Free Syrian Army

Not to be confused with Syrian Army.
Free Syrian Army
Participant in the Syrian Civil War

Logo of the Free Syrian Army
Active July 2011–late 2012 (central organisation)
Late 2012–present (gradual reduction of central organisation)

The Free Syrian Army (Arabic: الجيش السوري الحر, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr, FSA) was, or is still, a faction in the Syrian Civil War.[1][2] It was founded on 29 July 2011[3] by officers of the Syrian Armed Forces who said their goal was to bring down the Assad government[2][3][4] and was in late 2011 considered the main Syrian military defectors group.[5][6] From July 2012 onward, ill-discipline and infighting weakened the FSA, while jihadist groups became dominant within the armed opposition.[7] From 2013 onwards, Western war observers have polemized over whether the FSA still exists or has become more of a 'myth' with hardly any real impact.

History of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)

2011 – Formation and attacking the Syrian army

The first defections from the Syrian Army during the Syrian uprising may have occurred end of April 2011 when the army was sent into Daraa to quell ongoing protests. There were reports that some units refused to fire on protesters and had split from the army.[8] Video footage showed civilians helping defecting soldiers who had been shot for refusing orders.[9]

Defections, according to unverified reports, continued throughout the spring as the government used lethal force to clamp down on protesters and lay siege to protesting cities across the country, such as Baniyas, Hama, Talkalakh, and Deir ez-Zor, and there were reports of soldiers who refused to fire on civilians and were summarily executed by the army.[10]

At the end of July 2011, with the Syrian uprising (or civil war) running since March 2011, a group of defected Syrian Army officers established the ‘Free Syrian Army’ to bring down the Assad government. On 29 July 2011, Colonel Riad al-Asaad and a group of uniformed officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army or 'Syrian Free Army',[11] with the goals of protecting unarmed protesters and helping to "bring down this regime", in a video on the Internet where Riad al-Asaad spoke alongside several other defectors.[3][12]

Colonel Al-Asaad explained that the Free Army’s formation resulted from the defecting soldiers' sense of nationalistic duty, loyalty to the people, the need for decisive action to stop government killings, and the army’s responsibility to protect unarmed people. He proceeded to announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army, and its intention to work hand in hand with the people and with demonstrators to achieve freedom and dignity, bring the government ("the regime"/"the system") down, protect the revolution and the country’s resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the "system".[2][12]

Colonel Al-Asaad called on the officers and men of the Syrian army to "defect from the army, stop pointing their rifles at their people's chests, join the free army, and form a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects." He said that the Syrian army "[represents] gangs that protect the regime", and declared that "as of now, the security forces that kill civilians and besiege cities will be treated as legitimate targets. We will target them in all parts of the Syrian territories without exception";[12] "you will find us everywhere at all times, and you will see that which you do not expect, until we re-establish the rights and freedom of our people."[13]

Desertion of soldiers to the Free Syrian Army was allegedly documented in videos.[14][15] On 23 September 2011, the Free Syrian Army merged with the Free Officers Movement (Arabic: حركة الضباط الأحرار, Ḥarakat aḑ-Ḑubbāṭ al-Aḥrār); The Wall Street Journal considered the FSA since then the main military defectors group.[5][6]

As deserted government soldiers had no armored vehicles and only light weaponry and munitions, FSA in August–October 2011 mostly ambushed security forces and the state's Shabiha (ghost) militia, and attacked trucks and buses bringing in security reinforcements by planting bombs or with hit-and-run attacks, but seldom confronted other regular army soldiers.[16]

By October 2011, the leadership of the FSA consisting of 60–70 people including commander Riad al-Assad was harbored in an ‘officers’ camp’ in Turkey guarded by Turkish military.[17] Early November 2011, two FSA units in the Damascus area confronted regime forces.[18] In mid-November, in an effort to weaken the pro-Assad forces, the FSA released a statement which announced that a temporary military council had been formed.[19]

In October 2011, an American official said the Syrian military might have lost perhaps 10,000 to defections.[20]

In November 2011, the FSA operated throughout Syria, both in urban areas and countryside, in the northwest of Syria (Idlib and Aleppo Governorates), the central region (Homs and Hama Governorates, Al-Rastan District), the coast around Latakia, the south (Daraa Governorate and the Houran plateau), the east (Deir ez-Zor Governorate, Al-Bukamal District), and the Damascus Governorate.[18] FSA was then armed with rifles, light and heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and explosive devices.[18] Their largest concentrations were in Homs, Hama and surrounding areas.[18]

The FSA, after consultation with the Syrian National Council (SNC) in November 2011, agreed to not attack Syrian army units that are staying in their barracks, and concentrate on protecting and defending civilians.[21]

In November 2011, "The Free Syrian Army boasts it has as many 25,000 fighters in its ranks, a number challenged by its critics who say the true figure is closer to 1,000".[22] early December, the US International Business Times stated that the FSA counted 15,000 ex-Syrian soldiers.[23]

Religious and ethnic character

In the early days of their existence, 90% of the FSA consisted of Sunni Muslims,[16] a small minority were (Shia) Alawites[16] Druze[24] Christians, Kurds and Palestinians.[25]

Western sources in December 2011 again gave estimates of 10,000 Syrian deserters, indicated that half the Syrian army conscripts had not reported to army duty in the last three call-ups, and that lower-level officers were deserting in large numbers; in some cases, whole units had deserted en masse.[26] An anonymously speaking U.S. official however estimated in December 2011 1,000 to 3,500 defectors in total.[27]

