Global Policy Forum

The FSA: How to Lose Support and Alienate People in No Time

At the forefront of Syria’s ongoing civil war, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has vowed to represent and protect the movement to overthrow the Assad government. However, offensive strategies have replaced defensive ones and the supporting Syrian population is becoming more and more disillusioned with an armed opposition which was initially a non-violent uprising. In addition to the lack of a transparent strategy, communities hosting the FSA have been attacked, resulting in refugees and civilian deaths. Corruption from abroad by FSA leaders is alleged. And, gangs have been going around robbing and kidnapping people while using the FSA’s name, which only adds to a deteriorating reputation.

By Rita from Syria

September 3, 2012

Many opposition communities embraced and sponsored the fighters, who represented at that time the local defenders of these communities. But then their goals seemed to change.

By December 2011, peaceful protests had stopped being confined to Fridays and had become part of our daily life. Regime suppression continued apace, but we felt we had a modicum of safety. In response to regime attacks on peaceful protests, members of the FSA took on the responsibility of protecting the protest movement. Armed with a deep conviction in our revolution rather than any heavy weapons, the embryonic FSA used to keep watch in the alleys and alert us to the coming of regime forces and the shabiha. 

Protecting the nascent revolution was the original reason given for the establishment of the Free Officers Movement (FOM) by lieutenant colonel Hussein Harmoush. Along with other members of the FOM, Colonel Harmoush was detained by the regime on the June 9, 2011 in suspicious circumstances - the colonel had been based in Turkey following his defection. From the remnants of the Free Officers Movement was born the FSA. Day by day the FSA grew stronger and its numbers swelled with increasing defections from the Syrian army. Many opposition communities embraced and sponsored the fighters, who represented at that time the local defenders of these communities.

However, with rumours of considerable sums of money transferred to the private bank accounts of some FSA colonels via foreign parties, there is a mounting suspicion amongst activists and the Syrian public that the goals and policy of the FSA have changed. The FSA battalions switched from defensive to offensive manoeuvres - targeting military bases and specific officials. Violence escalated, and the communities which had been sheltering the FSA fell under siege. Lack of basic foodstuff and fuel supplies, daily bombardments and massacres have become part and parcel of the permanent landscape of suffering.

Most of the residents in these areas fled their homes and became refugees, while many others were killed. This has created a feeling of resentment and anger against FSA policy. Lack of communication between FSA foot-soldiers, activists and the Syrian public means that all have difficulty understanding what the FSA's military strategy is. This mistake has been repeated over and again in cities all over Syria. Failure to learn on the part of the FSA has compelled many inside Syria to take a negative position towards it. This is why a month ago people in the Al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus asked the FSA fighters to leave it, as their houses became possible targets for regime forces. This happened despite the fact that most people in Al-Midan totally supported arming the revolution.

Abu Khaled, before the revolution, was a successful businessman from the suburb of Douma. He was a supporter and a sponsor of the FSA. He lost his factory and many other properties in the massive shelling on the city and has now moved with his family to a small apartment in Damascus. He had no comment to make on this subject except to invoke a phrase which is only used at times of great anxiety: " la hawl wa la quwwa illa billah" which means "there is no transformation or power, except by [the will of] God”". The lack of any clear strategy by the FSA in Douma has left many like Abu Khaled disillusioned.

"I just want to continue my life" Raghda told me. Raghda had lost her job at a small publishing house after her neighbourhood had been shelled and invaded several times. "I don't see an end to this armed conflict. I agree with the rightful demands of the opposition, but if this means bringing a halt to my life then I will stand against them".

A dangerous problem has emerged.  The sound of gun-fire and mortars is the loudest voice on the ground. The voices of the diverse protest movements, which made up the opposition on the ground in Syria, have been drowned out by the FSA.  Activists and advocates for non-violence, who remain in Syria today, feel marginalised and useless. The sense of impotence is accentuated given that a considerable number of activists who had provided impetus to the protest movement in the spring of last year have now left Syria, or are languishing in the prisons of al-Assad. This has given the pro-regime media channels a golden opportunity to blacken the names of all opposition activists.

In addition to the fatal miscalculations of the FSA, many armed gangs have come out of the woodwork, robbing and kidnapping under the guise of the FSA. For many ordinary Syrians, this has cemented its bad reputation. A new front has opened up for the FSA challenging them to win back its lost credibility.

FSA leaders should take heed that a guerilla army can only attain success if it is mindful of its relationship to the people, because that is the only guarantor of their continuity. They should also be completely transparent regarding their military plans and financial concerns, so that they can defend themselves against rising accusations of corruption. If the FSA really want to be seen as defending Syria, it should make people feel safe thanks to its presence. Empty slogans can't feed a hungry kid or put a roof over the heads of a displaced family.


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