The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a Syrian nationalist rebel organisation that took part in the Syrian Civil War as part of the militarisation of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. An umbrella organisation, it was composed of a variety of rebel groups from across the country that took on the FSA brand, seeking to be part of a wider armed anti-Regime network (O’Bagy, 2013).
History & Foundations
The FSA label was first mentioned during the videoed defection of Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Harmoush – one of the leaders of the Free Officers Movement – in June 2011. Subsequently, the central organisation became consolidated as more officers defected from the Syrian Arab Army, such as Colonel Riad al-Asaad who eventually became the group’s first leader (Yassin-Kassab & Al-Shami, 2016). Essentially, these defections from officers of the Syrian Arab Army were reactions to the Syrian Regime’s heavy-handed approach at suppressing instances of anti-government sentiments and protests. For instance, the regime forces used live ammunition against protesters, and punished them with detention and torture procedures.
However, during its early stages, the FSA was plagued by a variety of flawed structural dynamics. The first involved the disunity between itself, the local coordinating committees (LCCs) that sought to govern opposition areas and conduct protests in regime areas, and the political opposition based in Turkey that represented the opposition on the ‘global stage’, per se (Gani, 2022). The second flaw was that the armed opposition landscape in Syria became extremely diverse as the revolution progressed, with thousands of organisations forming (Phillips, 2016). Such organisations ranged from local groups which formed to protect their towns or neighbourhoods, to bigger organisations that were more politically Islamic in their orientation and deliberately rivalled the FSA (Walther & Pedersen, 2020).
Thus from an early stage, the FSA was predetermined, in a way, to become an umbrella label and brand. As a brand, it was often abused by those with criminal aims, particularly during the early stages of the insurgency, where small FSA-branded groups conducted lootings and kidnappings (Yassin-Kassab & Al-Shami, 2016). Nonetheless, its failed consolidation during its early stages does not define its contemporary form, for its franchising held relevance for much of the war with a variety of important groups.
Objectives & Ideology
From the outset, overthrowing the Assad regime served as the primary objective of both the centralised FSA and the organisations that took on the franchise brand (that is, small-scale groups which simply proclaimed themselves as members of the FSA). Moreover, the FSA franchise was typically associated with a broadly secular-nationalist ideological orientation, advocating for democratic institutions. Most affiliated groups took up the pre-Ba’athist Syrian flag, which consists of a green-white-black tricolour with three red stars (Walther & Pedersen, 2020).
Military & Political Capabilities
As aforementioned, by 2012, the centralised FSA failed to properly unify, with a plethora of groups taking up the branding (sometimes ambiguously and groundlessly). Although the exact size of the FSA is consequently difficult to estimate, self-made claims by the FSA declare a size of around 80,000 fighters (Lund, 2013), while other external assessments suggest 50,000 fighters at its peak in 2013 (Sofer & Shaforth, 2013). However, there are notable FSA sub-groups that had extensive military capabilities. This includes Jaysh al-Nasr in Hama and Idlib, and Firqat 13 which solely operated in Idlib (Cafarella & Casagrande, 2016). These two groups were armed with BGM-71 Tow missiles, in conjunction with many others, including those part of the Southern Front coalition in Daraa and Quneitra provinces (O’Farrell & Roche, 2016). Many FSA brigades also operated heavy artillery and tanks.
Politically, FSA-branded groups did not often take part in more formal political activity, as they had a primarily armed and military approach towards the revolution. This was notably the case with the LCCs and the exiled opposition, which lead the political revolution within and outside of Syria. However, despite not being involved in formal politics, these groups did have political alignments and hence fought with rival Salafi organisations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (Gade, Hafez & Gabbay, 2019). One FSA-branded brigade that was subordinate to an LCC was the Martyrs of Islam Brigade under the Local Council of Daraya City (Local Council of Daraya City, 2014).
Approach to Resistance
As the conflict ebbed, the FSA’s approach to resistance changed. During the start of the revolution, the war was constrained to an ‘insurgency phase’, with rebel groups such as those of the FSA engaging in asymmetric warfare (Holliday, 2011). However, this would eventually evolve into conventional warfare as swathes of the country would become liberated, with the Battle of al-Qusayr (2013) being an early example of such warfare between FSA-branded groups, the Syrian Regime, and Hezbollah (Blanford, 2013). The fluidity of the situation in Syria signified that FSA-branded groups partook in most battles, at various points, but not necessarily from beginning to end. This is exemplified in the Battle of Deir Ez-Zor (2012-2017) where FSA groups were routed by the Islamic State who took their place against the regime during 2013-14 (Bakkour, 2022). FSA groups have been accused of recruiting child soldiers (Human Rights Watch, 2014), as well as executing people linked to, or suspected of being linked to, the regime (Amnesty International, 2013).
