Syrian Free Army Commander Claims Iranian Troops and Hezbollah Fighting in Syria

Andrew McGregor

March 22, 2012

While hard evidence of an Iranian or Lebanese Hezbollah military presence in Syria is in short supply, commanders of the opposition Syrian Free Army (SFA) continue to maintain that large numbers of such forces are in the frontlines of the Syrian regime’s efforts to suppress anti-government activism.

On March 1, FSA Brigadier General Husam Awwak (formerly of Syrian Air Intelligence) claimed regime loyalists had been joined by an Iranian armored brigade and Hezbollah fighters acting as snipers, bombers and street-fighters (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 1). According to the Brigadier, the Iranian armored brigade has been deployed since 2007 near Deir al-Ashayir (actually in southeastern Lebanon), close to Palestinian refugee camps controlled by Ahmad Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Paalestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). Awwak added: “This is the first time that this information is made public.” The alleged armored brigade was quickly inflated into Iranian “armored divisions” in the Israeli press (Israelinationalnews.com, March 1). Awwak also claims Hezbollah has sent three brigades (numbered 101, 102 and 103) to Syria, describing the 103rd Brigade as a “terrorist Shiite regiment specializing in assassinations and bombings.” Various reports in the Chinese, Israeli, Turkish and Pan-Arab press suggesting 15,000 troops from the Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds unit have deployed in Syria appear to be without foundation.

Brigadier General Husam Awwak

Hezbollah leader Sayyid Nasrallah has denied the presence of any fighters from his movement in Syria, describing the claims as “an attempt to distort the Resistance’s image” (al-Manar, February 24). Besides the alleged presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces, FSA officer Ammar al-Wawi suggests followers of militant Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr have also joined the Syrian security forces (AFP, March 14).

Iranians travelling or working in Syria are increasingly subject to abduction by FSA forces. At least two parties of pilgrims have been kidnapped. Seven Iranians kidnapped in Homs by the FSA’s “Farouk Brigade” appeared in an FSA video confessing they were snipers who “killed a lot of women and children” under the supervision of Syria’s Air Force Intelligence unit. However, it was observed that the names of five of the seven “snipers” matched those of five Iranian engineers kidnapped in Homs last December after spending two years working on a new power plant (Press TV [Tehran], December 24, 2011; February 10; al-Jazeera, January 27).

FSA financing comes both internally and externally from “Syrian merchants, charities and arms traders” according to Awwak. Some armed support came from Libya, but these fighters have returned to Libya due to “the internal situation” in that country. The FSA is still waiting for promised support from the Gulf nations and Egypt. The Syrian Brigadier also made a strange and nostalgic appeal to the Egyptians, reminding them of the political unification of Syria and Egypt in the short-lived United Arab Republic (1958-1961): “We consider ourselves part of the Egyptian army since the days of Egyptian-Syrian unity during Gamal Abd al-Nasir’s rule. The so-called First Army of the Egyptian armed forces is still in Syria. We are happy with any support that Egypt gives.”

The unification last week of the FSA and the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella opposition group, in a merger facilitated by Turkey appears to be part of an effort to present a united front in order to free up arms supplies from Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 14). However, even as some differences receive a temporary patch-over, new armed opposition movements such as the Syrian Patriotic Army (SPA) and the Syrian Liberation Army (SLA). Some of the many opposition “Brigades” proliferating across Syria oppose the prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the SNC, while others have adopted anti-Shi’a, anti-Alawi Sunni extremism as their guiding principle. Some have even adopted the slogan: ”Christians to Beirut, Alawites to graves” (Independent, March 14). However, based on the Libyan precedent, large quantities of arms from external sources seem unlikely to begin flowing until they can be delivered to a single central authority. SNC leader Burhan Ghalioun has proposed the creation of a Military Council to oversee the distribution of arms to the various armed opposition groups, but does not appear to have the support of the FSA’s Riyad al-Asa’d for such an initiative (Independent, March 14).  The Syrian regime is not experiencing the same problems; Russia’s deputy defense minister, Anatoly Antonov, announced on March 13 that Russia will honor its existing weapons contracts with Syria and will continue supplying the Syrian regime with new arms (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 14).

Interestingly, both sides in the struggle for Syria claim that Israel is supporting their opponent. The Syrian government claimed that Israeli and U.S.-made weapons were seized in Homs from al-Qaeda fighters of Lebanese, Libyan and Afghan origin. An FSA commander called the claims a fabrication: “The fact is that Al-Assad family’s regime alone has been the agent of Israel for 40 years. It is starting today to claim that it is the target of an Israeli-American conspiracy and at times claims it is targeted by al-Qaeda organization. We assert there are no foreign gunmen in Syria other than the fighters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah who are fighting alongside this regime for its survival” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 12; al-Watan [Damascus], February 11).

