When Syria’s anti-government protests turned into armed rebellion last year, President Bashar al-Assad’s 300,000-strong military easily outgunned the rebels with tanks, helicopter gunships and Russian-made MIG fighter jets. The rebel fighters were left to shoot at the tanks and planes with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
A small group of Syrian-American and Syrian-Canadian expatriates calling themselves the Syrian Support Group (SSG) have established what they believe is an independent and reliable channel that help the major rebel groups in Syria get more and better weapons and equipment.
“We are seeking from the U.S. government primarily,” said Louay Sakka, a co-founder of the SSG. He said that they also looking for funds to buy weapons from the private sector and governments elsewhere, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The SSG has a U.S. Treasury license allowing it to operate without violating the extensive trade, business and arms shipment sanctions imposed by the U.S. government in Syria. And in May, they hired American Brian Sayers, a former NATO military officer, to manage government relations in an office three blocks from the White House.
Getting weapons into the ‘right hands’
Though SSG’s goal is to raise funds to support Free Syrian Army units, it will not directly buy weapons or transport them, Sayers said. The group’s U.S. Treasury license gives it very broad leeway help in communications, analysis of satellite imagery, training and logistics, and does not specifically prohibit the Syrian fighters from using the SSG money to buy weapons.
Despite conflicting loyalties dividing the various factions of the Syrian opposition, Sayers said the SSG has negotiated agreements with the nine major rebel groups, or military councils that have fighters in Syria. Each of the nine councils has signed a proclamation promising to create “a peaceful, democratic and multi-ethnic Syrian society,” he said.
Rebel councils that violate their signed proclamations will be cut off from funding, he added.
Sayers cited the Central Military Council of Homs as a good example of how some of the rebel groups are getting organized to confront the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Homs council, he said, has a commander with impressive military credentials, a chief of staff, branches for treasury, logistics, communications and operations that include battalions, brigades, “all the way down to platoons.
“At the bottom, it may be a couple of brothers and a cousin living in the same area, but they report upward. That’s pretty impressive,” Sayers said.
Targets are military, not political
The SSG emphasizes that it does not side with any particular rebel group fighting in Syria and has no ties to the expatriate Syria National Council.
“We are completely, politically neutralized,” said Sakka. “We are an American NGO [non-governmental organization] … and we’re not attached to any opposition groups inside or outside Syria.
Some of them are international mujahedeen, and some are hardcore Salafis... The only way for us to solve the issue is to dilute those groups by getting the right people the right equipment and money…
”The SSG’s only goal, Sakka says, is to provide funds to rebel groups that support democracy in Syria and to deny the support to groups that don’t. The group hopes to influence the course of the war by persuading other fighters to agree to the SSG declarations in order to get similar support.
The problem, of course, is distinguishing between the various rebel groups.
“There is a mixed bag of many, many elements,” said Sakka. “Some of them include al Qaeda - a very small percentage, but they exist. Some of them are international mujahedeen, and some are hardcore Salafis, not normal Salafis, but very hardcore ones…”
“A lot of the time, the heads of the battalion are the ones who maintain such a view, and they exist in a vacuum. The only way for us to solve the issue is to dilute those groups by getting the right people the right equipment and money…”
Mujahedeen are Muslim freedom fighters who rose to world prominence during Afghanistan’s rebellion against Russian occupation. Salafists are fighters from Middle Eastern countries whose military goals are defined by their conservative Muslim beliefs.
“We try to isolate those battalions,” Sakka said. “A lot of the time, the heads of the battalion are the ones who maintain such a view, and they exist in a vacuum. The only way for us to solve the issue is to dilute those groups by getting the right people the right equipment and money…”
How they find the right battalions
Sakka’s group wants to “to unite the support that goes to the Free Syrian Army (FSA),” he says. “We are trying to link up with the Americans and hopefully to push other countries to be sure that money goes to the Free Syrian army, and not to fragment the support.”
Members of the SSG board, with a network of about 60 Syrian exiles, have spent more than a year establishing regional expertise and personal contacts with fighters inside Syria.
“...they have been getting a good reception wherever they go...”
“We were able to collect a lot of data about their backgrounds, where they come from, their ideological thinking, their motivations … to create a chain of command and bridge the gap and to be able to brief people in the U.S. about their different backgrounds,” Sakka said.
Lobbying on Capitol Hill
The State Department is aware that SSG has been lobbying some members of Congress and “they have been getting a good reception wherever they go,” according to a State Department official who has met with SSG officials.
The SSG is not asking for millions of dollars for weapons, the U.S. official said. He described their effort as a request for funding to offer stipends to defected government soldiers and civilians fighting on the side of the Free Syrian Army to induce good behavior and to keep them inside the nine rebel councils.
The State Department official said the SSG is not the only Syrian-American group with a U.S. Treasury license, but it is the only one directly dealing with support to the rebels.
SSG officials describe the group’s overseas delivery system is a work-in-progress. Among key items yet to be publicly announced are the location of a field office in Turkey, the organization that will train the Syrian rebel officers about the rules of engagement, the treatment of war prisoners, and, perhaps most crucial, the allied nations being asked to provide funding.
So far, SSG funding has been limited to donations by Syrian activists and Americans who have made private contributions, officials say.
The realities of revolution management
Even if it solves the issues of funding, training and logistics, the SSG then has to figure out which Syrian rebel factions get its help.
“The FSA on the inside is very organic … There is no general commander for the FSA,”
According to the SSG’s Sakka and Sayers, that issue can be put aside for the time being if the various Free Syrian Army factions can at least maintain the fighting unity they have displayed so far. With that in mind, the group is resisting calls by some Syrian exiles for a more unified rebel command structure, possibly based in Turkey, or a change in the name of the rebel alliance.
“We want to work with what we have,” said Sakka. “Don’t re-define the Free Syrian Army and cause more fragmentation.”
“The FSA on the inside is very organic … There is no general commander for the FSA,” he said. “If there is anything that is being superimposed from the outside, I can tell you that it is probably not something that is very tangible.”
Recent events on the ground seem to bear out that analysis. So far, at least, the rebel fighters are doing well enough without a centralized commander.