By Ali Hussein Bakeer
The armed wing of the opposition is primarily made up of defectors from the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF), who have refused to fire at civilian protestors and rejected joining the operations the SAF organizes against civilians. Alongside them, recently some volunteers that were not members of the SAF have also joined the armed wing of the opposition.
Incidents involving the refusal to obey orders given by the SAF were first witnessed when a couple of soldiers refused to fire at the protestors marching in Daraa, where the protests erupted in March 2011. After this incident, defections from the SAF accelerated. Some defectors even documented their defection by posting video recordings. In these videos, the defecting soldier would cite his name, rank, his place of work and accommodation and present an ID card proving his membership to the military, before declaring his defection from the SAF.
Hussein Harmoush was the first person to declare his defection in this manner in June 2011. Harmoush established, together with the many soldiers who followed his course, the Free Officers Brigade. Toward the end of July, it was announced that a group that had just defected from the SAF had organized themselves under General Riyad al-Esad ’s leadership to found a new entity named the Free Syrian Army. After it was announced that Harmoush had been abducted from Turkey by the Syrian regime and executed, the two entities previously mentioned came together under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. Rejecting any foreign military intervention in Syria, the group defined its main missions as protecting civilians and working to topple the Syrian regime.
Free Syrian Army’s main areas of activity
While the FSA has a presence in several cities in Syria, their activities are conducted especially in rural areas. Having conducted defensive campaigns along the Turkish-Syrian border on September 2011, the organization has now expanded its control to the southern (Deraa and Horan) and eastern (Humus, Resten, Hama and surrounding areas) regions of Syria. While the number of FSA members was estimated to be around fifteen thousand toward the end of last year, reports that have emerged in mid-2012 indicating that this number has rapidly increased. It can be observed that the activities and operations of this organization have lately increased around the northwestern region of Syria, especially around Aleppo, Idlib, and the regime’s military stronghold Damascus.
Most critical military units
The FSA has over 35 units in various areas of Syria. One of the most critical units in leading the struggle against the SAF was the Khalid ibn Al-Walid Brigade operating in Homs. This brigade started carrying out defensive operations in September 2011. The al-Farouq unit, a part of this brigade, proved to be one of the most powerful entities within the FSA. The unit has engaged in arduous combat enduring many military attacks. The most important of these attacks took place in the infamous conflict of Baba Amr. During the combat, the regime used heavy mortars, rockets and military aircraft to completely destroy every inhabitable area in the city, while the SAF entered the city with tanks and armored vehicles to massacre civilians in large numbers. These events came to an end as late as February 2012.
The second most important unit is the Harmoush unit in Jabal al-Zawiya. This unit started carrying out its activities in October 2011 and has limited the Assad regime’s movements on the northern-southern line. Despite sustaining many casualties, it has caused a great deal of damage to the forces loyal to Assad.
Third, there is the al-Omari unit in the Hauran Valley near Daraa. The regime had to deploy greater amounts of weapons, equipment and military personnel to the southern parts of the country because of the effective attacks this unit has conducted against the regime since October 2011. This created an opportunity to wear the SAF down and has relieved other regions of SAF pressure.
Apart from these, there are also other groups that have pledged their allegiance to the FSA. The al-Zabadani group is an example of such an organizations. This unit was formed just thirty kilometers outside the city of Damascus, the first such group to dissuade the Assad regime from organizing a full-scale assault and forcing them to negotiate. This group also controls the al-Zabadani area, very critical to the plans of the Syrian and Iranian regimes as it is used as the logistic headquarters of the al-Quds Brigade, set up to support Hezbollah and operating under the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
On March 24, 2012, the Syrian Revolutionary Military Council was founded in Antakya, announcing that the FSA would be restructured in order to obtain political and military unity and to alleviate the worries of regional and global actors. Military units dispersed across Syria would be subject to the FSA, and it was decided that the highest-ranking officer to quit the SAF Mustafa al-Sheikh and the SAF leader General Riad al-Asad would jointly conduct the activities of the Council. In this framework, it was announced that al-Sheikh would be responsible for strategic planning, obtaining arms and financing while al-Assad would be in charge of conducting military operations.
Below are some of the decisions of the Council:
– Unifying all the military and armed forces under al-Assad’s leadership and the FSA’s command.
– To ensure that the FSA exists to serve the Syrian people and protect the civilians. Furthermore, to declare that the FSA is not responsible for any military operations conducted beyond its own will and that the responsibility for such operations is with the parties that undertake them.
– Rallying the call for SAF members who were not physically present at operations conducted against civilians to quit the regime’s forces and join the flanks of the FSA.
In addition many military councils have been set up in various cities of Syria and all of these have been made subject to the Revolutionary Military Council. These councils are responsible of following local developments and conducting identification checks to new recruits to ensure radical individuals or suspicious people do not join the FSA’s ranks.
Taking up arms
When the defections first started, the FSA’s arsenal was largely constituted of rifles and light weaponry obtained by the soldiers immediately prior to their defection. However as the defectors increased in numbers and in ranks, the quantity and quality of the weapons quickly began to change.