Though the Syrian regime has consistently said that opposition forces are in league with al-Qaeda, some in the FSA command try to associate al-Qaeda with Iran; according to Brigadier Fayez Qaddur Amr: “Al-Qaeda was created by the Iranian regime, and the rumor of an al-Qaeda presence among us has only served the Syrian and Iranian regimes. Iran created al-Qaeda even in Somalia” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12).

It is difficult to say how much the Syrian regime and the armed opposition believe their own tales of foreign jihadis, al-Qaeda operatives, mysterious armored brigades and electrical engineers who moonlight as snipers. Indeed, many of the crimes attributed by the FSA to Hezbollah appear to be the work of the regime’s Shabiha (“ghost”) gunmen. At the moment the FSA leadership may face more immediate threats; Turkish sources indicate a number of Syrians and Turks were arrested this month by Turkish military intelligence after the latter learned of a plot to kidnap FSA leader Colonel Riyad al-Asa’d and other FSA commanders from their refuge in Turkey. The FSA also claimed to have caught a double agent for Damascus who had joined the FSA (Sabah, March 3; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 3). It is highly unlikely that this is the only regime agent to have penetrated the FSA’s upper echelons

What is clear is that parallel to the very real internecine Syrian conflict exists a war of words and propaganda as each side struggles to win the battle for international opinion and military support.

This article first appeared in the March 22, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Syrian Opposition Statements Disagree on Approaches to Resistance

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor, November 17, 2011

The Syrian revolt against the Assad regime has been particularly intense in the city of Homs, as has been the regime’s violent response. Homs-based opposition leader and self-described “field coordinator of the revolution in Homs” Husayn Iryan recently described resistance operations in Homs in an interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 12). An industrial city of 1.5 million, Homs is located 160 km north of Damascus. The majority of its residents are Sunni Muslims, though there are significant minorities of Alawis and Christians. Armed clashes began in Homs in May, with the anti-regime Free Syrian Army launching operations in Homs in October.

Homs 1Iryan presents an optimistic evaluation of the resistance efforts in Homs despite the daily “horrible crimes and massacres” perpetrated by the regime in that city: “Homs has managed in the last weeks to exhaust the Syrian regime and to weaken it to the extreme limits through non-stop protest movements despite all the restrictions, the siege and the massacres that the regime commits in the city against its sons.”

Iryan explains the viciousness of the regime’s crackdown on the opposition in Homs by pointing to four factors:

  • The city’s proximity to Lebanon and the government’s fears that this might enable Homs to become “like Benghazi” and slip from the regime’s control.
  • The Khalid bin al-Walid battalion of the armed opposition was formed in Homs, where splits in the regular army first occurred. The battalion, named for the 7th century Arab conqueror of Syria, is active in resisting the ongoing siege by loyalist forces. The formation of a second battalion of defectors called the Ali bin Abi Taleb Battalion (under the supervision of the Khalid bin al-Walid Battalion) was announced in the Homs Province city of Houla in late September (al-Jazeera, September 27).
  • Homs was the first city to initiate civil disobedience, with citizens refusing to pay taxes and civil servants refusing to carry out their work.
  • Revolutionary forces in Homs have inflicted casualties on the army, the intelligence services and government-sponsored “thugs” in the last few months.

For this resistance, Iryan says Homs, al-Qusayr and other towns and villages in the Homs Province had collectively suffered over a thousand dead, many of these consigned to mass graves. According to Iryan, even flight from Homs has become impossible due to the government cordon around the city: “Those who enter Homs can consider themselves doomed and those who manage to leave it consider that they have been given a new life.”

Unlike the militancy of the Homs opposition, a vastly different assessment of the Syrian revolution came in an interview with Hasan Abd-al-Azim, the general coordinator of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria. Al-Azim’s committee represents some fifteen political parties, including Arab leftist groups and some Kurdish political parties: “We have parties whose hands are not covered in blood and corruption. We are hoping to have a pluralistic, parliamentary, and democratic state and a new system that satisfies all the aspirations of the Syrian people…”

Homs 2Syrian Government Patrol in Homs, 2013 (BBC)

Al-Azim, whose movement favors an “Arab solution” and opposes foreign intervention or the imposition of a no-fly zone, speaks of a “peaceful revolution in Syria which has not used weapons or violence as Al-Asad’s regime is claiming” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 11). In asserting the possibility that real change can be brought about in Syria by peaceful protest, al-Azim overlooks numerous reports of violence and the attempted assassination of the Yemeni president to cite “the peaceful Yemeni revolution that has entered its tenth month without the people using weapons, though weapons in Yemen are available in all houses and streets.”

