MESOP COMMENTARY : What does the Free Syrian Army want?

Koert DeBeuf – March 28, 2013 – FIKRA Forum

I have been to Northern Syria three times since January 2013 with a mission of exploring how the Free Syrian Army (FSA) functions. Before going to Syria, I had read many articles and seen many videos made by citizen-journalists, but being on the ground, seeing things with my own eyes made quite a difference.

I saw how two huge missiles from the Assad regime destroyed a marketplace in Azaz during its most crowded moment and how all bakeries have been bombed. I slept in the houses of soldiers while hearing bombs being dropped from planes overhead. Two generals took me to the battle for Quweris airport, a major frontline where I saw how the FSA fought with makeshift arms as the regime was firing cluster-bombs.

I also had the honor of visiting the FSA headquarters as the first foreigner. I met with many generals, commanders, and soldiers from all over Syria in order to understand what they stand for. And I had many talks with Salim Idriss, the newly elected chief of staff of the FSA, who’s visit I organised to the European Parliament on March 6, 2013.

An image that doesn’t fit with reality

Every conversation I had with an FSA commander started with the same two questions: “Why is the West not supporting us?” followed by “Are we the terrorists you thought we were?” Without waiting for the answer, each one of them tried to explain that they are not looking for sectarian violence. I heard countless stories of their efforts to protect Christians against attacks from the regime. I also sat with a Christian FSA general who only identified himself as Christian when I started to discuss the issue.

Every story came down to the same four points:

1. We do not want an Islamic state — freedom and democracy is for all Syrians, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

2. The jihadis are not in the FSA; however, they are well trained, well organized, and they have arms and money. Contrary to the FSA, brigades like Jabhat al-Nusra are able to pay their soldiers $200 per month. That’s what is making them stronger every day.

3. We are here to protect the people, schools, and hospitals, to organize aid, and to help the refugees. We try to organize police forces and courts, but the constant and random shelling makes this process extremely difficult. On top of that, almost all humanitarian aid goes through Assad and the Red Crescent and does not reach the rebel areas.

4. We do not have the right weapons to fight against planes, tanks, and ground-to-ground missiles. The arms which do come in are always too light and are sometimes even completely useless.

I must say that everything I saw during my trips confirms their stories. Their biggest frustration is that this portrayal of them is completely unknown outside Syria. What we see of the FSA is very confusing, an image that is fuelled by Assad’s propaganda. One of the regime’s methods is to systematically spread jihadi videos every time the FSA wins ground or captures an important strategic point. This way, the outside world gets the idea that it is not the FSA, but Jabhat al-Nusra that is succeeding militarily.

The new structure of the FSA

On December 6, 2013, more than 250 officers of the FSA gathered in Antalya, Turkey. There they elected Salim Idriss to the role of chief of staff and 30 officers into the Higher Revolutionary Military Council. They also organized the FSA into five fronts, each with its own commander who cooperates closely with the chief of staff: the Northern Front (Aleppo, Idlib), the Eastern Front (Raqqa, Deir al-Zour, al-Hasaka), the Western Front (Hama, Latakia, Tartus), the Central Front (Homs, Rastan), and the Southern Front (Damascus, Dara, Swaydda).

The new structure strengthens the organization because it unites the military and the revolutionary forces under one command. However, the organization is still new, and is therefore rather weak while under construction. Many fighters and battalions have never fought in a regular army and still must learn to follow a common strategy and code of conduct.

Here we come to the question of the chicken and the egg. The West expects the FSA to be properly organized before they can give them equipment and arms, but the FSA is having a hard time becoming properly organized as they lack basic equipment like satellite phones. They lack the money to pay hungry soldiers and they have not even enough arms to give every fighter a weapon. Only one in two people — and maybe even fewer — who want to fight have a gun. This is one of the main reasons that more soldiers of the Syrian military are not defecting.

The West is creating a new enemy

It is common knowledge that Assad is still receiving arms from Russia and Iran. And observers assume that the FSA too is being armed in some way or another. But this is not the reality I have seen on the ground, and this prevalence of wrong assumptions and wrong images is hugely frustrating for the FSA commanders. Many are even convinced that while the West is saying they want Assad to go, they in fact want him to stay. The FSA still sees the West as their ideological allies in their fight against a brutal dictatorship; therefore, they cannot understand why no help is coming.

If asked what exactly the FSA wants from the West, the answer is pretty clear: all help is needed. They need anti-aircraft weapons to stop the planes, weapons to stop the tanks and the missiles, and they need technical equipment. And when I asked what they thought about a no-fly-zone, their answer was: that would be wonderful. It would stop the destruction and the killing of citizens.

In fact, the choice is simple: Failing to make the FSA stronger is instead strengthening Assad and the jihadis. It is a choice between a democratic Syria, a dictatorship, and an Islamic state, for we are now either building a Syria that will be in favor of the West, or we are creating a new enemy.

Koert Debeuf is living in Cairo where he represents the European Liberals and Democrats to the Arab world. He has published widely on the Arab Spring. You can follow him on Twitter at @koertdebeuf.

Koert DeBeu – About Koert DeBeuf

Koert Debeuf is the former Chief of Cabinet of Guy Verhofstadt, President of the ALDE group in the European Parliament. Currently he is living in Cairo, representing the ALDE Group in the Arab World. Debeuf studied Ancient History at the universities of Leuven and Bologna. He was president of the students of the Faculty of Arts and student representative on the Academic Council of the KU Leuven. He worked as political advisor for the Mayor of Leuven, for the Flemish Parliament, the Belgian Parliament and the European Parliament. From 2003 until 2008 he was speechwriter, political advisor and later spokesman of Prime Minister Verhofstadt. In 2008-2009 he founded a liberal thinktank, Prometheus, of which he was director. He published articles and books, under which “Towards a peoples party” (2001) and of “Tiderope walkers of power” (2009).