As a result, the FSA focused on conducting raids against many military locations that belonged to the SAF to obtain weapons. Furthermore, other weapons have also been purchased through the black market as well as through individuals who, despite being loyal to the Assad regime, would be willing to sell them in exchange for large sums of money. Additionally, arms handed out to paramilitary groups such as the Shabiha by the Syrian regime have been captured and confiscated.
Political opposition and relations with the coordination committees
When events first took place, there was not any connection between the political or civilian opposition and the SAF defectors. In fact in many of the defection videos, army defectors declared that they did not want to meddle in politics and that their primary, fundamental goal was to protect civilian protestors.
Members of the FSA have gained public support and are now closer to the public than the political opposition who are outside of Syria, due to the FSA becoming increasingly active in the inner regions of the country and conducting counter operations against Assad forces that attack the cities. This situation has attracted the reaction of the civilian opposition who are worried that the political weight has shifted to the armed opposition. On the other hand, the civilian opposition groups made up of different aspects – among which the Syrian National Council (SNC) is the most significant – were more prone to competition amongst themselves when the demands of the protestors and the real goal of toppling the regime looked less attainable. As the FSA increased its popularity within Syria, the Syrian opposition grasped the importance of engaging with the FSA within a certain framework.
The SNC has established a contact office together with the FSA to unify the civilian initiative and the armed struggle. Later, on March 1, 2012 the Military Consultation Bureau was established in order to unify political and military vision and coordinate these efforts.
The latest meeting of the Syrian opposition was held in Cairo in early July. In this meeting, a draft National Covenant was agreed on in order to unify Syrian political vision in this transition period and also serve as a constitutional foundation in the future.
These points were agreed to in the meeting:
– The political process in Syria will begin when Bashar al-Assad and other actors supporting the regime are toppled and those who collaborated with the regime to murder Syrians will most certainly be held to account.
– The transition will be conducted not by others but by the Syrian people.
– The FSA and the civilian revolutionary movement will be supported and the national public peace will be upheld.
A major change
The Syrian opposition’s decision to support the FSA can be regarded as evidence of the military’s ability in the field and large popularity within Syria. With access to an increased range of military equipment compared to 2012 and larger areas under its control, the FSA has moved from a defensive to offensive struggle. While the regime is attempting massacres against civilians in various cities, the FSA has started conducting important operations against critical centers of the Syrian regime, such as the intelligence and police institutions, headquarters of units that bombard Syrian cities with rockets and certain military airports.
Despite opposition and even threats from the U.S. made against Saudi Arabia and Qatar, several Gulf countries have decided to actively support the armed branch of the Syrian opposition after the Friends of Syria Conference held on April 1, 2012 in Istanbul.
After having obtained the necessary financial resources and military equipment, there have been serious developments in both the quality and the quantity of the operations conducted by the FSA since June. Currently, armed vehicles and tanks can be easily targeted, while operations against the regime’s headquarters Damascus are underway.
There have even been local reports of armed helicopters being targeted. The Syrian regime’s frequent deployment of heavily armed helicopters and military aircraft is an indicator that the regime is increasingly losing sight of its control in the field.
Defections are increasing
Many of the soldiers who have joined the FSA have been convinced to defect from the SAF. For example, there were large numbers of defections from the Regional Rocketeer’s Unit around Homs on June 10, 2012. This situation has been described as a serious blow to the Syrian regime. This is because the unit holds comprehensive weaponry that could help the FSA inflict lots of damage to the regime.
A similar phenomenon occurred on June 18, 2012 in the Shinshar Artillery Unit in Homs. This unit, infamous for having bombarded the city of Homs and especially having destroyed seventy percent of Baba Amr and al-Kasir, witnessed its first desertions and this was considered an important gain. More important were the defections experienced in the ranks of the Air Force, considered the strongest aspect of the Syrian regime in terms of military intelligence. In fact, a few pilots claimed asylum in Jordan, and one of these pilots even hijacked the MiG warplane he operates. Furthermore, in the week corresponding from the end of June to the beginning of July, it was also reported that fifteen generals had defected.
Control of the fields
The FSA has locally controlled large areas of the country. This corresponds to an area that includes all of Idlib, the northern regions of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia. This total control being established creates favorable conditions for a safe zone should that decision be taken. In addition, the FSA continues its activities in sixty percent of Deir ez-Zor, Daraa and Homs.
Control means actively taking a place in the field, resisting SAF attacks and operating attacks against the centers of this army, as well as conducting the daily business of the public and establishing civilian courts that could settle possible disputes among people. This expression also includes carrying out rescue missions, protecting aid ships, establishing people’s delegations that will protect public buildings, and forming checkpoints and security barriers. However, the most important activity of the FSA today is to fight back the regime forces that wish to force the protestors back into their homes.
Ali Hussein Bakeer
USAK Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
Original Turkish version of the piece was published in Analist Journal in August 2012.