A Department of Homeland Security Emeritus Center of Excellence led by the University of Maryland

Free Syrian Army Narrative


Free Syrian Army

Last Update

April 2015

Aliases

FSA

History

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is an armed opposition organization conducting operations in Syria against Bashar al-Asad’s Ba’athist regime.[1] The group was founded by Colonel Riad al-Asad, a former Syrian Air Force officer who defected in July 2011.[2] Initially, the FSA was formed to defend civilians in locations where protests against the Asad government was occurring and to promote additional defections from the Syrian armed forces.[3]

FSA’s command center was originally based out of Turkey in the southern Hatay province near the Syrian border while FSA field commanders conducted operations within Syria.[4] The Turkish government claimed they wanted to provide safety to the defecting military members.[5] After attempts at creating military councils and joint commands, the FSA was reorganized in a December 2012 gathering in Antalya, Turkey.[6] At this meeting, Brigadier General Salim Idriss was named the new Chief of Staff of the FSA, and the Supreme Joint Military Command (SMC) was created.[7] Fighters from Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia have reportedly been active in fighting with the FSA, although the number of foreign fighters is difficult to determine.[8]

The FSA utilizes guerilla-style military tactics against Asad’s military forces. Specifically, they have targeted Asad’s command-and-control and logistics.[9] General Idriss remained the Chief of Staff of the FSA until February 2014 when the group named Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir as his replacement.[10] As a result of the removal of General Idriss, a split occurred in the Free Syrian Army. Some rebels remained loyal to General Idriss while others supported the SMC and General al-Bashir.[11] As of May 2014, many rebels have abandoned the Free Syrian Army, claiming they do not see victory in the future and citing a lack of discipline within the FSA.[12] The FSA has been accused of war crimes,[13] including the use of child soldiers (a somewhat widespread practice amongst Syria's armed opposition groups).[14]

Home Base

Syria

Founding Year

2011

Ideology

Revolutionary-regime change

Specific Goals

  • To depose Bashar al-Asad and his Ba’athist regime while aiming to create a stable government in Syria.[15]

Political Activity

  • The FSA has a political wing, the Syrian National Coalition, which advocates for the removal of Asad and his regime.[16]
    • Formed in Doha in 2012, the Syrian National Coalition provides support to the SMC from foreign partners in the form of military aid.[17]

Financing

  • Charities/Donations: From July 2012 to September 2014, the DC-based NGO "Syrian Support Group" provided non-lethal aid to FSA.[18]
  • State Sponsorship
    • As early as 2012, some rebel leaders were funded by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Libya.[19]
    • Additionally, there is speculation that other Gulf states have been providing funding to the FSA.[20]
    • In August 2012, reports circulated that the United States,[21] as well as Britain,[22] would provide non-lethal aid and training for the FSA. However, in late 2013, both the U.S. and Britain discontinued funding for the FSA as there was concern that equipment was being utilized by rebels the U.S. and Britain did not support.[23]

Leadership and Structure over Time

  • FSA operates in a hierarchical structure with networked cells under the command of an umbrella organization.
  • 2011: FSA was still forming and had a disjointed leadership and structure as groups joined and left.[24]
  • 2012: More than 260 rebel commanders and other representatives of the Syrian opposition held a meeting in Antalya, Turkey with the goal of creating a unified command structure for the FSA.[25]
    • The Supreme Joint Military Command (SMC) of 30 elected members was founded.[26]
    • SMC divided into five geographic combat fronts covering all of Syria’s 14 provinces.[27]
      • Each front consisted of five military members, or deputies, and five civilian assistant deputies.[28]
  • 2011-December 2012: Colonel Riad al-Asad, founder, led organization until establishment of SMC
  • December 2012-December 2013: Brigadier General Salim Idriss, chosen by SMC to lead.[29] He was forced out of power and into exile in December 2013.[30]
  • February 2014-Present: Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir was named as the new leader.[31]

Strength

  • 2011: 1,000-25,000 rebels amongst 22 battalions across Syria.[32] 
  • 2012: Approximately 50,000 strong.[33]

