Syria’s Many Militias: Inside the Chaos of the Anti-Assad Rebellion

The chief of the Syrian rebels' new Military Command faces a tough task not simply coordinating a war against the Assad regime, but controlling the patchwork of militant groups and rebel outfits that make up his fighting force.

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Sarmad Al-Shamali / HANDOUT / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter looks back while pointing his weapon at a police academy as smoke rises during fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, on the outskirt of Aleppo, March 2, 2013.

Syria‘s rebels have been locked in a bloody uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad for nearly two years. But for 27 days after it was formed last December, the Free Syrian Army’s Military Command—elected by some 550 rebel delegates and tasked with commanding and controlling the myriad groups on the ground—did not receive so much as a bullet from its Arab and Western supporters. That lack of aid threatened to crush the nascent Military Command’s credibility with the fighting men inside Syria.

The body, headed by chief of staff Brigadier General Salim Idris, replaced the Joint Command of the Revolutionary Military Councils (which was formed less than three months prior), and shunted aside the dueling, Turkey-based so-called leaders of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad al-As’aad and General Mustafa al-Sheikh, who were never more than figureheads.

After 27 days of pleading, the “valve was opened,” Idris told TIME in an interview at a hotel in Antakya, southern Turkey. (The command is based inside Syria, albeit close to the Turkish border.) He remains at the mercy of suppliers he declined to name but who are widely known — mainly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with the blessing of Turkey and Western states. “Our brothers in the field make demands as if I have any influence over our suppliers,” Idris said. “I can’t force them to give us ammunition. If they say ‘I don’t want to give you anything,’ what can I do?”

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The men on the ground aren’t necessarily waiting for Idris’s supplies — they have become adept at scrounging for weapons and ammunition, buying them from the regional black market or from corrupt regime soldiers, capturing war booty and making their own armaments, rockets and improvised explosives devices. Almost two years of a grinding civil war have necessitated such skills.

But if the Military Command is to successfully stitch together the patchwork of factions and militias that make up the rebellion, it needs some form of leverage — and the funneling of weapons and ammunition into Syria is supposed to be its modus operandi. Although there are reports of new batches of armaments being shuttled mainly via Syria’s southern border with Jordan, as well as its northern one with Turkey, Idris says it’s all not enough: “We need between 500-600 tons of ammunition a week. We get between 30-40 tons. So you do the calculations.”

The Syrian political opposition didn’t even want to attend an international conference on Syria in Rome last week, a reflection of the anger many of Assad’s opponents feel at the lack of robust foreign support. In the end, the head of the opposition coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, went but was unimpressed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s pledge of $60m non-lethal aid offered directly to select armed rebel groups. So how will the Military Command succeed in imposing its authority when all of its various predecessors largely failed, and Islamist groups outside the Free Syrian Army (which itself is just a loose umbrella term) are growing in stature and influence?

It’s not just about providing material support—the promise of prestige plays a part too. Although there are Islamist Jihadi units of various shades within the Free Syrian Army, other large independent groups like the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades and Jabhat al-Nusra offer the strongest Islamist units within rebel ranks. The U.S considers Jabhat a terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda although the group denies this and is widely respected by other rebels for its fighting prowess. Some FSA units are joining the Ahrar and Jabhat, not just because their networks of support seem to be more consistent, but because it has come to be perceived as a kind of graduation or a promotion, an acknowledgement that a particular FSA unit or an individual fighter is good enough to become a part of the most respected, most disciplined rank of fighters. It doesn’t hurt that the Ahrar and Jabhat turn fighters away, often because they aren’t considered pious enough, making acceptance into the groups a form of achievement.

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In several recent battles in Idlib province, for example, the two Salafi groups took the organizational lead, and the participation of other groups was by invitation only. Jabhat, in particular, has an authority the FSA lacks because it fights fiercely—often at the very front of the frontlines—is considered “clean” and not corrupt and because its religious clerics can invoke the power of a Sharia court. Which group, once it has pledged obedience or allegiance to a religious court, would dare fall outside of its authority?

At the same time, a number of Islamist groups — including Ahrar al-Sham but not Jabhat al-Nusra — have also coalesced into a bloc called the Syrian Islamic Front, a coalition that says it’s fighting a “two-front war” — to topple Assad and to build “a civilized Islamic society in Syria.”

Some members of the Islamic Front, like Ali Alloush, leader of the Martyr Hamze battalion in the city of Maaret al-Numan in southern Idlib province, say the lack of support drove him to join the Islamist coalition. “We were not Islamists or extremists,” Alloush says. “Our Islamic philosophies and understanding were not like the ones that the Syrian people now have, but with the progression of time, our faith in God, and our belief that He was the only one who could end this for us, that we have nobody but Him, grew. So, naturally our thoughts developed, just as they have in other Islamic states facing this, toward extremism, and the West drove us to this.”

