US-Backed Syrian Rebel Group on Verge of Collapse
By Slobodan Lekic
December 15, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "Military"
- IRBID, Jordan -- The main Western-backed Arab rebel group in
Syria appears on the verge of collapse because of low morale,
desertions, and distrust of its leaders by the rank and file,
threatening U.S. efforts to put together a ground force capable of
defeating the Islamic State and negotiating an end to the Syrian
"After five years of this war,
the people are just tired ... and so are our fighters," said Jaseen
Salabeh, a volunteer in the Free Syrian Army, which was formed in
September 2011 by defectors from the army of Syrian President Bashar
The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, some of whose
members are trained by the Central Intelligence Agency, is the
biggest and most secular of the scores of rebel groups fighting the
Assad government. Although defeating the Islamic State is the focus
of Western attention, the U.S. believes there can be no lasting
peace in Syria, and no elimination of the Islamic State there, as
long as Assad remains in power.
In order to deal with both the Islamic State and
the future of Assad, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have brokered a plan to bring the
Syrian government, which Russia supports, and all "moderate" rebel
groups to the negotiating table in Vienna next month. The aim is to
build a coalition to wage a counterterrorism campaign against the
Islamic State militants and prepare for democratic elections within
the next 18 months.
With an estimated 35,000 fighters, the FSA remains
the biggest rebel group and is a key element in the U.S. strategy.
Islamic State fighters are believed to number about 30,000 but
spread over a wider area of both Syria and Iraq.
If the FSA can't be relied on as a strong partner,
however, the U.S. and its Western partners would have to turn to an
assortment of smaller hardline Islamic militias -- backed by Saudi
Arabia and Qatar -- that the West fears are too militant to
reconcile with the secular government. Kurdish rebels, known as the
YPG, have fought well in Kurdish areas but are not considered a
viable option in Arab parts of the country.
Unlike the Islamic State and other more extremist
groups, however, the FSA has failed to achieve any significant
victories or create a "liberated" zone of its own. On many
occasions, its former fighters say, FSA units have cooperated
closely with the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which is strong in the
north and shares the same battlespace as the FSA in southern Syria.
"The lack of battlefield success has mitigated
against them," Ed Blanche, a Beirut-based member of London's
International Institute for Strategic Studies and an expert on
Middle Eastern wars, said of the FSA. "They haven't been getting
significant (outside) support because they haven't been showing
Among other problems, Salabeh and others say, FSA
fighters are losing faith in their own leaders.
"They regularly steal our salaries," said Salabeh,
who came to this city in northern Jordan after being wounded in
battle and now intends to stay here. "We're supposed to get $400 a
month, but we only actually receive $100."
He also complained of lack of support for those
killed or wounded in battle. Fighters who lost legs in the fighting
were reduced to begging inside the massive refugee camps in northern
"If somebody is wounded, they just dump him in
Jordan and abandon him," he said. "Widows of martyred fighters also
receive nothing after their deaths."
As a result, many FSA men in southern Syria were
abandoning the group, usually leaving for Jordan or joining the
estimated 15,000-strong Nusra Front, according to Saleh and other
Syrians interviewed in northern Jordan. By contrast, the Nusra Front
reportedly pays its fighters $1,000 a month and cares for its
wounded members, paying their medical bills and providing for the
families of those killed in combat.
The situation has gotten so bad, Salabeh said,
that some FSA fighters are questioning the reason for continuing the
conflict. He said a growing number believe the time has come for a
cease-fire, even it means cooperating with Assad.
"After all, Bashar isn't all that bad," Salabeh
Karim Jamal Sobeihi, a refugee from southern Syria
and a self-described FSA supporter, said the opposition's main
problem was that various groups owed their allegiance to foreign
governments that provide the money and, therefore, the rebels cannot
agree on unified positions. This included the FSA, which itself
consists of many different factions, he said. That made the radicals
-- with their Islamist ideology and independent streak -- more
attractive to those willing to fight the regime, he said.
"There is total disunity. Syria has become a
battleground for America, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other
countries and terrorists of all kinds," Sobeihi said.
Analysts in Jordan and Lebanon, which both host
huge numbers of Syrian refugees, have blamed the FSA for allowing
the revolution that broke out in early 2011, to be taken over by
hardline jihadist groups.
Hisham Jaber, a retired Lebanese general and
military analyst, said the international focus on fighting the
Islamic State rather than ousting Assad indicates the West and its
Arab allies recognize that Assad cannot be overthrown by military
means -- especially after Russia's intervention on the Syrian
This has in turn demoralized FSA troops, Jaber
told Stars and Stripes during an interview in Beirut. He said FSA
units in both the north and south were cooperating more closely with
the better-organized and better-funded Nusra Front, regardless of
its al-Qaida connections.
"In contrast, Nusra is winning the hearts and
minds of the people, and positioning themselves as moderates despite
their al-Qaida links," said Elias Hanna, a former Lebanese general
and professor of geopolitics at the American University of Beirut.