the lede Conflict

Divided Front

The fragmenting coalition of the Free Syrian Army

By anchal vohra | 1 June 2017

On 7 April, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria, taking aim at an airfield of the Syrian government. Reports cited damage to airplane hangars, and between nine and 13 casualties. The strikes were a response to an alleged use of chemical weapons three days earlier by the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, that killed 87 people.

According to Feras al-Bayush, the airstrikes were far too mild a response. Bayush formerly served as a lieutenant colonel with the Syrian air force, but defected in 2013 and joined the Free Syrian Army—a loose coalition of armed groups attempting to overthrow Assad in the bloody civil war that has wracked the country for the last six years. Now, Bayush, who is based out of Turkey, is a commander of the FSA. “I’ve seen the video footage Assad’s regime published,” he told me in an email, on 19 April. “The losses are minimal, and with what I know about military air-force bases, these are not even considered losses.”

The FSA’s individual groups have a wide range of interests and ideologies. Over 80 of them have been vetted by the United States, to verify, among other things, that they are not Islamist organisations, and subsequently cleared to receive US funding. I spoke to several FSA fighters to understand their perspectives on the alliance’s future. From those conversations, it was clear that the FSA is seeking to draw in more fighters from different backgrounds—a bid for more robust forces that is also causing the organisation to fragment, and could potentially lead the rebels towards collaboration with fundamentalist groups.

Bayush works from an FSA control room in the Turkish city of Iskenderun, on the Syria-Turkey border. From there, he facilitates the operations of rebels fighting in Syria, providing logistical support by performing tasks such as coordinating their salaries and helping procure arms for them.

On 11 February, a couple of months before the US strikes, I met Bayush at a breezy seaside cafe in Iskenderun, where he was sitting with two FSA fighters. I watched as he used coffee cups, a cigarette packet and a lighter to demonstrate a battle that could occur if the FSA tried to conquer the city of Raqqa, which is currently held by the fundamentalist Islamic State. “We are trying to take Raqqa. So is the Kurdish militia, and so is the regime. If we all arrive there together we will fight each other, like it happened in al-Bab,” he said, referring to an operation in which the FSA, with US and Turkish support, took control of a city in Syria in February.

At the cafe, Bayush spoke of how he and other FSA leaders could only return to Syria if Assad were ousted because otherwise they would be targeted. “Assad must go,” he said, adding that the president was a dictator who had suppressed democratic aspirations and killed Syrian people.

When I corresponded with Bayush after the airstrikes, he said that Assad had expected the attack because the United States had notified Russia, which is allied with Assad, ahead of time. “The American strike is nothing more than a message that they have the final word,” he said. “I do not think there will be another strike in the near future.”

Thomas Pierret, a political scientist at the University of Edinburgh who specialises in Syria, agreed that, for the rebels, the gains from the airstrikes would be limited. “The strike is likely to deter further use of nerve agents by the regime, which is good for the rebels because nerve agents are a devastating weapon, but that’s it,” he told me over email. “Unless there is a further change in US policy, this will be business as usual for the rebels.”

In its search for partners to take on Assad, the FSA seems to be headed towards cooperation with Islamist groups. Some fighters of localised opposition groups that are part of the FSA sympathise with Islamic fundamentalism, and often switch over to fight for extremist factions, including al-Nusra: a group with close ties to al-Qaeda. “Sometimes an FSA fighter will move to Nusra because his cousin has joined Nusra and he likes his cousin. On other occasions because they pay better salaries,” said Malik al-Abdeh, who was the chief editor of the UK-based Syrian opposition satellite channel Barada TV.

Over email, I asked Bayush whether he thought the US airstrikes might motivate those leaving the FSA for other groups to return to the fold. “There are many fighters who want to join the Free Army, but the ability to absorb them is limited,” he responded. “The number of fighters in the Free Syrian Army can increase,” he wrote, “if the international community provides more support.”

Earlier, in the Turkish cafe, when I had asked Bayush about a potential working relationship between the FSA and Islamists, he said, “Nusra wants an Islamic Syria, and we are against that.” But, he continued, “If they change their policy to a pro-Syria policy, then we will accept them.”

Not long before I met Bayush, I spoke with an FSA leader who seemed more open to the idea of collaborating with Islamist groups. We met in Antakya, a city 60 kilometres from Iskenderun that lies near the active front on the Syria-Turkey border. A former Syrian Army officer from Raqqa, he, like Bayush, defected in 2013. The FSA leader showed me the salary receipts of fighters he had paid with US money in 2013, and stressed how the opposition forces now needed more funding in order to achieve their objectives.

The FSA leader met me in the living room of a cozy three-room apartment, where he lives with his family. On the fireplace mantel, a decorative frame showcased a verse from the Quran. While we were speaking, he picked up the frame, took it into another room, and came back empty-handed.

The leader told me he was no longer receiving US funding. A local who is close to the FSA told me that the United States cut its support to the leader because of his hard-line Islamist views. Now, it seemed, he was weighing his home decor—and his words—carefully. When I asked him if he envisaged sharia as a basis for government in Syria’s future, he dodged the question. “Complete sharia cannot be implemented in Syria at this stage,” he said, “but we are mostly Muslims, and Muslims must follow Islam.”

Some FSA leaders utterly refuse collaboration with organisations such as al-Nusra. In another town on the border, I met Haitham Afisi, a colonel in the FSA, at a restaurant he has opened up. Afisi told me that he had been receiving funds from the United States for the last three years. Even Russia, he said, had asked him to share intelligence with its operatives.

Afisi is staunchly against extremism. Some of his reasons for this are highly personal: a few years ago, militants from al-Nusra kidnapped his son and brutally tortured him in captivity, sending him back to his family only after two long years. “I coordinate with the Pentagon, not with Turkey,” Afisi said. “Nusra is al-Qaeda. We can never ally with them.”

But despite its fragmented state, it would be a mistake to write off the FSA as a doomed force. Kheder Khaddour, a Syria expert at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, told me over video chat in late March, “Syria’s future will be Assad facing off the jihadists militarily, but politically, the FSA’s local units will have a say.” The FSA, he said, “will politically remain relevant because they have the local support. Everyone anti-Assad and anti-extremist will opt for the local unit, most of which are either already aligned with or will align with the Free Syrian Army.”

In my April correspondence with Bayush, he stressed the importance not of the FSA but of external actors. “The solution to the Syria crisis isn’t with Syrian but international players,” he wrote. “The world players have to decide how they want to resolve this. There are too many international stakeholders in the Syrian war.”

Anchal Vohra is a journalist who covers West Asia and Europe. She has also reported on South Asia for over a decade.

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