In 2011, The Turkish government provided free passage to defecting Syrian Army fighters and allowed the FSA to operate from a special refugee camp in Southern Turkey near the Syrian border.[28] Turkey would allow the FSA to begin operating in nearby towns and encouraged foreign intervention in the Syrian Civil War.[28]

External video
Idlib, Syria, 21 February 2012, About 500 soldiers defect from the Syrian army's 17th Regiment and join the opposition Free Syrian Army.[29]

2012 – Height of the Free Syrian Army

January/February – High-ranked officer defections

On 6 January 2012, General Mustafa al-Sheikh of the Syrian Army defected from the government forces to join the FSA.[30] General Mustafa al-Sheikh told Reuters that up to 20,000 soldiers in total had deserted the army since the beginning of the conflict, and that the FSA had taken control of large swathes of land. He said in an interview on 12 January 2012: "If we get 25,000 to 30,000 deserters mounting guerrilla warfare in small groups of six or seven it is enough to exhaust the army in a year to a year-and-a-half, even if they are armed only with rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons".[31]

On 7 January 2012, Colonel Afeef Mahmoud Suleima of the Syrian Air Force logistics division defected from Bashar Al Assad's regime along with at least fifty of his men. He announced his group's defection on live television and ordered his men to protect protesters in the city of Hama. Colonel Suleima in a statement declared: "We are from the army and we have defected because the government is killing civilian protesters. The Syrian army attacked Hama with heavy weapons, air raids and heavy fire from tanks. … We ask the Arab League observers to come visit areas affected by air raids and attacks so you can see the damage with your own eyes, and we ask you to send someone to uncover the three cemeteries in Hama filled with more than 460 corpses."[32] An opposition blogger on 16 January announced General Mouaffac Hamzeh in the city of Qusayr in Homs province to have defected to the opposition.[33]

On 29 January, there were reports of a new round of high-ranking defections after the Syrian Army was deployed to fight in the Damascus suburbs, some of them joining FSA. At least two generals and hundreds of soldiers with their weapons defected at this time.[34][35][36]

On 6 February 2012, Riad al-Asaad voiced his concern about the SNC's lack of political and material support for the FSA, and stated that if differences could not be resolved the FSA would break off its relations with the SNC.[37]

Around 18 February 2012, General Fayez Amro of the Syrian air force, who was from the Bab Amr district in Homs and of Turkmen origin, defected to Turkey. Another intelligence general from the Syrian army also defected at this time to Turkey. His name was not disclosed due to security reasons, opposition forces said.[38] 22 February, a brigadier general defected in Idlib with 200 of his soldiers.[39] In March, General Adnan Farzat from the city of Rastan and two other generals defected.[40][41] Turkish government sources reported that same month a surge in desertions with 20,000 desertions in the past month alone bringing the total number of deserters from the Syrian army to over 60,000 soldiers.[42]

In late February 2012, the Syrian National Council established a military bureau to oversee military operations. This initiative was met with criticism by Free Syrian Army leaders who said that they had not been informed.[43] Defected General Mustafa al-Sheikh created a similar discord in the army when he established a rival group called the Higher Military Revolutionary Council which was rejected by the FSA leadership and field units.[44] Earlier the Muslim Brotherhood had also tried to coopt the FSA but the leadership rejected their attempt.[43] Colonel Al Kurdi, the deputy leader of the FSA, dismissed the internal disputes and said that despite disagreements, the opposition remained united against the government and in their call for arms.[43]

The FSA uses guerrilla warfare tactics when it fights and does not aim to occupy terrain once a fight is over, however, by late 2011 large swathes of area in Syria had fallen under partial control of the Free Syrian Army.[45][46] In late 2011, the FSA established control over a number of towns and villages across Idlib province.[47][48] Later in January 2012, the Free Syrian Army succeeded in taking control of the town of Zabadani in Damascus province, following intense clashes with the regular troops. On 21 January, the FSA temporarily captured the town of Douma, near Damascus.[49] The Free Syrian Army also for three months controlled around two-thirds of Homs, Syria's third largest city, according to Syrian military officers inside the city.[50] In January, some Damascus suburbs fell under partial opposition control. For example, the town of Saqba, an eastern suburb of Damascus fell under opposition control for a week until the FSA was forced to tactically retreat into the local population after sustaining heavy bombardment by the Syrian Army.[51][52] In late February, the city of Idlib was under opposition control, with opposition flags flying in the city centre.[53]

Communication inside the battalion unit is carried out by walkie talkie.[54] The FSA battalion units work closely with the local population and defectors typically join units from the region or town that they come.[55] The FSA is closely interlinked with ad hoc activist networks and it works closely with the civilian formed local councils.[56][57] Around key population centers, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa and Hama, the FSA operates military councils that coordinate operations in the area.[58][59]

The army's command and control is exercised through a variety of means, including mobile phones, voice over IP, email, couriers and social media.[18] In November 2011, the army spent $2 million to improve communication links between opposition fighters in Syria.[60] The Bashar al-Assad government captured a number of sophisticated communications devices from opposition fighters, including Thuraya mobile satellite phones, very high and ultra-high frequency (VHF/UHF) devices, and Inmarsat mobile communication satellite systems.[18] In February 2012, Qatar had supplied the army with 3,000 satellite phones.[61] The United States has also provided communication equipment to help create a more structured army.[62][63][64]

