News / Middle East

    Syrian Revolution Seeks Commanding Position

    Former Syrian army commander, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, defected and wants to to lead rebel Free Syrian Army forces against Assad regime. (Reuters)
    Former Syrian army commander, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, defected and wants to to lead rebel Free Syrian Army forces against Assad regime. (Reuters)
    David Arnold
    As Syria’s opposition re-structures its political agenda to take command of a 20-month-long revolution against President Bashar al-Assad, global powers waiting for regime change want to see if this newly branded Syrian National Coalition can effectively prosecute the civil war.
     
    Under the leadership of Ahmad Maath Khatib, a 52-year-old recent exile and former cleric at the Grand Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus, the coalition is seeking international recognition and massive financial support for its cause.
     
    France, Turkey and several Gulf states have recognized the new coalition as the transitional structure to replace Assad. France and Britain appear willing to consider more military support. And following his re-election, President Barack Obama announced he is reviewing his administration’s wait-and-see position on recognition and weapons support.
     
    If this organization is going to have any effect on how this war is fought, they need to become effective pretty quickly
    The Syrian coalition, put together in early December, is under pressure to convince potential donor nations that it has support from inside Syria if it expects to get the cash and weapons that might be available. At the same time, the coalition hopes to convince the fighters and activists inside Syria it can deliver the foreign support needed for success.
     
    Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spent a week interviewing Syrian refugees on the Turkish frontier who claimed to be Syrian army defectors leading rebel units in the Idlib and Aleppo regions of the country.

    “Time is moving on, the war is moving on, and the war is intensifying,” White said. “If this organization is going to have any effect on how this war is fought, they need to become effective pretty quickly.”

    The rebels may not yet have a national political structure, White said, but “The new organization has a chance to shape how the war is going be fought now.”

    Can Khatib find a rebel command structure?

    Three months ago, experts on Syria’s armed revolution called it a guerilla war run by an array of independent brigades and battalions, each flying its own flag.

    Many units have succeeded in conducting hit-and-run campaigns in Hama, Homs, Deraa and later in Aleppo, Idlib and Damascus. They have often been unable, however, to hold urban positions against Syria’s tanks, jets, attack helicopters, rocket fire and cluster bombs.

    As outside military experts see it, the rebels are not able to mount an effective nation-wide military campaign against the Syrian army.

    Much has been made of the threat of extremists that have joined the revolution in recent months, said Joseph Holliday, a Syria expert at the Institute for War.  But he adds that “what we don’t understand is the broader opposition group.”

    Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is basedHolliday wrote a report that described opposition fighters as an aggregation of divisions, brigades and battalions that battle the Assad regime but do not take orders from anyone else. He notes, however, that opposition military councils have emerged in about nine of Syria’s major governorates and that military and political cooperation could improve.

    Four commanders and counting

    But finding an effective military commander may be more difficult. One candidate was Riad Asaad, an Air Force colonel who defected in June of last year, set up shop in a Turkish refugee camp and announced he was commanding the Free Syrian Army.  But even though Asaad established a public affairs office and a well-designed web site and Facebook presence, there were serious questions about what, exactly, he commanded.

    Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is based
    “Col. Asaad’s influence never extended far beyond the refugee camps in Turkey where he is based,” wrote Aron Lund this September in a report for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.  Lund said the recently created military councils in the governorates only “pay nominal respect, at best, to Col. Asaad.”

    Lund wrote that another potential leader of the opposition military effort was Col. Col. Qasem Saadeddine of the Homs Military Council. He added, however, that even though Saadeddine expanded his command to include four more military councils, the military command structure appeared to be dysfunctional.

    The former director of Syria’s National Defense College, Major General  Muhammad Hussein al-Haj Ali, also is a potential leader. He defected this past June and told reporters he was taking over the opposition military effort and was renaming the rebel forces the Syrian National Army.

    Yet another potential military leader for the opposition is General Mustafa al-Sheikh, the highest-ranking member of President Assad’s military to defect.

    Al-Sheikh is now described as the commander-in-chief of the Higher Military Council of the rebel Free Syrian Army divided into five geographic divisions.

    But some military experts are not convinced al-Sheikh is the opposition’s true military leader. According to Holliday, Col. Riad Asaad and Gen. al-Sheikh have been locked in apparent competition for leadership. “The two of them have this little jousting match up in Hatay, Turkey, going back and forth about, ‘Well, we’re both FSA and now we’re part of this larger organization that al-Sheikh runs, we’re partner organizations …’  

    “I characterize these two characters … as leaders more interested in figuring out how to gain power for themselves …,” Holliday said.

    “My sense is Mustafa al-Sheikh is more important,” said White of the Washington Institute, but he added that no one will command the respect of the fighters unless they are inside Syria directing the actions of brigades and battalions.

    Young political activists may hold the key to rebel union

    Holliday proposed that the new National Coalition start with the local activists – the Syrians who started the protests last year.  Most are organized into one of two larger networks, the Local Coordinating Councils of Syria that is strong in Damascus, Deraa and the south, and the Syrian Revolutionary General Commission that holds sway in the north.
    And here is where the ties really matter. They (activists) have been providing some of the basic measures of governance

    In many cases, Holliday said, the military councils have blended, overlapped and in some cases merged with the unarmed political activists who have established their own networks of revolutionary councils.
     
    These activists continue to serve the revolution by uploading YouTube videos of protests, funerals, victims and keeping careful records on the 30,000 or so Syrians killed since the uprising began.
     
    “And here is where the ties really matter,” said Holliday. “They have been providing some of the basic measures of governance … They are staffing hospitals and schools and coordinating trash pickup, primarily in Idlib and Aleppo, but also the Homs and Hama countryside.”
     
    Holiday said the activists rely on the militants for protection while they conduct the demonstrations, strikes and funerals and provide medical care and food.
     
    “It’s a practical relationship,” he concluded.

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments
         
    by: Anonymous
    November 19, 2012 9:21 AM
    so, this clown is the latest defect...?

    by: Anonymous
    November 18, 2012 11:29 PM
    I bet $1 that whoever captures Assad will likely cut his head off.

    by: Anonymous
    November 18, 2012 10:22 PM
    Pardon me if I am mistaken... The number of deaths caused by Assad is estimated at 39,000. I believe it is likely triple however... Assad should receive 39,000 death sentences, or if we are nice only give him 20,000.

    How can anyone kill so many people this day and age and get away with it??? Assad actually seems happy about it too. I wish the people of Syria would just hang him and get the war over with.

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora