During the Eid al-Fitr holiday, at the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a number of rebel commanders in Syria congregated in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli. The meeting, held Sunday July 19, culminated in the announcement of a new Supreme Military Council for the Free Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, is a term has been used for many things during the Syrian war. Some Syrians have used the term very loosely, to signify all types of armed resistance against President Bashar al-Assad, but there is also an institutional framework referred to as the FSA. It has its origins in a December 2012 meeting in Antalya in Turkey, where a broad gathering of armed groups elected a new leadership to represent them all.
The new network of command and support institutions, which gradually came to be seen as synonymous with “the FSA,” was fronted by a Turkey-based “General Staff” made up of defected military officers, whose top figure was Brigadier General Salim Idris. He would be supervised by a “Supreme Military Council,” also known as “The Council of Thirty” for having thirty members. These positions were elected at the conference and represented many of Syria’s most prominent armed groups at the time.
The idea was that foreign states backing the insurgency would funnel money, arms, and training via these FSA structures and that otherwise autonomous armed groups in Syria would then see the material benefit of placing themselves under Idris’s command. The FSA would then be brought under political control. This was achieved by giving its leaders the right to appoint a number of members within the Western-endorsed leadership of the Syrian opposition, an exile body known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and by eventually attaching the FSA General Staff to the Ministry of Defense in the National Coalition’s Turkey-based Interim Government.
The plan never quite worked out, largely due to the Syrian opposition’s prodigious capacity for internal rivalry, which was exacerbated by Saudi-Qatari rivalries over what particular rebels or politicians to back. Some of the largest armed groups broke off from the FSA to gather in a rival coalition known as the Islamic Front, while the FSA brand was tarnished by internal disputes.
The 2014 Crisis in the FSA
As time passed, the FSA structures set up in 2012 fell apart due to internal disputes between and within the General Staff and the Supreme Military Council, particularly after Idris was ousted as head of the General Staff in February 2014—an event he described as “a coup.” A new leadership was appointed the following month (and Idris would eventually make a comeback as minister of defense in the Interim Government) but the exiled rebel officers continued to conspire against each other in a bizarre game of musical chairs with little relation to the war inside Syria. They were soon caught up in the National Coalition’s internal struggles—because even if the Supreme Military Council mattered for precious little else, it still controlled a bloc of voting members inside the National Coalition.
Idris’s successor as head of the FSA General Staff, Brigadier General Abdel-Ilah al-Bashir, was fired after only a few months and replaced by Brigadier General Ahmed Berri. In December, Brigadier General Abdelkarim al-Ahmed took over from Berri. In early June, the National Coalition President Khaled Khoja’s new leadership ordered the Supreme Military Council to dissolve. Of course, it sparked immediate protests. The council, led by Chief of Staff Abdelkarim al-Ahmed, met to discuss cutting relations with the National Coalition. Khoja’s leadership responded by sacking Ahmed and instructing Berri to return as head of the FSA General Staff and prepare a reorganization of the entire FSA structure. Since then, there has been a standoff between the two institutions, neither accepting the legitimacy of the other.
These zig-zag changes in the ostensible leadership of the rebellion have had no impact on the battlefields of Syria. Money and guns have kept coming in for favored factions, regardless of the convulsions of the insurgency’s curiously disconnected superstructure-in-exile. Meanwhile, rebel factions inside Syria have developed their own institutions.
The Revolutionary Command Council
Sunday’s revived Supreme Military Council was declared in the name of the Revolutionary Command Council, or RCC, a broad alliance of armed groups formed in November 2014.
The RCC has its center of gravity in northern Syria, but includes factions from all over the country. While it excludes hardline jihadis like the Nusra Front and of course the Islamic State, as well as the leftist Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, its membership roster goes far beyond the various FSA-linked militias to incorporate starkly Islamist groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army of the now-defunct Islamic Front. The RCC has not recognized the National Coalition, the Interim Government, or the FSA institutions linked to them—until Sunday, when it opted to bestow legitimacy on the Supreme Military Council.
While the RCC has not yet tried to monopolize the FSA brand, it is in many ways the latest contender for the role. Having so far failed to unify its member groups militarily, the RCC leadership is trying to operate as a political representative of Syria’s armed factions. For example, it negotiated a joint position on the UN peace talks in May, and called a conference of armed groups in June to present a political program for the revolution.
On June 24, the RCC issued a video statement calling for the reorganization of the National Coalition, the Interim Government, and the Supreme Military Council, saying that in their current form they did not represent the revolution. It seems that it was the prelude to Sunday’s restoration of the Supreme Military Council.
The National Coalition Withholds Recognition
The exiled National Coalition is far less representative of the armed rebellion than the RCC, but it remains an important body because of the international recognition it has garnered for itself and its Interim Government. The group is likely to be well represented at the peace talks currently being prepared by United Nations special envoy Staffan de Mistura.
