The Opposition perspective
- Profiles the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian opposition.
- Includes a statement on transitional governance by the Homs division of the FSA
- Notes of an NCF discussion on the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs)
The Armed Wing of the Syrian Uprising
The Syrian uprising’s military groups are legion. They include major brigades as well as small groups of as little as ten men. Some are in the FSA, some are not. We have classified them as either secular, or mainstream Islamist, or extremist (i.e. Takfiri). We have just listed some of the more prominent groups. This is our first attempt to categorize the various rebel groups in the armed uprising. Please be tolerant. We will try and do better with this complex subject next time.
The Free Syrian Army
The FSA Northern Command / Higher Military Council (secular)
The following is an account of a Skype discussion with Mr Louay al-Mokdad, a political figure who represents the Free Syrian Army’s Northern Command (the factions fighting in and around Aleppo).
“The FSA is now more prepared and organised for new attacks, including the current battle in Aleppo and future attacks in Damascus. They have been sending more rebels to the Christian areas as they do not want to allow Assad forces to get a hold of any of these streets. They are trying to prevent violence in these areas. The FSA is very short of money and arms but their organisation is much better.
“The recent government's actions in Aleppo prove that Assad is nervous and does not really know what he is doing anymore.
“We condemn the act of some of the FSA rebels for executing members of the Shabiha and uploading the video on to the internet. This behaviour does not follow the FSA's principles and ethics. We understand this reaction. It is a response to the massacres committed daily against civilians. However, this reaction was a mistake and we would rather have had a fair trial for these people but we have neither the resources nor the time. The FSA are planning to construct some kind of court soon so that this will not happen again.
“It must be noted that the particular family of the men executed are responsible for having killed more than 200 people.
“With so many different groups, it is impossible to control what everyone does within the FSA. As regards the international condemnation of these events: How can the international community talk about crimes against humanity when that's what the government does here every day?
“Regarding Kofi Annan's resignation....we don't care about this, it won't change anything as he hasn't changed anything.”
“Regarding Kofi Annan's resignation....we don't care about this, it won't change anything as he hasn't changed anything.”
When asked if he thought the FSA was perhaps becoming more political and less military he said that they are “certainly more organised but they are not necessarily becoming more political”.
This group is allied to the newly formed Higher Military Council led by General Mustafa Sheikh.
The FSA Aleppo Command (quasi-secular)
One of the main groups also fighting in the battle for Aleppo was the FSA command loyal to the Internal FSA Coordinated Leadership in Homs (as opposed to the Higher Military Council). This group rejects the authority of the FSA command in Turkey and refuses to obey its orders. It is led by Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi. In some sources he is described as ‘a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army’. It is suggested that some of his fighters do not belong to the main rebel force but to a radical Islamic militia calling itself “Banner of Islam.” Some of this latter group are said to be jihadis arriving in Syria from Iraq and Libya.
The Internal FSA Coordinated Leadership / FSA Al Farouq Battalion / Homs Division (quasi-secular)
The various Al Farouq battalions that make up the Al Farouq Brigade are based in Dera’a, Homs and Rastan and are amongst Syria’s most feared and ruthless rebel units
Lieutenant Abdul Razak Tlass is the commander of the Al Farouq Battalion and has been in direct personal command of opposition forces in Homs during 2011 and 2012. Abdul Razak became a defector from the Syrian army very early on in the revolt, prior to which he was based in the Dara’a region. He is posted on Tumblr, as leader of the Farouq battalion. An emotive interview of his can be found on the web translated into English as well as a number of opposition videos praising him. He has become something of a cult figure for the opposition. A number of sources suggest that Abdul Razak Tlass may have been killed in action. The Al Farouq Battalion does not profess allegiance to the “Higher Military Council” (see above).
