The Free Syrian Army (FSA) popped up all over the news last week, particularly in regard to both their supposed relationship with Russia, who now claims to be funding them, and to Al-Nusra, whose leader denies their existence. Syrian activists even took to Twitter to promote the presence of the FSA in Syria using the slogan “I am the Free Syrian Army.” Indeed, the name “Free Syrian Army” has become a portmanteau used by multiple groups in ways that often serve conflicting foreign political agendas. Enemies and allies alike are using the name “FSA” in ways that can only undermine efforts to support the Syrian opposition. For example, when news and government reports tell us that the U.S. and their Gulf allies are allocating arms and cash to the Free Syrian Army, in an effort to defeat ISIS, we applaud their efforts. But then we quickly become concerned over repeated reports of the Free Syrian Army’s defection to Al-Nusra or ISIS. Who exactly are the Free Syria Army? Are we funding allies or terrorists?
The Free Syrian Army began with Syrian Army defectors who, under the leadership of Colonel Riad el-Asaad, arrived in Turkey in July 2011. They described themselves as secular moderates and were kept in a well-guarded camp in Turkey. In 2013, Aron Lund, editor at the Carnegie Endowment for World Peace, argued that the FSA evolved into a kind of “brand-name” used by disparate militias both in and outside Syria to distinguish themselves from Islamist extremists and to attain financial backing from wealthy Gulf States. While Lund claims that the FSA eventually became a convenient catch-all phrase used by “lazy” journalists to describe “Western/ Gulf funded segments,” the issue with using the term FSA extends beyond mere laziness. The hollowness of the term, the inability to make it pinpoint a specific leader or location, results in a lack of verifiable information, which is continually exploited by competing political and militaristic groups.
On December 12, Abu Muhammad Al-Joulani, leader of the U.S. terrorist designated group Jabhat Al-Nusra, spoke with Orient News TV, a media organization dedicated to the Syrian opposition. During the course of his interview Al-Joulani spoke about the pro-Western, moderate, secular opposition group referred to as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). To the journalists present, Al-Joulani stated: "As you know full well, there is no such thing as a Free Syrian Army. This is a group of factions, joined [only] by that name, but with no organizational connection to one another. It’s neither an army nor an organization. It's merely a name that people have gotten used to. Some of these factions are hostile to us. They try to harm us by planting bombs, by carrying out attacks, and by kidnapping our people. Unfortunately, we are forced to arrest these people to protect ourselves."
Al-Joulani’s “as you know full well” suggests a media-conspired effort to unify an unrelated group of armed militias throughout Syria. Mentioning that “some” of the militias are hostile to Al-Nusra carries the weight of the fact that “some” are not, and indeed may be fighting on the same side. Al-Joulani does not claim that Al-Nusra kills hostile members of the FSA who carry out attacks, but rather arrests them. Compounded with his use of the word, “unfortunately,” we are to assume that these arrests are not that of enemy combatants, but rather misguided individuals who could possibly be useful to Al-Nusra in the future.
If you’re suspicious of Al-Joulani’s claim about there being “no such thing” as the FSA it is because his statement undermines a Western narrative that relies on the Free Syrian Army to combat the threat of an ISIS takeover in the event of Assad’s demise. The claim that “there is no such thing” as the Free Syrian Army gives rise to a host of questions particularly when compounded with the notion that not all of them are fighting against but rather alongside Syrian terrorists groups. Accusing Al-Joulani of maliciously trying to create doubt in the minds of Western civilians, whose governments claim that their money and weapons are going to fight terrorism, is compounded by the fact that Al-Joulani is not the only person who has tried to lift the FSA curtain to reveal the emptiness that lurks underneath.
In November 2014 Russia’s Ambassador in Geneva, Alexy Borodavkin, stated before the U.N. Human Rights Council, “The Free Syrian Army no longer exists. Armed groups qualified as ‘moderate’ are closely coordinating their activities with terrorist groups.” A year later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that that the FSA was a “phantom group.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin reinforced the same narrative in a confrontational October speech, essentially accusing the West of funding terrorists, “We now see a real mix of terrorists groups. True, at times militants from the Islamic State, Jabhat Al-Nusra, and other Al Qaeda heirs and splinters fight each other but they fight for money … They have put together a colossal amount of arms. You can’t help but wonder where they get the money from.” But of course Russia, like Al-Nusra, has a political motivation for obfuscating the presence of the Free Syrian Army. Russia’s assertion about the absence of a Free Syrian Army would mean that the West is stuck between a rock (Assad) and a hard place (terrorists).
Last week, however, in a remarkable, yet unsubstantiated, change of heart, Russia claims that they are now funding the Free Syrian Army, which they just denied the existence of. Apparently, Russia has caught on to the fact that being “pro FSA,” thus aligning their efforts with the U.S., is relatively simple given the fact that FSA is a brand-name. Because there is no unified group, any fighters, including the Syrian Army could say they are FSA. For example, Jahish al-Islam, an Islamist, Salafist group, and one of Syria's largest rebel factions, declared war on Russian soldiers fighting alongside Syrian pro-government forces in September and on Monday claimed, “We are the FSA.” When the Washington Post writes, in response to Russia’s FSA support, that the “FSA’s chief of Staff denied receiving Russian Weapons,” it means nothing: we’re stuck in a “he said/she said,” speculative dead end. We have no idea who Russia is actually funding but it is clear that they’re using the FSA to their political advantage, as the U.S. have done, and al-Nusra has done. Therefore, we need to stop using the term FSA and start using the correct name for each rebel group being funded by the West and the Gulf. We need to know precisely where the money is going. The U.S. government and news reporters should take cues from writers, like those at the Daily Beast, who reported that Harakat al-Hazm, not the Free Syrian Army, defected to Al-Nusra. Without this transparency, we will never know just who is funding whom.