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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs