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

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

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.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs