Going back in
Leaders of the rebel Free Syrian Army announced this week that they were moving back into Syria, with observers hoping that this will improve the army's performance, Bassel Oudat reports from Damascus
Colonel Riyad Al-Asaad, commander of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), announced this week that the leadership of the opposition army had moved back into Syria, specifically into areas where the armed opposition is in control in the north of the country.
Al-Asaad, who has lived in Turkey for nearly 18 months since he defected from the regular Syrian army, said that the move was a prelude to a "decisive battle" against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the capital Damascus.
In a video message to the Syrian people, the FSA commander said that "the leadership of the FSA has gained passage into liberated areas after arrangements with combat battalions and brigades in those areas as part of a plan to liberate Damascus soon."
"Since we left Syria, we have been subjected to various forms of regional and international pressure and an economic and media embargo to divert the revolution from its goals. There have been pressures to make deals with foreign parties as alternatives to the regime by accepting conditions that would be unacceptable to the Syrian people and revolutionaries," Al-Asaad said.
"We have been patient and weathered the embargo and marginalisation on the international stage rather than squander the rights of our people and Syria's sovereignty and independence. Our goal is not to become the alternative to the fallen regime: the Syrian people will choose the alternative. We pledge never to compromise the identity of our people, or their religion, freedom, unity, sovereignty and independence."
Sources in the Syrian opposition said that Al-Asaad was indeed now in Syria and had started meetings with combat units. FSA commanders will join him within the next two weeks, and the army command will be headquartered in the governorate of Idlib in the north of the country and will be in direct command of the Al-Omma Battalion believed to contain some 6,000 fighters.
However, not all the revolutionary combat units have joined the FSA. Some have refused to comply with the orders of the FSA officers in exile and instead have followed the orders of those financing them.
Borhan Ghalyoun, former chair of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), said it was "logical" for the military leadership to be on the ground in Syria.
"It is a very significant move and proves that the military leadership wants to be more effective and connected with the revolution," Ghalyoun said. "Its arrival must be orderly and based on a plan to restructure the FSA to incorporate all military personnel who defect from the regime and to bring about genuine unity in officer and civilian ranks."
Since Al-Asaad fled Syria to Turkey after defecting from the regular Syrian army, he has formed the FSA and led it with other commanders in exile in Turkey. The army abroad is composed mainly of defectors from the Syrian army, and it has expanded by taking in tens of thousands of civilian volunteers. It now controls some 60 per cent of populated areas in Syria.
This irregular army is found in most Syrian cities, but its fighters are subjected to air strikes and artillery fire from regime forces. The FSA is trying to acquire anti-aircraft equipment and more powerful weapons to maintain control over the areas under its command, but the West has been hesitant about providing this type of assistance, saying the Syrian opposition has no unified military leadership.
The FSA's decision to relocate to Syria is symbolically important because it indicates that the regime has lost control of large parts of the north of the country, especially the towns of Aleppo and Idlib.
It is also an expression of the confidence of the armed opposition and its independence from foreign diktats.
For the political opposition and popular movement, it is vital that the move helps to overhaul the FSA's structure in order to incorporate the many brigades not under its command, since these have damaged military operations in many areas.
An overhauled leadership would also help oversee the distribution of arms, the carrying out of operations, the protection of liberated areas from lawlessness, and the observance of international law.
The presence of the leadership inside the country should create closer communication with combat units on the ground and help make more accurate and realistic decisions.
It should also help to draft a more professional military strategy to fight the regular Syrian army, especially since European reports say that nearly 200 officers who have defected from the regular army have now been trained in Germany and France on military strategy in Syria.
There are no exact numbers regarding the size of the FSA, but estimates put it at between 80,000-120,000 fighters. The organisation is not homogenous, but instead is composed of a large number of separate brigades under the umbrella of the revolution.
There is no central command for all the combat units, and thus they have sometimes lacked coordination.
The brigades began operations a year or so ago with the aim of protecting the peaceful protesters against the al-Assad regime, eventually evolving into military battalions.
The FSA has so far been unable to defeat the regime on the battleground because neither its numbers nor its weapons match the regular army's capabilities of tanks, combat helicopters, 300,000 troops and as many armed security forces, as well as tens of thousands of irregular militias.
As the regime escalated the violence against the protesters, the number of civilian volunteers in the FSA also climbed, and it began organising itself to confront the regular army by increasing operations and improving its weapons capabilities, even as this also sometimes brought it into conflict with the country's political opposition.
Part of the FSA is located in Turkey and the other part is in Jordan. According to opposition sources, the army is composed of 150 armed brigades, some of them united under larger battalions categorised into four groups: military, Islamist, civilian and tribal.
The military brigades include defectors from the army and security forces, some of them under the command of Al-Asaad and his comrades. The Islamist brigades are loyal to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and they receive support from Islamist groups and Arab states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
These brigades coordinate with the other military brigades on major operations, but they also have Salafist or jihadist offshoots that operate separately and refuse to deal with the other combat brigades.
The civilian brigades are composed of civilian young people who often have no combat experience and rely on local residents for funds. The FSA is trying to incorporate these into its regular ranks in order to prevent lawlessness.
Finally, there are the tribal brigades that rely on logistical and military support from the major clans in Syria. These have suffered many losses, though the FSA is now helping to organise them and to train their fighters.
The popularity of the FSA is on the rise among the protesters, and they mostly operate in a friendly environment that provides them with assistance and refuge. However, they are not necessarily so welcome among the political opposition forces, some of which fear that the FSA may grow too powerful and could take control of the transitional phase in Syria.
The SNC, which includes the majority of the political opposition groups outside Syria, supports the FSA and advocates supplying it with weapons. But the National Coordination Committee (NCC), which includes key political forces inside Syria, has refused to recognise the FSA, describing it as just "a product of the revolution" and "the result of a reaction to the military and security clampdown against the peaceful popular movement".
In response, an FSA spokesman this week summed up the irregular army's position regarding the NCC, accusing it of being "passive" in the face of regime atrocities. "The NCC is not the real opposition in Syria, but rather it is the other side of the coin to the regime," he said.
The resources available to the FSA have steadily developed despite the escalation of military operations by regime military and security forces. The return this week of the commanders of the armed brigades will positively impact morale and the popular movement as a whole.
However, if this return does not result in positive results soon, especially regarding uniting combat units under a single command, the very revolutionary brigades that wanted their leaders back among them may ask them to leave and seek a more capable leadership among themselves.