Why the Free Syrian Army Never Went Anywhere

Relatively moderate and well-educated rebels weren’t numerous enough to lead the Syrian opposition.

A Free Syrian Army checkpoint, March 4, 2012
A Free Syrian Army checkpoint, March 4, 2012 (Freedom House)

As the Syrian civil war embarks upon an odd ceasefire — one replete with exceptions and violations — it’s worth looking back at some of the failures that led up to this point. There are plenty to choose from and that long sad path is better detailed elsewhere. Instead, we’ll focus on just one: the Free Syrian Army.

The overarching failure is that Syria, a stable enough place by most accounts, has consumed itself. There is plenty of blame to go around; the Gulf states, the Russians, the Americans, the Iranians, Bashar Assad, the jihadists all have blood on their hands one way or another.

Yet often overlooked in these recriminations is the flailing Free Syrian Army. Had the FSA ever emerged as a powerful and coherent force, the civil war might have ended years ago or, at the very least, have been considerably less chaotic and murderous.

As we conduct an informal autopsy, we can find useful lessons in understanding geopolitics and how humans interact with power.

First, the essential history

In February 2011, I was sitting in Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates in a government school listening to my Arab colleagues go on about the then-hopeful Arab Spring. Hosni Mubarak has just fled in Egypt; democracy, it seemed, was coming to the Arab world’s largest country. One colleague, a Syrian, made a grave pronouncement.

“It will never happen in Syria. They will kill everyone.”

He was mostly wrong; it did happen, and Assad did not kill everyone, but not for lack of trying.

The early protests of the Syrian Spring were met with gunfire by both army soldiers, police and the shadowy, criminal Shabiha, or ghosts, who had long dominated the regime-tolerated black market. It was the latter who helped create an atmosphere of chaos: undisciplined and erratic, their job was to keep the stain of terrorism off the uniforms of the regime’s troops.

Many people have fundamentally misread the situation in Syria: the first was Assad, who believed he could execute some choice victims and cow the rest.

This formula worked well enough in urban, relatively sophisticated Damascus and Aleppo: there, the modern world had cracked apart tribalism and replaced it with a crony-heavy modern society.

In the countryside, however, tribalism was alive and well. As tribal members ended up shot or wounded by the regime’s troops and Shabiha, tribal elders found it harder and harder to keep their members from seeking revenge.

This happened concurrently as Syrian moderates, both within the regime and without, grew horrified with the regime’s actions. These moderates saw themselves as Syrians worried for their country: many of them were army officers. As greater numbers of protestors were killed and as the army was deployed to crush the uprising in Daraa in southern Syria in May 2011, many of these officers decided to defect from the regime.

By summer 2011, self-directed army units had grabbed limited amounts of equipment and arms and began organizing themselves into the Free Syrian Army. Beside them bands of tribesmen fought out of a sense of vengeance, while over the Iraqi border the first jihadists began to seep into the country.

None of this was a recipe for success

The defectors had the training but not the numbers or the equipment; the tribesmen had nothing but a willingness to die; the jihadists had the experience but not the hardware. None of them had a natural alignment beyond hatred of Assad’s regime.

This went to the heart of Syria as a fledging nation state: its nation was still under construction by the Assad regime, who had hoped to build a Syrian national identity out of the disparate sects and tribes within their borders. Had Syrian national identity been more secure, the civil war would have been much cleaner, with only two major factions emerging.

But Syria’s uneven development had left large swathes of society out of alignment with the nation-state system. The tribes had always merely tolerated the state in exchange for bribes or salutary neglect; the jihadists rejected the state entirely, thinking they owed God something older and more brutal. Only the ex-officers of the Free Syrian Army had the pretense to Syrian nationalism.

Which thrilled the West, and specifically the United States, but that ended up not mattering

The United States and its alliance system in 2011 was nowhere near interested in spending blood and power on destroying the Assad regime. The calculation — wrong as it turned out — was that Assad, who had embarked upon a sectarian civil war merely to survive in spite of the fact that his sect was desperately outnumbered, would eventually be overwhelmed.

This calculation would have been true had the Syrian rebellion remained unified. But quite rapidly, the rebellion split in various factions along the three broad lines of the FSA, the tribes and the jihadists.