The broader command known as the Homs Division is the stomping ground of FSA spokesman Colonel Qassim Saad Eddin who is also described locally as the “Commander of the Military Junta in Homs”. It was this command that planned the Damascus uprising known as operation “Volcano”. In a demonstrable shift in their own tactics, the FSA sent its own reinforcements into the capital region. Col. Qassim confirmed this himself: “We sent many groups and fighters to Damascus and its suburbs. We have sent at least 50 groups, each with around 50 fighters.” If true, it means that the FSA leadership coordinated a relatively complex operation among fighters from a number of different regions. The military coordinator for the group is named as Ahmed Kassem. There are tensions between this pro democracy group and some of the more radical FSA commands. Colonel Qassim Saad Eddin has previously announced that the rebels in Syria would no longer be bound by the Annan peace plan. Indeed, it is clear that he is not bound by what Colonel Riad Assad wants as the two had contradictory positions on the Annan peace plan in May 2012.
The FSA Turkish Command (secular)
This one of the first FSA commands. They call themselves “The Free Syrian Army” and claim to be in overall control. At the NCF we have decided to label them “The FSA Turkish Command” to distinguish them from other FSA groups, who, by and large, make a point of calling themselves “FSA (Inside)” to distinguish themselves from this group. This group has a headquarters in the Apaydin Refugee Camp, in Turkey’s Hatay region.
When discussing the FSA, organisations like the BBC do not seem to differentiate very well between the FSA outside Syria and those actually fighting in Syria. Most internal opposition fighters are keen to dissociate themselves from those outside the country.
The original Free Syrian Army was formed in August 2011 by army deserters based in Turkey and led by Riyad al-Asaad, a former air force colonel. Col Asaad claims to have as many as 40,000 men under his command and that soldiers are defecting every day and being assigned tasks by the FSA.
- Note that at a press conference on the 1st of March this year the SNC announced that it had created a military bureau to co-ordinate the various armed anti-government groups in Syria. The FSA said it would not co-operate with the new bureau. Col Riyad al-Assad said the FSA does not want any political interference and has its own military strategy.
Colonel Asaad is named as Commander-in-Chief, with Deputy Commander-in-Chief Colonel Malik Kurdi and Chief of Staff Colonel Ahmad Hijazi. Colonel Asaad is under Turkish military protection and does not go into Syria. He has recently expressed his objection to in any way creating a separate country for Kurds.
The Khalid bin al-Waleed Battalion of the FSA (secular)
This FSA command is based in Rastan.
Though in Homs province, Rastan is well to the north of the province and far closer to Hama than to Homs. The Khalid bin al-Waleed battalion is named after the Arab conqueror of Roman Syria. The force reportedly possessed some tanks as well as light weaponry. This was the group that was active in and around Houla and was decimated by the government attack on that village which is just across the Orontes River from Rastan.
The FSA Salaheddin Brigade (secular)
This FSA command is the only non-Sunni Arab brigade in the entire FSA. It is Kurdish and fights alongside the FSA in Aleppo. It opposes the PKK and is unique in that all other Kurdish groups (and indeed virtually all other minorities) either stand with the government or stand aside. (more of the complex developments in the politics of Kurdish Syria in a subsequent report).
The Independent Armed Groups
The Al Nusra Group (extremist)
This group is disowned by much of the FSA and calls itself the Al-Nusra Front to Protect the Levant (aka Support Front for the People of Syria/Jabhat al Nusra):
The Al Nusra Front was formed during the Syrian uprising (late 2011). They released their first public statement in January 2012, calling for armed struggle against the Syrian government. The group claims responsibility for the 2012 Aleppo bombings, the January 2012 al-Midan bombing, the March 2012 Damascus bombings, the assassination of broadcaster Mohammed al-Saeed and possibly the 10 May 2012 Damascus bombings (many of these were suicide bombings).
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that al-Qaeda in Iraq members have gone to Syria, and seem to be joining the al-Nusra Front. However they themselves claim that they are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda but see themselves as mujahedeen. They have a sectarian edge to them, fighting as Sunnis against Alawite oppression, and they justified the Damascus suicide bombings as retaliation for massacres of Sunnis.