Allies and Suspected Allies

  • Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) (ally)
    • The SRF is a coalition of secular and moderate Islamist group formed just prior to Islamic Front's takeover of FSA/SMC headquarters in Idlib province.[34]
    • When Islamic Front overtook FSA/SMC headquarters, the SRF was publicly endorsed by Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, who claimed that it had been organized by the SMC as a replacement for FSA forces.[35]
  • People’s Protection Units (YPG) (ally)
    • The YPG is a Kurdish group, the armed wing of Syria's branch of the PKK. Although FSA had been critical of what it considered YPG cooperation with the Asad regime, by spring  2014, the YPG and FSA were jointly fighting ISIL forces in Syria.[36]

Rivals and Enemies

  • Syria (target)
    • The primary goal of the FSA is the replacement of Asad's Ba'athist regime with a secular government.[37]
    • Syrian government forces – and pro-government paramilitaries – have been in armed conflict with FSA forces since the latter was founded in 2011.[38]
  • Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) (enemies)
    • In September 2013, ISIL seized the town of Azaz, a town near the border with Turkey and one of the first places the FSA had controlled in the Syrian civil war.[39]
    • In January 2014, the FSA and other moderate armed groups began a counter-offensive against ISIL militants.[40]
    • The FSA has allegedly used the threat of an ISIL victory in Syria to press for more support from its international allies.[41]
  • Islamic Front (rival)
    • In December 2013, Islamic Front forces took over FSA headquarters in Idlib province, forcing FSA/SMC commander General Idris to flee Syria.[42]
  • Al-Nusrah Front (rivals, occasional collaboration)
    • The Al-Nusrah Front is an al-Qa'ida affiliate active in Syria and Lebanon, also focused on regime change in Syria. Individual FSA units have been known to fight alongside Al-Nusrah, with some fully defecting to the Islamist group.[43]
    • Yet FSA's goal of a secular government is in constant tension with Al-Nusrah's goal of an Islamic regime,[44] as are tactics such as suicide bombings, which FSA leaders have publically criticized for alienating support for opposition forces.[45]

Counterterrorism Efforts

  • Domestic, Military
    • The Syrian government has used military forces to counter efforts by the Free Syrian Army.[46]

United States Government Designations

None.

Other Governments’ Designations

None.

 

[1] Ruth Sherlock, “‘15,000 Strong’ Army Gathers to Take on Syria,” The Telegraph, November 3, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/8868027/15000-strong-army-gathers-to-take-on-Syria.html.

[2] Liz Sly, “In Syria, Defectors Form Dissident Army in Sign Uprising May Be Entering New Phase,” Washington Post, September 26, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/in-syria-defectors-form-dissident-army-in-sign-uprising-may-be-entering-new-phase/2011/09/24/gIQAKef8wK_story.html.

[3] Liz Sly, “In Syria, Defectors Form Dissident Army in Sign Uprising May Be Entering New Phase,” Washington Post, September 26, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle-east/in-syria-defectors-form-dissident-army-in-sign-uprising-may-be-entering-new-phase/2011/09/24/gIQAKef8wK_story.html.

[4] Stack, Liam. “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters.” The New York Times, October 27, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/world/europe/turkey-is-sheltering-antigovernment-syrian-militia.html?_r=0.

[5] Stack, Liam. “In Slap at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti-Assad Fighters.” The New York Times, October 27, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/world/europe/turkey-is-sheltering-antigovernment-syrian-militia.html?_r=0.

[6] Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Middle East Security Report 6: Jihad in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, September 2012, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[7] Bassem Mroue and Ben Hubbard,“Syrian Rebels Get New Leadership in Bid to Unite,” AP: The Big Story, December 8, 2012, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/syrian-rebels-create-new-unified-military-command.

[8] Blanford, Nicholas. 2012. “Lebanese Join the Free Syrian Army’s Struggle.” Online News. The Daily Star. May 30. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Politics/2012/May-30/175072-lebanese-join-the-free-syrian-armys-struggle.ashx#axzz1wNF5ae2M.

[9] White, Jeffrey. 2012. “Bashar Al-Assad vs. the Syrian People.” The Washington Institute: Improving the Quality of US Middle East Policy. February 14. http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/bashar-al-assad-vs.-the-syrian-people.

[10] Karam, Zeina, and Barbara Surk. 2014. “Syrian Rebels Name New Military Commander.” Online News. AP: The Big Story. February 17. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/syrian-opposition-appoints-new-military-chief.

