Al-Qaeda has advanced into a network of organized cells within the Syrian opposition, US intelligence officials claimed in August. Other critics, like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ed Husain, have argued that the Syrian rebels would be “immeasurably weaker without al-Qaeda in their ranks” and even that the Free Syrian Army “needs” al-Qaeda.
Minorities within Syria, particularly Christians and Druze, have also been notably worried that Salafi and Sunni extremists, who have made their way to the country from Jordan and Iraq, could try to dominate a post-Assad reality.
Indeed, Syrian President Bashar Assad has painted the uprising against him as something orchestrated by al-Qaeda-backed fighters and foreign jihadi forces infiltrating the country, trying to topple his stable regime. Providing a boost to Assad’s claims, human rights groups recently accused the rebels of torturing detainees. FSA fighters were also summarily condemned by the international community for other thug-like behavior and brutality — including execution-style killings of numerous Syrian soldiers.
But Brian Sayers tells a different story. The FSA is emphatically not a bunch of al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists, says Sayers, head of government relations at the Syrian Support Group, the de facto representative of the Syrian rebels in Washington.
In a recent interview with The Times of Israel, Sayers touted the FSA — the largest armed opposition bloc fighting Assad, in an 18-month uprising that has taken the lives of up to 30,000 and displaced 1.7 million — as committed to democratic, pluralistic principles in a post-Assad Syria.
The mission of the SSG, a non-profit lobby group made up mostly of Syrian expats, is to advocate and fundraise for the FSA throughout the international community — and then to distribute money and knowledge among the rebels’ nine military councils. It does not arm the FSA, but it has an open and constant line of communication with key players on the ground in Syria, and many of its board members have gone into the theater of war and witnessed battles alongside the FSA fighters.
What spurred its creation? One too many atrocities committed by Assad against the Syrian people, says Sayers.
Hired as a consultant for the SSG in March 2012, Sayers is not of Syrian descent. The group was looking for a lobbyist with a strong political and military background who was sympathetic to their cause. Sayers is familiar with both war and politics: He was a NATO officer in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya and has a refined, polite demeanor — appropriate for high-powered beltway insiders. In addition to often being on the ground in Turkey and the region, he regularly meets with foreign leaders and Washington decision-makers in an effort to convince them that the FSA is a reliable group.
How credible is the Syrian opposition?
The FSA is fighting for a multi-ethnic pluralistic society, Sayers said during the interview, dismissing claims that al-Qaeda infiltrators and other extremists are running the opposition. Those extremists do “tend to exploit loopholes in war situations,” he said, noting that some of the actors and different groups involved with the opposition don’t necessarily mean well; “they aren’t in it for the long-term.”
For now, the FSA has managed to move its command center to Syria from Turkey — possibly as a response to growing condemnation of the suspected executions — and in an effort to create a more unified front of anti-Assad fighters within the ranks of a somewhat disjointed opposition.
The FSA, Sayers said, echoing the message the SSG highlights In Washington, is comprised largely of ordinary Syrians who want to stop the killing and go back to their normal lives and to their villages. “We want to find the most expedient manner in which the Assad regime can be removed from power and the number of civilian casualties can be reduced to a minimum.”
“They’re not just a bunch of Sunni fighters,” Sayers said. “They are actually just a lot of Syrian citizens who got involved in this because they realized their lives were being destroyed — that’s why they took up arms.”
Under the big umbrella that is the Syrian opposition, Sayers explained, the military councils account for approximately 60 percent of the FSA fighters.
“All nine FSA military council heads have signed a Proclamation of Principles that calls for a multi-ethnic and pluralistic Syria and the rule of law and democracy,” Sayers said. Although not every single FSA fighter has signed it, the letter is a very important step in building what the SSG hopes will become the future Syrian army.
According to Sayers, it’s the revolutionary councils and local coordination committees, or LCCs, which are the more political actors of the revolution. The FSA, by contrast, is a military group that intends to stay out of politics if Assad falls. The FSA leaders are willing to work under a civilian government and are opposed to another dictatorial regime, he said. They also communicate with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the Turkey-based coalition of opposition groups, but on a minimum level, Sayers added.
