Since the start of the Syrian uprising on March 15, 2011, it has morphed from largely peaceful mass street protests to the current climate where parts of the country are engaged in armed conflict pitting the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against the Alawite-dominated security forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Syria’s demonstrations began in the wake of the largely successful revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and in the midst of the violent regime responses to their counterparts in Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya. After small-scale events spiraled out of control in the southern city of Dera`a, the critical juncture in the evolution of the FSA occurred when regime forces moved into the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour with heavy armor beginning on June 4, 2011, after Damascus claimed that more than 100 of its security forces were killed by rebels.[1] The Syrian regime’s countermeasures in Jisr al-Shughour created an exodus of refugees into Turkey and the declaration of the establishment of the FSA.

Turkey’s Syrian refugee crisis has only worsened in recent months as regime forces moved back into northern cities once under de facto FSA control. Civilians and rebels alike are entering southern Turkey in greater numbers, indicative of Damascus’ brutal efforts to regain control of population centers in Idlib and Halab governorates.[2] Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has brokered a joint UN-Arab League cease-fire and tentative monitoring mission, but it has little chance of affecting the situation on the ground in Syria.

This article asserts that the FSA is foremost a national liberation movement determined to overthrow the al-Assad regime through a war of attrition. The FSA would prefer a rapid paced revolution, but as the prospect for an external military intervention evaporated over the course of the past year, the rebels have had to be self-reliant while hoping for touted help from individual nation-states. The FSA sees a campaign of protracted warfare coupled with an increase in military defections as its only realistic way forward. The isolation and unanticipated duration of the conflict has led to increased sectarianism in Syria, encouraged regional powers aligned with President Bashar al-Assad to grant him support, and kept the conflict a highly asymmetrical one as the outgunned FSA continues to battle well-armed, pro-regime forces.

Between Nationalism and Sectarianism
Although the FSA describes itself as a national liberation movement, it remains primarily a Sunni outfit, whose aim is to dislodge the elite Alawite minority government in Damascus. The FSA strongly believes that the demise of the al-Assad government is nothing short of inevitable. Such a stark development would signal the end of pan-Arabism borne of anti-colonial sentiment in the region during the 1950s and 1960s along with the Arab Socialism envisioned by Hizb-ul-Ba`ath ideologue Michel Aflaq. Unable to burnish genuine Islamic credentials in the eyes of orthodox Sunnis and Shi`a, the emerging Alawite political elites of the middle Cold War period led by the al-Assad family cloaked themselves in the banner of Arab nationalism that was prevalent in the Levant and North Africa at the time. They attempted to stifle potential sectarianism by creating a one-party secular Ba`athist state that tolerated no dissent.

Syria’s rebels take inspiration from those who toppled the Libyan regime by colloquially referring to themselves as “al-Shabab” (“the youth,” and unrelated to the group by the same name in southern Somalia) and making a “v” sign with their index and middle fingers while posing for photos. In another act of apparent mimicry of their more successful Libyan revolutionary counterparts, the FSA as well as the Syrian National Council (SNC)[3] have reverted to a flag pre-dating the current regime as a way of visually asserting claims on their country’s semi-mythologized earlier history.[4]

Syria’s armed opposition proudly flies the pre-Hizb-ul-Ba`ath-era (Ba`ath Party) flag as a way of differentiating itself from those Syrians still loyal to the regime. The flag hoisted by the FSA and SNC is the green, white and black tricolor with three five-pointed stars symbolizing the three vilayets (administrative regions) of Damascus, Aleppo, and Deir-ez-Zor dating back to the French Mandate period. First flown in 1932, it was used during the decolonization period from France in 1946 until the formation of the United Arab Republic in 1958, which united Syria with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt.[5] After the dissolution of that short-lived union, Syria briefly reverted to this version in 1961 until the Ba`athist coup of March 8, 1963, in Damascus. The fact that Syria’s historic national flag, rather than transnational caliphate imagery emphasized by al-Qa`ida, is being promoted suggests that the mainstream FSA is overwhelmingly not a jihadist movement even while it uses some traditional religious language in its statements. The FSA’s strategic goal is narrowly limited to the overthrow of the Syrian state, rather than the borderless jihad espoused by al-Qa`ida’s core ideologues.

