Source: NOW. – by Alex Rowell (A quiet comeback for the Free Syrian Army?)
The loose coalition of non-jihadist Syrian rebels often dubbed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has not had an easy time of the past two years.
Between annihilating defeats at the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked rivals across key provinces in 2014 and longstanding fears of expanding Islamist influence and ideology even within comparatively moderate brigades, a perception has taken root among many observers — particularly in the West — that the FSA is neither a viable nor an especially desirable alternative to the Bashar al-Assad regime. In an August 2014 interview, US President Barack Obama dismissed the fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” whose chances of victory had “always been a fantasy.” An October 2014 poll found only 35% of Americans favored arming Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, with strong fears cited that the weapons would later be used against the US.
Yet, as the killing last week of a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian subsidiary, by a non-jihadist brigade in Daraa underscored, the notion that the remaining FSA factions today are all happily subservient comrades of the Bin Ladenists is clearly simplistic. Indeed, the FSA’s Southern Front coalition, which controls important territory along Syria’s southern border, including crossings with Jordan (whence it receives military and financial aid from both Gulf and Western nations), officially repudiated Nusra in April 2015, saying “neither [Nusra] [n]or anything else with this ideology represents us […] We can’t go from the rule of Assad to [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri and Nusra.”
Equally, a string of recent FSA accomplishments on the battlefield — most notably the well-publicized destruction of dozens of regime tanks by rebels wielding CIA-supplied anti-tank missiles, leading to territorial gains in Hama and Aleppo — suggests the doctors, farmers, and pharmacists are not as martially feckless as President Obama would have New York Times readers think.
In short, reports of the FSA’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Or, as Brookings Doha Center Visiting Fellow Charles Lister, who has recently completed a book on the Syrian insurgency, put it in a column last week, “Although it is often overlooked, Syria does have a powerful and socially entrenched moderate opposition on the ground.”
In the above map and below table, NOW places the key components of this “moderate opposition” in the context of the overall insurgency, using data presented by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) in a detailed report released earlier this month. While the report lists over 200 distinct rebel brigades, NOW has highlighted only the 12 groups identified by the report’s authors as a “powerbroker;” that is, one “that disproportionately determines the success of military operations against either the Syrian regime or ISIS; is strategically located; and/or plays a leading role in governance.”
These powerbrokers are then further stratified according to their relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra. “Allied” factions are defined by the authors as those who “share [Nusra’s] interim objectives” and “are close ideological allies” of them; opposed to Western influence and secular governance. “Separable” groups are those who “formally coordinate military operations with Jabhat al-Nusra among many other groups through joint military commands, largely out of military necessity,” while “Independent” groups are those who neither share Nusra’s worldview nor coordinate with them militarily.
In all, only three powerbrokers — Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa, and Junud al-Sham — were defined by the ISW authors as “Allied” (Nusra itself is a powerbroker in all provinces except Latakia). At the same time, just one powerbroker — Nour al-Din al-Zenki — was designated “Independent” (although five “Independents” — Jaysh al-Thuwwar, Suqoor al-Ghab, 13th Division, Suqoor al-Jabal, and Saif al-Sham Brigades — were identified as “potential powerbrokers;” that is, groups that could become powerbrokers if they received “increased outside support”). The numerical majority, then, of powerbrokers are somewhere in between the two categories: differing in theory with the Al-Qaeda franchise while occasionally cooperating with it in practice.
As the name “Separable” suggests, the ISW report implicitly argues that certain groups who have at times worked with Nusra could, under different circumstances, be deemed ‘moderate,’ and even candidates for future US support.
“A more effective metric for measuring the compatibility of rebel groups with US interests is whether a given group adheres to a vision of Syrian nationalism and therefore rejects the transnational projects of both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra,” Jennifer Cafarella, Evans Hanson Fellow at the ISW and the report’s main author, told NOW.
With or without US support, one key factor that has helped turn the FSA’s fortunes in recent months has been growing aid from Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, said Lister in conversation with NOW. “Especially since the Russian intervention,” when supplies of Gulf-purchased weapons including the anti-tank missiles increased substantially, “respect levels” for the FSA have boomed not just among Syrian civilians opposed to the Assad regime but other rebel groups, including the hardline Ahrar al-Sham, Lister told NOW.
While both Lister and Cafarella argued Russia’s air strike campaign could also work to Nusra’s advantage, driving weaker brigades to seek shelter in the jihadists’ strength, Lister told NOW the FSA could nonetheless build on its successes if it “continued to receive the kind of weaponry from abroad that puts them in that advantageous position.”
One form of weaponry that would likely achieve more than any other in this regard — and which has been the subject of much attention and speculation in recent days — is the MANPADS anti-aircraft missile, which, of course, could be used to down Russian (as well as Syrian) fighter jets. While Lister told NOW Saudi Arabia is both able and very willing to supply rebels with these, they remain subject to a de facto US embargo. Even so, discussions in the region on the topic are reportedly reviving, and at least one brigade has claimed it expects to receive a batch in early November.
“A lot of these FSA guys linked very closely to KSA and the US have overtly said to me our backers in the region have been talking about MANPADs a lot more than they used to,” said Lister. “Yes, they’ve said it’s not possible to send them in still, but they’ve been discussing, you know, ‘If it was possible, where would they be most useful? If we were going to send you a small number, what kind of fronts would you need them in most?’ And I guess those kind of questions would tend to suggest that there’s definitely a new kind of level of thinking on this subject.”
“But all this comes down really to whether the US gives the green light.”