The growing armed opposition movement against the Assad regime is becoming an
increasingly important element in the Syrian equation.
The Free Syrian
Army, the armed opposition group that has emerged to confront the Assad regime,
appears to be gaining in strength and effectiveness, and Damascus now faces both
peaceful and armed resistance. So far, the FSA has proven resilient in the face
of regime measures to suppress it.
The FSA was formally announced on July
29, but can trace its origins to well before that. The group’s formation was a
reaction to regime brutality against peaceful mass protests. Desertion from the
Syrian army increased as individual soldiers and small units refused to obey
orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators or simply decided to abandon the regime.
Although not all of these soldiers have joined the FSA, numerous media reports
indicate a steady flow of defectors into the group’s ranks.
include individuals of all ranks, from conscript to brigadier-general, and from
a wide variety of combat units and organizations, including key regime props
such as the Republican Guard and the intelligence services. Some small units
have defected as a group, and several battalionsize defections have been
reported but not confirmed. In at least some cases, the defectors took their
weapons with them. And in most cases, they appeared to join local FSA
Easing the process of defection and FSA unit creation is the
fact that the personnel in question are moving from a military organization to a
fairly well organized quasi-military force.
Based on available evidence,
the FSA has a chain of command, organizational and rank structures and named
• Organization and forces
The FSA appears to be a relatively flat
organization, with a command and headquarters in Turkey, possibly a set of
regional or area commands with subordinate groups in Syria, and, according to
media reports, one or two combat elements in Lebanon. Command and control
appears to be relatively loose, with the Turkish headquarters providing general
direction and the units in Syria exercising largely independent control over
Earlier this month elements of two units in the
Damascus area – the Abu Ubaydah al- Jarah Battalion and the Muawiyah bin Abi
Sufyan Battalion – reportedly cooperated in an action against regime forces,
suggesting at least some degree of coordination.
Command and control is
exercised through a variety of means, including cell phones, e-mail, Facebook,
and, presumably, couriers. The regime has reportedly captured a number of
sophisticated communications devices from “armed terrorists,” including Thuraya
satellite mobile phones, very high and ultra-high frequency (VHF/UHF) devices
and Inmarsat mobile communication satellite systems.
The FSA’s order of
battle (command structure, units, deployment, strength and equipment) is
becoming somewhat clearer over time. The group claims to have as many as
twenty-two “battalions” operating against the regime; media reports indicate
sixteen such battalions are active, with four additional battalions probably
active. Yet the number of fighters associated with each battalion – assuming the
term is even used in a consistent way – is uncertain.
FSA battalions are
reportedly led by junior officers, in most cases lieutenants and captains,
suggesting formations with 100 to 200 or even fewer personnel.
battalions appear to be independent formations, although higher-level formations
may exist. In the Homs area, for example, the Khaled ibn al-Walid Brigade
appears to comprise several subordinate battalions.
appears to consist largely of experienced military personnel – a cadre of
officers and noncommissioned officers with, in some cases, social connections to
local families and clans, towns and neighborhoods. In other words, they know how
to use weapons and are fighting on terrain they know.
The total number of
FSA personnel is uncertain. The group’s leadership has claimed 10,000-15,000,
but this seems too high. A more likely range is in the low thousands, consistent
with the number and likely size of the battalions.
FSA weapons seem to be
mostly small arms (rifles, light machine guns), rocket-propelled grenades
(RPGs), some heavy machine guns and various explosive devices. RPGs are being
used effectively against the regime’s armored vehicles, especially the
relatively lightly armored BMP infantry fighting vehicle variants that have been
heavily employed by the government.
These types of weapons are generally
well suited to the primarily urban fighting waged so far in Syria. Weapons
sources include the defectors, reported smuggling (especially from Lebanon, but
also Turkey), and capture of materiel during engagements with regime
• Deployment and operations
The FSA is operating throughout
Syria, both in urban areas and in the countryside.
Forces are active in
the northwest (Idlib, Aleppo), the central region (Homs, Hama, and Rastan), the
coast around Latakia, the south (Deraa and Houran), the east (Deir a-Zor, Abu
Kamal) and the Damascus area. The largest concentration of these forces appears
to be in the central region (Homs, Hama, and surrounding areas), with nine or
more battalions reportedly active there.
Most FSA operations seem to be
small-unit actions involving anywhere from a few to a few tens of personnel. The
fighting in Rastan and Homs in September and October appears to have included
somewhat larger actions.
Operations have included defense of local areas,
ambushes of convoys and vehicles, attacks on regime positions and facilities,
attacks on regime security forces and militia elements, attacks on regime
officials and military officers, intervention against regime forces attacking
demonstrators, and road closings.
The FSA has also fought at least three
serious “battles”: for Rastan/Talbisah (September 27- October 1), for Homs
(October 28-November 8), and for Kherbet Ghazalah (November 14).
actions featured sustained engagements with regime forces, and although the FSA
broke off the fighting in each case, it was able to inflict losses and generate
The regime was also forced to deploy large combat
formations (division or brigade equivalents) in serious combat
The FSA’s actions are compelling the regime to deploy forces
throughout the country and fight, not just continue to shoot unarmed
The Assad regime cannot survive without killing, and
the FSA has changed the game from one in which the regime was free to kill its
citizens at will and without cost, to one in which it faces an armed opposition
and is suffering losses.
Increased demands on government forces and
further civilian deaths will produce more defections, and these processes will
in turn escalate the fighting.
Because the FSA is an increasingly
important player that will likely influence the outcome of events in Syria, the
United States and its partners should make contact with its members and learn as
much as possible about the group.
Questions concerning its nature, its
potential as an armed force, and the role of Islamists can be resolved through
such contact as well as intelligence work. If the results are positive, then the
FSA should be assisted wherever outside aid would be both possible and
Arms, advice, training, and money could be provided through
clandestine channels, if nothing else. These modest steps could help provide the
Syrian people with a means of self-defense, give the United States additional
influence on the situation, and put further pressure on the regime and its
forces, perhaps hastening the conflict’s end.
The writer is a defense
fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Studies, specializing in
military and security affairs. This article originally appeared on the
Washington Institute website. (www.washingtoninstitute.org)
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