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.
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.