[11] Lund, Aron. 2014. “The Free Syrian Armies: Failed Reconciliation.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. March 26. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=55104.

[12] Mironova, Vera, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt. 2014. “Why Are Fighters Leaving the Free Syrian Army?” The Washington Post, May 12. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/05/12/why-are-fighters-leaving-the-free-syrian-army.

[13] UNHRC. 2013. Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. A/HRC/22/59. New York: UN Human Rights Council. http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/CoISyria/A.HRC.22.59_en.pdf.

[14] HRW. 2014. “Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die” - Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria. New York, NY: Human Rights Watch. https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syriacrd0614webwcover.pdf.

[15] Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Middle East Security Report 6: Jihad in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, September 2012, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[16] CEIP. 2015. “National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Accessed April 30. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=50628.

[17] Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Middle East Security Report 6: Jihad in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, September 2012, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[18] Rozen, Laura. 2012. “US Authorizes Financial Support For the Free Syrian Army.” Online News. Al-Monitor. July 27. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/us-authorizes-financial-support.html; Allam, Hannah. 2014. “Demise of Group Backing Moderate Syria Rebels Is a Warning for US.” Online News. McClatchy DC. September 24. http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/09/24/240923/demise-of-group-backing-moderate.html.

[19] DeYoung, Karen, and Liz Sly. 2012. “Syrian Rebels Get Influx of Arms with Gulf Neighbors’ Money, US Coordination.” The Washington Post, May 15. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/syrian-rebels-get-influx-of-arms-with-gulf-neighbors-money-us-coordination/2012/05/15/gIQAds2TSU_story.html; Sherlock, Ruth. 2011. “Libya to Arm Rebels in Syria.” The Sydney Morning Herald, November 27. http://www.smh.com.au/world/libya-to-arm-rebels-in-syria-20111126-1o088.html.

[20] DeYoung, Karen, and Liz Sly. 2012. “Syrian Rebels Get Influx of Arms with Gulf Neighbors’ Money, US Coordination.” The Washington Post, May 15. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/syrian-rebels-get-influx-of-arms-with-gulf-neighbors-money-us-coordination/2012/05/15/gIQAds2TSU_story.html.

[21] DeYoung, Karen, and Liz Sly. 2012. “Syrian Rebels Get Influx of Arms with Gulf Neighbors’ Money, US Coordination.” The Washington Post, May 15. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/syrian-rebels-get-influx-of-arms-with-gulf-neighbors-money-us-coordination/2012/05/15/gIQAds2TSU_story.html.

[22] Borger, Julian. “Britain to give £5m aid to Syrian opposition groups.” The Guardian, August 10, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/aug/10/britain-aid-syrian-opposition-groups

[23] Sheva, Arutz. “US and Britain suspend funding for Syrian rebels.” Israel National News, December 11, 2013. http://www.israelnationalnews.com/News/News.aspx/175057#.U3O41JtOW70.

[24] DePetris, Daniel. 2012. “Can FSA Leadership Be Relevant Again in Syria?” Fareed Zakaria GPS. October 10. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/10/can-fsa-leadership-be-relevant-again-in-syria/.

[25] Oweis, Khaled Yacoub. 2012. “Syrian Rebels Elect Head of New Military Command.” Online News. Reuters. December 8. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/08/us-syria-crisis-rebels-idUSBRE8B70AJ20121208.

[26] Oweis, Khaled Yacoub. “Syrian rebels elect head of new military command.” Reuters, December 8, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/12/08/us-syria-crisis-rebels-idUSBRE8B70AJ20121208 (accessed May 9, 2014).

[27] O’Bagy, Elizabeth. 2012. Jihad in Syria. 6. Middle East Security Report. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[28] O’Bagy, Elizabeth. 2012. Jihad in Syria. 6. Middle East Security Report. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[29] O’Bagy, Elizabeth. 2012. Jihad in Syria. 6. Middle East Security Report. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[30] Entous, Adam, and Rima Abushakra. 2013. “Top Western-Backed Rebel in Syria Is Forced to Flee.” The Wall Street Journal, December 12. http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304202204579252021900591220.

[31] Karam, Zeina, and Barbara Surk. 2014. “Syrian Rebels Name New Military Commander.” Online News. AP: The Big Story. February 17. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/syrian-opposition-appoints-new-military-chief.

