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Fading Hopes for Syria’s Rebel Groups as Regime Forces Gain Ground

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Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters hold Turkish national flag (R) and Free Syrian Army flags (L) at a checkpoint in the Syrian town of Azaz on a road leading to Afrin, on February 1, 2018. Photo AFP

Amid the shrinking territory still held by rebel groups in Syria, the ground controlled by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in April 2018 is smaller still.

The armed opposition, which was never a unified force but rather a loose faction, has been losing ground to both the Syrian regime and other rebel groups, including the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly known as al-Nusra Front).

Having lost its funding from the United States (US), Turkey is now the FSA’s only major international backer. As a result, the most high-profile recent operation by FSA fighters was not against the Syrian regime but in Turkey’s service against Kurdish groups in Afrin in northern Syria.

Increasingly, the group is losing its relevance, and certainly any hope that it would provide a credible alternative to President Bashar al-Assad’s government is dwindling.

Radwan Ziadeh, a senior analyst with the think tank Arab Center Washington DC, wrote that the group had ‘failed to maintain a firm structure or assert its institutional esprit de corps’.

‘Personal differences and infighting among its leaders, and interference by regional powers supporting and funding its operations, doomed its mission,’ he continued. ‘On the other hand, the Russian intervention [beginning] in September 2015 specifically targeted its units since they represented the moderate factions in the opposition.’

The FSA was formed at the beginning of the conflict in 2011 by army officers and soldiers who had defected. But the group never had central leadership or a unified structure, and some of the groups affiliated with the FSA later broke off and joined other groups such as the Islamic Front, a nationwide alliance of Islamist factions established in November 2013.

However, as the FSA was seen as the secular or moderate opposition to al-Assad, it received limited support from the US and other Western countries as well as from other countries opposed to the Syrian regime, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. After the rise of the Islamic State (IS), FSA factions fought with the extremist group for control of territory in some areas as well as with al-Nusra Front and its successor, HTS. At the same time, some weapons and aid intended for FSA fighters made their way to IS and al-Nusra Front, and some FSA fighters defected to or coordinated with those groups.

In an article for War on the Rocks, an online platform for foreign policy and national security issues, Syria analyst Sam Heller noted, ‘Rebels were more interested in going at the Assad regime – even if that meant fighting alongside jihadists, or under their command – than standing up to jihadists. The factional dysfunction and personal entanglements of the rebels meant that jihadists were more central and powerful within the armed opposition than Washington and other rebel backers appreciated or acknowledged.’

Washington ended its support for the FSA in the summer of 2017, with President Donald Trump criticizing it as “massive, dangerous and wasteful payments”, and shifted more of its attention and funding to fighting IS in eastern Syria. Although the aid from the US was never significant enough to turn the tide of the conflict, losing it still represented a blow to the already-struggling FSA. The group had already suffered a major setback in 2016, when Russia intervened to help the Syrian regime retake Aleppo, then the most significant rebel-held territory.

Meanwhile, HTS took control of most of Idlib, which was the last province under rebel control. The extremist group’s strong presence in the province ensured a muted international response when Syrian and Russian forces launched an escalating aerial campaign there in early 2018.

Most recently, the Syrian regime’s recapture of much of eastern Ghouta, the last rebel-held pocket near the capital, represented another crushing defeat for the FSA. The FSA-affiliated Failaq al-Rahman had been one of the major rebel groups controlling territory in Ghouta, but the groups were fractured and fought amongst themselves, giving the regime an opening to retake the territory. Failaq al-Rahman ultimately agreed, under a Russian-brokered deal, to evacuate its fighters to Idlib.

With their ranks crumbling, FSA leaders have appealed to the US to reinstate the aid that was withdrawn. Reuters reported that a delegation of FSA officials travelled to Washington in January 2018 to meet with White House officials and members of Congress to make their case. Mustafa Sejari, a senior FSA official, told Reuters that the rebels had argued that aiding the rebels would help to “confront Iranian hegemony in the region”.

It is not clear how much support their appeal might find. In the meantime, the one sure bet for the FSA is Turkey, its last remaining major financial and military backer which is offering it a chance to remain a relevant player in the increasingly crowded field of the Syrian conflict.

As a result, the group has drawn closer to Turkey, and thousands of FSA fighters have joined the Turkish offensive against Kurdish groups in Afrin and the surrounding area in northern Syria. The offensive has been controversial, and residents of some of the areas taken by the Turkish troops and Syrian rebel allies accused the FSA fighters of looting shops and homes.

Yet for the FSA, the operation has offered the chance to retake significant swathes of territory after losing so much ground in Aleppo, Idlib and elsewhere. Controlling territory around Afrin could potentially also provide a base to launch attacks on HTS in Idlib and retake territory there. Then again, with Ghouta back under regime control, Idlib will likely be the next target for regime forces and Russia.

With HTS on one side and the regime on the other, the FSA seems to be facing an untenable situation in Idlib, unless Turkey stages a full-scale intervention there as well. The endgame is still not clear. What is clear is that the FSA’s original hopes of deposing al-Assad are all but dead.

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