Early on, only the Gulf states headed by Saudi Arabia were willing to provide arms to Syria’s rebels: they despised Assad as an Iranian stooge. But the political immaturity of the Saudi bloc led to more than a few arms working their way into the hands of less-than-modern forces. This made a great deal of sense: nobody should pretend Saudi, Qatar or the UAE, the prime arms suppliers, are much interested in Arab modernism or democracy. They simply offered weapons to those who they understood: these, as it turned out, were a combination of the tribes and the jihadists.

In the first year of the war, the jihadists were seen as the most effective, disciplined force capable of dislodging the Assadist army. The FSA itself was always too small; worse, many of the regime’s best officers had stayed loyal, leaving the FSA with a smaller talent pool to draw from. The jihadists, led largely by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda franchise that had crossed the border from Iraq, fought longer and better: to them the Saudis and their allies sent weapons, further isolating the FSA.

Only with the Islamic State’s emergence in 2014 did the Saudis realize they had unleashed a force they didn’t really control and would invariably come for their heads as well. But by then, it was too late.

Meanwhile, the West continued to calculate events would overwhelm Assad and kept on being wrong

In 2011-12, the West had the power to destroy the Assad regime and empower the FSA. They could readily have launched an air campaign like Libya, destroyed the Syrian Air Force and dumped weapons onto the FSA just as they did the Libyan rebels. But the West primarily believed the Syrian rebels, who were after all more numerous than in Libya, would eventually win the day without their having to resort to much.

That calculation continued until 2013, when Assad’s regime used gas to clear rebels out of some of their strongholds. This was when it became clear that while the West’s elites might see value in a limited war, the West’s citizens would not: Britain voted down a request to send fighters while Barack Obama saved face by allowing the Russians a diplomatic coup that disarmed Syria’s chemical weapons.

This began a new phase, one dominated by the Russians. It was clear the Western public could not tell the difference between Syria in 2013-14 and Iraq in 2003: having been lured into a long, rather pointless war, Western citizens believed Syria could be no different.

By 2014, they weren’t wrong. The FSA was constricted to a handful of towns and villages and was desperately trying to hold onto its gains in Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Islamic State burst onto the scene, declaring war on the governments of both Syria and Iraq and notching up more than a few victories. Kurdish forces went into action in Iraq and became far more ambitious in Syria, further splitting the opposition.

Which brings us to today

The FSA is a prime example of what happens in a developing nation state’s civil war. Developing is key; large relics of the old world remain in a developing society, loyal to forces much older than such trite notions as nationality or government. While there are invariably well-educated folk who might like to use war to jump their nation state beyond tawdry dictatorship, they are not numerous enough or organized enough to be successful.

Instead, older social forces join the fray, splitting the opposition. Should they prevail over their intolerant regime, they end up just turning on one another: witness South Sudan, where once allied factions cannot get enough of the bloodletting.

For Western citizens and elites pondering what good their power might do, consider the development stage of the target country. It’s simply enough to overthrow a middle-class democracy and replace it with another middle-class democracy. But to build a middle-class democracy over top of a poor tribal dictatorship is always a recipe for disaster. When it comes to discussing how to end the Syrian civil war and destroy the Islamic State, it may well be best to accept that whatever replaces Assad must be quite similar to him.

This article originally appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, March 9, 2016.


  1. You missed the most important foreign player — Turkey. Turkey has been flooding Syria with foreign travelling jihadist and Saudi funded weapons for five years. It was been huge logistics exercise costing billions — large weekly munitions convoys cross from Turkey into Syria — to Azaz and into Aleppo and on from there into smaller convoys. This why Turkey refuses to close its borders and allows free transit to fighters back and forth. Militants receive medical attention in Turkey and return to battlefield often delivered to border by Turkish intelligence services. There are thousands of Turks fighting in Syria — not for Syrians but for Turkish control of north Syria and with expectation of creating Turkish client Sunni state.

    Turkey is the problem, it is why war has dragged on, even now in ceasefire Turkey is facilitating foreign fighters across border to try and aid militants surrounded in Aleppo and to secure Azaz for supply line.

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