Free Syrian Army

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Not to be confused with Syrian Army.
Free Syrian Army
Participant in the Syrian Civil War
Free syrian army coat of arms.svg
Official logo of the Free Syrian Army
Active 39 July 2011–Present
Leaders Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir
(Chief of Staff, 16 February 2014–present)[3]
Brigadier General Salim Idris
(Chief of Staff, Dec. 2012 – 16 February 2014)[4][5]
Colonel Riad al-Asaad
(Commander-in-Chief, Sept. 2011–present
symbolic role from Dec. 2012)
Strength 45,000–60,000 (June 2015)[6][7][8][9]
Part of National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces

The Free Syrian Army (Arabic: الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr, FSA) is a group of defected Syrian Armed Forces officers and soldiers,[17][18] founded during the Syrian Civil War on 29 July 2011[19] by seven[19][20] or eight[18] defected Syrian officers. The group defined "all [Syrian] security forces attacking civilians" as their enemies,[19][20] and said its goal was "to bring down the system"[19] or "to bring this regime down".[18] By January 2016, the FSA consists of "about 27 larger factions, each comprised of an average of 1,000 fighters as well as some smaller units or localized militias", with there being "thousands" of the latter kinds of brigades of various sizes.[21]

On 23 September 2011, the Free Syrian Army merged with the Free Officers Movement (Arabic: حركة الضباط الأحرار‎, Ḥarakat aḑ-Ḑubbāṭ al-Aḥrār); Western observers like The Wall Street Journal considered the FSA since then the main military defectors group.[22][23][24] 90% of the FSA consists of Sunni Muslims,[25] but a small minority are (Shia) Alawites[25] and some Druze fought in FSA units. Some FSA units are led by Druze.[26] As for further ethnic minorities, a Palestinian rebel commander in the Yarmouk enclave in southern Damascus in 2012 considered his rebel brigade to be part of FSA.[27]

The FSA coordinated with the Syrian National Council starting in December 2011,[28] and supported the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces after the coalition's November 2012 creation.[29] Between July 2012 and July 2013, ill-discipline and infighting weakened FSA, while jihadist groups entered northern Syria and became more effective than FSA.[30] In April 2013, the US promised $123 million aid to rebels, to be funneled through the then leader of the FSA, Salim Idriss.[31] Since February 2014, Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir is the appointed Chief of Staff and leader of the FSA.[3] A coalition of moderate Muslim rebel groups fighting under the Supreme Military Council of Syria, which includes the FSA, on 25 September 2014 allied with a predominantly Christian coalition called Syriac Military Council, to unite their fight against the Assad government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, ISIS, IS).[32]

At the outset of the civil war, the FSA operated throughout Syria, both in urban areas and in the countryside,[33] in the northwest (Idlib, Aleppo), the central region (Homs, Hama, Al-Rastan), the coast around Latakia, the south (Daraa and Houran), the east (Dayr al-Zawr, Abu Kamal), and the Damascus area. Their largest concentration of forces, nine battalions or more, were in Homs, Hama and surrounding areas.[34][35] By November 2014, a growing coalition of 58 US-backed groups, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, was gaining territory south of Damascus in southern Syria.[36][37] Some FSA groups, such as The Revolutionary Army, are aligned with the Kurdish YPG as part of the Euphrates Volcano and Syrian Democratic Forces joint operations rooms in the ongoing combat near Kobanî and in the north of Syria. Other FSA groups, mainly those with closer relations to Turkey, are opposed to the YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces, especially those of the Mare' Operations Room (including Falcons of Mount Zawiya Brigade).[38][39]


Background of desertions[edit]

The first defections from the Syrian army during the Syrian uprising may have occurred end of April 2011 when the army was sent into Daraa to quell ongoing protests. There were reports that some units refused to fire on protesters and had split from the army.[40] Video footage showed civilians helping defecting soldiers who had been shot for refusing orders.[41]

Defections, according to unverified reports, continued throughout the spring as the government used lethal force to clamp down on protesters and lay siege to protesting cities across the country, such as Baniyas, Hama, Talkalakh, and Deir ez-Zor, and there were reports of soldiers who refused to fire on civilians and were summarily executed by the army.[42]

In October 2011, an American official said the Syrian military might have lost perhaps 10,000 to defections.[43]

Western sources in December 2011 again gave estimates of 10,000 Syrian deserters, indicated that half the Syrian army conscripts had not reported to army duty in the last three call-ups, and that lower-level officers were deserting in large numbers; in some cases, whole units had deserted en masse.[44] An anonymously speaking U.S. official however estimated in December 2011 1,000 to 3,500 defectors in total.[45]

On 7 January 2012, Colonel Afeef Mahmoud Suleima of the Syrian Air Force logistics division defected from Bashar Al Assad's regime along with at least fifty of his men. He announced his group's defection on live television and ordered his men to protect protesters in the city of Hama. Colonel Suleima in a statement declared: "We are from the army and we have defected because the government is killing civilian protesters. The Syrian army attacked Hama with heavy weapons, air raids and heavy fire from tanks. … We ask the Arab League observers to come visit areas affected by air raids and attacks so you can see the damage with your own eyes, and we ask you to send someone to uncover the three cemeteries in Hama filled with more than 460 corpses."[46] An opposition blogger on 16 January announced General Mouaffac Hamzeh in the city of Qusayr in Homs province to have defected to the opposition.[47]

