Syria’s Unified Armed Opposition: Internal Divisions, External Ties
By: Nasser Charara
Published Friday, December 14, 2012
In an effort to sideline jihadi Islamists, the US wants to centralize the armed opposition in Syria under a single military command. Will the armed opposition’s internal divisions and foreign backers permit such an endeavor?
Amidst the Syrian opposition’s meetings in Doha and Marrakesh, the finishing touches were placed on an international effort to unite many of Syria’s armed rebel groups under one leadership.
It was clear from the Doha meeting that Washington would not recognize the newly formed opposition National Coalition (NC) until it proved itself capable of forming a united military command for the armed factions operating in Syria.
Washington maintained that the jihadis – which it estimated to constitute a third of the armed groups – would be kept out, while the other two-thirds would be integrated under a central military command that is accountable to the NC.
Sure enough, a supreme military council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was formed, comprising many of the factions engaged in the armed uprising under the leadership of Salim Idriss. Among those excluded was the hardline Islamist al-Nasra Front, which Washington recently placed on its list of terrorist organizations.
On paper at least, it seems that the opposition succeeded in removing two key obstacles to Western military assistance: the infiltration of al-Qaeda elements, and the wayward and sometimes criminal behavior of some factions due to a lack of accountability and discipline.
Chances of Success
Will Washington’s plan succeed? The answer to this question lies in examining how these groups operate on the ground, their composition, and how they relate to one another.
The first observation that must be made in this context is that the fragmentation of the armed opposition is not simply due the various groups’ inability to work together within a unified structure. Ideological, political, and personal differences have played a role in keeping them apart, even amongst Washington’s “two-thirds.”
One of the big challenges that the US faced, for example, was the personal differences and intense competition among those officers who defected from the Syrian army and formed rebel groups under their command.
Excluding the likes of Riad al-Asaad and Mustafa al-Sheikh from the new military command is but a step in this direction.
Those officers who defected early in the Syrian uprising played a key role in transforming the initial, largely peaceful, protests into a full-scale military confrontation.
The first signs of an armed opposition appeared when provincial revolutionary councils, particularly in Deraa, Homs, and Idlib, organized armed groups whose mission was to protect peaceful protesters against government security forces.
Abdul-Razzaq Tlas was among the very first officers to initiate this type of armed group in Homs, called the Farouq Brigade. Others soon followed, but not necessarily under the leadership of officers who defected.
The armed groups multiplied and took a quantitative leap forward, prompting Riad al-Asaad to defect and form the FSA, which became a broad label under which much of the armed activity was conducted for quite some time. This development in turn attracted financial and military support for the increasing number of armed factions operating in the country.
Over time, many local commanders became disillusioned with the FSA leadership, accusing it of being disconnected from the internal front and monopolizing the financial and military support the armed opposition was receiving.
The most prominent expression of this discontent was the formation of an independent group called the Military Council of Homs and Countryside by Qassim Saadeddine, under which he managed to bring together many of the armed factions operating in the area.
Similar military councils soon emerged in many of the key cities and Saadeddine was chosen to become the supreme commander of the internal Free Syrian Army. The sidelining of Asaad in the new line-up is in many ways a continuation of Saadeddine’s revolt.
It will be interesting to see how the likes of Saadeddine and Tlas will react to the new leadership, particularly as the latter feels that he deserves a spot in the new command given that he was among the first to defect and has since fought on the ground in Syria, while others directed their battles from neighboring countries.
Foreign Spheres of Influence
Another factor that will determine the fate of the newly formed military command is the extent to which various countries who have carved out their own spheres of influence among the various armed groups are willing to relinquish control to a centralized leadership.
In other words, are those countries who are funding and arming the opposition – such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France, and Germany – ready to concede their stake in the armed opposition to Washington, which appears to dominate the military council?
A number of Western and Arab countries have gained political influence in various parts of Syria through financially and militarily supporting the armed groups that operate in each area.
Germany, for example, has sway in the Kurdish areas in the northeast of the country, while the Deir Ezzor governorate, parts of Latakia, and the west of Qamishli and al-Hasaka are controlled by Salafi groups backed by Turkey, Libya, and some of the Gulf countries.
The coming days will reveal if these countries will encourage reluctant local commanders, many of whom have been left out of the new leadership, to throw their weight behind the National Coalition’s military command.
They may very well pay lip service to the idea of a unified military leadership without modifying their control in order to protect their interests in any final resolution to the Syrian crisis.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.
Spain’s Two Cents
Former Spanish air force officer Luis Munar, who has travelled to Syria on at least two occasions to train fighters there, denied in an interview with AFP that he was a mercenary.
He insisted that he decided to go to the battle-torn country because “he couldn’t bear another day of seeing children being killed without a response,” the press agency reported.
At the same time, he admitted that it was also a work opportunity that both enriches his professional experience and allows him to provide for his family.
He said that he self-financed his first trip to the country that took him to Idlib and Aleppo, only to return a second time backed by an international network of Syrian businessmen who opened a channel between him and the 12,000-strong Farouq Brigade.
“I am proud to say that all those that I trained are still alive,” Munar declared. “Only two fighters were lightly injured in an engagement with the special forces.”
During his first visit last November, he claimed that he trained young fighters “on Kalashnikovs and direct combat, most of whom have never carried a pistol before in their lives.”