At the outset, the Free Syrian Army was mainly armed with AK-47s, DShKs and RPG-7s.[65] As defecting soldiers lack air cover, deserting soldiers have to abandon their armoured vehicles. Soldiers defected carrying only their army issued light arms and hide in cities, suburbs or the cover of the countryside.[16] Besides AK-47s, some FSA soldiers also have M16s, Steyr AUGs, FN FALs, SVDs and shotguns,[66] G3 Battle Rifles,[67] and PK machine guns.[68] Photos have surfaced of some rebels using salvaged StG 44 assault rifles.[69] The FSA has a few heavy weapons captured from the Syrian government. In February 2012, video footage was posted online showing a captured government tank, being used in Homs by FSA forces. The tank carried Syrian opposition flags and was seen firing with armed men in civilian clothes taking cover behind it.[70] An FSA spokesman has said that the organization received three tanks from a group of 100 deserters from the Syrian army.[36] The FSA has also reportedly acquired a number of anti-aircraft missiles.[71] The Free Syrian Army later began manufacturing its own mortars and rockets.[72] Raids on government checkpoints and arms depots are carried out to supply the FSA with much of its ammunition and new arms. The FSA also purchases weapons on the Syrian black market which is supplied by arms smugglers from neighboring countries and corrupt loyalist forces selling government arms. There have been reports that whole arms depots have been offered for sale, although these offers were refused because of fears of a potential trap.[60][73] FSA fighters are also sometimes able to purchase weapons directly from army supply bases, provided that they have enough money to satisfy the government troops guarding them. It is also reported that the FSA purchases much of its heavy weaponry from Iraqi arms smugglers.[74] Col. Riad Asaad has asked the international community to supply the FSA with arms to alleviate the organization's supply issues.[17][75]

March to December – Issues of Organization

FSA soldiers plan during the Battle of Aleppo (October 2012).

In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack with a roadside bomb and AK-47 rifles on a column of armored Syrian tanks in Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, and learned that FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extent, but were without the weapons to put up a realistic fight. FSA fighters claimed to own and control the back roads in the countryside, but also admitted that no one knew for certain where the Syrian Army would be at a given time.[76] On 24 March 2012, the Free Syrian Army united with the Higher Military Council. The groups agreed to put their differences behind them, and in a statement said: "First, we decided to unite all the military councils and battalions and all the armed battalions inside the country under one unified leadership of the Free Syrian Army and to follow the orders of the commander of the FSA, Col. Riad al-Asaad."[77]

In May, United Nations monitors confirmed media reports that large areas of Syria's countryside and provincial cities were under de facto FSA or nobody's control.[78] The Free Syrian Army has stated that it only has partial control over its held areas, and that in a head to head battle with the Syrian army was unable in most cases to hold the territory. The FSA's goal as of winter was to loosen government control over areas, rather than to impose firm control of its own.[79]

By June 2012, CNN estimated "the [Syrian] opposition forces" (which is not the same as "the FSA") to have grown to 40,000 men.[80]

The Free Syrian Army aims to be "the military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime",[81] and it aims to bring down the government by armed operations, encouraging army defections and by carrying out armed action.[12] As the Syrian army is highly organized and well-armed, the Free Syrian Army has adopted guerrilla-style tactics in the countryside and cities. The FSA's military strategy is focused on a dispersed countrywide guerrilla campaign with a tactical focus on armed action in the capital of Damascus. The campaign is not meant to hold territory, but rather, to spread government forces and their logistics chains thin in battles for urban centers, to cause attrition in the security forces, to degrade morale, and to destabilize Damascus, the center of government.[82]

The Free Syrian Army's armed actions focus on the government's combat advantages, which include the ability to mount coordinated operations on a large scale, the ability to move its forces at will, and the ability to employ heavy firepower.[83] To counter these advantages, the FSA has mounted attacks on the government's command and control and logistical infrastructure. A sabotage campaign has begun in Syria, with reports of attacks on different government assets. The FSA has mounted attacks on security service command centers, and posts information on Syrian social media sites about blocking roads, attacking logistics vehicles, cutting coaxial communications cables servicing airfields, destroying telecommunications towers, sabotaging government vehicles by sugaring fuel tanks, and attacking railways and pipelines.[84][85]

An FSA fighter engaged in a firefight in Aleppo

The Free Syrian Army on the local level engages and ambushes the state's shabiha militia[16] and confronts the army during which it encourages defections.[86] Some members of the Free Syrian Army have stated that the organization does not have the resources to occupy and take control of territories, and instead relies primarily on hit and run attacks to prompt the Syrian army into withdrawing.[87] The FSA also uses improvised explosive devices to attack military convoys of buses, trucks and tanks that are transporting supplies and security reinforcements and engages in attack and retreat operations on government checkpoints.[16][88] In neighborhoods opposed to the government, the FSA has acted as a defense force, guarding streets while protests take place and attacking the militias, known as shabiha, which are an integral part of the government's efforts to suppress dissent.[89] In Deir ez-Zor, Al-Rastan, Abu Kamal and other cities the Free Syrian Army, however, engaged in street battles that raged for days with no particular side gaining the advantage.[16] The FSA has also sought international help in bringing down the Assad government. It has asked the international community for arms and the implementation of a no fly zone and naval blockade of Syria[90]

