same page.
This message in English and Arabic of Idriss on the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution is an example of how they are moving forward on this.
FSA unification is a bottom-up process
No-one will deny that while the FSA has made big steps forward, there is still a long way to go in order to become a well-functioning, united force like the French resistance of 1943.
Idriss has to unify battalions that are used to working independently. It takes a huge effort to convince them to go in the same direction.
What are the main problems?
1. There is hardly any communication infrastructure. Today commanders have to communicate through Skype. In many places there is no Internet connection. That is why many officers have to travel to the FSA headquarters in order to exchange information. It is very difficult to organise and unify an army in these conditions. That is why we should not be surprised if at a certain moment one of the battalions is acting on its own or is making a strategic mistake.
2. There are hardly any arms coming in. I was present during two days at the headquarters of the FSA. I saw officers coming from Homs, Deir Ezzor and many other places who wanted to meet with Idriss in order to get weapons. They were all pretty desperate. I heard many times: "How can we win the war, if we don’t have arms against these planes or tanks?" A chief of staff only gets recognition and authority if he can arm his own soldiers. This is basic. De Gaulle did not unify the French resistance by sheer charisma either.
3. Getting totally fragmented forces onto the same page takes a lot of time. Quite some battalions, certainly the revolutionary ones, have no experience in fighting in a hierarchy. So, although they might recognise the authority of the Higher Military Council, they still do not always understand what that exactly means in the day-to-day battle. Give them some time.
4. The growing importance of extremist battalions like Jabhat al-Nusra is a problem for the image and the organisation of the FSA. They do not use the FSA brand and they never will. They are not part of the FSA and they never will be. The fact that the other groups do use the name of the FSA means they are trying to distance themselves from al-Nusra and its jihadist ideology.
The FSA deserves European support
It is fair to say that the FSA is not the well-oiled force some people dream of. But it is unfair and incorrect to say that the FSA does not exist and that it is no more than just a brand.
Just like in France during the Second World War we cannot expect a bottom-up resistance movement to become a unified front in a few months.
Becoming cynical now or even giving up on the FSA would be one of the biggest strategic mistakes the West could make.
Last month's work is done and a lot of progress has been made. If the international community decides to support the FSA, it will help them even more to unify, strategise and to avoid mistakes. There is a genuine command structure.
The headquarters only provide arms to those battalions that follow their instructions. But they are still waiting for those arms. What is coming in is peanuts compared with what they need in order to win this war against one of the most brutal dictators in the world.
What are we waiting for?
Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo, where he represents the Alde group in the European Parliament in the Arab world. He also blogs for EUobserver