International Relations & Alliances
Whilst its initial command was based in Turkey (thereby receiving Turkish support), many of the FSA’s factions were supported by a variety of international patrons, including Turkey, Qatar, the US, UK, France and Saudi Arabia (Phillips, 2016). Notwithstanding, these relationships have changed as the war evolved. For instance, FSA (and non-FSA) factions in Aleppo are now part of the Syrian National Army (SNA) under the subordination of the Syrian Government in Exile, and thus heavily cooperate with Turkey (Özkizilcik, 2020). This also includes 15 FSA factions of the National Front for Liberation in Idlib. However, there are also FSA factions – such as Jaysh al-Thuwar – that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and thus fight against the SNA (O’Farrell & Roche, 2016).
Additionally, in the al-Tanf military base, an FSA faction formerly known as Maghawir al-Thawra works in tandem with US special forces (Combined Special Ops Joint Task Force-Levant, 2022). Furthermore in Daraa, remnants of the Southern Front (of which FSA factions were part of) still operate even under Regime control. These former rebels have gone on to clash with the regime, and were recently involved in killing Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. Al-Qurayshi was the former leader of ISIS, and he was killed in an offensive aimed at uprooting the organisation from the Daraa province (Lister, 2022).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
Amnesty International. (2013). Syria: Summary killings and other abuses by armed opposition groups. London: Amnesty International.
Bakkour, S. (2022). ‘The Battle for Dier Ez-Zor’, in Gani, J. K. & Hinnebusch, R. (eds.). Actors and Dynamics in the Syrian Conflict’s Middle Phase: Between Contentious Politics, Militarization and Regime Resilience. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 182-200.
Blanford, N. (2013). ‘The Battle for Qusayr: How the Syrian Regime and Hizb Allah Tipped the Balance’, CTC Sentinal, 6(8), pp. 18-22. Available at: https://ctc.westpoint.edu/august-2013/.
Cafarella, J. & Casagrande, G. (2016). Syrian Armed Opposition Powerbrokers. Washington: Institute for the Study of War. Available at: https://www.understandingwar.org/report/syrian-armed-opposition-powerbrokers
Combined Special Ops Joint Task Force-Levant. (2022). ‘The @SyrianFree_Army and #Coalition partners conduct joint training to advance their capabilities and effectiveness to #DefeatDaesh. #PartnerForces remain ready and resilient in deterring #ISIS threats, promoting safety and security across the region. #AdviseAssistEnable’, Twitter, 3 December 2022. Available at: https://twitter.com/SOJTF_LEVANT/status/1599049963857539072
Gade, E. K., Hafez, M. M. & Gabbay, M. (2019). ‘Fratricide in rebel movements: A network analysis of Syrian militant infighting’, Journal of Peace Research, 56(3), pp. 321-335. doi: 10.1177/0022343318806940
Gani, J. K. (2022). ‘Three Faces of the Syrian Opposition and ‘Externalisation’ of Contention’, in Gani, J. K. & Hinnebusch, R. (eds.). Actors and Dynamics in the Syrian Conflict’s Middle Phase: Between Contentious Politics, Militarization and Regime Resilience. Oxon: Routledge, pp. 58-76.
Holliday, J. (2011). The Struggle for Syria in 2011: An Operational and Regional Analysis. Washington: Institute for the Study of War. Available at: https://understandingwar.org/report/struggle-syria-2011
Human Rights Watch. (2014). “Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die”: Recruitment and Use of Children by Armed Groups in Syria. New York: Human Rights Watch.
Lister, C. (2022). ISIS leader’s death raises intriguing questions. Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/isis-leaders-death-raises-intriguing-questions
Local Council of Daraya City. (2014). نبذة عن لواء شهداء الإسلام. Available at: http://darayacouncil.org/index.php/%D9%84%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%B4%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85/%D9%86%D8%A8%D8%B0%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A1.html
Lund, A. (2013). ‘The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria’, CTC Sentinal, 6(8), pp. 23-28. Available at: https://ctc.westpoint.edu/august-2013/
O’Bagy, E. (2013). The Free Syrian Army. Washington: Institute for the Study of War. Available at: https://understandingwar.org/report/free-syrian-army
Özkizilcik, Ö. (2020). The Syrian National Army. Ankara: The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.
Phillips, C. (2016). The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sofer, K. & Shafroth, J. (2013). The Structure and Organization of the Syrian Opposition. Washington: Centre for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-structure-and-organization-of-the-syrian-opposition/
Walther, O. J. & Pedersen, P. S. (2020). ‘Rebel Fragmentation in Syria’s civil war’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 13(3), pp. 445-474. doi: 10.1080/09592318.2020.1726566
Yassin-Kassab, R. & Al-Shami, L. (2016). Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. London: Pluto Press