Its promise to uphold democratic practices and freedom shows what the FSA stands for, Sayers said. Moreover, the FSA’s military structure is the direct answer to warnings from Russia and other skeptics who claim that Syria will become a security hazard if Assad falls.
Sayers said that the FSA is, in fact, quite structured: “They are not on the run. Yes, they’re decentralized, there is no head at the top, but each of the military councils has a commander, and they’re not criss-crossing the entire country. Even if they only have temporary bases, and they go back to their homes at night, they are organized and they operate in a structured fashion… They’re just lacking the right resources.”
Given that the uprising has threatened to spill over into neighboring countries — which, given the recent buildup of troops near the Turkish-Syrian border and Saturday’s border clashes between Assad’s forces and Jordan, is a legitimate regional concern — the FSA’s structured, democratic principles is critical to Syria’s future, he said.
He said he understood why Syria’s neighbors — Israel, in particular — worry about the nature of a post-Assad Syria. “If I was Israeli, I’d be very concerned what the implications of the uprising will be for the wider region,” he said, noting the fear of chemical weapons in Syria getting lose or being used against enemy countries.
“Israel does come up [in our meetings with foreign leaders]. Israel’s concerns should be addressed and they have a right, even a duty, to express their concerns about Syria’s future,” Sayers added. Without being more specific, he said a coherent, pluralistic FSA would represent a fresh start for Syria.
It’s a ‘kill or be killed’ situation for Alawites
“The situation in Syria has changed, both kinetically and in terms of policy,” Sayers noted. Indeed, the fighting in Syria has escalated recently — particularly after the July bombing that killed four high-ranking members of Assad’s inner circle. Two behind the-scenes factors may have had something to do with it.
First, the SSG received legal approval from the US Department of Treasury in late July to directly finance the opposition group’s armed struggle against Assad — which, despite stopping short of enabling the group to directly arm the FSA, provided a big boost to the rebels’ efforts.
Second, at around the same time, the White House is believed to have signed a secret document, a presidential finding, granting various US departments permission to begin feasibility studies and planning efforts to support the FSA, but not an outright role in arming the group.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been arming the FSA for months, but the American position on arming and funding Syria’s rebels has been particularly sensitive. The US has instead tried to garner support for the rebels through the United Nations Security Council, but has been stalled by veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China. However, the massacring of civilians by Syrian forces had a mounting effect in Washington, likely prompting a reported shift by President Barack Obama to a somewhat more involved stance regarding the FSA.
Sayers put the reported signing of the document this summer this way: “I know nothing more than the fact that the US is now helping with the vetting process — looking at who would be the end-user of the weapons [going to the Syrian opposition].”
The most dramatic shift in US assistance of the FSA, however, came Friday when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a $45 million US aid package for the Syrian opposition — of which $30 million was earmarked for non-lethal humanitarian aid and the other $15 million for radios, training, and other technical support for the FSA’s local councils.
The SSG, for its part, helps the rebels by paying the FSA fighters a salary and beefing up the armed opposition to encourage more defections. Some of the SSG’s funds enable the FSA to buy weapons elsewhere, but the group is still in desperate need of “intelligence and weapons, particularly anti-aircraft weapons,” Sayers noted.
Despite occasional reported success by the FSA in bringing down Assad’s aerial weaponry, “machine guns are simply not effective because the aim is to be able to take out more [of the army's] helicopters and planes,” he said. Assad’s T-72 Soviet-era tanks are largely unaffected by the rebels’ RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).
It’s still unlikely that the FSA would get air support from the US, Sayers acknowledged, but he said that higher quality intelligence would help the rebels take out direct threats.
Another reason for extra intelligence, Sayers contended, is to be able “to protect the Syrian army troops when they do choose to defect.” Support needs to be consistent, Sayers added, because weapons have occasionally been diverted from one area to another, and other times the FSA runs out of ammunition. It would also spur more defections from within the Assad regime.
