The ‘Tactical Withdrawal’ Crisis Among Syrian Rebels

by ADIB ABDULMAJID – RUDAW – In the two-year Syrian civil war in which most of the estimated 70,000 killed have been blamed on regime brutality, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) also has left a trail of civilian suffering. The FSA, the main armed opposition whose will is sometimes carried out by its more extremist Islamic allies, has adopted a method of bursting into towns and villages, holding brief control, then staging a self-declared “tactical withdrawal.”

Entering civil districts against the will of local residents became a controversial issue between the political opposition and the leadership of the FSA.

The rebels have been continuously criticized because of the terror they spread among the population every time they declare control over an area. In most cases, residents choose to flee their homes before the regime’s air force starts its arbitrary shelling. The city of Darayya outside Damascus, is a shadow of its former self. Here, residents would stage frequent anti-regime protests despite arbitrary arrests and summary executions by the authorities. But their misery turned into tragedy after FSA rebels burst into the city in August last year. President Bashar al-Assad’s army, and the Shabiha militia allied with the regime, launched a concentrated military operation against the town that killed an estimated 900 people in less than a week.

The defeated FSA rebels claimed a “tactical withdrawal” from the city.

The FSA is more organized now, and appears to operate under a united leadership. But the bitter experience of its “tactical withdrawals” has not left the memories of many Syrians.

Serekaniye, a Kurdish town in southeastern Syria, witnessed a similar miserable exodus of hapless refugees after FSA rebels — particularly the Islamist al-Nusra Front – swept into the town.  The majority of residents left their homes and sought sanctuary across the border in Turkey. The town, whose Arab names is Ras al-Ain, turned into a deadly battleground between the FSA and its allies, and the armed Popular Protection Units (YPG), which refused to let non-Kurds control the country’s Kurdish areas.

Despite a ceasefire agreement last month that followed deaths on both sides, the situation there remains tense and volatile. Some activists joked that, every time rebel forces storm a place, refugees fleeing their homes are really staging a “tactical withdrawal” to allow both sides to freely continue fighting. Surely, there are many horrible stories from the ongoing war in Syria that have yet to be told.  But how could the rebels’ strategy of “tactical withdrawal” turn into a “popular withdrawal crisis?”  Absurdity may be one of the things that has kept this anti-tyranny revolution alive until today.