Alex Rowell writes: The loose coalition of non-jihadist Syrian rebels often dubbed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has not had an easy time of the past two years.
Between annihilating defeats at the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked rivals across key provinces in 2014 and longstanding fears of expanding Islamist influence and ideology even within comparatively moderate brigades, a perception has taken root among many observers — particularly in the West — that the FSA is neither a viable nor an especially desirable alternative to the Bashar al-Assad regime. In an August 2014 interview, US President Barack Obama dismissed the fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth,” whose chances of victory had “always been a fantasy.” An October 2014 poll found only 35% of Americans favored arming Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, with strong fears cited that the weapons would later be used against the US.
Yet, as the killing last week of a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s official Syrian subsidiary, by a non-jihadist brigade in Daraa underscored, the notion that the remaining FSA factions today are all happily subservient comrades of the Bin Ladenists is clearly simplistic. Indeed, the FSA’s Southern Front coalition, which controls important territory along Syria’s southern border, including crossings with Jordan (whence it receives military and financial aid from both Gulf and Western nations), officially repudiated Nusra in April 2015, saying “neither [Nusra] [n]or anything else with this ideology represents us […] We can’t go from the rule of Assad to [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri and Nusra.”
Equally, a string of recent FSA accomplishments on the battlefield — most notably the well-publicized destruction of dozens of regime tanks by rebels wielding CIA-supplied anti-tank missiles, leading to territorial gains in Hama and Aleppo — suggests the doctors, farmers, and pharmacists are not as martially feckless as President Obama would have New York Times readers think.
In short, reports of the FSA’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Or, as Brookings Doha Center Visiting Fellow Charles Lister, who has recently completed a book on the Syrian insurgency, put it in a column last week, “Although it is often overlooked, Syria does have a powerful and socially entrenched moderate opposition on the ground.” [Continue reading…]