By July 2012, there were over 100,000 defectors from the armed forces reported, according to activist and media sources.[91] By June 2012, "the [Syrian] opposition forces" (which is not the same as "the FSA") were estimated by CNN on 40,000 men.[80]

Prior to September 2012, the Free Syrian Army operated its command and headquarters from Turkey's southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border with field commanders operating inside Syria.[17][92] In September 2012, the FSA announced that it had moved its headquarters to rebel-controlled territory of Idlib Governorate in northern Syria,[93][94] which was later overrun by the Islamic Front in December 2013.[95]

The Syrian National Coalition, formed in November 2012 and by September 2013 based in Istanbul, allegedly ‘the main opposition alliance’, was recognized by the FSA by September 2013 or already earlier.[96]

On 7 December 2012, about 260 to 550 commanders and representatives of the Syrian armed opposition met in Antalya and elected a new 30-person military council for the FSA, called 'Supreme Military Council'.[97] Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who was not present at the meeting, retained his formal role as Commander-in-Chief but lost effective power to Brigadier General Salim Idris, who was elected as the new Chief of Staff of the FSA and effective leader. Security officials from the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan were present at the meeting,[98][99][100] days before a meeting of the Friends of Syria Group that had pledged non-military aid to militant rebels.[99]

About two-thirds of those elected to the new command were individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham were not invited to the meeting.[98] Thomson Reuters stated that the new Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idris "is not ideological", while two of his new deputy commanders, Abdelbasset Tawil from Idlib Governorate and Abdelqader Saleh from Aleppo Governorate are Islamist.[99] The Huffington Post stated that the FSA command "[appeared] to want to sideline extremist groups that have been playing a bigger role in recent months" and that there would be a total of five deputy commanders associated with five different regions of Syria.[98]

Late 2012 command structure

In December 2012, more than 260 rebel commanders from all over Syria agreed to a unified command structure of the Free Syrian Army. The participants elected a 30-member Supreme Military Council, which then selected General Salim Idris as Chief of Staff.[101] Idris was later replaced by Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir.[102]

The FSA's formal leader is its Commander-in-Chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad; however, the army's effective military leader is its Supreme Military Councils Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. Beneath General al-Bashir there are five deputy chief of staffs who are in charge of five different regions of Syria. Two of these deputy chiefs of staff are Abdelbasset Tawil from Idlib Governorate and Abdelqader Saleh from Aleppo Governorate.[98][99]

The Free Syrian Army has field units located across the country. The field units are under the direct command of nine regional commanders which are based in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. The regional commanders include Colonel Qasim Saad al-Din who directs military operations in Homs province and Colonel Khaled al-Haboush who directs military operations in the capital. The regional commanders are under the direct operational command of Colonel Riad Asaad and hold conference calls almost daily.[105][106][107] For internal communication and operations, the FSA appears to have an extensive internet based communication network that state security has tried to penetrate.[55][108]

The Free Syrian Army has adopted the configuration and tactics of a guerrilla force. A typical field unit such as the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade numbers between 300 and 400 fighters split into combat units of six to 10 men. Each man in the unit is armed with a light weapon, such as an AK-47, and the combat unit as a whole is equipped with an RPG launcher and a light machine gun.

Free Syrian Army units specialize in different tasks. Units close to the borders are involved with logistics and the transport of injured soldiers out of the country and also with the transport medical equipment, material supplies and weapons into the country.[44] Other units such as the Farouq Brigades which are based in the city of Homs are involved in protecting civilians and fending off the Syrian army. The Farouq Brigade is one of the more active FSA battalion units. It is led by Lieutenant Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, the nephew of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass.[104] Lieutenant Tlass was one of the first defectors and is one of the key figures in the Syrian uprising. His unit of 500–2,000 soldiers has engaged the Syrian army in Homs and raided Syrian checkpoints and command centers.[85][125][126] As of January 2012, the army had around 37 named battalion units, 17–23 of which appeared to be engaged in combat.[109][127] In October 2012 the Time magazine reported that the FSA was "never more than an umbrella term that provided political cover for the loose franchise of defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s regime" and some units were merely made up of a few dozen fighters.[128]

2013 – Outstripped by al-Nusra

During 2013, within the Syrian anti-Assad opposition as a whole, alliances between the independently operating rebel brigades were constantly changing; many FSA brigades ran over in 2013 to the Islamic Front.

In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through the Supreme Military Council led by defected general Salim Idriss, the then Chief of Staff of FSA.[129]

In April–May 2013, FSA was losing fighters to Islamist organisation Al-Nusra Front which was emerging as the best-equipped, financed and motivated anti-Assad force, concluded The Guardian after interviewing FSA commanders across Syria.[130] FSA commander Basha said that in the last few months 3,000 FSA fighters had gone over to al-Nusra, mainly because FSA lacks weapons and ammunition. Another FSA commander said that also the Islamic doctrine of al-Nusra attracts FSA fighters. A Western diplomat played down suggestions that Nusra would be cleaner, better and stronger: "fighters are moving from one group to another", but you can’t say that Nusra has in general more momentum than others, he maintained.[130]

In May 2013, Salim Idriss, the FSA leader, said that "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support—ammunition and weapons, fuel for the cars and money for logistics and salaries—was hurting that effort. "The battles are not so simple now," Idriss said. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult." He denied any cooperation with Al-Nusra Front but acknowledged common operations with another Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham.[129]

