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Amid New Setbacks, United Rebel Command in Doubt

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) suffered two blows over the past week: the loss of the key northern town of Safira to regime forces, and the subsequent resignation of a respected commander, Colonel Abdel Jabbar Okaidi. .

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

The two occurrences raised further questions about how the rebel body can unify its ranks more than two years into the civil war.

Notably, Okaidi did not blame the loss of Safira on being outgunned or outmanned, but rather on rebel infighting: comrades who chose to stay out of the fight.

The resignation has cast fresh doubt on the viability of the FSA, which has yet to serve as a coherent structure for the opposition ranks and is being steadily eclipsed by hardline rivals.

Understanding the FSA

For Middle East analyst Aron Lund, there are two key factors that have led to the fractured state of the revolt: Bashar al-Assad’s counterstrategy and the disorganization of opposition.

“People have imagined it to mean a secular rebel organization. But it’s not an organization and it’s not secular,” said Lund.

“Idris and fellow commanders were former Baathists, but most of the bigger groups that have been on the front and mattered on the ground, Liwa al-Islam, Liwa al-Tawhid, are Islamist to some extent and use religious rhetoric,” Lund said.

The varying degrees of Islamist ideology among FSA commanders may be less of a threat to the organization than their autonomous decision making; arguably, its commanders become more powerful than the structure itself.

Okaidi alluded to the issue of power jockeying among commanders when he announced his resignation, blaming “some people’s refusal to heed calls for unity.” He said certain commanders have become “warlords” and called on them to stop building fiefdoms and return to the real mission of toppling the regime.

The Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC) includes a number of powerful commanders who appear focused on consolidating their own factions and are in no way subservient to a central command.

“Liwa al-Tawhid in Aleppo is SMC. Its commander, Abdel Qadir Saleh, has not distanced himself, but at the same time he is acting autonomously,” noted Lund. Sheikh Zahran Alloush, the leader of the powerful Liwa al-Islam, formed the Army of Islam, and it is unclear whether this body will submit to the SMC.

Unreliable Backing

Many blame the weakness of the SMC on a lack of support from its backers: the U.S. and its European and Gulf allies. Governments and private donors have sidestepped Idris and backed their choice of factions, empowering local commanders and narrowing hopes for unity.

“We have unfortunately abandoned what we had promised, and created a reality we cannot fix,” said Michael Stephens, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in Qatar.

“The aim was to have one conduit through the SMC,” said Stephens. Instead, the U.S. and its Western allies held back, and the Gulf states backed their choice factions.

“Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also undermining [the FSA], because they support Idris but also hand off weapons to their mates. They felt supporting certain groups (in Idlib and Aleppo for the Qataris, and around Daraa for the Saudis) was a better way to get rid of Bashar. But they made the opposition weaker,” he said.

A lack of trust between Western backers and Islamist members of the SMC has meanwhile been a factor behind the West’s lukewarm support for the rebels, said Lund.

“When we talk about those who are giving practical support, such as the U.S., France and the U.K., none have been working through the Military Council of Idris.

“The U.S. seems worried they cannot trust a lot of groups on the ground that are effective fighters. They don’t want to give advanced weapons to groups that collaborate with Jabhat al-Nusra, and this limits the scope. Idris is not given a shipment of weapons and told to distribute them as he pleases,” said Lund.

Accounting for Islamists

In order to build a coherent structure able to fight the regime and sideline radicals, analysts say it is critical to reign in Islamist factions, including those autonomous commanders within the FSA ranks.

Hassan Hassan, a deputy editor at the National and a frequent commentator on the Syrian conflict, agrees that if Western backers want to bolster the rebellion, they must accept moderate Islamists “as long as they’re committed to the FSA’s structure and nationalist agenda.”

“Particularly, Salafi groups can serve as a counterweight to extremists. The FSA can co-opt large numbers of fighters who are currently part of extremist forces if it is well equipped and organized,” he said. “This has yet to be done.”

For Lund, the realistic move for the West would be to support those factions that are “Islamist but not Al-Qaida.” It is critical to organize the opposition, he said, if there is to be a lasting peace.

“Whatever end you imagine to the war, you need someone who can make an agreement and make it stick. If you’re imagining a rebel victory, you need someone to run that one the ground.

“From a U.S. or Western perspective you don’t want Damascus destroyed: you want rudimentary state structures still standing, the ability to control borders and deal with extremists. You can’t have that if there’s no one to take over and all these competing commanders,” said Lund.

“Geneva II requires some kind of body to sit opposite with Bashar and stop the conflict,” added Stephens. At this point, he argues, the opposition cannot. “Bashar will say, ‘Who are you controlling?’ And he’d be absolutely right.”

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