As the United States moves closer to taking military action against the Syrian government, the leadership of the mainstream armed opposition force has chosen a curious time to appear to be on the verge of unraveling. Known generically as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this assortment of mostly secular defecting Sunni Arab officers and mostly Islamist volunteers has attempted several reorganizations. The most recent of these is now seriously threatened by a resignation threat from senior commanders.
The most durable and potentially promising was the formation of the province-by-province military council (MC) system, formed in late 2011 and early 2012, and then the Supreme Military Council (SMC), established in December 2012. The SMC, whose joint staff is headed by General Salim Idriss, included commanders inside the country as well as exiles and was intended to overcome the gap between commanders on the ground who hold real power and the exiled opposition.
On August 22, four of the five front commanders threatened to resign from the SMC, promising to break "red lines" and work "with all forces fighting in Syria," a clear reference to the war’s growing Salafist-Jihadist contingent. The statement was read by Colonel Fatih Hasun, who is the commander of the SMC’s Homs Front and the deputy chief-of-staff, that is to say, Idriss’s deputy and the most senior officer inside the country. Hasun added that rebels would no longer respect demands by outside powers that they not attempt to take over government-controlled chemical weapons sites. In addition to demanding action in response to the government’s use of chemical weapons in Damascus, Hasun also demanded better weapons and said they were tiring of the "false promises of those who call themselves Friends of Syria."
While the resignation seemed tentative, Hasun was less equivocal about the other red line — the opposition’s Salafist-Jihadist groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) — both of which the United States has designated as terrorist entities linked to al Qaeda. Directly behind Hasun on the wall was an Islamic flag, with a pre-Assad Syria FSA flag draped to the side, a nod perhaps to the Salafists. Sitting to his right was a bearded cleric in Salafist garb. He directly stated, "we call upon all" FSA units to work with all others fighting the regime. Adding insult to injury, on August 25 Muhammad Tabnaja, field commander in Latakia for the Ahfad al-Faruq Brigade in Latakia, resigned citing the lack of support from the SMC.
The relatively moderate Salafist Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), which is tied to the SMC, also appears to be moving toward the more militant Salafist wing of the opposition, a shift likely caused by the lack of outside support and perhaps also Saudi Arabia’s more recent support for the anti-Islamist coup in Egypt. Ahmad Abu Issa al-Shaykh, the head of the SILF, openly defended Jabhat al-Nusra as a legitimate part of the opposition in an interview with Al Jazeera, despite his ideological differences with the group. Zahran Alush is head of the Islam Brigade, the largest SMC-linked unit in Damascus (it controls the area around East Ghouta, site of the recent alleged chemical weapons attack). Alush published an ardently sectarian, anti-Shiite video on July 25, openly welcoming "jihadists from Iraq" and elsewhere, a reference to ISIS. More recently, in late August, Alush openly criticized the SMC through his Twitter account, although he has not formally resigned from it.
The SMC has been something of a shell for months, though, and when opportunities have arisen to make command decisions, it has fallen flat. This became most obvious in early June when the SMC attempted to remove Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-Akaydi, commander of the Aleppo Military Council. Ostensibly the move was because Akaydi shouldn’t be both an MC commander and part of the SMC, but the real reason — according to Akaydi and other rebel leaders — was because of his intervention against Hezbollah in Qusayr in May. Akaydi left Aleppo to fight in Qusayr and threatened to launch rockets against south Beirut, which upset Lebanese members of the SMC.
Most telling is what happened when the SMC’s decision removing Akaydi was announced. Akaydi ignored it, then after brigade-level commanders within the AMC rejected the decision, he did an interview in which he mocked the SMC as made up of people "who are into travel and hotels and have no connection to what is happening on the ground." He did clear Idriss of involvement, however, and Idriss promptly apologized to Akaydi and then traveled to Aleppo to meet with him and praise him.
Coordination with Jihadists groups is not really new. Operationally they have all long coordinated operations against regime forces, and this has grown with time. On August 6, after the rebel takeover of the Menagh air force base in Aleppo, Akaydi stood together with a group of mostly Salafist commanders. After speaking first, Akaydi handed the microphone to the local ISIS commander, Abu Jandal.
Even more embarrassing are major operations in which the jihadists clearly out-organize and out-fight the SMC groups. This happened a few weeks ago in the rebel Latakia offensives, in which the former formed a "Mujahidin Operations Center" and bore the brunt of the battle. SMC rebels also had a presence, and Idriss even visited Latakia on August 11 to show support, but they quickly withdrew leaving jihadists to go head-to-head with Assad’s Alawite militia forces there.
Idriss responded to Hasun’s threatened resignation by saying he "rejected" it, as if he had the power to do so. More meaningfully, on August 25 Reuters reported a 400-ton arms shipment coming across the Turkish border. Such shipments would need to come regularly, and there have been similar announcements before; on June 21 the SMC’s Louai al-Miqdad had trumpeted a similar event as if it would change the course of the fight. Furthermore, Syrian National Coalition (SNC) President Ahmad Jarba is now reportedly trying to form a real "National Army," starting in the south based in Jordan with support from Saudi Arabia. Time will tell if Jarba’s new initiative comes to anything, given the failure of past efforts. And since Hasun has not issued any new statements, he may be waiting as well.
As things stand now, in the eastern provinces of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour the Salafists and Jihadists dominate and the FSA’s military council structure is essentially nonexistent. In Homs, Dara, and Aleppo they are close to parity, with a more modest presence in Damascus, Idlib, and northern Latakia. Were Hasun’s announcement to become reality, it would leave the SMC with only a fragment of an organization outside the southern province of Dara, where Southern Command head Bashar al-Zoubi was the only one of the five commanders not to join the statement. Reports of increased weapons shipments through Jordan are probably the best explanation for the difference.
The impending U.S. strikes, depending on their severity, could give the rebels some breathing room. Yet only if the SMC finally develops a functional command structure can it be a credible ally to those whose aid it seeks. Once Assad falls, a new war will immediately start, and the balance of power in that war will depend on whether rebels identifying with mainstream Syrian society can organize themselves now.
Kirk H. Sowell is the principal of Uticensis Risk Services (www.uticensis.com), a firm specializing in Arabic-language research. Follow him on Twitter @uticensisrisk.