The “Free Syrian Army” are hardly paragons of virtue in this dirty war

Emanuel Stoakes
Syria 300x225 The “Free Syrian Army” are hardly paragons of virtue in this dirty war

FSA rebels man a checkpoint in Aleppo (GETTY IMAGES)

The narrative has, for months, been rather fixed: Bashar Al Assad’s army of brutal killers have committed massacres all over Syria in order to keep their dictator-master in power. They are up against the “Free Syrian Army”, armed rebels drawn from a popular uprising, seeking freedom and democracy.  Assad’s army are the “bad guys”. The FSA, representing the will of the people, are their approximate moral opposites.

Perhaps the reason such a storyline endures is because it is largely accurate. As with all infectious perceptions, concentrated dollops of truth help to distract from otherwise conspicuous elisions. There can be no doubt that Assad’s troops and associated militia are protecting a rotten regime, have committed appalling massacres and are morally indefensible. They are almost certainly responsible for the great majority of the estimated 20,000 or so people killed so far. Forces loyal to the regime have shot at peaceful protesters, tortured a 13-year-old boy to death and were behind the terrible bloodshed at Houla, to mention a fraction of their many crimes.

Yet the regime still retains a base of support in major cities like Aleppo and Damascus. What’s more, their opponents are far from saintly. As brutal as Assad’s fighters are, it is important to acknowledge that the rebels appear to have committed appalling atrocities themselves. International monitors have reported extremely serious allegations against them.

The FSA also has a Jihadi problem. This is something its leadership freely admits. “There are many outsiders who impose their agenda by bringing jihadist fighters in, so it’s difficult for the Free Army to control them” the Deputy Leader of the FSA told Al Jazeera this month. It has been estimated that over 100 different armed groups have joined the rebels, drawn from all over the Muslim world, and elsewhere. Videos online purport to show extra-judicial executions (far too gruesome to link to here) committed by such groups, including one that appears to show fighters throwing the bodies of murdered postal workers off the roof of their workplace. Others appear to show the murder or torture of suspected collaborators. An academic in Syria with whom I spoke – and who did not want his identity revealed – told me that he recognised a man in one such video uploaded to Youtube. The person he identified was known to have been kidnapped by unknown assailants, he said.

The western media should scrutinise the FSA more fully, not least because they are being assisted by Washington via the CIA, according to Reuters. Recently, Obama hinted at the possibility of US military intervention under certain circumstances. The UK and France have made similar statements.

It seems that a result of the taking up of arms and the inflow of foreign fighters has been the dilution of the original principles of the Syrian uprising.  This is exactly what the intellectual leaders of the anti-Assad protests did not want. Michel Kilo, Riad Drar and others explicitly urged non-violence, fearing that the opposition would be playing to the strengths of a monstrous enemy. Their fears were not unfounded.

And now opposition fighters seem to have become monstrous too. Alarming rebel crimes including torture, kidnappings and extra-judicial executions have been alleged in UN and Human Rights reports. An Agence France-Presse (AFP) piece referenced the testimonies of senior Iraqi soldiers who claim they saw FSA fighters hack to pieces Syrian border guards. The New York Times shared a video and a report on its website that states that rebels tried to use a prisoner as an unwitting suicide bomber. This, as a BBC report stated, would “certainly be considered a war crime” if verified. Talking to Ireland’s RTE channel, Homs-based nun Mother Agnes Miriam summarised the anxieties of minorities in her neighbourhood: “You don’t know when it is your turn to be considered a collaborator”, she said. Mother Miriam went on to describe how rebels beheaded a suspected Syrian army supporter in her area.

Minorities in Syria are indeed, it seems, very nervous. A source in Damascus told me that “Shiite people think that any political change means that they will be slaughtered”. An Allawi Syrian, having fled to London echoed the very same sentiments. She told me that many people she knew had been killed or tortured in acts of sectarian violence.

There are so many bitter features to this war. Writing in this paper last month, Robert Fisk called the Syrian conflict a “war of lies and hypocrisy.” As Fisk points out, the US supports the rebels and says it wants democracy in Syria. Yet the FSA continues to receive substantial funds and arms from Saudi Arabia and the newly-ambitious Qataris. The ruling royal families of both nations have evinced little interest in democratic advancement regionally, let alone in their own domains. Neither the Americans nor the Saudis are known for their tendency to give “untied” military aid.  What’s more, Fisk writes, the “Saudis are repressing their own Shia minority just as they now wish to destroy the Alawite-Shia minority of Syria.”

Are we therefore willing to believe that Saudi Arabia “wants to set up a democracy in Syria?”, he asks.

In some respects to call this the “Syrian civil war” is almost a misnomer. As Charles Glass, a prominent writer on the Middle-East told me recently, at this stage “it seems the outside powers are influencing events more than Syrians.” He observed also that there are “many wars going on at the same time: proxy war between the US and Russia, between Sunni Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey against Shiah [sic] Iran, between Salafists and secularists, between democrats and supporters of dictatorship.”

In Syria, extreme violence and power politics have hijacked events set in motion by the Arab Spring. A post-war scenario in which a contradictory “victor’s justice” would be doled out by any triumphant party must, at all costs, be prevented. But this can only happen if due care is taken to forge a future that accommodates all Syrians, not merely the interests of a new, or reconsolidated, ruling elite in Damascus.

This could be achieved through a brave, conciliatory new Syrian constitution; certainly not through more bloodshed.

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  • ricardo lion

    Israel is not supplying weapons to the FSA.

  • markfour

    The same thing happened in Libya and look at the state of that country now.

  • ram2009

    but his kowtow was seen as inadequate.

  • Emanuel Stoakes

    link? I’d be interested to see the evidence

  • Emanuel Stoakes

    Unsurprisingly enough, I did “check the facts”. Given that I’m interested in getting to the truth and not merely being a subscriber to a partisan narrative, I sought out the most independent sources I could find- UN, Human rights groups, careful analysis by respected journalists…

  • Emanuel Stoakes

    Are you denying that there are foreign jihadists there?

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