The growth of al-Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, during the first half of 2013, disillusioned thousands of FSA men who felt that their own revolution against the government has been stolen from them.[131] In areas of Homs province, fighting between FSA and the Syrian army had virtually ceased.[131]

On 11 July 2013, an FSA officer was assassinated by a jihadist group, north of Latakia.[7] In mid-August 2013, a delegation of FSA met with an official of President Assad, to suggest talks between government and FSA about "a Syrian solution" to the war.[131] The government accepted this proposal for "a dialogue within the Syrian homeland". Six weeks later, in seven rebel-held areas of Aleppo, civil employees could return to work, and government institutions and schools could reopen.[131]

Salafist-jihadist leader Mohammed Shalabi in Jordan, also known as Abu Sayyaf, stated in July 2013 in Ammon News that irreconcilable differences exist between the aims of FSA and those of other Sunni militias fighting in Syria against Assad.[132]

In October, an FSA YouTube channel broadcast an interview with an al-Nusra leader who described how al-Nusra engineers were able to breach a regime building with explosives.[133] Locals near the Turkish border complained in November 2013 that, in contrast with al-Nusra Front, the groups aligned with FSA were becoming increasingly corrupt.[134]

Years later, US Special Operation Forces veteran and author Jack Murphy wrote that "as early as 2013, FSA commanders were defecting with their entire units to join al-Nusra. There, they still retain the FSA monicker, but it is merely for show, to give the appearance of secularism so they can maintain access to weaponry provided by the CIA and Saudi intelligence services. The reality is that the FSA is little more than a cover for the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra."[135]

Also in 2013, U.S. senior military officials speaking on condition of anonymity indicated that the Pentagon estimates that "extreme Islamist groups" constitute "more than 50 percent" of the Free Syrian Army labeled groups with the percentage "growing by the day".[136]

2014 – FSA dwindles, rebels join ISIL

The US IBT considered the emergence of ISIL in 2014 as the beginning of the end for groups like FSA which the US had dubbed “moderate rebels”.[137] The SMC, the formal FSA command structure, slowly disintegrated within Aleppo Governorate from a lack of sources over the course of 2014.[138]

In February 2014, Colonel Qassem Saadeddine of the FSA announced that Chief of Staff Idris had been replaced with Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, due to "the paralysis within the military command these past months."[139]

In March, FSA and Jordanian sources and video evidence suggested that the FSA received a Saudi shipment of anti-tank missiles through Jordan, and sold these to al-Nusra fighters for $15,000 each.[133] Abu Yusaf, a high-level commander of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States’ and Turkish and Arab military officers were now actually joining ISIL. "In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer. All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State" he said.[140]

On 25 September 2014, a 'Supreme Military Council of Syria'--presumably meaning the 'Supreme Military Council' that is the Head command of the FSA—which is said to include the FSA and "moderate Muslim rebel groups", allied with a predominantly Christian coalition called the Syriac Military Council, to unite their fight against the Assad government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[141]

In September/October 2014, according to the Kurdish oriented press agency ARA News and the US International Business Times, FSA brigades in Northern Syria, especially the Kobanî area (Aleppo Governorate), united with the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) under the Euphrates Volcano joint operations room, more specifically the Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade),[142] to oppose ISIL and the Assad government.[142][143]

In October, Syria Revolutionaries Front (SRF) -- an alliance of FSA brigades defying FSA's leadership SMC—was ousted from Idlib by al-Nusra.[133] According to retired Jordanian general Fayez al-Dweiri in November 2014, apart from southern Syria and pockets around Aleppo, "the FSA has been effectively decimated and no longer effectively exists."[144]

The German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, having toured for ten days in ISIL-held territory in late 2014, said that the ISIL leadership had said to him: if the FSA get a good weapon, they sell it to us; FSA are our best arms sellers.[145]

2015 – Debates as to whether FSA still exists

In June 2015, the International Business Times stated that since the emergence of ISIL on the Syrian battlefield in 2014, the FSA had "all but dissipated",[146] and reported that the remnants of the FSA had joined the coalitions of the Army of Conquest (Islamist) and the Southern Front (ranging from secularist to moderate religious[147]) in their assault on Dera'a, south of Damascus.[146]

In September 2015 a rebel commander told CBS News that only a small proportion of US-approved fighters under a $500 million US aid program were receiving training, weapons, and ammunition, and much of this material was being taken over by the al-Nusra Front.[148] According to Western sources like the BBC, Russia on 30 September 2015, as part of its military intervention in Syria, started air strikes on FSA-labeled groups[149] such as the Mountain Hawks Brigade[150] and the Army of Glory confirmed being hit by missiles from Russia airstrikes on the same day.[151]

From October 2015 onwards, several FSA-labeled groups in northern Syria joined the newly founded, and U.S.-supported, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia umbrella organization.[152]

In December 2015, according to the American Institute for the Study of War who still upheld the idea of FSA as army or group, FSA-labeled groups were still present around Aleppo and Hama and in southern Syria, and the FSA was still “the biggest and most secular of the rebel groups” fighting the Assad government, but had taken the brunt of the Russian air attacks in Syria since 30 September 2015.[153] The Istanbul-based think tank Omran Dirasat, who also upheld the idea of FSA as army or group, that month estimated the FSA-labeled groups to count 35,000 fighters, in 27 larger factions each with an average of 1,000 fighters and some smaller units or militias.[153]

