The Free Syrian Army's insignia.
Two armies are currently at war in Syria. On one side are forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, and on the other, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a rebel group that began with a handful of military deserters opposed to Assad’s regime. As the FSA carries out more and more successful attacks against the government, questions have emerged over the group’s structure, funding and methods.
Our Observers in Syria, including FSA members and supporters, helped us to answer these questions.
FSA grows from defensive force into armed offensive
The core of the FSA was formed during the summer of 2011 by a small group of deserting soldiers. The FSA’s popularity quickly grew as the government stepped up its deadly crackdown on protests, and the group began recruiting civilians. Finding competent recruits was in part aided by the fact that military service is mandatory in Syria, so every citizen has a basic knowledge of firearms.
The FSA began as a defensive force at the start of the conflict. Its soldiers' sole mission was to defend protesters. Armed with basic arms or Kalashnikovs, the FSA, in a best case scenario, had enough firepower to slow the regular army’s progress, but not seize control of a neighbourhood, let alone a city. Although the FSA sometimes still guards protests, it has now become an offensive force. Most of its soldiers are part of militias made up of about sixty or so people. Some of these militias are, in turn, part of larger brigades such as the Unification Brigade, which is made up of almost all the militia groups in the city of Aleppo and its surrounding areas.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of soldiers in the FSA. Not only do its officers refuse to discuss the question for strategic reasons, but a list of soldiers has, to date, never been drawn up. However, our Observers on the ground estimate there are more than 20,000 fighters in Homs province, which is considered to be the FSA’s base.
An increasingly organised rebel army
In order to coordinate its forces on a national level, the FSA relies on regional military councils, which are made up of local militia leaders and civilians with military experience, such as retired officers. When making decisions, greater weight is given to the opinions of militia leaders who, with increasing combat experience, have seen their popularity grow. The FSA also has a communications network that is responsible for drafting internal messages, and which is authorised to attend general assemblies, but not crisis meetings.
“Generally, the defensive operations do not require any coordination. But when large operations need to be planned, the military council will meet to define the mission and assign it to a militia,” explained Rami H., one of our Observer in the central city of Homs.
The choice of which militia will execute an operation is never random.
“Given the risks, we try to avoid troop movements,” said FSA General Qoutaini Qaleb, who is based in Khan Sheikhoun, a city in the northern province of Idlib. “The militia closest to the zone of operation will lead the mission. When this militia is not sufficiently armed or does not have enough fighters, other militias can provide reinforcements, or a more powerful militia will be assigned.”
The general specified that not all regions have military councils: “In certain areas, such as the Damascus region [the capital has its own military council], it is difficult for militias to communicate or meet up. So they tend not to have military councils and don’t have the ability to organise large operations; they generally focus on defending their positions.”
Differing ideologies and funding
The question of where the FSA’s weapons come from is a common one and a divisive subject within the opposition. Ultimately, the answer is that the FSA gets its arms from various sources. Some deserters sneak weapons out with them, while other light arms are obtained during clashes with the regular army. Military equipment generally comes in through Turkey and Lebanon, but border controls prevent any kind of large-scale shipment. Most weapons are said to actually be purchased from soldiers or “chabbihas”, which are pro-regime militias. “I've negotiated weapons purchases from chabbihas,” said Rami. “They are well aware that their weapons will go to their enemies, but they don't care so long as we pay.”
Though the rebels' military command is relatively unified, funding varies widely from one militia to another. Often, it is a matter of each group's social network or personal connections. “Some militia chiefs get money from family members working in Jordan or in the Gulf countries,” Rami explained, adding that “rich businessmen from Damascus and Aleppo support the FSA as well as political organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.” Rami went on to say that countries also send funds, but not directly: “The FSA will not turn down any funding, but Saudi Arabia and Qatar prefer to send funds through some of their nationals.”
These diverse funding sources sometimes have ideological repercussions. “The funding sources are our main weakness, because they can influence the ideological orientation of a militia,” Rami explained.
While the FSA may try to project an image of an army that reflects the diversity of Syrian society — for instance by publicising the death of one of their Christian soldiers, Houssam Michael — it is predominately Sunni. However, where a militia gets its money from will inevitably have impact on its ideology.
“If a militia receives money from the Muslim Brotherhood, then it obviously going to be an Islamist militia,” Rami said.
FSA under scrutiny
Try as it may to control its public image, the FSA is no stranger to criticism. It has been regularly accused of having ties with extremists such as al Qaeda, and allegations of abuse have also emerged. Despite FSA efforts to keep its forces in line, including a charter encouraging soldiers to respect international agreements on the treatment of war prisoners, several videos of FSA abuses have surfaced online.
Torture of imprisoned regular army soldiers has been reported, as well as summary executions. For instance, footage of the execution of members of the Berri clan, regime loyalists from Aleppo, have circulated widely on the Internet in recent weeks. While the FSA’s central command has described such executions as isolated incidents, spokespeople for the military councils have sometimes explained that they had no other choice because they lacked prison space.
Abderrazak Tlass, lieutenant of the Al Farouk brigade, reads aloud a charter on the treatment of prisoners.
Certain opposition activists have also criticised the FSA for allowing former high-level officials from the regular army into their ranks, saying they have blood on their hands.
A protester in Salamiyah, a city just outside of Hama, carries a sign that reads: "Mr. General Riadh Al Assaad [a general within the FSA], while our city protested for the first time, you were working for Assad's regime". Photo posted on Twitter.
The leaders of the FSA have worked hard to project the image of a streamlined, homogenous, non-sectarian force. Our Observers on the ground say that in reality, this is far from the case. As the Syrian regime begins to show signs of weakness, the FSA will have to begin functioning in a more transparent manner if it ever hopes to quiet international concerns a post-Assad Syria.