Insurgents

07.24.12

Syria’s Rag-Tag Rebel Army’s Sophisticated Campaigns

The Free Syrian Army's top brass is based in Turkey—though some soldiers say ground troops are in charge. Despite the friction, the rebels are waging an increasingly successful campaign, reports Mike Giglio from the border.

Behind the concrete walls at Apaydin, a refugee camp near Turkey’s southern border with Syria, lives the top brass of Syria’s armed rebellion. The camp is home to the military council officially leading the Free Syrian Army’s fight against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad, along with more than 2,000 Syrian military defectors and their family members. Turkish authorities keep Apaydin under tight control. The FSA leaders can’t leave or receive visitors without permission from their hosts.

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Syrian rebels hunt for snipers in Selehattin, near Aleppo, on July 23. The rebels "liberated" several districts of the northern city on Monday, according to a Free Syrian Army spokesman. (Bulent Kilic, AFP / Getty Images)

Yesterday afternoon, in a house a few miles down the road, Khaled Issa, a former Air Force officer who now commands two companies of FSA soldiers, sat in a living room buzzing with fans. Like many rebels who use Turkey to rest and recover or restock supplies, Issa can come and go with ease, and he planned to rejoin the fight in a matter of days. On the front lines, he said, he felt little connection with the military leaders holed up in the Apaydin camp—“they just give us support in the media,” he said, and advocate with foreign governments. Instead, the insurgency was being directed by the commanders on the ground, who tend to coordinate informally with one another instead of looking to instructions from a chain of command. “The real work is being done inside Syria,” he said.

The Syrian uprising has been roughshod and loosely organized from the start, a fact that has played heavily in discussions over supporting the rebels in the West. Amid so much apparent confusion, though, the FSA has managed to pull together a series of concerted, coherent, and strategically important efforts over the last two weeks. Longstanding concerns over command and control, these recent successes suggest, may be obscuring the fact that FSA is running an increasingly effective campaign on the ground—even if it remains hard to tell who’s directing the efforts behind the scenes. “We’re still talking about a rag-tag army, but they’ve been able to strike a severe blow against the regime,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center.

The FSA has gained new stature of late with a series of daring and sophisticated campaigns. It's captured border crossings into Iraq and Turkey and launched offensives inside Syria’s two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo. Aleppo in particular has seen intense fighting today, and there was reportedly a mutiny in the city’s main prison overnight. The capstone was a bombing in Damascus last week that killed four members of Assad’s inner circle, including his brother-in-law and the Syrian defense minister. Riad al-Assad, the FSA’s top commander, told the Associated Press by phone from Apaydin that the attack marked “the beginning of the end of the regime.”

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Rula Jebreal and Richard Cohen on the future of Syria.

The U.S. government, meanwhile, is facing calls to step up to the plate in Syria as diplomatic efforts continue to fail. The Obama administration is reportedly planning intensively for the Assad government’s collapse—and also moving to boost its assistance to the FSA in the form of non-combat training and supplies, and possibly intelligence, according to The New York Times. “It looks like we’re moving to an end-
game,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria expert with the University of Oklahoma. “There is intense pressure on the United States to do something.”

Despite the FSA’s recent gains, in Antakya, the Turkish city near Apaydin that is serving as a hub for the Syrian opposition, the sense remains of a disjointed military effort lacking a cohesive command chain of command—a difficult prospect for foreign governments looking to channel support. “The FSA in Turkey is not well-connected to what’s actually going on inside Syria,” says David Pollock, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who met with opposition leaders in Antakya recently. “Turkey keeps them on a very tight leash.”

The sense remains of a disjointed military effort lacking a cohesive chain of command—a difficult prospect for foreign governments looking to channel support.

The rag-tag feel is evident in Antakya, where people like Samer Aouf, a young activist from Aleppo, buzz about the city in informal FSA support roles. Aouf jolted around through the streets yesterday in a gray Hyundai van—whose Turkish bumper sticker, "Allahin Dediği Olu," or “God’s will,” he couldn’t understand—picking up cash to fund supply runs into Syria and shuttling activists to and from a planned hospital for Syrians now filling the area. A columnist with the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman wrote recently that in one border town near Antakya, “an outsider may think that Turkey and Syria have merged.”

Despite the haphazard feel to the effort, and the talk of commanders shut away in their camp, the open supply lines and safe haven have helped make Turkey an effective operating base—which may be helping along the improvements on the ground. “It’s a paradox,” Pollock says. “At Apaydin they’re almost more like prisoners than they are a military camp, but Turkey is tolerating, and to some extent supporting, FSA fighters on the ground. And the FSA on the inside has increased its activities, sophistication, and capability and has reached deeply in Damascus.”

Last night a group of refugees and FSA soldiers waited to break their Ramadan fasts in an Antakya apartment. On his laptop, one soldier proudly showed a YouTube video of troops from his squad firing missiles they made themselves. Another, Mohsin al-Seif, displayed a captured Syrian tank on his pink Nokia cellphone. Seif, too, makes frequent trips from Syria to Turkey and back, shuttling needed supplies. “When I’m not with my battalion, I support them from here,” he said.