Around 18 February 2012, General Fayez Amro of the Syrian air force, who was from the Bab Amr district in Homs and of Turkmen origin, defected to Turkey. Another intelligence general from the Syrian army also defected at this time to Turkey. His name was not disclosed due to security reasons, opposition forces said.[48] 22 February, a brigadier general defected in Idlib with 200 of his soldiers.[49] In March, General Adnan Farzat from the city of Rastan and two other generals defected.[50][51] Turkish government sources reported that same month a surge in desertions with 20,000 desertions in the past month alone bringing the total number of deserters from the Syrian army to over 60,000 soldiers.[52]

By July 2012, there were over 100,000 defectors from the armed forces reported, according to activist and media sources.[53]

Formation FSA, July 2011[edit]

Colonel Riad al-Asaad and others announcing the FSA's formation in an online video statement.

On 29 July 2011, Colonel Riad al-Asaad and a group of uniformed officers announced the formation of the Free Syrian Army or 'Syrian Free Army',[54] with the goals of protecting unarmed protesters and helping to "bring down this regime", in a video on the Internet where Riad al-Asaad spoke alongside several other defectors.[19][55]

Al-Asaad explained that the Free Army’s formation resulted from the defecting soldiers' sense of nationalistic duty, loyalty to the people, the need for decisive action to stop government killings, and the army’s responsibility to protect unarmed people. He proceeded to announce the formation of the Free Syrian Army, and its intention to work hand in hand with the people and with demonstrators to achieve freedom and dignity, bring the government ("the regime"/"the system") down, protect the revolution and the country’s resources, and stand in the face of the irresponsible military machine that protects the "system".[18][55]

Asaad called on the officers and men of the Syrian army to "defect from the army, stop pointing their rifles at their people's chests, join the free army, and form a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects." He said that the Syrian army "[represents] gangs that protect the regime", and declared that "as of now, the security forces that kill civilians and besiege cities will be treated as legitimate targets. We will target them in all parts of the Syrian territories without exception."[55]

August–December 2011[edit]

Since the Syrian summer of 2011 there was a steady flow of defections to the Free Syrian Army, documented in defection videos.[56][57] Operations of FSA were modest following its formation in late July 2011, but gradually expanded. As deserted government soldiers had no armored vehicles and only light weaponry and munitions, FSA in August–October 2011 mostly ambushed security forces and the state's Shabiha (ghost) militia, and attacked trucks and buses bringing in security reinforcements by planting bombs or with hit-and-run attacks, but seldom confronted other regular army soldiers.[25]

On 23 September 2011, the Free Syrian Army merged with the Free Officers Movement (Arabic: حركة الضباط الأحرار‎, Ḥarakat aḑ-Ḑubbāṭ al-Aḥrār); Western observers like The Wall Street Journal considered the FSA since then the main military defectors group.[22][23][24]

By October 2011, the FSA would start to receive military support from Turkey, who allowed the rebel army to operate its command and headquarters from the country's southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border, and its field command from inside Syria.[58] In an effort to weaken the pro-Assad forces, the Free Army released a statement in mid-November which announced that a temporary military council had been formed.[59] In December 2011, the FSA coordinated with the Syrian National Council.[28] During the 2011/2012 Syrian winter, the FSA continued to announce the formation of new army units, publicly declaring to Bashar al-Assad that "you will find us everywhere at all times, and you will see that which you do not expect, until we re-establish the rights and freedom of our people."[60]

External video
Idlib, Syria, 21 February 2012, About 500 soldiers defect from the Syrian army's 17th Regiment and join the opposition Free Syrian Army.[61]

January 2012 – high-ranked officer defections[edit]

On 6 January 2012, General Mustafa al-Sheikh of the Syrian Army defected from the government forces to join the FSA.[62] General Mustafa al-Sheikh told Reuters that up to 20,000 soldiers in total had deserted the army since the beginning of the conflict, and that the FSA had taken control of large swathes of land. He said in an interview on 12 January 2012: "If we get 25,000 to 30,000 deserters mounting guerrilla warfare in small groups of six or seven it is enough to exhaust the army in a year to a year-and-a-half, even if they are armed only with rocket-propelled grenades and light weapons", and also mentioned that the majority of army deserters had gone to be with their families, rather than join the rebellion.[63]

On 29 January, there were reports of a new round of high-ranking defections after the Syrian Army was deployed to fight in the Damascus suburbs, some of them joining FSA. At least two generals and hundreds of soldiers with their weapons defected at this time.[64][65][66]

March–June 2012 – union with HMC[edit]

In March 2012, two reporters of The New York Times witnessed an FSA attack with a roadside bomb and AK-47 rifles on a column of armored Syrian tanks in Saraqib in Idlib Governorate, and learned that FSA had a stock of able, trained soldiers and ex-officers, organized to some extend, but were without the weapons to put up a realistic fight. FSA fighters claimed to own and control the back roads in the countryside, but also admitted that no one knew for certain where the Syrian Army would be at a given time.[67] On 24 March 2012, the Free Syrian Army united with the Higher Military Council. The groups agreed to put their differences behind them, and in a statement said: "First, we decided to unite all the military councils and battalions and all the armed battalions inside the country under one unified leadership of the Free Syrian Army and to follow the orders of the commander of the FSA, Col. Riad al-Asaad."[68]