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In the midst of all this, the latest American initiative is to provide direct non-lethal assistance to rebels, including body armor. But some U.S.-donated body armor is already in Syria, and it’s not what the men on the ground want. “You know how many of Assad’s men we killed who were wearing those?” one fighter in Idlib province said, dismissing the vests and helmets. “The U.S can keep them. We are seeking martyrdom anyway. We need heavy weapons.”

While some rebels have embraced a fervent religiosity, others have opted for criminal activity. Some groups have resorted to kidnapping, sometimes for revenge, but most often to secure money for weapons like anti-aircraft guns. (The 14.5mm is common; the larger caliber 23mm is widely considered more of a status symbol because of its size, while the humble 12.7mm is now almost a little passé.) Kidnap victims are also sold from one group to another. On a recent day, TIME overheard a commander say that another group offered to sell him three civilians for 1 million Syrian pounds (about $14,150) and that they’d toss in a fourth civilian for free.

The Free Syrian Army’s various hierarchical structures, including the 14 provincial military councils, were supposed to be the main taps for weapons and ammunition, and thereby a form of leverage with fighting groups. But the military councils were never the main tap, and certainly aren’t now. Colonel Afif Suleiman, head of the Idlib Military Council, says he makes it clear that he has very little to offer the battalions that are part of the council. “They know that the councils are just a way to organize their activities, they don’t expect anything else from them,” he says. “If somebody says they fought in this battle, if there is no proof, if he was not registered, who will believe him? The council is a means to organize and to prove the participation of people and groups.” In other words, a record keeper that occasionally distributes arms and ammunition.

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Alloush’s friend and colleague in Maaret al-Numan, Radad Khalouf, leader of Dara’ Maaret which is part of the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham brigade, says that the military councils do more than they take responsibility for—he contends that they fomented the splits within rebel ranks by trying to micro-manage units on the ground, down to handpicking a group’s leader, for example, at the threat of withholding ammunition. “In the beginning, we just had sticks and pump action shotguns,” Khalouf said. “We will go back to the stick and pump action rather than have somebody enforce their views on us.” He has the same opinion about the rebels’ international backers, and their perceived agendas.

Still, both Alloush and Khalouf like many of their ilk say they welcome the formation of the Military Command, but as Khalouf says, “we are reserving judgment until we see what it has to offer.” It’s a widely held view that makes Idris, the chief of staff, bristle. “Do they ask themselves where am I supposed to get the money from? Am I a government?” Idris says. “Everybody is an analyst, from a fighter to a commander to somebody who has nothing to do with anything, to the refugee.”

Nonetheless, Idris says that the Military Command is withholding support from groups it considers ineffective, and reserving supplies for those it deems worthy, based on their battlefield results. He denies that it is akin to the patronage networks senior defectors instituted in the past, where favoritism was shown to certain units often based on little more than a pledge of personal loyalty to the senior defector. Idris also doesn’t think it will foment the rivalry that already exists within rebel ranks for funding and armaments; rather, he thinks he’ll be better able to weed out ineffective groups.

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There is an operations center, which sends monitors to the battlefield to watch and report on who fought where and how, who abandoned their posts, who responded to advice, who worked well with others, and who sat back, watched and waited to move in and grab the war booty. Take Commander X, Idris says, who in the past to impress his overseas or local patrons “goes and fires a few rockets, creates a bit of dust, films it and puts it on YouTube so that he can say ‘see, I worked.’ Now, it’s no longer like that.” Commander X won’t be supplied by the Military Command or included in future battles, Idris says. If his patrons are overseas, or private donors, Idris says he will inform them too, something he says he has already done although he refused to divulge which groups had been reprimanded. “Syrians don’t have time to stage these plays,” he says.

Idris says if he can organize and coordinate a little over half of the groups on the ground he’ll consider it a success “because 70-80% of the fighting men are civilians (i.e. not defectors), with civilian leaders. They are not used to being told ‘no, you can’t participate in this fight.’ He’s fighting in his town, he bought his own gun, his brother may have been killed, his son wounded. How can I impose anything on him? I can’t.” Soldiers are used to taking orders, Idris says. Armed civilians are not.

“Bashar is not better than us at organizing his men, but he has the power of a state,” Idris says. “He can bring that to bear and punish a man who won’t follow orders. It’s not easy [for us]. It’s very difficult to command this.”

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