This is the second article of a three part series examining the Syrian revolution and the five years that followed it. Part I looks at the beginnings of the Syrian revolution. Read Part I here.
The Free Syrian Army announced its formation with the stated aim of protecting unarmed protesters and helping bring down the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. However, four and half years later, Al-Assad remains in power. The Free Syrian Army, once viewed by the international community as a viable alternative to the rule of the Syrian president has seen its power dramatically decrease and extremist groups have filled the void. What went wrong for Syria’s armed opposition?
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Since its beginnings, the FSA was plagued by the fragmentation symptomatic of the decentralised grassroots origin of the uprising. New FSA “brigades” were being announced at a rate of several per week, but most had no connection to the central leadership based in Turkey. In reality, according to Syria expert Aron Lund, what was emerging was a sprawling leaderless resistance of local fighters who shared only some common goals and an assemblage of FSA-inspired symbols.
Efforts were made to unite the factions (such as Supreme Joint Military Command Council which was a 30-member rebel alliance) but disparate sources of funding significantly handicapped the rebels’ ability to unite and consolidate authority on a national level.
Support from the international community was slow to come and states were too cautious to provide weaponry which could change the balance of power. This meant that while FSA soldiers struggled for bullets and bread, groups such as Al-Nusra, an Islamist group with ties from Al- Qaeda, were able to offer their men salaries, food for their families and proper equipment with the help of funds from certain countries. Thousands of men defected.
As Al-Nusra’s ranks swelled with FSA defectors, they clashed with the FSA. Although the FSA and Al-Nusra had cooperated in the past in the fight against the Assad government, their relations have fluctuated and Al-Nusra has attacked and overrun FSA positions on numerous occasions. Other groups also flourished, meaning the FSA was fighting more than the regime.
The regime, meanwhile, supported by a legacy of oppression and ingrained sectarian loyalties, did not crumble as quickly as the armed opposition would have hoped it would – a dangerous miscalculation. The uprisings in Syria were inspired by the quick successes of Egypt and Tunisia. But, according to writer Mark LeVin, the Egyptian revolution, for example, not only had a civil society and democracy movement that had been in preparation for the last ten years, but the presence of hundreds if not thousands of Ultras and young Brotherhood members who knew how to fight back against government attacks in the first week and a labour movement capable of organising nation-wide strikes at the right moment. This was not the case in Syria.
During Former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s infamous visit to Hama in the summer of 2011, he warned about the danger of the revolution taking up arms due to this lack of preparedness. “It would be a mistake,” he says, not least because “you want to be sure that if you’re even contemplating this, you have a way to know that whatever you’re going to do militarily is going to be effective.”
While Western support has been slow and unsteady, this does not mean the conflict has not been internationalised. China and Russia provided cover for Al-Assad in the United Nations, blocking the international community’s efforts to put pressure on the Syrian leader. World events such as the deterioration of Russia’s relationship with the US over Ukraine diminished the hopes of a negotiated end to the conflict. The Iran nuclear deal gave hope to the opposite. As a result, Syria has become a multi-faceted conflict and a battlefield with multiple front lines, which has made victory difficult for anybody involved.
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Meanwhile, left-overs of Alawaite supremacy, Assad’s family sect, have helped divide Syrians along secretarian lines. These divisions have been nurtured by extremists groups such as Daesh. While Assad has capitalised from the advance of Daesh, which has made world leaders even more concerned about weapons falling into the wrong hands and focused efforts on destroying the group, what’s left of the FSA faces growing isolation. A new US-backed alliance of rebel groups, called the Democratic Forces of Syria, was launched this year and only includes groups focused on fighting Daesh. The new Democratic Forces of Syria alliance does not include the FSA, which is concentrating on fighting the Assad regime. On top of that, the Russian strikes against Daesh have reportedly targeted FSA positions.
The arrival of the Arab Spring brought hope for millions of Syrians that the brutality of the Assad regime could be ended and a true democracy fledged. Sadly, the FSA faced too many challenges to topple the regime and its power has declined dramatically. In the vacuum, extremist groups have flourished. International leaders are now engaged in fighting them and the plight of the Syrian people has taken a backseat.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.