They admit that there are foreign members of their group, coming from all over the Muslim world. There seems to be a significant amount of tension between this group and the local population of Syria, especially with regards to importing foreigners in to fight in the insurgency, which many Syrians object to.
The Muslim Brotherhood Group (mainstream Islamist)
Known as the “Armed Men of the Muslim Brotherhood” and discussed in an article by Ruth Sherlock, this is a Muslim Brotherhood Militia set up in Syria.
This group has a presence in Damascus as well as Homs and Idlib. One of their organisers, who calls himself Abu Hamza, said that he started the movement along with an unnamed member of the Syrian National Council (SNC).
This group’s main strength is in Homs province and it professes to supply Islamist militias in Homs province with weapons and other aid.
Like some other Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood group makes it very clear they are not under the FSA banner. One clear distinction between this and other groups is that the Saudis fund most groups in the FSA whereas the Qataris are now funding this group. Also note that the Qatari funded SNC have fallen out with the FSA.
· NOTE: there are important differences between Muslim Brotherhood ideology and Saudi Wahhabism/Salafism (though this article suggests, the Muslim Brotherhood only claims to be more moderate because it will help them achieve their goals).
Ahrar Al Shamm (extremist)
This takfiri group is based in the historic village of Qalaat al Mudiq, close to Aleppo, and sends the rebels under its command to fight in the streets of Aleppo.
Ahrar al Sham draws its members from followers of a conservative strain of Sunni Islam known as Salafism; its followers see themselves as fighting in part for the right to preach their doctrine and the fall of a government that jailed them for doing so. “Things are going on as usual, (in the areas under Ahrar al Shamm control) except that it became hard for Alawites to come to work,” says Khalid al Amin, the Ahrar al Sham leader. Amin said Alawites now fear retaliation from Sunnis for the support in Alawite villages for pro-government militiamen (Shabiha).
Liwa Al Islam (extremist)
This rebel Syrian group claims responsibility for the explosion in Damascus on 18 July 2012 that killed several top state officials: Defence Minister Daoud Rajha as well as Assef Shawkat, President Bashar al-Assad's brother-in-law and the deputy defence minister.
Liwa al-Islam, an Islamist rebel group whose name means "The Brigade of Islam", said in a statement on its Facebook page "We happily inform the people of Syria and especially the people of the capital that the National Security Bureau, which includes what is called the crisis management cell, has been targeted with an explosive device by the Sayyed al-Shuhada brigade of Liwa al-Islam". Liwa al-Islam confirmed the claim by telephone but denied that it was a suicide attack. "Yes we did the attack but there was no suicide bomber," said the man, who asked to be identified as Abu Ammar. "Our men managed to plant improvised explosives in the building for the meeting. We had been planning this for over a month."
Moreover, “Liwa al-Islam” has been blamed for the killing of Christians in Bab Touma. Most of the gangs operating in the Southeast of Damascus are considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood, while members of the group “Liwa al-Islam” belong to the Wahhabi ideology.
Statement on interim governance for Syria by the Homs Division of the FSA
Translation by the Next Century Foundation (this is a literal translation) – This Homs FSA statement is a work under review. It does not currently represent the views of all factions of the FSA
Free Syrian Army Statement Translated:
The Coordinated Leadership of the Internal Free Syrian Army
Statement and Project for the Transition
Oh great Syrian people, Oh Syrian rebels!
The joint command of the internal Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Office of Coordination and Liaison, the military tribunals in cities and provinces, the battalion and company affiliates, discussed about the dangers and the future of Syria in its transitional phase. Beyond the dangerous projects, we hatched in closed circuit a national agenda in favor of a division between regional and international powers. We, the FSA are here for the Syrian people, and are built from the Syrian people, will keep a watchful eye on your security and safety. We protect your land, your cities and your villages. We penalize those who conspire against Syria and the revolution of the blessed. We will put an end to the national forces. Internal and external members of the FSA, sons of the nation, we shall unite. Our draft constitution creates a national salvation, which meets the full requirements of the revolution without any equivocation and defraud.