In May 2012, the head of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, said that the Free Syrian Army controlled significant parts of some cities.[69] By June 2012, CNN estimated "the [Syrian] opposition forces" (which is not the same as "the FSA") to have grown to 40,000 men.[70]

July–December 2012 – reorganization[edit]

An FSA fighter engaged in a firefight in Aleppo

Between July 2012 and July 2013, ill-discipline and infighting weakened the FSA.[30] Meanwhile, jihadist groups entered northern Syria and became more effective than FSA.[30] The FSA in September 2012 moved its command headquarters from southern Turkey to rebel-controlled territory of northern Syria.[71]

After the creation of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces in November 2012, the FSA supported that coalition.[29] On 7 December 2012, about 260 to 550 commanders and representatives of the Syrian armed opposition met in Antalya and elected a new 30-person military council for the FSA. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who was not present at the meeting, retained his formal role as Commander-in-Chief but lost effective power to Brigadier General Salim Idris, who was elected as the new Chief of Staff of the FSA and effective leader. Security officials from the United States, United Kingdom, France, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Jordan were present at the meeting.[4][5][72] About two-thirds of those elected to the new command were individuals associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar ash-Sham were not invited to the meeting.[4] Thomson Reuters stated that the new Chief of Staff Gen. Salim Idris "is not ideological", while two of his new deputy commanders, Abdelbasset Tawil from Idlib Governorate and Abdelqader Saleh from Aleppo Governorate are Islamist.[5] The Huffington Post stated that the FSA command "[appeared] to want to sideline extremist groups that have been playing a bigger role in recent months" and that there would be a total of five deputy commanders associated with five different regions of Syria.[4]

2013 – stagnation[edit]

In April 2013, the US announced it would transfer $123 million in nonlethal aid to Syrian rebels through the Supreme Military Command led by defected general Salim Idriss, the then Chief of Staff of FSA.[31]

In April–May 2013, FSA was losing fighters to Islamist organisation Al-Nusra Front which was emerging as the best-equipped, financed and motivated anti-Assad force. FSA commander Basha said that in the last few months 3,000 FSA fighters had gone over to al-Nusra, mainly because FSA lacks weapons and ammunition. Another FSA commander said that also the Islamic doctrine of al-Nusra attracts FSA fighters. A Western diplomate played down suggestions as that Nusra would be cleaner, better and stronger: "fighters are moving from one group to another", but you can’t say that Nusra has in general more momentum than others, he maintained.[73]

In May 2013, Salim Idriss, the FSA leader, said that "the rebels" were badly fragmented and lacked the military skill needed to topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Idriss said he was working on a countrywide command structure, but that a lack of material support—ammunition and weapons, fuel for the cars and money for logistics and salaries—was hurting that effort. "The battles are not so simple now," Idriss said. "Now it is very important for them to be unified. But unifying them in a manner to work like a regular army is still difficult." He denied any cooperation with Al-Nusra Front but acknowledged common operations with another Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham.[31]

The growth of al-Nusra Front and other Islamist groups, during the first half of 2013, disillusioned thousands of FSA men who felt that their own revolution against the government has been stolen from them.[74] In areas of Homs province, fighting between FSA and the Syrian army had virtually ceased.[74]

On 11 July 2013, an FSA officer was assassinated by a jihadist group, north of Latakia.[30] In mid-August 2013, a delegation of FSA met with an official of President Assad, to suggest talks between government and FSA about "a Syrian solution" to the war.[74] The government accepted this proposal for "a dialogue within the Syrian homeland". Six weeks later, in seven rebel-held areas of Aleppo, civil employees could return to work, and government institutions and schools could reopen.[74]

Locals near the Turkish border complained in November 2013 that, in contrast with al-Nusra Front, the groups aligned with FSA were becoming increasingly corrupt.[75] 11 December 2013, U.S officials said that FSA's General Idris was driven out of his headquarters in northern Syria by the Islamic Front and was in exile in Doha, Qatar.[76] Both Idris and other FSA spokesmen denied this,[77] and within 24 hours the U.S. withdrew its story, saying it had since learned that Idris had been in Turkey throughout the incursion of Islamic Front.[78]

2014 – coalition forming and resurgence[edit]

In February 2014, Colonel Qassem Saadeddine of the FSA announced that Chief of Staff Idris had been replaced with Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, due to "the paralysis within the military command these past months."[3]

Abu Yusaf, a high-level commander of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), claimed in August 2014 that many of the FSA members who had been trained by United States’ and Turkish and Arab military officers were now actually joining ISIL. "In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer. All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State" he said.[79] On 12 September 2014, in suburb Hajar al-Aswad just 4 km south of the centre of Damascus, moderate and Islamist rebel groups have signed a non-aggression agreement with ISIL, reported the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Unspecified other sources are said to have claimed that the signing non-ISIL groups belonged to the FSA.[80]

On 14 February 2014, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army was formed and began an unbroken string of victories across southern Syria.[81] A coalition of moderate Muslim rebel groups fighting under the Supreme Military Council of Syria, which includes the FSA, on 25 September 2014 at a meeting in Turkey facilitated by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, signed an agreement with a predominantly Christian coalition called the Syriac Military Council, to unite their fight against the Assad government and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[32] In September 2014, FSA brigades in Northern Syria united with the Kurdish YPG under the Euphrates Volcano joint operations room in order to oppose ISIL and the Assad regime.[82]

According to retired Jordanian general Fayez al-Dweiri in 2014, apart from southern Syria and pockets around Aleppo, "the FSA has been effectively decimated and no longer effectively exists."[83]

2015 – southern and northern offensives[edit]

Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training on May 4, 2015, in the rebel-held countryside of the northern city of Aleppo.

