November 5, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Death of the Free Syrian Army?

• The collapse of two prominent coalition-supported Syrian rebel groups at the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has not just compounded doubts against the capabilities and loyalties of these groups but also doubt as to whether any “moderate” rebel group can succeed

• This long-simmering uncertainty about arming and training rebel groups that aren’t as cohesive or even as moderate as once hoped throws into question the prospects of an acceptable military solution to the almost four-year long Syrian civil war

• The coalition-equipped rebel groups Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionary Front were overrun in northern Syria by JN—though most rebel groups have long cooperated with it and, unlike Washington, don’t consider the group to be a terrorist organization

• Reports of increased airstrikes against JN will further drive a wedge between most rebel groups and the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), that demands the primary target is the Bashar al-Assad regime and not extremist groups fighting it

• The realities of settling the civil war exclusively, thus far, via rebel military might open up other avenues for non-military actors to assume a role in resolving the war; after all, there are an estimated 2.5 million refugees and another 6.5 internally displaced persons in Syria, with obvious needs that perhaps new Syrian civilian leadership might stand up to address.


There have long been doubts as to the wisdom of providing heavy weapons to ‘moderate’ Syrian rebel groups. It formed under the rubric of The Free Syrian Army (FSA), with checkered loyalties and uncertain capabilities and the goal of fighting, firstly, the Assad regime and now highly cohesive and motivated extremist groups such as The Islamic State (IS). As has been demonstrated throughout history and most recently in Iraq last summer, providing weapons doesn’t make a group of disparate units into an army. More often than not, a well-equipped but poorly motivated and disciplined group collapses when tested, and its weapons end up in the wrong hands. Recent events in northern Syria not only cast further doubt on the capabilities and loyalties of the two rebel groups who were overrun—not by IS but by the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (JN)—they also stoke uncertainties as to whether any rebel group can succeed given the realities and complications of the battlefield.

Harakat Hazm, a long-time favored recipient of Western and Arab Gulf lethal and non-lethal aid, was routed in recent days from its headquarters in Khan Subbul to the southeast of Idlib, with reports of mass defections as well as insider attacks by JN fighters who had joined Hazm as ‘sleeper agents.’ The same modus operandi was used against the Syrian Revolutionary Front (SRF), a relatively well-armed rebel group led by Jamal Ma’ruf, who had the confidence and trust of his Western supporters—but not of many of his own fighters. These two groups were among the more realistic hopes for a rebel victory against IS, even assuming they weren’t in direct conflict with JN, as is the case now.

This of course highlights a fundamental issue with the aims of the anti-IS coalition. The rebel groups don’t want to fight IS right now—and they especially don’t want to fight JN, whom they see not as a terrorist group but as a capable partner against the true enemy—Assad. In short, the coalition plan is to arm and train rebel groups of questionable politics and qualifications that don’t want to fight the group(s) against which they are being armed and trained. For the West, IS and al-Nusra are the targets; for the rebels, it remains Assad. In the chasm between the two disparate perspectives, Assad, IS, and JN will thrive.

With rebel groups now facing Assad, IS, and in some places JN, there is serious doubt as to whether any rebel group can achieve some semblance of military victory. This presents great challenges to plans that depend entirely on a ‘moderate’ rebel victory. The lack of achievable, acceptable military outcomes for the West does open the possibility, however remote, of non-military actors stepping in to help. There are 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and another 6.5 internally displaced Syrians, all of whom need not only help but also leadership and inspiration. Perhaps among them are other avenues to a resolution. Military force is, of course, paramount in a war, but a cohesive identity and mission is even more so. While the coalition works to at least stabilize the situation in Syria, it might be of great future benefit to reenergize non-military actors and organizations that will be needed once the fighting stops, whenever that may be. The ongoing civil war in Syria is the worst-case scenario for all involved. Additional weapons will not alter the grim reality.


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