[32] Al Jazeera English. 2011. “Ranks of Free Syrian Army ‘Gaining Strength.’” Online News. AlJazeera. December 2. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/12/20111226171260898.html.

[33] Bennet, Alex. 2013. “Who Are the Syrian Rebels? A Basic Intelligence Briefing On the Assad Resistance.” News Portal. News.Mic. May 16. http://mic.com/articles/42317/who-are-the-syrian-rebels-a-basic-intelligence-briefing-on-the-assad-resistance.

[34] Lund, Aron. 2013. “The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. December 13. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910.

[35] Lund, Aron. 2013. “The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. December 13. http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/?fa=53910.

[36] van Wilgenburg, Wladimir. 2014. “Syrian Kurds, Rebels Find Common Enemy in ISIS.” Online News. Al-Monitor. March 27. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/03/syria-kurds-pyd-ypg-isis-rebels-kobani-afrin.html.

[37] O’Bagy, Elizabeth. 2012. Jihad in Syria. 6. Middle East Security Report. Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of War. http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Jihad-In-Syria-17SEPT.pdf.

[38] Landis, Joshua. 2012. “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime Is Likely to Survive to 2013.” Middle East Policy 19 (1): 72–84. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4967.2012.00524.x; Conflict Resolution Program. 2013. Syria: Pro-Government Paramilitary Forces. Syria Conflict Mapping Project. Atlanta, GA: The Carter Center. https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/syria-conflict/Pro-GovernmentParamilitaryForces.pdf; Al Jazeera English. 2011. “Ranks of Free Syrian Army ‘Gaining Strength.’” Online News. AlJazeera. December 2. http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2011/12/20111226171260898.html.

[39] Karam, Zeina, and Bassem Mroue. 2013. “Al-Qaida Militants Capture Town in Northern Syria.” Online News. AP: The Big Story. September 19. http://bigstory.ap.org/article/jihadis-capture-northern-syrian-town-near-turkey.

[40] Dick, Marlin. 2014. “Syria Rebels Fight Back against ISIS.” The Daily Star, January 4. http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2014/Jan-04/243088-syria-rebels-fight-back-against-isis.ashx#axzz2pRajcBEq; Evans, Dominic. 2014. “Syrian Rebels Launch Fierce Offensive against Al Qaeda Fighters.” Online News. Reuters. January 4. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/04/us-syria-crisis-fighting-idUSBREA0308720140104.

[41] Sengupta, Kim. 2014. “Syria’s Three-Way War: Free Syrian Army Rebels Fight the Regime And, Now, the Islamists.” The Independent, January 10. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syrias-threeway-war-free-syrian-army-rebels-fight-the-regime-and-now-the-islamists-9052660.html; Conflict Resolution Program. 2013. Syria: Pro-Government Paramilitary Forces. Syria Conflict Mapping Project. Atlanta, GA: The Carter Center. https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/peace/conflict_resolution/syria-conflict/Pro-GovernmentParamilitaryForces.pdf.

[42] Entous, Adam, and Rima Abushakra. 2013. “Top Western-Backed Rebel in Syria Is Forced to Flee.” The Wall Street Journal, December 12. http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304202204579252021900591220.

[43] Mahmood, Mona, and Ian Black. 2013. “Free Syrian Army Rebels Defect to Islamist Group Jabhat Al-Nusra.” The Guardian, May 8. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/08/free-syrian-army-rebels-defect-islamist-group.

[44] Sherlock, Ruth. 2012. “Inside Jabhat Al Nusra - the Most Extreme Wing of Syria’s Struggle.” The Telegraph, December 2, sec. World. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9716545/Inside-Jabhat-al-Nusra-the-most-extreme-wing-of-Syrias-struggle.html.

[45] Hendawi, Hamza. 2012. “With Wary Eye, Syrian Rebels Welcome Islamists into Their Ranks.” Online News. The Times of Israel. October 25. http://www.timesofisrael.com/with-wary-eye-syrian-rebels-welcome-islamists-into-their-ranks/.

[46] Landis, Joshua. 2012. “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime Is Likely to Survive to 2013.” Middle East Policy 19 (1): 72–84. doi:10.1111/j.1475-4967.2012.00524.x.