Putting humpty together again: can the FSA ever be unified?


Among the difficulties faced by Syrians in safeguarding their revolution, internal disputes remain the most serious.

Rita from Syria
4 November 2012

The call for a unified political opposition has been a basic demand of the Syrian people since the beginning of the revolution. The militarization of the revolution a year ago has led to a greater clamour of voices for the unification of the FSA in particular. However, the nineteen month old revolutionary movement has been unable to meet the demands of the Syrian street - either politically or militarily. 

I will leave political unification aside given the opposition’s catastrophic failure in this regard, but will instead talk about the unification of the militarized wing of the revolution: the FSA, and particularly insurgents in Damascus and its suburbs.  In discussing the FSA we will do well to bear in mind that each battalion in every Syrian region has its own dynamics and characteristics.

From a Syrian citizen's point of view, it stands to reason that uniting insurgent militias in a single military council would benefit our revolution. This at last might give the council an international legitimacy and make it a reference point in the negotiations. On the other hand, many FSA fighters support keeping their militias separate, independent and autonomous.

Mohammad, an insurgent in Al-Forqan brigade in rural Damascus has this to say about the issue: "a strong point of the FSA is that militias take quick decisions and respond immediately to changing facts on the ground. Unification will slow down the decision making on the ground. It will also make it easier for the Assadi regime to infiltrate the whole army through one single penetrable battalion".

Civilian control

But the core question remains: do FSA militias have the constituents to form a united body? The disjointed FSA militias suffer from several internal disputes. Today, a new fissure between civilian combatants and defected soldiers is becoming ever more palpable. The FSA consists largely of armed civilians and a lesser number of soldiers who have defected from the official army.  Soldiers put forward military plans while civilian combatants – often local residents – organize the battalion’s logistics and its relations with the local population. In some respects, this has given civilians in the FSA special importance as they can more easily secure people's trust.

In fact, military defectors play second fiddle to the civilian wing of the FSA; with only one of every fifteen combatants in the FSA being defectors from Assad’s army. Although, there is a military leader in each battalion, civilian leaders have the final word: they control the battalion and monopolise the loyalty of many insurgents.

Military councils made up of the military leaders of the various FSA battalions are used as a cover to legitimise the militias internationally, but they are quite marginalized when it comes to making decisions. The paradox here is that transformation of the FSA to a national liberation army requires a unified military leadership council as well as a better organized way of training civilian combatants so that they become effective soldiers. Such a  development is bound to minimise the role of civilians in the FSA. So it seems clear that the proposed project of unification is not in the interests of civilian combatants who are currently calling the shots.

Secularism and professionalism

Most professional soldiers in the FSA clearly support a secular vision for Syria, while the majority of civilian combatants are Islamist believers. Parallel to this, there is a huge difference in funding with civilian leaders able to attract far more financial resources than their counterparts on the military councils. One possible reason is that the main funders of the FSA are Islamist clerics or politicians.

A clear example of this source of division took place in the dispute between Mohammad Al-Khatib the civilian leader of Al-forqan brigade, and General Khaled Al-hbos the head of the military council in Damascus and its surrounding areas. The battalions of Al-forqan are amongst the most heavily-armed and powerful in Damascus and its environs. They were among the first to join the military council. However, when the two leaders fell out the whole brigade withdrew from the military council taking various supporters with them. Al-forqan along with other brigades in the region established an alternative mechanism: the revolutionary military council and in the process marginalized the original military council, headed by General Al-hbos.

Hashem, a volunteer combatant in Al-forqan regiment told me: "the military council leader [Khaled Alhbos] might have been right in his demands, but our loyalty is to our civilian leadership. We have to be careful that military soldiers do not turn against us in order to control the country". These words show a level of skepticism and a dangerous lack of trust that might result in a permanently fractured FSA. Concerns about military rule in Syria have pushed many FSA combatants to reject the notion of a unified FSA lest it fall under military control.

National Syrian Army

This is what happened when 200 defected generals gathered in Anticay-Turkey to form the united council for the National Syrian Army, under the leadership of Brigadier Hussein Haj Ali. This project failed like many others not least because most of the brigades refused to join it. The participation of Manaf Tlass, a former close friend of Bashar Alassad, in this virtual council was also one of the reasons for its failure. This also pushed defected soldiers to reject it. Abu Kifah, a defected captain in the military council of Qneitra justified his rejection by saying: "It's impossible to trust those people who have robbed the country. They just defected a few days ago, and now they want to control our revolution to continue looting. The one who defected first is the one who has legitimacy regardless of his military rank".

Among the difficulties faced by Syrians in safeguarding their revolution, internal disputes remain the most serious. It seems an almost Sisyphean task for the FSA to unify and turn itself into an army of national liberation because this demands opportunist leaders to abandon their authoritarian leanings for control over financial resources. Having armed militias vying for control in Syria is not much less dangerous than military rule, but rather more chaotic.

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