Victories of the FSA
As the rebel Free Syrian Army grows in size and firepower, will this be the force that overthrows the Al-Assad regime, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus
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The funeral of a man whose name was given only as "Mansour" who was killed in anti-government fighting in Homs, Syria
While Syria's political opposition was debating whether to take up arms to help bring down the regime headed by President Bashar Al-Assad, or remain a peaceful movement, the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) was growing in size and firepower on the ground, spreading throughout the country like a spider's web. Its ranks have been swelling with new members, and its operations are more sophisticated and its weaponry is improving, allowing it to take the lead over the country's bickering political opposition.
The FSA is essentially comprised of defectors from the regular Syrian army and a fair number of civilian volunteers. According to the Syrian opposition, it now controls 60 per cent of inhabited regions in Syria, and its firepower was showcased during battles in the northern city of Aleppo recently, where it was able to take control of more than 60 per cent of the city within days.
This control has been maintained for more than 20 days, and so far the regular army has been unable to eject FSA fighters, despite its superior numbers and equipment.
"There are more than 25,000 fighters in Aleppo," Omar Barakat, an FSA officer in Aleppo, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "About 90 per cent of them are military personnel who have defected, supported by hundreds of volunteers. It will be difficult for the regular army to overpower them because the FSA has prepared well for the type of urban warfare going on in Aleppo. Since Aleppo's rural areas and as far as the Turkish border are now under FSA control, arms supplies can reach it without much trouble."
Such arms include not only Kalashnikovs and M-60s, but also shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons delivered in August, possibly tipping the balance in favour of the FSA.
There are no exact figures regarding the size of the FSA, but estimates suggest that it has between 50,000 and 120,000 fighters and no central command. Regional military councils try to stay in touch and are connected to the FSA's supreme military council, though the FSA is less like a coherent body and more like a large number of individual armed battalions operating under the umbrella of the Syrian revolution.
While these battalions are united in their goals and commitment, they lack coordination amongst themselves. They began by protecting peaceful demonstrations against the regime and ended by forming military brigades intent on liberating Syria when it became clear that the regime would not back down from its security policies.
However, the FSA's military operations have been hamstrung by its still small size and its lack of weapons when compared to the regular Syrian army with its tanks, combat helicopters, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, security forces and militias.
Nonetheless, the longer the uprising lasts the more organised the FSA is becoming, with its ranks being swelled with civilian volunteers. According to armed revolutionary sources, it consists of 150 armed battalions operating under a variety of labels, whether Islamist, historical, or named after martyrs killed during the uprising.
Some of these battalions have joined forces to form larger brigades, and they are generally divided into the four categories of military battalions, Islamist battalions, civilian battalions, and battalions grouped around local tribal identities.
The military battalions are mostly made up of officers and other elements that have defected from the ranks of the army or security services. They are small groups that resort to militia warfare and rely on supplies they capture from the regular army and regime militias, or on what defectors bring with them when they flee.
Some of these groups are under the control of the military council chaired by Mustafa Al-Sheikh, while others are commanded by opposition leader Riyad Al-Asaad. They mostly operate individually in separate regions and coordinate amongst themselves for broader operations.
Some Western countries have said that they are supporting these battalions by sending them advanced communications equipment to help enhance their coordination, but military sources deny this, wanting what they call "real assistance and not just lip service".
There are two types of Islamist battalions, the first being those loyal to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, such as the Al-Farouq Battalion fighting in the central city of Homs. These are assisted by Syrian Islamist groups outside the country and by Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, their weaponry being smuggled in from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey.
These Islamist battalions coordinate with military battalions on major operations, but prefer to remain independent in their strategic decisions.
The second type of Islamist battalion is the Salafist battalions such as Al-Ansar, which also operates in Homs. These battalions consist of small armed groups that move independently and refuse to cooperate or follow the command of the military battalions, receiving funds and weapons from Syrian Salafist movements and Salafist movements in Arab countries.
The civilian battalions are located inside and on the periphery of Syria's cities, and they mostly consist of civilian young people and rely on the local community for funding. The members of these battalions are not experienced fighters, and they usually try to protect districts and civilians in villages and small towns. They have been accused of resorting to extortion to secure funds, as they have no clear source of funds.
The tribal battalions are mainly found in Deir Al-Zur near the border with Iraq, and they are made up of members of local tribes that have always carried arms and have now turned on the regime after the latter destroyed their towns and villages.
These battalions rely on logistical and military assistance from the tribes in the region, and they are generally incapable of organised warfare and are inexperienced in strategy. Many of their members were killed before the arrival of the FSA to help them organise their ranks.
Meanwhile, defecting Kurdish soldiers and civilian volunteers have also formed military battalions in northeast Syria under the name of Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi, consolidating their operations under the banner of the Free Kurdish Army. These battalions are funded by Kurdish businessmen and are supplied by weapons from military battalions.
The regime has tried to manipulate the disorganisation of the armed opposition by creating its own battalions under the banner of the FSA. These move covertly among the people, stirring up mayhem in order to turn local people against the FSA.
All the FSA battalions use militia-warfare strategies to inflict the greatest possible damage on forces loyal to the regime, but they have not thus far scored any lasting victories since they are out-powered by regime forces.
They therefore resort to hit-and-run operations, withdrawing from areas that are under siege and being pummeled by artillery fire and then returning once the bombardment stops.
Over the past few months, the FSA has captured dozens of tanks, armoured vehicles, heavy guns, and anti-aircraft guns from regime forces, and these have helped it to cause immense damage to the regular army.
More than 20,000 personnel from the regular army and security and militia forces have been killed, and more than 600 tanks and some 500 armoured vehicles and military trucks have been damaged or destroyed. Seven helicopters have been sabotaged or shot down.
Some FSA leaders are located in Turkey, while others are inside Syria. Many observers believe that financial, military and technological assistance sent to the FSA is being processed through mediators who distribute supplies among those battalions closest to them physically or ideologically in order to strengthen their footholds inside the country or as leverage to force other battalions to come under their control.
Last week, the armed opposition took a significant step towards unity when prominent battalions promised to respect human rights in their battle to overthrow the regime and not to allow rape, torture or the killing of prisoners, upholding the respect for human rights in compliance with the principles of Islam and international law.
The commitments were made by battalions in Deraa, Deir Al-Zur, Homs and Aleppo, though other fighters refused to sign on to them.
Last month, the US administration, which has not wanted to arm the Syrian opposition directly, sought to allow Syrians overseas to collect funds to pay the thousands of fighters and buy weapons and ammunition.
These overseas groups promised not to fund opposition leaders who had not committed themselves to a future democratic state that would include all Syrians and had rejected terrorism and extremism. They plan to collect donations worth $7 million a month to arm the Syrian opposition.
The popularity of the FSA has been climbing among protesters against the Al-Assad regime, and its members mostly operate in a friendly environment that assists and gives them refuge.
However, they have not been welcomed by the political opposition forces, which are worried that the FSA will grow too big and mayhem could break out when the regime falls, given the lack of central control.
When the regime decided to crackdown on the protesters in an attempt to halt the Syrian uprising, it could not have imagined the number of defections that would follow. Neither could it have imagined that the people would form an army to fight against the regular army, one whose ranks have been swelling by the day despite the immediate public execution of anyone deserting the army or security forces.