2016: Opposing narratives

'Free Syrian Army is a myth'

Al-Nusra Front members and a Free Syrian Army labeled commander in Maarrat al-Nu'man, 11 March 2016

Marc Lynch, a Professor of Political Science in the United States, is cited as describing in April 2016 the FSA as “something of a myth, with a media presence far outstripping its actual organizational capacity” and amounting to little more than “a diverse array of local defense forces, ideological trends, and self-interested warlords. It exercised little real command and control, and had little ability to formulate or implement a coherent military strategy.”[148]

Use of FSA label in Latakia

In April 2016, according to website Al-masdar News, FSA’s 1st Coastal Division together with al-Nusra Front, Ahrar ash-Sham and the Turkistan Islamic Party attacked Syrian government’s positions in northeastern Latakia Governorate, capturing village Nakshaba,[154] 50% of Jabal Qamou', and village al-Bayyada.[155]

Use of FSA label in Turkish-led operation against ISIL and SDF (August)

The Turkish military intervention in the Syrian Civil War against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Syrian Democratic Forces, called 'Operation Euphrates Shield', starting 24 August 2016, was launched by sending FSA labeled groups into Syria, backed by Turkish armor.[156]

On 16 September, Islamist FSA-labeled groups, after having fought alongside U.S. special forces to clear village al-Rai, just south of the Turkish border, from ISIL, forced those same U.S. troops out of al-Rai.[157][158][159] That incident was accompanied by outbursts of anti-Americanism: the FSA rebels started chanting "Americans we're coming for your slaughter",[160] with some saying "we won't accept any American participating alongside us".[158] The convoy of trucks and tanks carrying U.S. and Turkish forces was taunted and insulted as it fled al-Rai towards Turkey to shouts of "Christians and Americans have no place among us" and "the collaborators of America are dogs and pigs; they wage a crusader war against Syria and Islam."[159][161]

On 21 September, Turkish infantry had to step in to assist the Arabs, Turkmens, Islamists and jihadis fighting in Euphrates Shield because ISIL had recaptured several Turkmen villages from FSA militias, between the Turkish border and al-Bab, 18 miles south.[156] A columnist for Al-Monitor then analysed: "From the outset (…) it was not difficult to foresee that the biggest weakness [of Euphrates Shield] was the inadequacy of the motley crew of jihadists assembled under the FSA banner. To make up for this deficiency, the Turkish army will have to deploy increasing numbers of troops to advance southward in Syria and thus into the quagmire."[156]

Participation in Aleppo offensives (September - December)

Main stream Western news sources in September and October 2016 suggested that 'the Free Syrian Army' still exist as considerable army or structure of militias by mentioning or suggesting a role of the FSA in two offensives around Aleppo.
In the Syrian government’s offensive late September 2016 on (eastern) Aleppo, according to The New York Times, some of the defending rebel groups identified themselves as Free Syrian Army (FSA).[162]

During the October–November Aleppo offensive of rebel forces against the Syrian Assad government forces, the French Le Figaro wrote: "On 22 October 2016, violence again broke out in Aleppo between the regime forces and the rebels. (…) The insurgent groups, dominated by Al-Nusra Front ('Front for the Conquest'), have called for a general mobilization of the fighters of East-Aleppo. The moderates of the Free Syrian Army have advised the inhabitants of West-Aleppo to keep at distance from government buildings."[163] The Dutch NRC Handelsblad wrote: "Syrian rebel groups have on 28 October started a large offensive to break the siege of East-Aleppo. The Free Syrian Army declared: "It will be a large battle, with all rebel groups taking part"."[164] The New York Times wrote: "Syrian rebels counter-attacked the [Syrian] army on 28 October, aiming to break a siege on eastern Aleppo (…) The assault included Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner."[165]

On 14 November 2016, Reuters reported that earlier in November the "Zinki group and the allied jihadist Jabhat Fateh al-Sham tried to crush the Fastaqim faction, which is part of the FSA" in eastern Aleppo.[166]

Armed groups using the Free Syrian Army label

Original FSA units

During the announcement of the formation of the FSA by Riad al-Asaad on 29 July 2011, he listed 4 small subunits which claimed to the founding members of the FSA:[167]

Questions of existence, structure, strength and combativeness

In 2013, the US NBC stated that the FSA "is an army in name only. It is made up of hundreds of small units, some secular, some religious – whether mainstream or radical. Others are family gangs, or simply criminals."[136]

In November 2014, Robert Fisk, British Middle East correspondent since 1976 and nowadays for The Independent, drew a picture of the FSA as being rather harmless and non-combating. Fisk had been traversing northern Syria talking to Syrian troops on the front line, and when asked by Australian ABC’s television program Lateline: “who are they [= the FSA] and how powerful are they?” Fisk answered: “The Free Syrian Army, I think, drinks a lot of coffee in Istanbul (…) I think that the FSA is a complete myth, and I don’t believe that it really exists, and nor do the Syrians [i.e. the Syrian Army], because they say if we do come across them, we don’t mind 'cause they always run away; it’s the ISIS people who don’t, they fight to the death”.[168]

In March 2015, Rami Jarrah, a prominent Syrian-British activist, claimed: "There is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army, people still use the term in Syria to make it seem like the rebels have some sort of structure. But there really isn't."[137]

In May 2015, a Jabhat al-Nusra spokesman said that FSA labeled fighters in southern Syria alone numbered roughly 60,000[169] (although another Nusra leader in December 2015 denied the existence of the FSA[170]).

