Last year was disastrous for the original moderate, secular, democratic goals of the Syrian revolution.
As the Syrian civil war enters its fourth year, the revolution has shifted from a movement clamoring for social and political change to an all out sectarian conflict. In the process, it has become a proxy war pitting global and regional powers, frustrating diplomatic efforts to solve it.
Part of the blame for the war's current messiness lies with the group that originally carried the banner of revolution — and citizens' hope for a better Syria. The Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose coalition of moderate rebel brigades, has lost ground to both extremist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and more moderate Islamists. Increasingly, civilians are abandoning the FSA and embracing jihadist organizations, while FSA fighters are leaving to fight with other groups. The Free Syrian Army has found itself hamstrung by widespread corruption and an inability to provide basic public goods including humanitarian aid and law and order.
On all fronts, the organization is losing ground. Only a major overhaul can possibly save this endangered species. But before Syrians initiate any kind of overhaul — we need an analysis of what, exactly, went wrong with the FSA's strategy. In other words, how did we get here? After conducting interviews and research in Syria for the past two years, I found that there are three factors that have lead to the FSA's loss of credibility, which has, arguably, helped lead the war into its brutal stasis.
First, corruption — a problem widespread in FSA ranks. Syrians tell stories of how leaders and soldiers have stolen in the name of the FSA. But without a clear leadership within the group, no one is able to stop such theft.
What's more, there is no system of punishment or enforcement for a soldier's conduct. For example, if a soldier stops a civilian at a checkpoint and asks him to give money in order to pass the checkpoint, there is no court the civilian can go to punish the soldiers and return his or her money. In one village called Harem, near the Turkish border, some checkpoints stop gas transport cars and force them to pay impromptu "tolls" before crossing — supposedly intended to enhance the security of the liberated areas. At one point, each car was being forced to pay 5,000 Syrian pounds or almost $100. As a result, civilians have begun avoiding such roads. Villages like Harem are being lost to extremist groups — not because civilians believe in Islamic radicalism, but because the FSA has failed to maintain basic law and order and prevent corruption in the ranks. As a result, civilians have asked groups like al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, to intervene in the area to protect their interests.
Second — many people say the FSA has distributed humanitarian aid unfairly. Accusations abound that the FSA commonly steals the products of the aid to sell to Turkey. When al-Nusra took over the Syrian Revolutionary Front leader Jamal Marouf's military bases, they filmed hundreds of undistributed humanitarian aid boxes that were packed in his "storehouse." Even if the report was falsified or exaggerated for Al Nusra's propaganda purposes, the video had a major impact on public support because the area hosts a large number of refugees in dire need of humanitarian aid.
Third, the FSA has been unable to provide security. In some places, kidnappings, thefts, looting, and robbery became so rampant that ordinary Syrians became increasingly willing to trade their freedom for temporary security, which extremist groups like al-Nusra could better guarantee. Indeed, in areas where the FSA has lost control to Al-Nusra, civilians claim that there have been major drops in crime.
This lack of security is also connected to a general failure in military operations.
For example, the FSA had been trying to liberate "Wadi Deif," a strategic regime position just outside of Maaret al-Nouman in the Idlib region. Wadi Deif has been under siege since October 11, 2012. And every time the rebels lost a battle, the civilians paid the price; the regime would respond to each FSA attack by bombarding civilian areas nearby.
On the 10th of December 2014, members of Al-Nusra and Jund al-Aqsa liberated the area in 17 hours, using tanks and weapons they captured from their latest clashes with Jamal Maarouf's Syrian Revolutionary Front. Units of the Free Syrian Army also took part in the fighting, but Al-Nusra omitted the role of FSA in their media releases. In protest, FSA-affiliated activists claimed that Wadi Deif was liberated because the FSA had been attacking it over the past two years, and Al-Nusra entered at the last moment, taking all the credit for its liberation. Once again, FSA lost the propaganda war.
Another military failure: the American attack on Idlib.
The Syrian people took America's shelling of the al-Nusra and ISIS bases in Idlib as an indicator that it was at war against Islam, one former fighter told me. Citizens thought "if the Americans are serious in helping the Syrian people, they should have shelled the government bases, not the rebels and civilians." Many civilians were reported killed and injured after the American air raids, prompting both anger toward the Americans and towards the groups that are funded by the Americans (like the FSA), as they are increasingly considered "part of the problem."
Nowhere are the results of these faults and failures more pronounced than Idlib, which used to be a major stronghold of FSA support but is now turning towards al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra has learned how to use mistakes made by the FSA to strengthen their position, building a successful propaganda campaign on the back of FSA's corruption and incompetence. Al-Nusra does not hide its intention to build an Islamic state in Idlib. However, ordinary Syrians are increasingly willing to set aside ideological differences for the sake of security and stability. As many have told me, an Islamic court run by Al-Nusra is better than no system of justice at all.
The only solution now is to reorganize the leadership of the FSA, looking specifically for men who can win public support, build alliances, and respect the rights of their own people. But still, that is only half of a solution. As long as there is no serious international military intervention to protect and support the rebels, there will be no significant victories for the FSA.
Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk, New America's digital magazine, delivered to your inbox each Thursday here.