While the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army increased its territorial control in both Daraa and Quneitra governorates, FSA brigades in northern Syria supported the Army of Conquest-led offensive that took control of almost all of Idlib governorate, as well as aided the YPG in their approach from the east and west against ISIL-controlled Tell Abyad.

According to journalist Thomas Joscelyn, FSA troops backed al-Nusra and other jihadi forces in their successful capture of Jisr Al Shughur in northwestern Syria's Idlib province.[84]


FSA soldiers plan during the Battle of Aleppo (October 2012).

The Free Syrian Army aims to be "the military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime",[85] and it aims to bring down the government by armed operations, encouraging army defections and by carrying out armed action.[55] As the Syrian army is highly organized and well-armed, the Free Syrian Army has adopted guerrilla-style tactics in the countryside and cities. The FSA's military strategy is focused on a dispersed countrywide guerrilla campaign with a tactical focus on armed action in the capital of Damascus. The campaign is not meant to hold territory, but rather, to spread government forces and their logistics chains thin in battles for urban centers, to cause attrition in the security forces, to degrade morale, and to destabilize Damascus, the center of government.[86]

The Free Syrian Army's armed actions focus on the government's combat advantages, which include the ability to mount coordinated operations on a large scale, the ability to move its forces at will, and the ability to employ heavy firepower.[87] To counter these advantages, the FSA has mounted attacks on the government's command and control and logistical infrastructure. A sabotage campaign has begun in Syria, with reports of attacks on different government assets. The FSA has mounted attacks on security service command centers, and posts information on Syrian social media sites about blocking roads, attacking logistics vehicles, cutting coaxial communications cables servicing airfields, destroying telecommunications towers, sabotaging government vehicles by sugaring fuel tanks, and attacking railways and pipelines.[88][89]

The Free Syrian Army on the local level engages and ambushes the state's shabiha militia[25] and confronts the army during which it encourages defections.[90] Some members of the Free Syrian Army have stated that the organization does not have the resources to occupy and take control of territories, and instead relies primarily on hit and run attacks to prompt the Syrian army into withdrawing.[91] The FSA also uses improvised explosive devices to attack military convoys of buses, trucks and tanks that are transporting supplies and security reinforcements and engages in attack and retreat operations on government checkpoints.[25][92] In neighborhoods opposed to the government, the FSA has acted as a defense force, guarding streets while protests take place and attacking the militias, known as shabiha, which are an integral part of the government's efforts to suppress dissent.[93] In Deir ez-Zor, Al-Rastan, Abu Kamal and other cities the Free Syrian Army, however, engaged in street battles that raged for days with no particular side gaining the advantage.[25] The FSA has also sought international help in bringing down the Assad government. It has asked the international community for arms and the implementation of a no fly zone and naval blockade of Syria[24]


FSA soldiers cleaning their AK-47s during the Battle of Aleppo (October 2012).

The Free Syrian Army is mainly armed with AK-47s, DShKs and RPG-7s.[94] As defecting soldiers lack air cover, deserting soldiers have to abandon their armoured vehicles. Soldiers defect carrying only their army issued light arms and hide in cities, suburbs or the cover of the countryside.[25] Besides AK-47s, some FSA soldiers also have M16s, Steyr AUGs, FN FALs, SVDs and shotguns,[95] G3 Battle Rifles,[96] and PK machine guns.[97] Photos have surfaced of some rebels using salvaged StG 44 assault rifles.[98] The FSA has a few heavy weapons captured from the Syrian government. In February 2012, video footage was posted online showing a captured government tank, being used in Homs by FSA forces. The tank carried Syrian opposition flags and was seen firing with armed men in civilian clothes taking cover behind it.[99] An FSA spokesman has said that the organization received three tanks from a group of 100 deserters from the Syrian army.[66] The FSA has also reportedly acquired a number of anti-aircraft missiles.[100]

The Free Syrian Army has recently begun manufacturing its own mortars and rockets.[101]

Raids on government checkpoints and arms depots are carried out to supply the FSA with much of its ammunition and new arms. The FSA also purchases weapons on the Syrian black market which is supplied by arms smugglers from neighboring countries and corrupt loyalist forces selling government arms. There have been reports that whole arms depots have been offered for sale, although these offers were refused because of fears of a potential trap.[102][103] FSA fighters are also sometimes able to purchase weapons directly from army supply bases, provided that they have enough money to satisfy the government troops guarding them. It is also reported that the FSA purchases much of its heavy weaponry from Iraqi arms smugglers.[104]

Col. Riad Asaad has asked the international community to supply the FSA with arms to alleviate the organization's supply issues.[105][106] While many nations have been hesitant to provide Syria with arms out of fears of escalating the conflict,[107] the organization does appear to be receiving some outside arms shipments. In April 2012, the Lebanese Navy intercepted a Sierra Leone-registered vessel carrying a large number of arms and ammunition believed to be destined for the Free Syrian Army. Some of the arms were labeled as Libyan.[108] Saudi Arabia has supplied the Free Syrian Army with weapons from Croatia.[109]