1. We have the same opinions and ideologies than opposition forces in and outside of Syria. We believe that the national project, which we introduce to you, assures a restructuring of the authorities, a wider participation in which all the revolution actors on the ground of civil, military and revolutionary background cooperate to achieve a safe and balanced transition. We push Syria towards safety in this transitional phase. Construction and management of the new civil state will respect the pluralistic democracy in which everyone, without any distinction and exclusion, will have the same rights and duties.
2. You built us and we are here for you. We promise that the FSA will provide an alternative national and military establishment to the nation and the revolution. We will guarantee national unity, territorial integrity, safe transport, stability, and civil peace. We are working on becoming a democratic civil state, which will only happen after the fall of Assad’s regime. We emphasize that the role of the military establishment of the revolution will return to their barracks in order to preserve its unity and independence, and focus on its core mission, which is the defence of Syria and its people. After achieving a calm and healthy transition, it will not interfere in Syria’s political life. We give you below and, which lie in your hands, our proposals and our vision for a national project. It is the outcome of many opinions, consultations, and communication over the weeks. There may be a road map accepted by all parties on the path to liberation and independence. We wish to all the revolutionary forces active on the ground, the forces and bodies of the opposition at home and abroad to discuss this project carefully so that we can together, hand in hand, come out of this dark tunnel. Because of fragmentation and divisions in country, and the revolution above all else, we stress that any government that emerges here or there will not see the light and will not have any legitimacy if it does not fulfill the demands of the revolution and if it did not gain the approval of the Joint Command of the internal FSA and the rest of the revolutionary forces.
Joint Command of the Syrian army at home free: Pilot Colonel General Qassim Saad Eddin, Spokesman for the Joint Command of the internal FSA and Commander of the military junta in Homs and its surroundings.
Project of the united forces of the internal FSA for the transition
1. The Establishment of the Supreme Defence Council
The council’s membership includes the leaders of the military councils in all cities and provinces, senior officers Syrian dissident shareholders and officers in the revolution. Our first task is to establish a presidential council for the state. For now, it will be made out of six civilian and military figures that will manage the transition. The right of the Presidential Council is to propose laws, which will be proposed to the Syrian people by a yearly referendum. It will restructure security and military institutions on a national basis and will develop solutions to incorporate the civilians who took up arms during the revolution into the military and security forces.
2. The Establishment of the Supreme National Council for the Protection of the Syrian Revolution
Regarded as a parliamentary institution to monitor the work of executive bodies.
To the importance and seriousness of the turning point of the revolution into a stage of transition, we see that all bodies of civil, military like the old Syrian national, all political forces, national figures, the General Authority of the revolution, the Coordination for mobility of the revolutionary army (FSA), the Coordination and Liaison Office and finally all the military tribunals in cities and provinces should be involved in the making of new institutions. Therefore we take this diversity as a whole in mind to be represented in the bodies of civilian and military so that we can manage the transition. Following comes our proposal and our perception of the restructuring of civil and military authorities. It is conscious of the situation and balanced. We take into account the non-occurrence of the country in any power drainage, conflict of the authorities and the protection of different areas of insecurity.
This plan that we offer is a movement of consciousness to cross the transition phase. We will execute that in a cautious and deliberate way to protect the project of revolution. We would like to balance the powers that the revolution has instated between each of these figures: civil and military. This extends to the real effort carried out by the forces arguing on Revolutionary mobility and management of villages, towns and neighborhoods in some cities and provinces under the authority of the local administration. We recognize it as an integral part of the transition system. All of this proves the rebel’s ability to land management and democratic action despite the presence of some of the mistakes and pitfalls.
These three elements we are talking about in the Supreme Defense Council, the Supreme National Council for the Protection of the Revolution and the National Authority for management of local and provincial councils are the backbone of the transition phase. This can be passed on to the stage of revolution, the state administration with the required constitutional safeguards.
