The Opposition perspective
This report profiles the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition. But first a few notes on the current situation:
Syrian forces are shelling several neighborhoods in Aleppo as the battle for control of Syria's largest city rages. Last week, Syrian troops used a similar combination of aerial bombardments and overwhelming ground force to quash a rebel assault on Damascus. Local activist Mohammed Saeed shared his opinion that ‘the shelling seems to be random and clashes have spread to key neighborhoods in the center of the city’. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting and shelling in Aleppo killed 26 people on Wednesday, some of whom were children. The only areas of the City now truly calm are the massive Kurdish suburbs, which remain under tight PKK control and are not touched by the government or the opposition, lest interference provokes Kurdish reaction. The Kurds also seem to be in control of the entire border strip with Turkey from the Iraq border to the Med creating de facto Kurdish autonomy in Syria for the first time.
At the same time, rumors persist that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have established a command base for the FSA in Adana, in Southern Turkey.
Meanwhile, as Syria’s external opposition continues to split and fragment, General Manaf Tlas, one of the most senior defectors, said he would help unite Syria's fragmented opposition inside and outside the country to agree a roadmap for the transfer of power. He also said he was looking for support from Saudi Arabia and other powers. The general, a member of Assad's Alawite inner circle and a senior officer in the Republican Guards, defected earlier this month. He promised to cooperate with ‘every honorable person who wants to rebuild Syria, be it the National Council or the (rebel) Free Syria Army’. However, Tlas stressed that ‘it would be difficult to overthrow the president from within.’ He added that ‘state institutions should be protected’, in an apparent warning against a repeat in Syria of the U.S. purge of Iraqi officials and state bodies after the 2003 invasion which plunged the country into years of anarchy.
And at the United Nations the word is that Ladsous, the on-the-ground boss of UNSMIS, is ignoring the UN resolution of 20th July and dismantling the mission ahead of time. If true, the political decision stands in contrast to that on Sudan where the UN stayed on in Kordofan for months after its mandate had expired. Russia remains critical of both the US and UN as it becomes backed into a corner.
Simultaneously reports keep coming in of “jihadist” fighters crossing the border from Iraq as well as from Turkey.
The Free Syrian Army
The following is an account of a Skype discussion yesterday with Mr Louay al-Mokdad, a political figure who resigned from the Syrian National Council to join the Free Syrian Army. Louay, who is the NCF's main source in the FSA, agreed to be named.
“The FSA is still in a very strong position and although we are currently in shortage of weapons, money and military communication devices, we are more than ready to carry out new attacks against the Syrian regime. The help from the international community is still not enough and any chances for a transitional government will not be without blood and destruction.”
According to Louay al-Makdad, “This has not been the choice of the FSA. It has been the Syrian regime that has forced and taught us to be violent. The commitment, enthusiasm and support we show will make things very difficult for a regime that is already weakening. The Syrian government has already lost control of the countryside but now it is the turn to the big cities: Damascus and Aleppo, where the final battle will be fought.”
The battle for Damascus
“Unfortunately the FSA was not well prepared for this battle and our resources could not match the heavy weaponry used by Syrian army. The FSA had only around 1,200 fighters and after three days of fighting we were short of weapons, money and fighters. Despite urgent calls to reinforce our resources, no substantial support was provided.
“The battle in Damascus is the most important one. This is the capital and winning here has a special meaning for Syrians. The citizens of Damascus were shocked that fighting was breaking out in their city. Known for being a very calm city, people never thought that what had happened in Hama or Homs could also happen in the capital. The brutality and destruction carried out by the Syrian army encouraged people in the capital to demand the fall of the regime and begin supporting the FSA.”
Mr Al Mokdad stressed that, “The Syrian people are peaceful but that the regime has forced them to fight in order to defend their country and people.” According to him, “The regime started this conflict by taking violent action against its population and the FSA had no choice but to react to it. We act in reaction to the government's action. Despite the lack of preparation and resources for the ‘Volcano’ operation, the FSA stands now as a stronger actor and is ready for future attacks against the government.”
What they need
“At the moment the FSA is short of everything: cash, weapons and military communication devices. Although the FSA receives financial support from some Arabic countries, like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey or Lebanon; this is still not enough. Despite recent calls for cash many countries have encountered problems regarding the delivery of money to Syria.
“Furthermore, there is concern of Qatar’s funding of some Islamist groups on the ground. It seems that there is some sort of deal with Qatar to support the Muslim Brotherhood and bring them to the scene as in the uprising in Egypt.
“At the moment members of the FSA are trying to collect money and weapons from inside Syria, as there are many defectors willing to support them; but also externally from Turkey. The collection of weapons after so many defections also demonstrates the FSA’s determination to stop these arms falling in the hands of thugs or gangs.”
The problem with extremist groups and Salafism
“Syria is not Egypt. The Syrian population has always been very peaceful and well educated and has always rejected Islamic extremism. Syria has a long history and radicalism is not part of it; hence the fact that any sparks of extremism remain very isolated.” Currently there many different groups including jihadists fighting alongside the FSA rebels but Louay said that he would not like them to get any more powerful.
“Despite the government's propaganda about the spread of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda operating in Syria,” he affirms, as many of our sources have stressed before, that, “These groups are very small and limited and have no control or support on the ground.”
When asked about the role of Al-Qaeda in the conflict, he “laughs”. He wonders, “Why Al-Qaeda is now involved and has not lifted a finger for Syria in the last twenty years.” He is very sceptical about Al-Qaeda and its agenda. “Common Syrians are not radical people; therefore they will never welcome extremist or Salafist groups.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that the implementation of a transitional government will not bring an end to the violence in Syria. Knowing Assad and his family well,” says Louay, “I believe that Assad from day one chose to act with fire and not peace and thus it is hardly possible that a peaceful transition would take place”. Louay believes that should it be formed, a transitional government should contain members of the FSA and opposition groups other than the SNC. “Syria needs people from within Syria that are respected and supported on the streets. This is a clear message to the SNC who,” according to him, “have no political weight in this new government. The SNC has lost all respect from the Syrians who still accuse them of stealing money”. According to Louay, “The SNC is so out of date that they have no clue of what is really happening in the country.”
According to Louay, there are many ‘independent and respectful leaders’ who can take part and lead the transitional government; Kamal al-Labwani to name one, says Louay. “However, countries like Qatar keep trying to impose a government that suits their agenda”. According to Louay, they also give a lot of support to Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the ‘alleged head’ of the FSA. Louay claims that Riad, “Does not control anything in Syria and although he gets some support from Qatar, he has no control over the FSA.” Louay spoke about Mustafa al-Sheikh as someone who is of influence in the FSA.
Aleppo and the Kurds
“In Aleppo the fight will continue indefinitely as the government cannot afford to lose it but is struggling to maintain control due to the many people who support the FSA. In the beginning Assad gave some guarantees to the Kurds but more recently members of the PKK agreed not to support the regime and are not taking part in the conflict. The battle in Aleppo is taking place between the FSA and the army.”
Prospects for the future
“There are hardly any chances for discussions between the FSA and the regime. It can only happen if Assad is ready to release the FSA soldiers he has detained in prison. Moreover, these discussions can only take place on the ground, without a political character. The length of the conflict relies on the international community and especially on Russia and its decisions at the UNSC. The Syrian government is not in a very strong position and the FSA is aware of this. The FSA is preparing itself for new attacks that will shake the core of Assad's regime.”