Islamists, rebels cautious on FSA command move to Syria
Published Monday, September 24, 2012
Free Syrian Army commanders hope that transferring their leadership to Syrian territory from exile in Turkey will make the rebel force more effective, but the challenge of unifying the disparate fighters is as great as ever.
Rebel commander Riad al-Asaad said on Saturday the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella body which nominally groups together many of President Bashar al-Assad's armed foes, was moving its command into rebel-controlled areas in north Syria for the first time.
The move is symbolically important, reflecting the greater confidence of the FSA leadership and highlighting Assad's loss of control over large areas of Aleppo and Idlib province.
"Having the leadership inside will give a closer link to the brigades on the ground and help Asaad's decision-making," said one rebel source close to the army colonel who defected from Assad's military early in the 18-month-old Syrian uprising.
Asaad has been based in Turkey for more than a year and has been portrayed as the leader of thousands of rebel fighters.
But his absence from the battlefield and the geographically fragmented nature of the uprising has limited his authority. Many fighters, even among those who adopted the FSA label, said they would not answer to an officer in exile.
"One of the reasons for moving back into Syria is that whenever he speaks, you hear voices saying: 'You stay in your tent in Turkey – we are the ones doing the fighting'," the rebel source said. "This move will silence those voices."
The video of Asaad's announcement was distributed by the rebel Umma Brigade, which says it has 6,000 fighters and is primarily active in Idlib province, where the FSA leadership would be based.
The source said the move into Syria would also allow the FSA to restructure its leadership, though he gave no details.
While Asaad was in Turkey, the FSA established a leadership structure inside Syria based around local "military councils".
Some of those councils formed a joint internal command, but still appear to operate separately along local lines.
Many other rebels fight completely outside the FSA umbrella, prompting other attempts to bring the fighters together - including the announcement of a "National Army" headed by General Mohammad Haj Ali who defected to neighboring Jordan.
Islamist rejection of FSA
"All those people outside, they don't represent us," said one Islamist commander who has been fighting in Idlib.
"The arrival of one single new fighter would be more useful than the Free Syrian Army chiefs," said Abdullah, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Al-Tawhid Brigade, the most important rebel unit in Aleppo, of Saturday's announcement.
"Combatants on the ground are worth more than guys who've been sitting behind a table for a year and a half outside Syria," he said.
Abu Somer, head of the Islamist Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade (Grandchildren of the Prophet) had learned three days previously that the FSA's command, holed up thus far in neighboring Turkey, was moving across the border.
But he and his men, positioned on three fronts in the Salaheddin and Saif al-Dawla districts of the city, continued operations as if nothing had changed.
"At this very moment I have men on the front," he told AFP, stressing that "strategy is decided by those on the ground."
"We don't follow any religious or political ideology. Not the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaeda, or any other foreign movement. We are the FSA on the ground," he claimed.
Another rebel involved in a rival effort to rally the fighters under one unit said the FSA move would not be taken seriously.
"It's a media show. Asaad will only stay in Idlib for a few days – he is going to go back to his tent after that," he said.
"But we are happy to work with him if he comes back for good. It will be a morale boost and might be a helping factor in uniting them."
Abu Riad, an army officer who defected and now heads a brigade in Aleppo's old town, first learned of the central command move when he saw the FSA chief Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad's YouTube video announcement broadcast on television.
Abu Riad deplored the absence of a "true military structure" for the rebels at the national level, but also said the leadership from abroad did not have the same "expertise" that the rebels, even civilians who had taken up arms, had gained through fighting.
The FSA move comes amid rising international criticism of Syrian rebels for human rights violations.
Human Rights Watch recently accused rebels of torturing and executing detainees, while reports continue to surface of sectarian killings, including the targeting of Aleppo's Christian community by Islamist militants.
While many rebel brigades adopt the title of 'Free Syrian Army', there is no central command that regulates the rules of engagement and controls the extreme elements of the rebellion.
At least 20,000 people have died since the uprising against the Assad regime began in March 2011, according to the United Nations.
(Al-Akhbar, Reuters, AFP)