In June 2015, the US International Business Times stated that since the emergence of ISIL in 2014, the FSA had "all but dissipated",[146] and reported that the remnants of the FSA had joined the coalitions of the Army of Conquest and the Southern Front.[146]

Early October 2015, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov stated: "They tell us about the Free Syrian Army, but where is it? It remains a phantom group, nothing is known about it (...) I've asked [US Secretary of State] John Kerry to provide us with information about the whereabouts of this Free Syrian Army and who commands it".[171][172]

In October 2015, Robert Fisk (see above) stated that the FSA had fallen to pieces and their fighters had defected to al-Nusra Front or ISIL or retired to the countryside maintaining a few scattered checkpoints, and stated that the US government had already admitted the disappearance of the FSA.[173]

Also in October 2015, Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn stated that "The Free Syrian Army was always a mosaic of factions and is now largely ineffectual."[174]

In December 2015, the Istanbul-based think tank Omran Dirasat estimated the FSA self-declared groups at around 35,000 fighters spread out over thousands of groups of various sizes; 27 larger factions of around 1,000 fighters each along with a myriad of smaller groups and localised militias.[175] Also in December 2015, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani reportedly denied the existence of the FSA to the astonishment and intense displeasure of FSA fighters throughout Syria on social media.[170]

List of prominent groups who use or have used the FSA label

Northwestern Syria

Syrian Democratic Forces

Southern Syria

Allegations of war crimes against FSA labeled groups

On 20 March 2012, Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the opposition (including the FSA), accusing them of carrying out kidnappings, torture and executions, and calling on them to halt these unlawful practices.[196] The United Nations-sponsored "Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic" has documented war crimes in Syria since the start of the civil war. It said that rebels had committed war crimes, but that they "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale" of those by state forces.[197][198] Some FSA-aligned groups have also been criticized for their alleged affiliation with Islamists.

The FSA has been accused of summarily executing numerous prisoners who it claims are government soldiers or shabiha,[199] and people who it claims are informers. A rebel commander in Damascus said that over the months his unit had executed perhaps 150 people that the "military council" had found to be informers. He explained: "If a man is accused of being an informer, he is judged by the military council. Then he is either executed or released".[200] Nadim Houry, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch argued that "Intentionally killing anyone, even a shabiha, once he is outside of combat is a war crime, regardless of how horrible the person may have been".[201] On 10 August 2012, a report indicated that Human Rights Watch was investigating rebel forces for such killings. The FSA, for its part, stated that they would put those fighters that had conducted the unlawful killings on trial.[202]

Witnesses have also reported rebels conducting 'trial by grave' in which an alleged government soldier was given a mock trial next to a pre-made grave and executed on the spot by members of the FSA Amr bin al-Aas brigade. One rebel said: "We took him right to his grave and, after hearing the witnesses' statements, we shot him dead".[203][204]

The Daoud Battalion, operating in the Jabal-al-Zawiya area, has reportedly used captured soldiers in proxy bombings. This involved tying the captured soldier into a car loaded with explosives and forcing him to drive to an Army checkpoint, where the explosives would be remotely detonated.[200][205][206]

The UN noted some credible allegations that rebel forces, including the FSA, were recruiting children as soldiers, despite stated FSA policy of not recruiting anyone under the age of 17.[207] One rebel commander said that his 16-year-old son had died fighting government troops.[208]

In a video uploaded to the Internet in early August, an FSA representative announced that, in response to international concerns, FSA units would follow the Geneva Convention's guidelines for the treatment of prisoners and would guarantee its captives food, medical attention and holding areas away from combat zones. He also invited Red Cross workers to inspect their detention facilities.[200] On 8 August, FSA commanders distributed an 11-point code of conduct signed by scores of brigade commanders and rebel leaders. It states that all fighters must "respect human rights … our tolerant religious principles and international human rights law – the same human rights that we are struggling for today".[209][210]

Timeline of some prominent alleged war crimes by FSA-labeled groups:

The FSA was mentioned in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report detailing the widespread practise of using child soldiers by non-state armed groups, the report interviewed children as young as 14 who fought with the FSA.[233]

International support for Free Syrian Army labeled groups

The US-led coalition admits militarily supporting some, so-called "moderate", groups fighting under the banner of the FSA. FSA is said to have received substantial weapons, financing and other support from the United States, Turkey, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.

Arms deliveries from U.S., Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, others

In February 2012 Britain pledged to send advanced communications equipment to the FSA to help them coordinate their forces.[234] On 1 March 2012, Kuwait's parliament declared support for the FSA.[235] By mid-May, it was reported that, according to opposition activists and foreign officials, the FSA had started to receive significant financial support from the Persian Gulf nations for the purchase of arms.[236]

In April 2012, the Lebanese Navy intercepted a Sierra Leone-registered vessel carrying a large number of arms and ammunition believed to be destined for the Free Syrian Army. Some of the arms were labeled as Libyan.[237]

In July 2012 the Syrian Support Group based in Washington DC received clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department to fund the Free Syrian Army.[238] As of August 2012, US President Obama started funding 'Syrian rebels' -- presumably FSA—with money, weapons and goods.[239]