And to keep track of the Supreme National Council for the Protection of the Syrian Revolution are the following bodies:
National Authority for the management of local and provincial councils: The mobility of the forces of revolutionary actors on the ground that managed many of the areas, towns, villages and neighborhoods includes representatives from all the provinces with the administrative and technical expertise and technical resources.
National Commission for Refugees and Displaced
National Authority for the welfare of families of martyrs, the wounded and war casualties
Body of national reconciliation
National Authority for the reconstruction and construction
National Commission for information
Supreme National Authority for Transitional Justice and Human Rights
Supreme National Commission for Economic Affairs
Supreme National Commission for Elections
National Agenda Committee: calls to the Conference of the national agenda with full references to the spiritual and religious, political, cultural, intellectual, revolutionary and other components of the Syrian society to determine the parameters of the Syrian state and the national universities entrusted with the development of the guiding principles of the Constitution and the foundations of development project.
The committee drafting the new constitution: the shape of the legal references and national constitution that meets the aspirations and demands of the Syrian Revolution, the entire Syrian people.
Proposed transitional government: The proposed government of the joint command of the internal FSA consists of thirty-one ministers and eight deputies to the Prime Minister.
Prime Minister a personal civil
Deputy Prime Minister proposed
Deputy Prime Minister for Security Affairs, appointed by the military establishment of the Revolution
Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs
Deputy Prime Minister for Citizenship
Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs
Vice President of Government Affairs for the reconstruction
Vice President of Government Affairs for the parties
Deputy Prime Minister for Cultural Affairs
Deputy Prime Minister for Religious Affairs
The proposed government:
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Interior Minister appointed by the military establishment of the Revolution
Secretary of Defense appointed by the military establishment of the Revolution
Minister for the prime minister appointed by the civilian character of the military revolution
Minister for Local Administration
Minister of Economy
Minister of Commerce
Minister of Industry
Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources
Minister of Finance
Minister of Planning
Minister of Labour
Minister of Housing and Construction
Minister of Development
Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation
Minister of Electricity
Minister of Transport
Minister of Communications
Minister of Tourism
Minister of Justice
Minister of Health
Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice
Minister of Women's Affairs
Minister of Higher Education
Minister of Education
Minister of Youth and Sports
Minister of Expatriate Affairs
Minister of Religious Endowments
Minister of Social Affairs
Minister of Culture
Minister of Information
Adviser to the prime minister: includes competencies from various fields and disciplines.
The transitional government: the military reserves of the revolution in three ministerial portfolios in this government. The ministries of interior, defence and the portfolio of Minister for Presidential Affairs.
Notes of an NCF discussion with
Mahmoud Ali Hamad regarding
the Local Coordination Committees (LCCs)
Mahmoud started the meeting with a brief statement of what is happening on the ground in Syria.
The situation is one of total chaos and although I believe that Assad has lost this battle we still must remain very prudent about the future. There is a struggle between two groups, the Syrian army and the rebels, trying to preserve what they have achieved so far. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is not hierarchical. Indeed it is fragmented. The (government) Syrian army is crumbling and we will also have to be careful how we deal with this. They outgun us but it won’t help them in street fights.
The Kurds control Deir Azzor. In areas like that there is no state control. At the moment, the government is focusing on the main cities. They are concentrating on the heartland, the demographic backbone of Syria that runs from Dera’a to Aleppo, and anything east of the Euphrates River is out of their control. The Syrian army is especially targeting members and supporters of the FSA but the horizontal structure and organisation of the FSA allows them to move freely and makes it difficult for its members to be traced. You can be a group of as little as ten men and claim to be FSA. We were hoping for more foreign observers and a greater foreign media presence. Now no one can implement Annan’s plan because there is no prospect of a truce. The FSA was created to protect the demonstrators but now it is not just doing that any more.
Initially it was easy to distinguish between the bad and the good of the conflict but now the boundaries are increasingly blurred and it is proving difficult to hold anyone accountable for what is occurring. At first, the government was clearly persecuting the rebels and civilians but now it is difficult to decipher who is persecuting whom. The government has created this blurred smoke screen situation, orchestrating clashes and violence between different groups encouraging sectarian violence.