In June 2013, rebels reported to have received 250 9M113 Konkurs anti-tank missiles with a range of 4 kilometers and accuracy of 90%.[110] In August 2013, rebels captured a government weapons depot and seized MILAN anti-tank missiles, more Konkurs missiles, and BM-21 Grad rockets.[111] Since 2014, tens of FSA brigades in southern, central, and northern Syria have been provided with BGM-71 TOW missiles. In February 2015, The Carter Center listed 23 groups within the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army that have been documented using US-supplied TOWs.[112] Groups provided with TOWs in northern and central Syria include the Hazzm Movement, the 13th Division, Syria Revolutionaries Front, Yarmouk Army, Knights of Justice Brigade, and the 101st Division.[113]


Military situation in the Syrian Civil War as of February 1, 2016.
  Controlled by Syrian Government forces
  Controlled by Kurdish forces (Rojava)
  Controlled by al-Nusra Front
  Controlled by Syrian opposition forces

(For a more detailed map, see Cities and towns during the Syrian Civil War)

The Free Syrian Army operates throughout Syria, both in urban areas and in the countryside. Forces are active in the northwest (Idlib, Aleppo), the central region (Homs, Hama, and Rastan), the south (Daraa and Houran), the east (Dayr al-Zawr, Abu Kamal), and the Damascus area. The largest concentration of these forces appears to be in the central region (Homs, Hama, and surrounding areas), with nine or more battalions active there.[34]

The FSA uses guerrilla warfare tactics when it fights and does not aim to occupy terrain once a fight is over, however, by late 2011 large swathes of area in Syria had fallen under partial control of the Free Syrian Army.[114][115] In late 2011, the FSA established control over a number of towns and villages across Idlib province.[116][117] Later in January 2012, the Free Syrian Army succeeded in taking control of the town of Zabadani in Damascus province, following intense clashes with the regular troops. On 21 January, the FSA temporarily captured the town of Douma, near Damascus.[118] The Free Syrian Army also for three months controlled around two-thirds of Homs, Syria's third largest city, according to Syrian military officers inside the city.[119] In January, some Damascus suburbs fell under partial opposition control. For example, the town of Saqba, an eastern suburb of Damascus fell under opposition control for a week until the FSA was forced to tactically retreat into the local population after sustaining heavy bombardment by the Syrian Army.[120][121] In late February, the city of Idlib was under opposition control, with opposition flags flying in the city centre.[122]

In May, United Nations monitors confirmed media reports that large areas of Syria's countryside and provincial cities were under de facto FSA or nobody's control.[123] The Free Syrian Army has stated that it only has partial control over its held areas, and that in a head to head battle with the Syrian army was unable in most cases to hold the territory. The FSA's goal as of winter was to loosen government control over areas, rather than to impose firm control of its own.[124]

Command structure[edit]

Head command[edit]

Political Military Opposition Structure (June 2012).jpg

Prior to September 2012, the Free Syrian Army operated its command and headquarters from Turkey's southern Hatay province close to the Syrian border with field commanders operating inside Syria.[106][125] In September 2012, the FSA announced that it had moved its headquarters to Idlib Governorate inside Syria,[126] which was later overrun by the Islamic Front in December 2013.[76] In December 2012, more than 260 rebel commanders from all over Syria agreed to a unified command structure of the Free Syrian Army. The participants elected a 30-member Supreme Military Council, which then selected General Salim Idris as Chief of Staff.[127] Idris was later replaced by Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir.[128]

The FSA's formal leader is its Commander-in-Chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad; however, the army's effective military leader is its Supreme Military Councils Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir. Beneath General al-Bashir there are five deputy chief of staffs who are in charge of five different regions of Syria. Two of these deputy chiefs of staff are Abdelbasset Tawil from Idlib Governorate and Abdelqader Saleh from Aleppo Governorate.[4][5]

Regional command[edit]

The Free Syrian Army has field units located across the country. The field units are under the direct command of nine regional commanders which are based in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deir al-Zor, Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. The regional commanders include Colonel Qasim Saad al-Din who directs military operations in Homs province and Colonel Khaled al-Haboush who directs military operations in the capital. The regional commanders are under the direct operational command of Colonel Riad Asaad and hold conference calls almost daily.[131][132][133] For internal communication and operations, the FSA appears to have an extensive internet based communication network that state security has tried to penetrate.[134][135]

Field units[edit]

The Free Syrian Army has adopted the configuration and tactics of a guerrilla force. A typical field unit such as the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade numbers between 300 to 400 fighters split into combat units of six to 10 men. Each man in the unit is armed with a light weapon, such as an AK-47, and the combat unit as a whole is equipped with an RPG launcher and a light machine gun.

Free Syrian Army units specialize in different tasks. Units close to the borders are involved with logistics and the transport of injured soldiers out of the country and also with the transport medical equipment, material supplies and weapons into the country.[139] Other units such as the Farouq Brigades which are based in the city of Homs are involved in protecting civilians and fending off the Syrian army. The Farouq Brigade is one of the more active FSA battalion units. It is led by Lieutenant Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, the nephew of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass.[130] Lieutenant Tlass was one of the first defectors and is one of the key figures in the Syrian uprising. His unit of 500–2,000 soldiers has engaged the Syrian army in Homs and raided Syrian checkpoints and command centers.[89][140][141] As of January 2012, the army had around 37 named battalion units, 17–23 of which appeared to be engaged in combat.[142][143]

Allegations of war crimes[edit]

On 20 March 2012, Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the opposition (including the FSA), accusing them of carrying out kidnappings, torture and executions, and calling on them to halt these unlawful practices.[144] The United Nations-sponsored "Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic" has documented war crimes in Syria since the start of the civil war. It said that rebels had committed war crimes, but that they "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale" of those by state forces.[145][146] Some FSA-aligned groups have also been criticized for their alleged affiliation with Islamists.