A veteran of various left-wing Arab nationalist parties, Abdul Azim has rejected a militant approach to the resistance, backing a moderate package of reforms leading to democracy that does not necessarily involve overthrowing the Assad regime (al-Akhbar [Beirut], September 21).

The disparate approaches to revolution in Syria in these two statements reflect the wider divisions that have plagued the Syrian opposition, differences that boiled over when some Syrian opposition figures were assaulted by other opposition members when they tried to enter the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo for a meeting with the League’s secretary-general (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 11).

 

This article first appeared in the November 17, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.  

Free Syrian Army Leader Threatens Strikes on Syrian Military

Andrew McGregor

October 14, 2011

Since the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on July 29, the force led by  
Colonel Riyad Musa al-Asa’d (formerly an engineer in the Syrian Air Force) has become the core of a small but still largely ineffective armed opposition to the Syrian regime. [1]

Free Syrian Army Commander Colonel Riyad Musa al-Asa’d

The only visible part of the FSA is a camp inside Turkey’s Hatay Province containing roughly 65 former Syrian soldiers and officers. The camp is surrounded by troops of the Turkish military, which has been conducting an October 5-13 mobilization exercise in Hatay Province (Hurriyet, October 5; AFP, October 5). It is from here that Colonel al-Asa’ad attempts to recruit and direct defectors from the Syrian Army, which he says number some 10,000, spread all over Syria. The FSA also operates a press office from the camp which tries to rally international support for the FSA and its campaign of armed opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad. As part of this effort Colonel al-Asa’d has recently granted a series of interviews to regional and international news outlets describing the formation of the FSA and its intent to overthrow the Syrian regime.

Colonel al-Asa’d makes some bold claims about the FSA and its ability to control defectors from the Syrian military by creating a type of mirror force: “We have formed a complete army and distributed the regiments and companies according to the system operating in the regular Syrian army’s command… There is a need to create an army nucleus capable of controlling matters and which turns into an official army after the regime’s downfall” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 9).

While some defectors have joined the FSA, it seems clear that many other military defectors have simply gone home or into hiding. One group was recently involved in fighting with regime forces in Rastan in a battle in which 40 people are said to have been killed before the FSA was driven from the town (The National [Abu Dhabi], September 30).

Despite the claims of Colonel al-Asa’d and the FSA, the new armed opposition force is still a long way from mounting an effective campaign against the regime. The FSA remains poorly organized and lacks safe bases from which to mount attacks on the Syrian Army. The FSA has few weapons and admits it lacks external support. While Turkey appears willing at the moment to offer refuge to Colonel Asa’d and his small group of followers, this is still a long way from allowing a large resistance force to carry out cross-border military operations. According to the Colonel, “The Turks are the only ones standing with us now. The Arabs have let us down and therefore we have no one except them.” The FSA rejects foreign intervention, but is asking for an “air and naval embargo” against Syria and a “no-fly zone” in certain parts of Syria (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 18; Hurriyet, October 10).

Colonel Asa’d maintains that until now, the FSA has refrained from carrying out operations against fellow soldiers in the Syrian Army, preferring instead to combat selected groups such as the non-military security forces, air intelligence and the Shabihah, an informal pro-regime militia. Now, however, shelling of civilians by the regular army and bombings by the air force have compelled the FSA to direct their attention towards the regular forces: “We excluded [the regular army] at first, but we are now forced to target it. We are going to strike with all our force” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 9). In an interview with a UK daily, al-Asa’d said he is coordinating a campaign of guerrilla attacks and assassinations through intermediaries that cross between Turkey and Syria (Independent, October 10).

Nevertheless, Colonel al-Asa’d told a Turkish daily that assistance of the type received by Libyan rebels from NATO would be essential to the FSA’s success: “If the international community helps us, then we can do it, but we are sure the struggle will be more difficult without arms… The international community has helped opposition forces in Libya but we have been waiting and suffering for seven months. The situation is less complicated in Syria than the situation in Libya but we haven’t received any help so far” (Hurriyet, October 8).

Note

1. For the founding statement of the FSA, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZcCbIPM37w

This article was first published in the October 14, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Alawi Control of the Syrian Military Key to Regime’s Survival

Andrew McGregor

June 9, 2011

With its central doctrines carefully guarded as religious secrets, the true essence of Alawism has proved elusive to many who have tried to define it. Alawism is primarily a syncretistic belief system that incorporates large doses of Middle Eastern Christianity with significant influence from Isma’ili Islam, Shi’a “Twelver” Islam and traditional pre-Islamic beliefs. French colonial administrators attempted to classify Syrian Alawism as a separate religion despite resistance from Alawi leaders who were more interested in identifying with Islam, a trend that has been resisted by many orthodox Sunni Muslims.