How to steal a revolution: The Free Syrian Army faces more than just one enemy

Protestors in March. Photo: syriafreedom2/Flickr
As the conflict in Syria enters its 17th month, the forces of Bashar Al-Assad are locked in a prolonged siege of Aleppo. Parts of the city are already held by rebel forces. On Thursday, Syrian Army forces brought in the heavy artillery and bombarded the Salaheddine district with tank and artillery fire, and jet fighters were launched on ground attack missions.

The bloody massacre of hundreds of citizens of Homs in May and the use of heavy military resources–including attack helicopters–against civilians has heightened calls for Western intervention in the region. This image of brutal oppression by Assad dominates the conflict’s portrayal and has been burned into the West’s collective consciousness. But in truth, the situation on the ground in Syria is far more complicated than that, and buying into a simplified narrative which paints the rebels as united freedom fighters is both mistaken and potentially dangerous.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) are starting to see some success, both with the capture of significant parts of Aleppo and the recent assassination of three regime security chiefs (including Assad’s brother-in-law). Many of Syria’s key cities are now in rebel hands, and pro-government forces are being forced to withdraw from the North and East of the country to reinforce Damascus and retake Aleppo.

However, not all rebels are equal. There is serious concern about the rise of Islamist influence in the rebel camp. For instance, Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (the Front for the Protection of the Syrian People), a known Al-Qaeda group, claimed responsibility for only 6 confirmed attacks in March. But that number multiplied as they became responsible for as many as 66 in June, including instances of improvised explosive devices and extrajudicial executions.

Furthermore, the current Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has called on regional forces to aid their “brothers in Syria”. Smaller Islamist groups are also known to be involved, including Ahrar al-Sham and the Lebanon based Fatah al-Islam. Interviews with the FSA have suggested that leading commanders see these Islamists as a threat to stability post regime change, assuming they ever reach that stage.

Rebel forces have also recently been implicated in several brutal extrajudicial massacres, including the murder of fifteen police officers, and the slaughter of four captured members of the pro-Assad Sabbiha militia. While these actions have been condemned by the FSA as the work of Islamists, it’s hard to determine the situation on the ground. Even in the best case scenario, it is clear that these brutal Islamist elements continue to gain power. Saleem Abu Yassir, commander of a local FSA brigade, expressed his fears in the Guardian: “They are stealing the revolution from us and they are working for the day that comes after.”

There is also worrying news beginning to surface of brutal repression of other faiths by rebel forces, both with the kidnapping of 48 Shi’ite pilgrims on Saturday, and Christian refugees flooding into Lebanon reporting violence from the majority Sunni rebel forces. It’s an alarming sign that divisions in the country are becoming increasingly sectarian as central control wanes.

The absence of centralised power has also caused tribal tensions to resurface: The Syria-Iraq border has begun to destabilise, allowing cross-border tribal loyalties to come to the fore. Tensions in this region not only threaten the stability of Syria, but also that of a new Iraq still struggling to find its feet. Cross-border tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite groups also continue to be exploited by Al-Qaeda factions attempting to undermine Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister.

Add to this Turkey’s pivotal role: In June, the shooting down of a Turkish fighter by pro-Assad forces led Turkey to militarise their mutual border, and change their rules of engagement to fire on any Syrian troops seen approaching. The Turkish also convened a NATO meeting under Article 4 of the NATO charter, citing security concerns.

With tensions already high, and Assad withdrawing forces to reinforce Aleppo, the situation recently escalated again with the emergence of Kurdish power in the north. Kurdish Nationalists now control much of northern Syria including key cities; Al-Qamishli, Efrin, Amude, Terbaspi and Ayn al Arab. There is even talk of Assad allowing an autonomous Kurdish region to emerge in northern Syria, which could provide a platform for Kurdish terrorist groups such as the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) to continue their efforts within Turkey.

This recent news has led Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to up the rhetorical ante, claiming that “It is our most natural right to intervene since those terrorist formations would disturb our national peace.” So as regime forces continue to withdraw from the north, Kurdish nationalists consolidate their power, and Turkey readies for a potential war. The regional situation is decidedly unstable.

With Kofi Annan’s resignation as UN Arab-League envoy citing increased militarisation and a lack of Security Council unity, it would seem that any chance for diplomacy is now finished. The writing has been on the wall for some time, with the combined forces of Russia and China succeeding in vetoing three Security Council resolutions, and a draft peace plan due to come into force in April widely flouted by both sides. However, this frank admission by such a high-profile figure is likely to quash any pretence of a non-violent end to the conflict.

So, what can the West do? The US have signed a covert order authorising support for the FSA, and earmarked $25m in “non-lethal” assistance and $64m in humanitarian assistance. There are also unconfirmed reports of Special Forces operating on the ground, and discussions over providing the rebels with MANPADS (man portable air defense systems).

But while these weapons would provide much needed defence against the helicopters and jets of Assad, they could quite easily fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates and be turned either on coalition aircraft within Afghanistan or even civilian airliners. Given the damage these groups are able to do with RPG’s and a few Stinger Missiles given to them by the West in the 80’s, possession of these new weapon systems would lead casualty figures to skyrocket.

Should these weapons end up in the possession of Hezbollah, Hamas or the Kurds, this could ignite a wider regional conflagration involving either Israel or Turkey. On the other hand, not providing the weapons to the rebel forces would mean that civilians will continue to die at the hands of Assad.

We are entering the endgame. With the increase in violence and departure of Kofi Annan, both sides now seem determined to carry the conflict to a violent end. With no clear ‘good guy’ to support, it’s difficult to see how Western intervention would achieve anything positive. The best we can hope is for Assad to slip quickly and quietly into the night, and that the FSA are able to suppress and control the radical Islamism within the country. But as the conflict continues to drag on and Islamist influence continues to rise, such an outcome seems to move ever further out of reach.


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