The FSA has been accused of summarily executing numerous prisoners who it claims are government soldiers or shabiha,[147] and people who it claims are informers. A rebel commander in Damascus said that over the months his unit had executed perhaps 150 people that the "military council" had found to be informers. He explained: "If a man is accused of being an informer, he is judged by the military council. Then he is either executed or released".[148] Nadim Houry, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch argued that "Intentionally killing anyone, even a shabiha, once he is outside of combat is a war crime, regardless of how horrible the person may have been".[149] On 10 August 2012, a report indicated that Human Rights Watch was investigating rebel forces for such killings. The FSA, for its part, stated that they would put those fighters that had conducted the unlawful killings on trial.[150]

Witnesses have also reported rebels conducting 'trial by grave' in which an alleged government soldier was given a mock trial next to a pre-made grave and executed on the spot by members of the FSA Amr bin al-Aas brigade. One rebel said: "We took him right to his grave and, after hearing the witnesses' statements, we shot him dead".[151][152]

The Daoud Battalion, operating in the Jabal-al-Zawiya area, has reportedly used captured soldiers in proxy bombings. This involved tying the captured soldier into a car loaded with explosives and forcing him to drive to an Army checkpoint, where the explosives would be remotely detonated.[148][153][154]

The UN noted some credible allegations that rebel forces, including the FSA, were recruiting children as soldiers, despite stated FSA policy of not recruiting anyone under the age of 17.[155] One rebel commander said that his 16-year-old son had died fighting government troops.[156]

In a video uploaded to the Internet in early August, an FSA representative announced that, in response to international concerns, FSA units would follow the Geneva Convention's guidelines for the treatment of prisoners and would guarantee its captives food, medical attention and holding areas away from combat zones. He also invited Red Cross workers to inspect their detention facilities.[148] On 8 August, FSA commanders distributed an 11-point code of conduct signed by scores of brigade commanders and rebel leaders. It states that all fighters must "respect human rights … our tolerant religious principles and international human rights law – the same human rights that we are struggling for today".[157][158]

The following is a timeline of alleged war crimes by FSA-aligned groups:

  • On 22 May 2012, an FSA brigade kidnapped 11 Lebanese pilgrims coming from Iran.[159] Four of them were killed in an airstrike by the Syrian Air Force and the rest were released unharmed.[160]
  • On 20 July 2012, Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, said that Iraqi border guards had witnessed the FSA take control of a border post, detain a Syrian Army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs before executing 22 Syrian soldiers.[161]
  • On 21 July 2012, Turkish truck drivers said that they had their trucks stolen by members of the FSA when it captured a border post. They said that some of the trucks were burnt and others sold back to their drivers after the goods were looted.[162]
  • The United Nations report on war crimes states that the FSA's execution of five Alawite soldiers in Latakia, post-July 2012 was a war crime. The report states, "In this instance, the FSA perpetrated the war crime of execution without due process."[146]
  • On 13 August 2012, a series of three videos surfaced showing executions of prisoners, apparently by rebel forces, in Aleppo province. In one video, six postal workers were being thrown off the main postal building in Al-Bab to their deaths, purportedly by FSA fighters. The gunmen claimed they were shabiha.[163][164][165][166]
  • On 9 September 2012 the FSA exploded a car bomb near al-Hayat Hospital and the Central Hospital in Aleppo. According to Syrian state media, at least 30 people were killed[167] and more than 64 wounded.[168] The FSA claimed that the Army had occupied the hospital buildings and were using them as a base.[169]
  • On 10 September 2012 the FSA's Hawks of Syria brigade executed more than 20 Syrian soldiers captured in Hanano military base.[170]
  • On 2 November 2012 the FSA's al-Siddiq Battalion kidnapped and executed prominent Syrian actor Mohammed Rafeh. It claimed he was a member of the shabiha and was carrying a gun and military ID.[171][172]
  • In May 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing a rebel cutting organs from the dead body of a Syrian soldier and putting one in his mouth, "as if he is taking a bite out of it". He called rebels to follow his example and terrorize the Alawite sect, which mostly backs Assad. Humans Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed the authenticity of the footage, and stated that "The mutilation of the bodies of enemies is a war crime". The rebel was Abu Sakkar, a commander of the "Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade". The BBC called it an offshoot of the FSA's Farouq Brigades, while HRW said it is "not known" whether the Brigade is part of the FSA. The incident was condemned by the FSA's Chief of Staff and the Syrian National Coalition said that Abu Sakkar would be put on trial.[173][174] Abu Sakkar said the mutilation was revenge. He said he found a video on the soldier's cellphone in which the soldier sexually abuses a woman and her two daughters,[175] along with other videos of Assad loyalists raping, torturing, dismembering and killing people, including children.[176] n

In December 2012, militants abducted an NBC News Team of six journalists around NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. Engel initially blamed pro-regime Shabiha militants, but it turned out the perpetrators were most likely the FSA-affiliated rebel group North Idlib Falcons Brigade.[177]