“We’d like as many defections as possible — and we realize that it’s very difficult to get them, particularly when the FSA doesn’t have the resources on the outside to protect them [the defectors],” Sayers explained. Encouraging Alawites (the minority sect of which Assad is a member and who control most key security hierarchies) to defect has become a prominent goal of the FSA. But, not many Alawites have joined the opposition, Sayers admitted.
“Their lives are truly endangered. It’s really a ‘kill or be killed’ situation for them… Their families are at risk. If they [potential Alawite defectors] don’t get their families out first, then their whole families will be killed too,” he said.
The FSA’s force is largely Sunni, he noted, with efforts to recruit more Christians and Druze in the south. There are efforts to bring the Kurds into the fold as well. “Obviously it’s very difficult to get everyone under the same umbrella… The FSA on a whole is very mixed. There are families who have opened their houses as field hospitals. We have young people that decided to return to Syria [from abroad] to help fight. You have older people. Women aren’t on the front lines as much, because of the circumstances, but they’re helping and playing an important role too, possibly through medical attention or cooking for fighters,” he added.
“Assad’s put it together. He’s put these guys [FSA rebels] into tight quarters. He corners them in places like Damascus, and he’s got tight control over where they are,” Sayers said. “The whole principle of safe zones and setting up no-kill zones was to send the message that defectors could be safe and secure under the FSA, which welcomes all ethnic groups.”
He also touted the FSA as group that “could help prevent extremist groups and outside forces from gaining control of these [chemical weapons] and others” — which is why the SSG claims the international community should support the FSA’s military councils: so they can uphold their organizational structure, provide safety, and encourage future defections.
Sayers is acting within a tough political climate — seeking greater support for the FSA’s fighters in Washington during an election season, when Iran consumes a lot of the security establishment’s attention, with the US grappling with its frail economy, and while the US military extricating itself from two very costly wars in the greater Middle East.
And the challenge is complicated further by the diverse opinions of the FSA among US decision-makers and opinion-shapers.
Washington’s opinions of the FSA
Matthew RJ Brodsky, a Washington-based Syria expert and policy director at the Jewish Policy Center, said that while Assad may be exaggerating the influx of radicals for personal reasons, there has been a rise of jihadists crossing the border and fighting the regime in Syria.
“The fear that jihadis are overrunning Syria and taking over the protest movement is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who have wanted to steer clear of any involvement in the uprising in Syria. The Assad regime has long been one of the greatest supporters of terrorist movements. But it has created a jihadi Frankenstein by arming, training, financing, encouraging, and transporting foreign jihadists to fight against [US] Coalition forces in Iraq since the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003. These foreign jihadis are now returning to take on the Syrian regime,” Brodsky said in a recent interview.
“After all, Syria is ruled by the 12 percent minority group of Alawites — a ninth century heterodox offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that is considered heretical by most Sunnis and as extremist by most Shi’ites. Bashar’s apparent weakness is providing these foreign terrorists with an opportunity. So in a sense, the proverbial jihadist chicken is coming home to roost,” he added.
Brodsky pointed out that indigenous, homegrown Salafi terrorist groups are also forming within Syria, such as the al-Nusrah Front, but that their numbers are small. The Assad regime inflates their numbers in order to continue selling the line that the protests are led by foreign terrorist elements, Brodsky pointed out. “The FSA isn’t working with al-Qaeda, and Salafi-tinged jihadis remain small in number; they’re seeking to overthrow their tyrannical ruler [Assad], who is propped up by Iran and Russia.”
Speaking to Obama’s decision not to arm the Syrian opposition for fear the weapons would find their way to al-Qaeda, Brodsky said: “The US should be vetting the various FSA franchises and providing those that are not jihadis with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.” At a minimum, he said, the US should be helping the FSA with logistical assistance and intelligence, and training and communications equipment.
