NEW YORK, June 25, 2013 — The Free Syrian Army (FSA), which received nonlethal US support in the past, may soon get American arms to help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office.
Last Friday, the FSA confirmed it received a shipment of weapons after reports that Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, sent arms to rebels last week. In late May, Senator John McCain visited FSA leaders to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground. These events signal that the FSA may be armed in the future by the White House, but its loose command structure, implementation of Sharia law and extremist fighters on the ground are causes for concern.
The White House has provided no details on which opposition groups will receive military assistance from the United States. General Salem Idriss is the head of the FSA’s representative leadership body, the Syrian Military Command (SMC), and says he is waiting to hear from Washington.
The FSA is a network of independent local grassroots militias under the SMC. Instead of the SMC acting as a management unit, it serves the FSA as a tactical coordinator to plan operations and pool resources. General Salim Idriss is left with playing a role of a consensus figure, which does not align with the ultimate goal of the SMC becoming Syria’s new official military.
The decentralized model of the FSA has allowed the organization to grow across Syria. During the beginning of the civil war, individuals with arms had the freedom of calling themselves FSA fighters, which advanced the movement to overthrow Assad. Although most FSA fighters are former soldiers of Assad and not civilians, the structure of an independent network of militias no longer forwards the goals of the rebels who need greater creditability to receive foreign weapons assistance and become a legitimate military force. Unlike a militia, an effective military organization needs a strong centralized chain of command.
The SMC was created by FSA commanders in response to the need of a unified front in December 2012. Rebels envision that the SMC will become the defense arm of the National Coalition of the Revolution and Opposition Forces (Syrian Coalition) who is positioning itself to replace the Assad government. The Syrian Coalition is officially recognized by the United States as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. This acknowledgement should not be confused with America expressing that the Syrian Coalition is the present government of Syria.
In some parts of Syria, FSA forces are accused of having the same lack of moral depth or respect for humanity as Assad. In Homs, rebel forces retaliated against attacks committed by Shabiha, a pro-Assad civilian militia, by torturing and murdering Shabiha suspects and their family members. In Aleppo, Syria’s industrial and financial capital, the FSA established a Sharia legal system - a strict Islamic moral and religious code of conduct. Veteran activist, Wael Ibrahim, in March committed a Sharia violation when he threw aside a banner that contained a Muslim declaration of faith. In accordance to Sharia law, Ibrahim was sentenced to 10 lashes with a metal pipe.
The FSA also admits that within its ranks are jihadist militants and some fighters with ties to al-Qaeda. One of the SMC’s goals is to reduce extremism by: urging the FSA to uphold the Geneva Conventions; imposing that commanders abide by the age requirements on new recruits; and cutting off groups from military and nonlethal assistance who break SMC’s rules.
According to the Congressional Research Service report titled “Armed Conflict in Syria: U.S. and International Response”, General Idriss does not have operational control over all of SMC affiliated units. The report also claims, “Within the Syrian opposition, he is considered more of a political figure than a respected military commander.” The loyalty of the commanders and rebel groups is secured by Idriss because he regularly requests for outside assistance for materials and funding.
The report was issued on June 14, the day after Washington promised to arm the insurgency.
Idriss is a former general of the Assad regime, he has the experience and capability to develop the military hierarchy needed to fuse the FSA into a cohesive body that follows SMC’s authority. Given the reports that the CIA has been secretly training rebels, the White House may want to provide strategic leadership training to the SMC. Weapons assistance alone will not ensure peace and democracy in Syria’s future. The more involved Washington gets in Syria, the greater responsibility America will have to guide the SMC into becoming a stronger, but more religiously moderate organization.
Tiffany Shorter is a foreign and economic policy analyst.
Follow Tiffany on Twitter at @TiffanyShorter or via Google+
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