“Yesterday the regime killed three of my close family members. They were in prison since one year. Now they were killed on the same day.” Salim Idriss, General Commander of the FSA, looked at me with glazy eyes. We met at the same place where he was holding talks with some of the rebel groups of the so-called Syrian Islamic Army. This new coalition of some fifty rebel groups in Syria was formed on 29 September 2013. A few days before this official announcement they already declared not to recognize the Syrian National Coalition and that the wanted the Islamic law as the basis for legislation.
If they are that strong, why would they decide to talk to the official FSA almost immediately after their foundation, I asked. The answer Idriss gave me was surprisingly obvious: they want more weapons and more money. The main group of the Islamic Army, Liwa al Islam is part of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA (SMC). And they, just like some other groups of this Islamic Army, are represented in the SMC. But most of all it is the timing that explains the formation: two weeks after the US decision not to attack the Syrian army but make a deal with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.
The frustration runs deep in the rebel camp. On the one side they see extremist groups like the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams) becoming stronger, better equipped and richer, while on the other side the promised arms and other support to the FSA by the West are nothing more than a joke. A few days before the US attack that never happened, Secretary of State John Kerry called to Salim Idriss to guarantee him an attack would happen. It would have changed so much indeed. The Syrian army was frightened to death while ISIS was moving their headquarters every day, as these Jihadists too were convinced they were to be bombed. It would have triggered a wave of defections. As a matter of fact the wave already started with former Syrian Minister of Defence, Ali Habib as the most symbolic one.
The result of the non-attack was immediately clear. Bashar Al-Assad appeared on Fox news as if he had already won the war. And ISIS started an attack on the strategic important city of Azaaz. Azaaz lies on the border with Turkey, controlling the way from Aleppo to Gaziantep. It is a stronghold of one of the FSA brigades, the Northern Storm. I met with them the first time I went into Syria. It must be said that this group does not consist of the most educated fighters and that they were not managing the liberated city as they should. They were also the ones who kidnapped the nine Lebanese pilgrims who were liberated last week. When ISIS attacked Azaaz it believed it would be welcomed as liberators from the Northern Strom ‘crooks’. Not so. Strong groups as Liwa Al Tawheed and Ahrar Al Shams came to stop ISIS, while the citizens of Azaaz started protesting against the presence of ISIS and the totalitarian rules it was imposing.
Six months earlier, in April 2013, I spent a few days on the headquarters of the FSA. It was just before ISIS was founded. I witnessed how from the early morning until after midnight FSA groups from all over Syria visited Salim Idriss. They all came with the same story: we can make progress but we need the right weapons. But instead of arms, President Obama decided to send hot meals. Again, ISIS did not exist and Jabhat Al Nusra didn’t represent more than five percent of the total of rebel fighters. With proper arms the FSA would not only have saved many lives, it would also have made the growth of these Jihadist groups impossible.
But here we are today, overseeing the mess we allowed to happen and wondering what we should do. Trying to forget our broken promises, we found a new one: Geneva II. Now every Western country repeats that the only way out for Syria is a political solution. The vast majority of the Syrians couldn’t agree more. But how on earth is this going to happen now? The West has been defeated on the Russian diplomatic chessboard. After the chemical weapons deal Assad feels victorious. Most of the world’s attention is now going to the so-called terrorists and is hardly reporting his atrocities anymore. Assad is more than happy that we will try to find a political solution on the same chessboard he and his Russian friends have won the last game.
At the same time there are serious cracks in the anti-Assad coalition. The new Egyptian government pulled out for internal reasons and made a common position of the Arab League as good as impossible. But even more important is the anger of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were not only appalled by the sudden American-Russian deal, the non-attack and the rapprochement to Iran. They are even more angered by the fact that the US failed to inform the Kingdom on these crucial steps.
It is no coincidence that it is Saudi Arabia that is behind the formation of the Islamic army. Even though the new president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) was a Saudi choice, it seems that Saudi Arabia has stopped its support for the SOC and is concentrating its efforts on the fighting groups on the ground. The statement of the Islamic Army of 24 September makes three things clear. First, no more support for the SOC. Second, by asking for sharia, but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic Army is clearly meant as a counterforce against these two Jihadi groups. Third, as the main brigades are part of the SMC, it is meant as a wake-up call for the FSA.
Last week in Gaziantep I had a coffee with Mansour, an activist who spent one year in one of the worst prisons of the Syrian Air Force. Coming from a secular family he told me how one of his nephews joined Jabhat Al Nusra. Not because he believed in Jihad, but because he needed the money to buy food for his family. The big difference between Al Nusra and ISIS is that while all of the ISIS fighters are extremist Jihadists, a lot of the Al Nusra fighters are not. They join Al Nusra because they need the money. FSA brigades don’t pay as they have no money. I heard this story time and again, inside and outside Syria. This is the reason why Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS split after a short period of joining forces. Most Al Nusra fighters couldn’t live with the ‘too extremist ISIS’ way of working. Also, ISIS is seen as non-Syrian and most of the foreign fighters are with them.
What should be done? If we put all pieces together, we must conclude that the situation is not that much different as it was six months ago. There is a military stalemate on the ground. The political opposition is divided. The Syrian army is not very strong and avoids fighting on the ground. Instead they are targeting the population by bombing from the air and long distance missiles. Six months ago we were fearing Jabhat Al Nusra, today we fear ISIS. And just like six months ago, Bashar Al Assad is not prepared to move one inch. The one thing that probably has changed is the perception the world has of the Syrian conflict. The propaganda machine of Assad has done a good job.
So, if we are serious about ending this catastrophic conflict, stopping the Jihadists and getting the most brutal dictator of the 21st century out, there are not too many options. A political solution will only be possible if the people around Assad – military or civilian – understand they can’t win anymore. They will be the ones that need to be convinced they will have a better future without Assad. But as long as Assad is in his current winning mood, this will never happen. Therefore there is no other solution than go back to square one: arm the FSA with weapons that can stop airplanes and long distance missiles. Give them money so they can pay their soldiers. Give them training so they stop committing war crimes and punish those who do. Make sure that humanitarian aid is reaching all Syrians, also those in liberated and disputed areas. Because only a stronger FSA will be able to unite forces and negotiate the so much needed political solution for Syria.
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