Khaled Khoja’s National Coalition leadership is predictably unhappy about the RCC’s political sniping and its attempt to revive the Supreme Military Council outside of their purview. Following the Reyhanli meeting, the National Coalition spokesperson Salim al-Meslet issued a sharply worded statement, calling the Supreme Military Council elections an “attempt to mislead public opinion by some of the members of the dissolved Council.”
Meslet further reminded readers that the National Coalition is already in the process of reorganizing the FSA leadership, but he said that these efforts bear no relation to the conference convened by the RCC in Reyhanli. Rather, the National Coalition has given the task to Brigadier-General Ahmed Berri, their own pick for head of the FSA General Staff.
So What Happened on Sunday?
First of all, it is important to realize that the new Supreme Military Council elected at the behest of the RCC isn’t all that new. In part, at least, it is an RCC-sponsored revival of the old Supreme Military Council, supposedly dissolved by the National Coalition in June. Its members have now hitched their wagons to the RCC to relegitimize their mandates. They also issued decisions that recall its involvement in the National Coalition feuds, including one to fire Khoja’s pick for FSA Chief of Staff Ahmed Berri and replace him with one of the meeting’s participants—Berri’s predecessor Abdelkarim al-Ahmed.
The fact that the RCC—which portrays itself as the authentic voice of rebels on the ground—decided to reinstate a group of exiles elected by now-decrepit factions indicates that its public clamoring for a more representative FSA leadership may not have been entirely sincere. What has in fact happened is that the RCC has swooped in, salvaged, and seized control over part of the internationally recognized—though largely defunct—FSA apparatus-in-exile, before the National Coalition leadership had a chance to re-staff it with its own appointees.
According to one Syrian, who is deeply involved in opposition politics and critical of many of the actors discussed here, Sunday’s election represented the convergence of a number of actors who are in conflict with the current leadership of the National Coalition. In his telling, it was not so much an RCC challenge to the National Coalition as it was an attempt by forces inside the National Coalition to leverage the RCC to increase their influence. “It’s all about political positioning,” my source says, “and Jarba is behind it.”
Ahmad al-Jarba, a sheikh of the Shammar tribe in northeastern Syria, was the National Coalition’s leader in 2013-2014. At the time, he was seen as Saudi Arabia’s man in the Syrian opposition, but—claims my source—things have changed and he is no longer on such excellent terms with the leaders in Riyadh.
My source, whose information I cannot independently corroborate, claims that the event on Sunday was “an alliance of convenience between Jarba, Jamal Maarouf, Abu Sayih, and the RCC.”
Jamal Maarouf was formerly the Saudis’ top client in northern Syria and has held a seat on the Supreme Military Council since its creation in 2012. After the ousting of Idris in early 2014, Maarouf’s influence grew and he was given public relations support that led to a string of articles in the Western press about how Jamal Maarouf was now the best hope for Syria’s moderate opposition. Later that year, however, Maarouf fell on hard times when his group, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, was crushed by al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and allied Islamists. He has since been stuck in Turkey, plotting his comeback. Heitham Afeisi, an associate of Maarouf in the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, was at the Reyhanli meeting and has now been reinstated as Abdelkarim al-Ahmed’s deputy as chief of staff.
“Abu Sayih” refers to Osama al-Juneidi, the leader of the Farouq Battalions, which was probably Syria’s largest armed group in 2012 but has since dwindled to insignificance. The Farouq Battalions are rarely heard from these days, but in June, Juneidi emerged to protest Khoja’s decision to shut down the Supreme Military Council. On Sunday, Juneidi, too, was at the Reyhanli meeting, where he asserted to the media that the Supreme Military Council had broken off relations with the National Coalition since the June decision.
Regional Influence or Individual Ambition?
It is tempting to try to see, in this chaos of elections and counter-elections, the contours of a regional struggle. Under Khoja, the National Coalition and the Interim Government are perceived to be aligned with Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood, although the precise role and relations of each actor varies according to who is telling the story. Under Khoja’s predecessors, Ahmad al-Jarba and Hadi al-Bahra, Saudi Arabia was thought to be calling the shots. Hints of a regional rivalry were also apparent in the FSA structure’s implosion in early 2014, around the time Idris was kicked out. But my source sees no such dimension today.
“There is no regional angle whatsoever,” he says. “It’s a bunch of desperadoes and has-beens looking for ways to make money and remain relevant. Jarba wants his own Supreme Military Council bloc in the National Coalition to be strengthened. The RCC are craving recognition after no one gave a shit about their conference in June. So the two interests met. Jarba tells the RCC: support my bloc and you will have a foot inside the internationally recognized National Coalition. RCC tells Jarba: you need us for legitimacy. Pay us and we will create a new body that is the supreme leadership of the FSA brand. In the end they are both eyeing the support of Saudi Arabia.”
There are obviously conflicting narratives about what just happened. Exactly how the Supreme Military Council election relates to the conflicts in the National Coalition remains unclear, to me at least. But what is very clear is that Sunday’s conference was not simply a step toward rebel unity or representativity. This was a calculated political move, such as they are in the institutional vacuum of Syria’s opposition.