Since July 2013, Jabhat Al-Nusra, at times in coordination with other armed groups, carried out a series of killings of Kurdish civilians in Al Youssoufiyah, Qamishli and Al-Asadia (Al-Hasakah). During a raid by ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and FSA battalions, fighters killed a Kurdish Yazidi man in Al-Asadia who refused to convert to Islam.[178]

The FSA was mentioned in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report detailing the widespread practise of using child soldiers by non-state armed groups, the report interviewed children as young as 14 who fought with the FSA. [179]

Rivals and allies in this war[edit]

In May 2013, Salim Idriss, the then FSA leader, acknowledged common operations with Islamist group Ahrar ash-Sham but denied any cooperation with Islamist group al-Nusra Front.[31]

Mohammed Shalabi, also known as Abu Sayyaf, a leader of a Salafist-jihadist movement in Jordan has promoted his view, in July 2013 in Ammon News (an online Jordanian private news agency, well-visited in the Arab world), that irreconcilable differences exist between the aims of FSA and those of other Sunni militias fighting in Syria against Assad.[180]

During 2013, within the Syrian anti-Assad opposition as a whole, FSA or not FSA, alliances between the independently operating rebel brigades were constantly changing; many FSA brigades ran over in 2013 to the Islamic Front.

The FSA considers ISIS to be an enemy of the revolution as it has openly criticized the group. FSA leaders accuse "ISIS of imposing its extremist ideology on areas it controls and of kidnapping and murdering other members of the opposition".[181] ISIL's expanding claims to territory gradually brought it into armed conflict with many governments, militias and other armed groups. In October 2014, battalions fighting with the Free Syrian Army joined the Kurdish militia in Kobane to battle ISIS.[182] The FSA issued a statement January 2014 presenting its position against the organization warning all foreign fighters to either join the opposition fighters or leave the territory hours.[183]


Communication inside the battalion unit is carried out by walkie talkie.[184] The FSA battalion units work closely with the local population and defectors typically join units from the region or town that they come.[135] The FSA is closely interlinked with ad hoc activist networks and it works closely with the civilian formed local councils.[185][186] Around key population centers, such as Damascus, Aleppo, Daraa and Hama, the FSA operates military councils that coordinate operations in the area.[187][188]

The army's command and control is exercised through a variety of means, including mobile phones, voice over IP, email, couriers and social media.[34] In November 2011, the army spent $2 million to improve communication links between opposition fighters in Syria.[102] The Bashar al-Assad government captured a number of sophisticated communications devices from opposition fighters, including Thuraya mobile satellite phones, very high and ultra-high frequency (VHF/UHF) devices, and Inmarsat mobile communication satellite systems.[34] In February 2012, Qatar had supplied the army with 3,000 satellite phones.[189] The United States has also provided communication equipment to help create a more structured army.[190][191][192]

International support[edit]

The Libyan National Transitional Council announced in November 2011 that it had been in talks with the Syrian National Council and was considering supplying weapons and volunteer fighters of the National Liberation Army to the Free Syrian Army, and that international intervention may only be weeks away. According to people with links to the National Council, the Libyans were offering money, weapons and training forces loyal to the Syrian National Council.[205] At the end of the month, it was reported that at least 600 fighters of the National Liberation Army from Libya had been dispatched to support the Free Syrian Army and had entered Syria through Turkey.[206]

Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been trying to "cultivate a favorable relationship with whatever government would take the place of Assad."[207]

In February 2012, British foreign secretary William Hague said that Britain was prepared to send advanced communications equipment to the FSA to help them coordinate their forces, but did not mention supplying weapons.[208] A week later the Saudi Gazette reported that the Gulf Cooperation Council was thinking of recognising the Free Syrian Army "as the sole and legitimate representative of the Syrian people", citing an unnamed Bahraini official who requested anonymity.[209]

By the end of February 2012, there was extensive talk by Gulf States of arming the Free Syrian Army. The FSA leadership, however, reported in March that it had not yet received any funds, weapons, or equipment from any government despite recent pledges to help support their armed struggle. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, FSA leader Riad Asaad said that: "There is no practical support from the international community," and that "It's been all talk."[210] The Free Syrian Army for now planned on relying on itself and raids on arms depots, however, it still hoped for outside arms support.[134]

On 1 March, Kuwait's parliament declared support for the FSA.[211] By mid-May, it was reported according to opposition activists and foreign officials that the FSA had started to receive significant financial support from the Persian Gulf nations for the purchase of arms.[212]

In July 2012, a non-governmental organization based in Washington DC, called Syrian Support Group, received clearance from the U.S. Treasury Department to fund the Free Syrian Army.[213]

Foreign combatants[edit]

The number of foreign Sunni militants active within the FSA is hard to assess. In late May 2012, based on interviews with FSA fighters, it was reported that 300 Lebanese had joined the FSA. The presence of Algerians, Tunisians, Jordanians and fighters from Saudi Arabia was also confirmed.[214][215] A leader of the FSA told an AFP correspondent that five Libyan combatants have been killed in clashes with the Syrian Army. The same leader, while denying the presence of many foreign fighters, said that there are few of different nationalities. Peter Harling, from the International Crisis Group, told the AFP that the proportion of foreign fighters is currently very small, but might grow after Saudi Arabia and Qatar announced their support for arming the rebels.[216]

