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. 
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).
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