Middle East

Syria’s invisible mainstream rebel groups

Logos of some of the many FSA-aligned or mainstream rebel groups.

BEIRUT: “And by the way, there are no ‘moderate Syrian rebels.’”These kinds of tidy statements, made in this case by U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson (Dem., Florida) late last month, often feature in the public debate when it comes to the war in Syria.

Grayson made the claim in an opinion piece for The Huffington Post, entitled “You Can’t Defeat Somebody with Nobody,” which contained another misleading item: the insinuation that mainstream and other rebels have no capacity to confront the ultra-extremist group ISIS, and somehow have vanished from the scene on the ground.

Supporters of the largest mainstream rebel “brand name,” the Free Syrian Army, launched a social media campaign this week in a bid to highlight the existence of rebel fighters who have been on the front lines since the armed opposition took shape in the second half of 2011.

The campaign, which is entitled “The FSA is Our Choice,” is a propaganda initiative that portrays those who fight under the independence flag as down-to-earth, ethical, “local boy” heroes who spend their time fighting the regime and caring for civilians.

Syrian regime supporters quickly counter-attacked, with a series of questionable images and claims, many of which were taken out of context, to argue that FSA rebels are practically synonymous with the militants of ISIS.

The truth naturally lies somewhere in the middle. Regime supporters call the rebels mercenaries in the pay of the West or Gulf countries, while the rebels and their defenders complain that the level of foreign support is piecemeal and largely designed to prolong the conflict, rather than defeat the regime of President Bashar Assad.

But those who dismiss “mainstream” rebel groups as being either too fragmented or too weak should note that they have spent much of 2014 battling both ISIS and the regime, and that they continue to control significant chunks of half a dozen provinces – namely Deraa, Qunaitra, Rural Damascus, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.

A recent report by the U.S.-based Carter Center goes into great detail about how the rebels are fragmented – but instead of placing the blame squarely on divided Syrians, it reinforces how “foreign support ... has largely contributed to the persistent lack of unity between groups,” due primarily to the clashing interests of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The report also mentions a whopping “6,000 individual armed groups and military councils over the course of the conflict, which together have formed an ever-shifting network of well over 1,000 unique groupings.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic Front, a group of seven large conservative Islamist militias, emerged nearly one year ago as a much-hyped counterweight to the mainstream rebels who fight under the independence flag.

But as the report noted, the Islamic Front proved no better at being cohesive or effective.

“No long-term political strategy was clearly articulated, and ideological divisions persisted,” it said.

Media reports and analytical articles by experts on the conflict have detailed how the FSA and the Islamic Front groups have in effect merged in many places, as their members regularly form “fighting coalitions” to wage a given campaign. The Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, also plays a role in some of these ad hoc fighting coalitions, as the group’s small size obliges it to cooperate with other militias.

Criticism of the mainstream rebels’ discipline and cohesion has been around since the beginning of the armed rebellion. However, with the recent formation of a U.S.-led coalition to battle the extremist group ISIS, the debate over the trustworthiness of the rebels has emerged once again.

The coalition itself managed to air-drop a parcel by mistake into the hands of ISIS this week, when the supplies veered off from their intended target in the besieged border town of Ain al-Arab.

Defenders of the rebels have been outraged that objections over the “wrong hands” getting hold of military aid haven’t stopped the U.S. and others from supplying the Iraqi authorities, even though they were unable to prevent the loss of weapons and equipment to ISIS this summer.

The Carter Center and other reports have listed the several dozen Syrian rebel groups that are believed to have obtained training and weapons from the U.S. and allies prior to the formation of the coalition, and downplayed the notion that sending arms means the assistance will be re-routed.

“Despite the complexity and fluid nature of relations between armed opposition groups, very few of these weapons systems appear to have been distributed beyond their intended recipients or captured by [ISIS] during its recent offensives throughout Syria,” it said.

The rebels and their supporters are largely outraged as Washington begins, once again, a process of training and vetting reliable rebel groups.

Capt. Wael al-Khatib is the spokesman for the Free Officers Gathering in Homs, a group of army defectors who have a presence in the central province, and are devoted mainly to self-defense actions because the group lacks foreign patrons.

“The West says it’s looking to train a moderate army. Well, here we are, right in front of them,” he told The Daily Star.

Khatib said his group enjoyed cordial ties with the other factions active in the pocket of rebel-held area north of the city of Homs, whether they are FSA-aligned groups or Islamists.

“We have good relations with everybody, except ISIS,” Khatib said. The jihadist presence is believed to be largely limited to the eastern edges of the sprawling province.

In general, the fortunes of the FSA largely pass unnoticed in the international media, which has focused primarily on gains by ISIS or the Syrian regime. When rebels seized territory recently, such as in Deraa province and in the suburbs of the capital Damascus, the news barely registered with the public.

Another example of the FSA’s being off the radar emerged as the media focused its coverage on the Kurdish town of Ain al-Arab on the border with Turkey, besieged by ISIS militants for more than a month.

A media report this week, quoting rebel sources, claimed that nearly half of the fighters holding out against ISIS were from FSA-aligned groups, mainly those who were forced to leave the east when ISIS swept through Deir al-Zor and Hassakeh provinces.

An anti-regime media activist in Aleppo told The Daily Star that the report’s claim that 40 percent of the fighters were FSA and not Kurds was impossible to confirm, but added: “The FSA groups are certainly providing a percentage of the fighters.”

The Carter Center report also documents how FSA groups led a campaign against ISIS earlier in the year, pushing the militants out of most of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, before the ISIS-led lightning offensive in Iraq this summer allowed the jihadists to regain the initiative.

An anti-regime political activist who oversees an opposition media outlet based in Turkey told The Daily Star that “it’s very ironic that we’ve arrived at such a stage, in which the discussion of the Syrian opposition takes place the way it does. It’s as if the White House forgets how it’s systematically withheld support.”

He said the Obama administration’s repeated, dismissive references to the capabilities of the rebels – a “bunch of farmers and dentists,” as the president recently put it – would only end up working to do away with the moderate rebels for good, “so that Syria is divided between ISIS and Assad.”

“And even today, there are still [rebel] groups that haven’t abandoned the demands of the revolution, for a civil, democratic state,” the activist said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 24, 2014, on page 12.

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