Croatian General Marinko Krešić confirmed that there are between 80 and 100 Croat mercenaries between the ages of 40 and 60 helping the Free Syrian Army. They are veterans from the Croatian War of Independence (1991–95) or Bosnian War (1992–95), but also fought as mercenaries in Iraqi War (2003–11), Libyan Civil War, Tunisian revolution and Egyptian revolution. Krešić stated that some are serving as security, instructors while others are killing. He also stated that they are very well trained and that "they are the one who will probably kill rather than be killed". Krešić stated that their payment is up to 2,000 US$ a day due to "rich foreign donators". He also added that the majority of the volunteers coming from the Balkans to help the FSA are Serbs and citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.[217][218][219] Sources close to the Belgrade military circles confirmed that the former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army are also aiding the FSA. They are mostly instructors who train the rebels mostly for the urban and the guerrilla warfare.[220] A first reported death of a member of the Kosovo Liberation Army was announced on 13 November. Naman Demoli, a former member of the KLA was killed near Syrian-Turkish border.[221]

There are dozens of Kuwait's volunteers entering from Turkey that are fighting in ranks of the FSA. The volunteers are given Syrian IDs as a precautionary measure in case they are arrested, before they are armed and sent to fight in different locations across the troubled country.[222]

Relations with the political opposition[edit]

National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces[edit]

The Free Syrian army supports the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups created in November 2012 that includes many SNC members in its council.[29]

Syrian National Council[edit]

At the beginning of December 2011, the Free Syrian Army agreed to coordinate its activities with the Syrian National Council (SNC).[28] On 6 February 2012, Riad al-Asaad voiced his concern about the SNC's lack of political and material support for the FSA, and stated that if differences could not be resolved the FSA would break off its relations with the SNC.[223]

In late February 2012, the Syrian National Council established a military bureau to oversee military operations. This initiative was met with criticism by Free Syrian Army leaders who said that they had not been informed.[224] Defected General Mustafa al-Sheikh created a similar discord in the army when he established a rival group called the Higher Military Revolutionary Council which was rejected by the FSA leadership and field units.[139] Earlier the Muslim Brotherhood had also tried to coopt the FSA but the leadership rejected their attempt.[224] Colonel Al Kurdi, the deputy leader of the FSA, dismissed the internal disputes and said that despite disagreements, the opposition remained united against the government and in their call for arms.[224]

Questioning of actual existence[edit]

From the end of 2014 onward, aspects of the FSA's operational status in Syria has been questioned by some commentators, foreign government officials and extremist groups on the ground.[225][226][227][228][229] British journalist Robert Fisk of The Independent, in an interview from March 2015 on Lateline, said he believed that the army did not actually exist,[226] an assertion he repeated in October 2015.[227] Rami Jarrah claimed, "There is no such thing as the Free Syrian Army, people still use the term in Syria to make it seem like the rebels have some sort of structure. But there really isn't."[228] In October 2015, Irish journalist Patrick Cockburn stated that "The Free Syrian Army was always a mosaic of factions and is now largely ineffectual."[230] In late 2015, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani denied the existence of the FSA during an interview.[225]

In 2013 U.S. senior military officials speaking on condition of anonymity indicated that the Pentagon estimates that "extreme Islamist groups" constitute "more than 50 percent" of the Free Syrian Army with the percentage "growing by the day" and NBC added that the FSA "is an army in name only. It is made up of hundreds of small units, some secular, some religious – whether mainstream or radical. Others are family gangs, or simply criminals."[231] Commentators have suggested that "few media outlets are willing to say that out loud, but ... there is no Free Syrian Army. It's an umbrella for providing Western aid to a front group run by the Muslim Brotherhood."[232]

In October 2015, Dan Glazebrook, an author and columnist for The Guardian[233] and the Independent[234] in the UK, told RT "The whole business about funding moderate rebels has always been a bit of a fantasy. There is nothing moderate about what they are being trained to do. There is nothing moderate about forming a militia and then going and killing as many police and soldiers of a sovereign state as you can. The Free Syrian Army – the so-called moderate rebels – celebrated their arrival in Aleppo for example by planting 2,000-kilo bombs in the city center and looting the city's schools. This whole idea of moderate rebels was always a myth."[235]

In September 2015, U.S. General Lloyd Austin stated, referring to a specific train and equip program operating in northern Syria at the time, that only four or five troops of the New Syrian Army were on the ground at that time.[236]

In October 2015, shortly after Russia's intervention, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov referred to the Free Syrian Army as being "an already phantom structure", adding that he was waiting to receive any specific information about it from his U.S. counterpart John Kerry.[229][237][238] Lavrov later claimed by the end of that month that Russia was ready to aid the FSA with airstrikes, all the while targeting the FSA with those same airstrikes.[239] The FSA rejected Russia's offers of "support" with Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army Spokesman Issam al-Reis stating "[Russian President] Vladimir Putin, is assisting a regime [the Assad regime] that indiscriminately kills their own people", adding "How could we trust the Russians' help?".[240]

Jürgen Todenhöfer, the first western journalist allowed into its territory by ISIL, in a 2015 interview with RT quoted ISIS militants as stating that ISIL's ammunition comes mostly from the FSA: "They told me, 'Even if we don't conquer these weapons, we can buy them, because everything has a price. Most of our ammunition we get from the Free Syrian Army.'"[241] Just as within regime held areas (the Assad regime buys 40% of all ISIS oil),[242] opposition held areas are also supplied by ISIL with oil.[243]

See also[edit]


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External links[edit]