Brodsky also pointed out that the longer the conflict continues, the worse things look for Israel. He dismissed the viewpoint that Assad was better than what may come next for Syria and discounted the idea that Syria is less of a threat to Israel vis-à-vis Hezbollah and Hamas while it’s entangled in a civil war. “From a security standpoint, the disposition of Syria’s chemical and biological weapons arsenal is a strategic concern, and the continuing conflict makes it more likely that worse case scenarios happen.” A post-Assad regime, he argued, would “most likely be better [than the current one], probably be Sunni-led given Syria’s demographic realities, and would likely not align itself with Iran.”
However, other Washington voices are more skeptical about the intended purpose of hypothetical US military involvement in the Syrian uprising. According to Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Wilson Center and a former State Department negotiator, the real concern for the US is the day after Assad falls. “You can remove Assad today, but the mess is after that,” Miller said in a recent interview.
Miller argued that intervention is dangerous when long-term objectives are unclear, and that the US can’t institute policy change from the outside. “Political change isn’t guided by the US. We can’t even shepherd that change… It didn’t work in Iraq either,” he explained. He pointed to Egypt as a classic example of a country to which the US provides billions of dollars of aid, and yet has “very little influence over its democratic choices.”
For Miller, the nature of the FSA is not the deciding factor in whether or not the US gets directly involved in the Syrian conflict; for him, the decision is all about Russia.
A point “so dire” may come, Miller conceded, in which the US will be forced to act — but until then, it’s “the Russians’ cautiousness,” in large part, that prevents a united front on precipitating Assad’s departure. In other words, the US is “stuck” without Russia’s support.
Russia’s stance on intervening in Syria
Possibly more than any other country, Russia has backed Assad’s warnings of opposition extremism.
Recent media reports indicated that Russia has been arming the Assad regime — but that’s nothing new, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Russia, per Trenin, has sold weapons to Syria for more than four decades. In the period of the uprising, Moscow has fulfilled existing arms agreements, but not initiated new ones. (The citizen journalism video below, for example, purports to show Syrian forces using Russian helicopters to transport detainees).
Syria, as Miller put it, is “Russia’s last client” — and underpinning Russia’s thinking on Syria is President Vladimir Putin’s own fears of Sunni extremism in the northern Caucasus, which Miller termed as Russia’s apprehensiveness about “the Saudi Wahhabi hand.”
Trenin claimed that Russia views the Syrian opposition as “fragmented, Islamist, and even as al-Qaeda types…. They are more Islamist than democratic.” According to Trenin, the Syrian conflict is increasingly about sectarian differences between a sizable Alawite minority that, until recently, held “commanding heights” and a country with a Sunni majority. “It’s not only a dictatorial presence that they [the opposition] are fighting,” he added.
While the US has tried to get Russia and China on board with removing Assad from power, Russia has called for Iranian involvement in the process, “which fundamentally contradicts the strategy of the Gulf States and the grain of American foreign policy, and neither the Turks nor the Europeans would accept it,” noted Trenin.
Still, recent reports have suggested Russia may stop arms shipments to Syria — which would constitute a game-changer. The Levant country is seen as Russia’s gateway to the Mediterranean. Hence, another shift in Russia’s role would be a decision to wind down operations at its military base in Tartus, in western Syria.
As things stand, though, said Trenin, “outside military intervention [in Syria] is out of the question for Moscow. If that intervention isn’t approved by the UN Security Council, it would create another dangerous precedent by the US and its allies, as in Kosovo or Iraq, of toppling regimes.” He referred to the perception of Russia as an authoritarian regime and said that the possibility of a situation similar to the one in Syria arising “somewhere very near Russia’s own borders” is a concern for Moscow — a possible allusion to Russian-backed regimes along the Caspian Sea or in Belarus.
In that sense, Russia has become a “de facto ally” of Assad, and the larger calculus is that Russia’s interests are not the same as America’s, i.e. that it has no interest in removing Assad, Trenin explained.
In the meantime, until an international consensus on ousting Assad is reached, it is through groups like the SSG that the US will have to work, albeit indirectly, to bring down the Syrian regime — without sending arms directly to the FSA.