In December 2012, security officials from the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan were present at an FSA meeting that elected a new leadership council.[98][99][100] By December 2012 the international diplomatic collective ‘Friends of Syria Group’ had pledged non-military aid to unspecified militant rebels.[99]

Since December 2012, Saudi Arabia has supplied FSA labeled groups with weapons from Croatia.[240]

In April 2013, the US promised to funnel $123 million nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through the Supreme Military Council, a then coordination body of FSA labeled groups.[129]

In June 2013, rebels reported to have received 250 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank missiles with a range of 4 kilometers and accuracy of 90%.[241]

In April 2014, according to Charles Lister at the U.S. Brookings Institution, 40 different rebel groups first began receiving U.S.-made BGM-71 TOW missiles costing $50,000 each, through the CIA.[242] FSA labeled and other rebel groups posted videos of TOW missile launches online.[242] In December 2014, the Institute for the Study of War reported that the U.S.-led Military Operations Command was leading training and assist missions for FSA labeled groups in Dera'a, at the Jordanian border.[133]

The Washington Post stated in late 2014 that the US and European friends had "in recent years" given training, financial and military support to Syrian "rebel groups", more or less suggesting that FSA was among them.[140] Also an ISIL commander then stated that FSA rebels who in 2014 ran over to ISIL had received training from United States’, Turkish and Arab military officers at an NATO base in southern Turkey.[140]

The Dutch government stated in December 2014 that the 59 countries strong US-led coalition that had convened in Brussels that month was militarily supporting “the moderate Syrian opposition”.[243] After being pressed by their Parliament to be more precise, they admitted that ‘moderate Syrian opposition’ meant: some, but not all, groups that are part of the Free Syrian Army – but squarely refused to name the FSA groups that were being supported.[244]

Since 2014, tens of FSA labeled groups in southern, central, and northern Syria have been provided with BGM-71 TOW missiles. In February 2015, The Carter Center listed 23 groups within the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army that have been documented using US-supplied TOWs.[245] Groups provided with TOWs in northern and central Syria include the Hazzm Movement, the 13th Division, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Yarmouk Army, Knights of Justice Brigade, and the 101st Division.[246]

In 2015 the International Business Times wrote the U.S. has sent weapons shipments to FSA labeled groups through a U.S. CIA program for years.[146] In October 2015 Reuters reported that the U.S. (CIA) and allied countries had broadened the number of rebel groups clandestinely receiving TOW missiles.[247] The International Business Times reported that TOW missile attacks against Syrian government tanks increased by 850% between September and October 2015.[242] Rebel groups associated with the FSA in November 2015 released numerous videos showing them launching TOW missiles against Syrian government forces.[247] According to Russian and Syrian sources, the missiles were delivered through Turkish territory.[247]

In October 2015 Reuters reported that the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar had broadened the number of rebel groups clandestinely receiving TOW missiles.[247] Also the BBC reported in October 2015 that a Saudi official confirmed the delivery of 500 TOW missiles to FSA fighters.[248]

The U.S. supplied a considerable amount of weapons and ammunition, generally of Soviet-type from Easter Europe, to Syrian rebel groups under operation Timber Sycamore. For example Jane's Defence Weekly reported a December 2015 shipment of 994 tonnes of weapons and ammunition (including packaging and container weight) to Syrian rebel groups. A detailed list of weapon types and shipment weights had been obtained from the U.S. government's Federal Business Opportunities website.[249][250]

Foreign combatants

The Libyan National Transitional Council in November 2011 reportedly dispatched 600 fighters or more of the Libian National Liberation Army to the Free Syrian Army, entering Syria through Turkey.[251][252]

The number of foreign Sunni militants active within the FSA is hard to assess. In late May 2012, based on interviews with FSA fighters, it was reported that 300 Lebanese had joined the FSA. The presence of Algerians, Tunisians, Jordanians and fighters from Saudi Arabia was also confirmed.[253][254] A leader of the FSA told an AFP correspondent that five Libyan combatants have been killed in clashes with the Syrian Army. The same leader, while denying the presence of many foreign fighters, said that there are few of different nationalities. Peter Harling, from the International Crisis Group, told the AFP that the proportion of foreign fighters is currently very small, but might grow after Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced their support for arming the rebels.[255]

Croatian General Marinko Krešić confirmed that there are between 80 and 100 Croat mercenaries between the ages of 40 and 60 helping the Free Syrian Army. They are veterans from the Croatian War of Independence (1991–95) or Bosnian War (1992–95), but also fought as mercenaries in Iraqi War (2003–11), Libyan Civil War, Tunisian revolution and Egyptian revolution. Krešić stated that some are serving as security, instructors while others are killing. He also stated that they are very well trained and that "they are the one who will probably kill rather than be killed". Krešić stated that their payment is up to 2,000 US$ a day due to "rich foreign donators". He also added that the majority of the volunteers coming from the Balkans to help the FSA are Serbs and citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[256][257][258] Sources close to the Belgrade military circles confirmed that the former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army are also aiding the FSA. They are mostly instructors who train the rebels mostly for the urban and the guerrilla warfare.[259] A first reported death of a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army was announced on 13 November. Naman Demoli, a former member of the KLA was killed near Syrian-Turkish border.[260]

There are dozens of Kuwait's volunteers entering from Turkey that are fighting in ranks of the FSA. The volunteers are given Syrian IDs as a precautionary measure in case they are arrested, before they are armed and sent to fight in different locations across the troubled country.[261]

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