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By many accounts and contrary to Damascus’ claims, Syria’s uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, now in its eleventh month, began as a peaceful and very public demand for political reform. Things turned violent early on as the government began to crack down on demonstrators calling for Assad’s removal.

In recent weeks, Assad has resorted to shelling entire cities with air power and tanks. The total body count is now estimated by rights groups to have topped 7,000 and the evidence on the ground seems to suggest that this number will continue to rise at a fast pace.

Estimated fatalities among pro-Assad forces, which include uniformed government troops and members of the dreaded Shahiba militia, are at about 2,000, according to government figures. Many of the deaths were at the hands of the Free Syrian Army, a force made up mostly of defectors from government troops many of whom appear to have switched sides in response to a July video calling on government soldiers to stop killing fellow Syrians and, instead come to the defense of unarmed protesters.

To date, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) can be described only as a very small and rather unconventional fighting force. Its future effectiveness may be determined by many factors beyond its control, among them an intensified shelling of Syrian cities by government forces on the one hand, and yet to be determined actions by countries frustrated by a Russia-China veto of a Syria U.N. Security Council resolution on the other.

I don’t think Assad can put down the revolution – Jeffrey White, Washington Institute for Near East Studies

Some claim the FSA has as many as 40,000 troops but conservative estimates from outside observers reduce that figure to about 7,000. That is small compared to the number of active duty Syrian troops, estimated, according to various sources, to range from 200,000 to 300,000. But the rebel force continues to grow as more Syrian soldiers cross the line during combat or quietly at night, reportedly sometimes a hundred at a time, taking with them their weapons.

A phantom rebel force

The commander of the Free Syrian Army is Riad Al-Asaad, a former Syrian Air Force colonel who operates from across the Turkish border.

In a country largely isolated from the rest of the world and with much of the news about events there being obtained with the help of social media tools, most information about weaponry, force levels, gains and losses come through unverified claims of those engaged in the conflict.

Syria observers describe the FSA’s strategy as guerilla warfare with heavy use of  hit-and-run tactics. Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies, says the rebels’ aim is to bleed the Syrian army with multiple small engagements in which the anti-regime fighters quickly disappear into the local population to avoid large losses and government reprisals. He finds that strategy very effective.

“I don’t think Assad can put down the revolution,” says White, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Defense Department and author of “The Free Syrian Army Bleeds the Assad Regime,” speaking of the conflict.

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Anti-Assad regime protesters cheer for a Syrian army defector in the Rastan area in Homs province, Jan. 30, 2012. (AP)

The colonel wants Assad to step down

In a telephone interview with Middle East Voices last week, Colonel Riad al-Asaad said that “we will not settle for less than Assad’s stepping down.” At the same time he said that one of the objectives of the FSA is “protecting the protesters so that they could be effective in their endeavor.” “In spite of the fierce military campaign launched by the regime,” the colonel added, “the numbers of civilians killed by the regime is considerably smaller than what their assaults planned to kill.”

Street activists confirm the effectiveness of that strategy. In Homs, an anonymous organizer of street actions, with whom Middle East Voices established contact, reported that armed FSA members often escorted marchers, maintained telephone communications with sympathizers within government ranks, warned marchers when they received intelligence that regime troops were about to attack, and then engaged  government soldiers in fire fights to buy the marchers more time to disappear.

The current strategy of the FSA is not to defeat the Syrian army, the al-Asaad said. “We do not have a conventional army,” he added, “and our military equipment cannot enable us to secure or maintain control over any area.”

According to the colonel, a unit of the FSA overwhelmed Assad regime forces in the resort town of Zabadani just 14 miles from Damascus in January and accepted a negotiated truce in which government forces withdrew from the town. “But eventually, we had to perform a tactical withdrawal to avoid the total destruction of the city and massive killings of its inhabitants.”

…Our military equipment cannot enable us to secure or maintain control over any area – Col. Riad al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syrian Army

The colonel expressed concern that coordination between his military forces and the political forces of the Syrian National Council and other opposition groups is lacking. “In fact, each segment of the opposition is acting alone without coordination, which leads to a very painful situation.” He then alluded to “beneficiaries from the regime who are subverting and dividing the opposition” and “militant groups that we do not want who would enter into Syrian territories.”

Keeping the fight local

The notion that Asaad is commanding this broad band of little militias is, I think, largely fictitious,” says Josh Landis, director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma and author of the influential “Syria Comment” blog.

“They are responding to local situations as they can. It is hard to know how they can communicate freely on a micro level,” says the scholar. Local commanders therefore focus on local conditions and as new defectors join their ranks, they guard against infiltration by government agents, adds he.

“The FSA’s official line is to defend Syrians against Syrian soldiers who are about to kill them,” says Landis. And that is the line the Syrian National Council has asked them to take, adds he, stressing that there is a realization that the FSA should not yet take on the Syrian army as they are not prepared for a full military campaign.

The FSA’s official line is to defend Syrians against Syrian soldiers who are about to kill them – Josh Landis, director of the Middle East Studies Center

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Syrian army defectors stand guard in the Deir Baghlaba area in Homs province, Friday, Jan. 27. (AP)

 

“That is in part shaped by U.S. and E.U. dictates,” Landis says. “The main struggle here is still in the U.N., and the U.S. and the E.U. are trying to put forward an argument which goes, ‘This is not a civil war in Syria. This is a repressive regime that is destroying and killing a peaceful secular democracy movement’.”

A police state protected by a weak army

Former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and, in turn, his son, Bashar, built a police state with an army that was “poorly trained, ill-equipped and lacking esprit de corps,” wrote Peter Harling, the International Conflict Groups Syria expert in a November paper, “Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics.” He pointed out that to minimize the risk of a military coup, Assad made sure the army stayed both weak and divided. In three governates – Idlib, Hama and Homs – now most actively opposed to the regime, Harling wrote, “there no longer is a permanent loyalist military presence.” Other governates were showing signs of further garrison weakness, he observed.

Experts are in less agreement on the existence of other groups capable of putting up armed resistance to government forces. Landis mentioned a Salafist group originating in Homs, but White and Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies and a member of the Syrian National Council, have heard rumors of such groups but have no evidence of their existence.  “All defectors are going to the Free Syrian Army,” said Jouejati.

“The regime spreads disinformation like this to buttress their narrative about ‘armed gangs’,” he said, and to raise fears of “the rise of an emirate to scare the international community and domestic minorities.”

All defectors are going to the Free Syrian Army – Murhaf Jouejati, National Defense University’s Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies

“There are other forces on the ground but not on the side of the opposition,” Jouejati said, “but rather on the side of the regime.” He pointed to the the Free Syria Army having captured Iranians who were part of  the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” He also said that FSA troops claim to have seen members of Hezbollah from Lebanon operating inside the Syrian border.

Harling reaffirms that FSA soldiers are widely perceived as devoted patriots waging an effective guerilla war. But he claims that in the existing power vacuum, particularly in central Syria, “fundamentalist fighters and proxies reporting directly to foreign powers may join the fray.”

Whether the FSA fighters will ever be able to take on the entire Syrian military machine is an open question. Assad does not appear inclined to negotiate with anyone, and with Russia and China opposed to a UN resolution calling for Assad’s ouster, experts are talking more frequently of a military solution rather than a political one. And with the U.S. now forming a “Friends of Syria” group outside the halls of the United Nations, there is talk that the FSA, overtly or covertly, might get some outside help.

 Free Syrian Army Rebels – A Threat to Assad?

David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.