Free Syr­ian Army re­vived as big­ger force


CAIRO | In the ram­shackle town of Atareb, a Free Syr­ian Army bas­tion 15 miles north of Aleppo, Maj. Anas Abu Zaid said he has looted Rus­sian rock­ets, Amer­i­can-sup­plied anti-tank mis­siles and other fire­power to hold off the forces of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

He says it’s time to move on. “We were fac­ing airstrikes on a daily ba­sis, but now some civil­ians are com­ing back to Atareb,” said Maj. Abu Zaid. “We are work­ing to put in place civil gov­er­nance for the town and even re­build­ing some houses.”

His op­ti­mism re­flects a new en­ergy that has in­fused the once-fal­ter­ing rebel force in the wake of mis­sile at­tacks Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered on a Syr­ian air force base ear­lier this month fol­low­ing Mr. As­sad’s sus­pected use of

chem­i­cal weapons on civil­ians.

An­a­lysts say it doesn’t take a lot to tip the bal­ance from one side or an­other in Syria’s grind­ing con­flict, which is why the U.S. mis­sile strike, lim­ited as it was, has had such an im­pact, said Al­berto Fer­nan­dez, a re­tired State Depart­ment coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cer who is the go-to ex­pert on ca­pa­bil­i­ties and lim­i­ta­tions of the multiple rebel groups in Syria.

Add to that the fact that the muchderided U.S. ef­fort to train the Free Syr­ian Army fight­ers is start­ing to pay div­i­dends on the bat­tle­field, boosted by sub­stan­tial fi­nan­cial aid from wealthy Per­sian Gulf emi­rates, Mr. Fer­nan­dez added.

“A war that has been go­ing on so long is ba­si­cally a war of attrition and ex­haus­tion, and all par­ties are be­ing worn down,” said Mr. Fer­nan­dez, now the pres­i­dent of the Washington-based Mid­dle East Me­dia Re­search In­sti­tute. “Those that re­main from each part, unit or en­tity are the fittest, the most clever, the most sav­age and the most ca­pa­ble. So the ques­tion is who is go­ing to be the last man stand­ing?”

“Too of­ten [the FSA]have been writ­ten off, and they shouldn’t be,” he added. “On the other hand, they have been lim­ited — like every­one else — in what they have been able to do, so far.”

Charles Lis­ter, a se­nior fel­low at the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, wrote in a lengthy study for the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion re­leased in November that the FSA was far bet­ter than its rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, evolv­ing into an ef­fec­tive fight­ing force while re­tain­ing a base of pop­u­lar sup­port that few of its ri­vals can match.

“By late 2016, the FSA had come to rep­re­sent an ex­pan­sive, so­cially and sym­bol­i­cally pow­er­ful but com­plex um­brella move­ment, com­posed of dozens of semi-au­tonomous armed op­po­si­tion groups that are united by the orig­i­nal mod­er­ate ideals of Syria’s revo­lu­tion,” Mr. Lis­ter con­cluded, call­ing the FSA “the cor­ner­stone of Syria’s mod­er­ate op­po­si­tion com­po­nent.”

“For the U.S. and al­lied coun­tries seek­ing an even­tual so­lu­tion to the cri­sis in Syria, the FSA’s mil­i­tary pre­em­i­nence does not nec­es­sar­ily have to be the sole ob­jec­tive, but sus­tain­ing its abil­ity to rep­re­sent op­po­si­tion com­mu­ni­ties is of cru­cial im­por­tance given its main­stream po­si­tions,” Mr. Lis­ter added.

Maj. Abu Zaid was one of the Free Syr­ian Army of­fi­cers se­lected by the Pen­tagon in 2015 for a U.S. pro­gram to boost mod­er­ate forces af­ter pre­vi­ous train­ing pro­grams fal­tered.

This Fe­bru­ary, that ef­fort reaped re­sults when, with help from the Turks, Free Syr­ian Army forces took over al­most 1,250 miles worth of ter­ri­tory from Is­lamic State on Syria’s north­ern bor­der.

“The Amer­i­cans made it clear that the regime was not the world’s pri­or­ity, and the is­sue was de­fined as ter­ror­ism,” said the ma­jor, who added that Mr. As­sad’s be­hav­ior since then has proven the Amer­i­can train­ing was worth the cost. “With the Khan Sheikhoun chem­i­cal at­tack, As­sad re­minded them he was the big­gest ter­ror­ist.”