There was a thought that international organisations and the media could help stabilise the situation, however, now these attempts seem to be proving ineffective and fruitless – they are merely reporting what they have been told.
Annan's plan has not been successfully implemented at all; we are still stuck on the first point. The violence has not stopped and negotiations have not begun in Syria. With no enforcement mechanisms to implement the plan it cannot be effective. I believe that the Annan plan was used as an excuse by the Syrian government to gain more time.
The situation has changed dramatically in the last four weeks after the assassination of key members of Assad's inner circle and the massacres in Damascus and Aleppo. No one has really been appointed to fill the vacant positions, which is suspicious. I am at a loss as far as understanding what is happening in the Assad regime. He cannot win in Aleppo because he cannot just eliminate an entire population. He seems to be thinking erratically and is showing clear signs of nervousness and lack of control. His decision to make friends with unlikely groups demonstrates this. The situation in Aleppo is a perfect example of the current lack of control shown by the government.
The Russian position
I believe that the Russian position has been badly misinterpreted in the West. The Russians are not as naive in their political views as the Western media have portrayed them. On the other hand, it seems that Russia doesn't clearly understand what is really going on in Syria. Since the beginning of the conflict they have adopted a fixed position and they have not adapted it to the ever-changing situation. I personally don't think that Russia has more leverage in the conflict than anyone else or than it had before. Russia's influence is limited to the Syrian government. The people on the street have given up on the Russians as they have made no effort to communicate with them or provide support, only the government. They believe that the Russians will never give up on Assad and so do not count on them, as they have not been offering realistic alternatives to the Syrian people. Other countries, such as the UK or the US have been involved with many civil society projects and have covered issues like scholarship programmes. Russia has not involved itself in the Syrian civil society. If Russia is really thinking about taking a leading role in the conflict, it has to start mitigating the situation before it is too late. It needs to open channels with those on the ground in Syria and reach out to activists in the same way as others are. In general, there is a lack of will from all sides to find a solution. People think that the situation will be sorted out with no real action. Things do not improve by themselves; we need realistic initiatives to help mitigate the current situation and to be a framework for the future.
We don't want the army in the streets and we need a minimum of commitment to put an end to the violence and stop attacks on populated areas. If no major military operations were taking place, maybe there would be a chance for negotiations. At the moment we cannot solve the conflict but with some help, including Russia, we could help mitigate the situation and deal with present and future problems and the damaged that has already been caused.
In terms of fears of the spread of Salafism and extremism in Syria, there is not much to worry about as the composition of the Syrian society doesn't allow it. It is also impossible to have a political and a dogmatic (Islamist) state at the same time. What Syria really needs is fair elections conducted by international observers with appropriate mechanisms to enforce them.
On Foreign Intervention
The SNC creates its own policy and this is not relevant for me. In terms of foreign intervention, the general consensus is that nobody wants it. On the subject of intervention, we must remember that this issue was the original trigger of the division between the internal opposition groups (LCCs) and external ones like the SNC. The SNC is an umbrella organisation for exiled opposition groups and they wanted intervention even before the start of the uprising in Syria as a way to move Assad from office. However, no one from the SNC has enough military experience or weight to be formidable, except for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is well financed and organised. It is also important to add that the West has always remained unclear regarding the issue of intervention and they simply do not have means to finance it. In Syria, I do not believe that anyone wants intervention. Intervention might occur due to the developments on the ground, but it will not originate from the outside.
On the Annan Plan
Russia says that they made Assad accept the UN observer mission and the Anan plan, but as far as Syrians are concerned, that was just hot air. The message from abroad was fight to the end and we’ll help you. You did not actually enforce any real mechanisms to implement Annan's plan it was only words. It was an excuse for Assad to gain more time and power and to give the international community false hope that things would be improved. The opposition can achieve more by fighting than by negotiating. There were no consequences for not honouring the agreement.