March 11, 2015
In the nearly four years since the outbreak of Syria’s revolution, the amount of territory the Free Syrian Army (FSA) controls within the country has dropped from 60 percent to roughly 15 percent, due to the gradual encroachment of the Islamic State and other jihadist militias throughout the country.
The FSA was able to make some gains in the south of the country in late 2014, advancing to the east Damascus suburb of Ghouta where clashes with regime forces are still ongoing. Many attribute the success of this push to material aid provided to the FSA and a handful of other moderate rebel groups by a collection of friendly countries operating out of a military command center in Amman, Jordan; most notably the United States, Saudi Arabia, France and Jordan.
However similar aid to FSA units operating in other parts of the country has been less forthcoming, due to fears that it could fall into the hands of radical jihadists seen as hostile to the West.
A lack of funds compared to those of jihadist militias has led to a crumbling of the FSA’s command structure and disorder within its ranks, causing many of its fighters to defect and join other groups that offer better pay incentives.
In 2013, both Ahrar a-Sham and the Towhid Brigades, two of the most powerful militias in Aleppo, each boasting upwards of 10,000 fighters, split with the FSA to join the newly formed Islamic Front coalition that has since taken over large swaths of the city, and is said to receive large amounts of funding from Qatar and other Gulf states. In the same year, roughly 3,000 FSA fighters defected to join Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate in Syria.
What has followed has been the gradual marginalization of the FSA on the battlefield, as it proceeds to lose both territory and fighters, often for financial reasons.
FSA officers and fighters “have no job security,” says Captain Abu Rahal, a former officer with the regime who defected at the beginning of the revolution and joined Al-Hijra ila Allah, a unit within the FSA operating in the north Latakia countryside.
“So many officers leave to work as taxi drivers or cigarette salesmen or smuggle fuel to ensure they have an income,” Abu Rahal tells Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani.
Q: Recently the FSA controlled 60 percent of Syrian territory. How much do you estimate the FSA controls now?
I estimate that the FSA now controls no more than 15 to 20 percent of Syria.
Q: What are the reasons for the retreat or decline in control?
There are many reasons, the most important of which is the penetration of FSA ranks by criminals and thieves who have abused civilians. The lack of experience on the part of the civilian revolutionaries and forced and organized desertion among opposition officers has also led to the decline in the control wielded by officers.
Lack of support and aid have been problems as well; not only has aid been employed ineffectively, but acquiring aid while maintaining one’s independence, and avoiding working with financiers that seek to control the FSA through funding is also difficult.
In addition, military and weapons capabilities are employed inefficiently while military hierarchies and institutional frameworks are not followed, causing disruption in most of the formations on the ground.
Q: What do you mean by forced and organized desertion among officers?
Officers are forced to desert because they’re exploited and marginalized by their subordinates, some of whom have turned into local warlords. Officers and their families have no job security. The civilian military leadership attacks officers who propose new military ideas. There are many people who benefit from the ongoing nature of the revolution and don’t want it to end, either in victory or in defeat. And so many officers leave to work as taxi drivers or cigarette salesmen or smuggle fuel to ensure they have an income.
Q: Does this point to an absence of control on the part of the military council over the forces on the ground?
There isn’t any control; they know don’t the power of punishment, power of money, or the power of control. This is one of the things that weakens the FSA.
Q: What steps must be taken to stop this shrinking of FSA ranks?
Forming a cohesive army requires combining the efforts of officers and revolutionaries, instituting a military hierarchy, improving combat and battlefield experience, and engaging in more training in closed quartered military camps. Syrian officers have to have true military authority on the ground and they must be supported with all the necessary equipment that any army would need. They must also neutralize any agenda or collisions that benefit Bashar al-Assad and his gangs.
Q: The FSA Military Council has complained about a shortage of material support. What is this shortage’s effect on the decreasing FSA influence?
In the beginning, the support came from wealthy individuals and expatriates, but recently there’s been very little support sent to the Military Council. The support to brigades operating along the coastline stopped completely about 15 months ago.
We have refused to accept any such conditional aid.
Q: Different factions including the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra offer high salaries to their soldiers. Do you think this attracts opposition forces? Have you had any personal experience with people leaving your brigade due to better pay being offered by other groups?
Yes, it attracts many fighters, not only members of the opposition. It’s especially the case for people who have to flee their city or village and have no access to food or water. Material needs are not secondary; on the contrary, they are basic necessities. I’ve experienced this personally and have had many individuals leave my brigade for many reasons, the most common of which are material needs.
Q: Some regions of Syria that were formerly under FSA control are now under the control of other factions (similar to what happened to the Syrian Revolutionaries Front–SRF–led by Jamal Marouf in Idlib). The position of people in these areas has often been to welcome these new factions. Why do you think that is? Has the FSA lost the support of the people?
The FSA will not lose the support of the people, but that support has decreased recently, there is no doubt. Poverty and a lack of basic necessities have forced most people into silence and submission. Some FSA formations have abused citizens and engaged in banditry, which has helped lead to a decrease in the FSA’s popularity.
Q: The FSA has achieved remarkable successes in the south, specifically in Daraa, unlike in northern provinces such as Aleppo. What’s the reason for this in your opinion?
FSA groups working together and the notion of a common goal are the reasons for FSA successes in the south. We also shouldn’t forget that the weapons and ammunition obtained and used in battles in the south have also proven useful in other battles and victories.