Mr. As­sad’s forces have killed more than 90 per­cent of the 207,000 civil­ian ca­su­al­ties tal­lied in the coun­try be­tween March 2001 and Fe­bru­ary 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Vi­o­la­tions Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter, a monitoring group work­ing with hu­man rights ac­tivists in­side and out­side Syria.

As­sad’s weak­nesses

Free Syr­ian Army fight­ers in­sisted the chem­i­cal at­tack on Khan Sheikhoun re­vealed Mr. As­sad’s fun­da­men­tal weak­nesses, while high­light­ing their own stamina as a fight­ing force.

“His only way to de­feat the peo­ple is by pun­ish­ing civil­ians with these weapons to put pres­sure on them to make lo­cal truces, forc­ing them to leave,” said Maj. Is­sam Al Reis, the 41-year-old spokesman of the Free Syr­ian Army’sSouth­ern Front near the Jor­da­nian bor­der. Pro-As­sad forces “don’t have enough man­power to de­fend their front lines.”

De­spite re­ports in the sec­ond half of 2016 that Mr. As­sad’s forces, backed by Rus­sian and Ira­nian sup­port, had scored some ma­jor vic­to­ries, facts on the ground sup­port the rebels’ con­fi­dence.

An­a­lysts at Om­ran Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­ies, an in­de­pen­dent think tank in the United Arab Emi­rates, said that de­spite Rus­sian and Ira­nian back­ing, the Free Syr­ian Army controls al­most 17,700 square miles this month in­side the coun­try, com­pared to less than 14,000 square miles in 2015.

North­east of Da­m­as­cus, Free Syr­ian Army forces briefly oc­cu­pied the towns of Qaboun and Barzeh, wins even­tu­ally re­versed by the regime and Rus­sian airstrikes, but still a sur­prise to those who had writ­ten off the rebel group as ir­rel­e­vant to Syria’s fu­ture fol­low­ing their de­feat in Aleppo late last year.

“Thanks to the Rus­sian bru­tal­ity, we tended to think a month or two ago that As­sad had pre­vailed and that he can do what­ever he likes,” said Mordechai Kedar, a Syria spe­cial­ist at the BeginSa­dat Cen­ter for Strate­gic Stud­iesat Bar Ilan Univer­sity near Tel Aviv. “I would not re­peat that as­sess­ment to­day.”

As the civil war con­tin­ues, the in­sur­gents’ suc­cess should help them gar­ner more aid from the West, say ad­vo­cates like Fa­had Al­marsy, a for­mer Free Army spokesman who now leads a loosely af­fil­i­ated po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion in Paris called the Na­tional Sal­va­tion Front.

“The United States and Is­rael can tar­get [Le­banese] Hezbol­lah and Ira­nian forces prop­ping up As­sad in an­daround Da­m­as­cus and help the Free Army ad­vance and clear Syr­ian ter­ri­tory of for­eign fight­ers,” he said.

While most of the Is­lamic State’s losses in its Syr­ian base stem from Kur­dish Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, who now con­trol 20 per­cent of Syria, the group’s links to Kur­dish sep­a­ratists in Turkey bar them from be­com­ing close U.S. al­lies, said Ay­man Ab­dul Nour, an early op­po­nent of Mr. As­sad and a leader of Syria’s ex­iled Chris­tian com­mu­nity.

“The Free Syr­ian Army is now po­si­tioned as Amer­ica’s best bet if Washington wants to see a uni­fied or at least a fed­eral Syria,” said Mr. Ab­dul Nour in a telephone in­ter­view from Dubai, United Arab Emi­rates.

The rebels said they in­tend to keep up the pres­sure on Mr. As­sad. Re­cently, their “Vic­tory Army” in west-cen­tral Syria turned their guns on the regime’s Hama Mil­i­tary Air­port, us­ing Rus­sian mis­siles to de­stroy a Rus­sian-made fighter jet. Like the Amer­i­can mis­sile strike, which de­stroyed six Mig-23s at the Al-Shayrat Air Force base, the at­tack was de­signed to down­grade the size and shorten the reach of Mr. As­sad’s air force.

Refugees from regime-con­trolled ar­eas, mean­while, are join­ing rebel en­claves com­mit­ted to Mr. As­sad’s down­fall.

“The peo­ple suf­fer ex­haus­tion from the war, but they are still loyal to the Free Army,” said Ka­mal Bah­bough, a 36-yearold physi­cian in the be­sieged town of Al Ras­tan, about 14 miles north of Homs. “The Free Syr­ian Army sol­diers are the sons of this re­gion.”


EN­TRENCHED: The Free Syr­ian Army rebel group de­cried Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons, call­ing it a show of the leader’s weak­ness.

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