Page 1 of 2 The rise of the Free Syrian Army
By Chris Zambelis
Tensions in the Levant remain at a fever pitch as the uprising against the
regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad presses ahead into its ninth month
in the face of a relentless government crackdown and a rising body count
Occurring on the back of the popular revolts launched against incumbent
autocrats that have taken the Arab world by storm, opponents of the sitting
Ba'athist regime operating under the auspices of the Syrian National Council
(SNC) are leading the charge to forge a unified political front against the
Led by Paris-based professor Burhan Ghalioun and composed of a disparate array
of activists based in Syria and abroad, including Islamist organizations such
as the Muslim Brotherhood, the SNC
serves as an umbrella movement agitating for the fall of the Ba'athist regime.
The SNC continues to petition the international community to levy additional
punitive measures against Damascus. In a sign of its growing clout, SNC leaders
recently met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva, her second
meeting with the group.
While domestic and international pressure builds on Damascus, the Ba'athist
regime continues to demonstrate its resilience. The regime's resort to
suppressing dissent with violence, however, has triggered a violent response in
kind by a murky network of defectors from the Syrian Army and other sections of
the security apparatus, as well as civilian volunteers who have collectively
dubbed themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Having established formal contacts with the SNC, the FSA has steadily gained
traction as the official armed wing of the Syrian opposition.
A call to arms
In the FSA's July 29 inaugural statement, FSA commander Riyad Musa al-Asa'd and
seven other defecting officers outlined the FSA's positions and mission.
Al-Asa'd is a Syrian Air Force colonel who defected from his position after
refusing to follow what he alleges were orders to open fire at unarmed
In a call to arms, al-Asa'd implored members of the Syrian Army to join the FSA
while lambasting the actions of the Syrian Army: "The Syrian Army now
represents only the gangs that protect the regime". Remarking on the decision
of some officers to defect from their posts, al- Asa'd added:
from our nationalistic sense, our loyalty to this people, our sense of the
current need for conclusive decisions to stop this regime's massacres that
cannot be tolerated any longer, and proceeding from the army's responsibility
to protect this unarmed free people, we announce the formation of the Free
Syrian Army to work hand in hand with the people to achieve freedom and dignity
to bring this regime down, protect the revolution and the country's resources,
and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the
Al- Asa'd followed with a threat to his former military
colleagues: "As of now, the security forces that kill civilians and besiege
cities will be treated as legitimate targets. We will target them in all parts
of the Syrian territories without exception." 
A budding insurgency
The FSA has staged a number of attacks on Syrian military and security force
targets. The FSA has also struck civilian facilities linked to the regime,
including offices associated with the ruling Ba'ath Party. The formation of the
FSA signals an attempt to unify the multiple pockets of armed resistance that
are being formed by defectors from the Syrian army and other armed factions.
As is often the case with nascent insurgencies, accurate reports regarding the
number of FSA fighters are hard to find, but estimates range from the high
hundreds up to 25,000 men organized into 22 battalions across Syria - the
latter a bold exaggeration likely crafted to amplify the perception of the
FSA leaders operate from refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border in
Turkey's southern Hatay province, although Ankara insists that it is not
lending the group operational support. Hatay and other regions in southern
Turkey are host to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the violence back home.
In spite of Turkish denials of support, FSA fighters are exploiting the
relative safety they enjoy in southern Turkey to mount attacks against Syrian
forces. The FSA is also alleged to have established bases in northern Lebanon
and northern Jordan, regions that have similarly witnessed an influx in Syrian
refugees. Overall, the FSA appears to be growing in strength and scope.
Since emerging on the scene, the FSA has boasted of engaging Syrian security
forces across the country in armed skirmishes, hit-and-run ambushes,
assassinations, and other operations conducted in and around hotbeds of
opposition such as the cities of Homs and Hama (located in the west-central
part of the country), and the northwestern Idlib province along the
It was the FSA's November 16 attack against a Syrian Air Force Intelligence
facility in Harasta (approximately nine kilometers northeast of Damascus) that
elevated the group's profile in Syria and beyond.
Previously seen as a ragtag assembly of fighters, the attack using rocket
propelled grenades (RPGs) and coordinated small arms fire against a hardened
target like the intelligence facility at Harasta demonstrated a new level of
operational sophistication for the FSA.
The symbolism behind the attack is also noteworthy: Syrian Air Force
Intelligence works in concert with other sections of Syrian Military
Intelligence to root out dissent within the armed forces. The FSA attacked an
additional air force Intelligence facility on December 1 in Idlib province,
killing at least eight members of the unit. Elsewhere the FSA has executed
attacks against Syrian military and police checkpoints and armored vehicle
convoys. Fixed installations such as police stations are also being struck with
The FSA and SNC appear sensitive to allegations directed against them by the
regime and their detractors in Syria and abroad that they are harboring
criminal or terrorist militants with radical Islamist or other insidious
agendas within their ranks.
SNC head Ghalioun and other key figures in the opposition recently met with FSA
leaders in Turkey to convince them to restrict their activities to what
Ghalioun labeled "defensive" as opposed to "offensive" operations to maintain
the "peaceful nature" of the uprising.
During a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal outlining the
opposition's position on a number of key issues, Ghalioun expressed his concern
about the role of the FSA in a post-Assad scenario: "We do not want, after the
fall of the regime in Syria, armed militias outside the control of the state."
A December 8 attack in the region of Tal Asour against a major pipeline that
transports crude oil to the refinery in Homs and similar attacks targeting
Syria's economic infrastructure have elicited a fierce reaction from the
regime, which blames "terrorists", a euphemism for the FSA and the broader
The FSA has not claimed responsibility for the attack against the pipeline.
Opponents of the regime allege that the pipeline was sabotaged by Damascus,
possibly in an effort to discredit the opposition in the eyes of the residents
The FSA has also engaged in a series of lengthy firefights in recent weeks,
including a battle in the northern town of Ain al-Baida along the
Syrian-Turkish frontier that followed an attempt by 35 FSA fighters to
infiltrate Syrian territory from Turkey. The FSA engaged Syrian forces in
another major confrontation in the southern towns of Busra al-Harir and Lujah
near the Syrian-Jordanian border.
In spite of claims by the regime and its opponents that it is receiving foreign
support, the FSA appears to be relying on light automatic weapons, RPGs and
explosives, essentially the weapons carried by servicemen prior to defecting
from the Syrian army.