Although a few of the FSA’s declarative videos have featured a black jihadist banner as a prop similar to that used by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the FSA is largely a desperate, isolated movement unconnected to al-Qa`ida or other global jihadist movements.[6] Its mandate is strictly limited to the overthrow of the al-Assad government and the liberation of Syria from tyrannical rule. The FSA, the SNC, and the opposition Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) have all rejected the terrorist label bestowed upon them by the al-Assad regime and espouse the democratization of Syria. An LCC statement issued in February echoed this sentiment: “acts in torturing and killing its [the regime’s] opponents are very similar to those used by al-Qaida members in annihilating anybody who disapprove with their dark believes [sic] and ideologies.”[7] As the conflict’s convoluted narrative drags on, the regime continues to insist it is battling internationally-backed terrorists without providing verifiable evidence and denying unfettered access to international journalists. Videos have surfaced on YouTube and jihadist forums claiming responsibility for suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo, which appear to feed some of the regime’s claims. Opposition activists have claimed that at least some of these attacks have been false flag operations designed to demonize their cause.[8] The FSA dismissed an overture by Ayman al-Zawahiri aimed at encouraging an al-Qa`ida-style jihad in Syria. Being primarily a horizontally rather than vertically integrated movement, the FSA cannot singularly control all of its media output, but the overwhelming majority of its published statements refute possible alignment with international jihadism, insisting that their war is an indigenous one.[9]

The FSA is also keen to insist that its defectors do not singularly hail from Syria’s Sunni majority and that it has at least some support from both Alawites and Syrians from differing Christian denominations. “The regime is killing people, not just one sect” were the words of an FSA commander on the issue, who explained that there were still Sunnis who had prospered under massively corrupt cronyism who remained allied with al-Assad in the face of mass shelling of Sunni communities in Homs, Idlib and other cities.[10]

Oppositionists of all hues insist that the al-Assad regime is purposefully manipulating sectarian divisions to strengthen itself as it confronts grave danger. The Sunni revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood that took place from 1976-1982 in many ways set the stage for the current conflict. Hafez al-Assad saw not a hint of irony in obliterating his domestic Islamist opponents, culminating in the notorious February 1982 scorched earth campaign in the northern city of Hama while simultaneously openly supporting Lebanese and Palestinian Islamist resistance groups that threatened Israel.[11] A component of the confrontation currently tearing Syria apart stems from Hafez al-Assad’s diligence to consolidate Syria’s fragmented minority mosaic by pitting non-Sunnis fearful of being disenfranchised by political Islam should the Alawite regime be toppled against Syria’s majority Sunni religious demographic. Sectarianism in Syria was therefore entrenched by the state, and the fissures occurring in early 2012, rather than erupting in a historical vacuum, were in fact sown decades ago with the brutal repression of Sunni Islamism from the very outset of the al-Assad dynasty. Some of the parallels between Hama in 1982 and the current war in Syria are startling. Rifaat al-Assad, Hafez’s younger brother, was the brutal enforcer then in Hama in much the same manner as Maher al-Assad, Bashar’s younger brother, is today. Indeed, Hama’s phone lines and road connections were cut-off in 1982, and today the government has pursued the same strategy in Homs, although with contemporary updates such as the disruption of internet service.[12]

The FSA commanders who spoke with this author in Syria on January 29, 2012, were keen to reinforce the notion that they had no agenda, sectarian or otherwise, other than ending the al-Assad family’s hold on power for the past four decades. They vaguely stated that they sought to turn Syria into an open democratic society with a representative government, ending decades of Alawite minority tyranny. Yassin, a local commander, stated, “we don’t belong to any group. Not Salafi, not Ikhwan. We are not allied to any [pre-existing] interest [group] in Syria. Our struggle is a search for freedom.”[13] Abu Muhammed, a regional commander, explained that not all Alawite social cohesion in the regime’s armed forces is voluntary. He said that some high-ranking military officers are simply obliged to enforce the bloody writ of Bashar al-Assad because the regime can exploit its capacity to punish the relatives of those who refuse to cooperate in the regime’s extraordinarily repressive measures.[14] Contradictory often to their own insistence that the Syrian conflict is not explicitly sectarian in nature, FSA fighters and supporters took no pains to hide their contempt for the Alawite sect, whom they felt had not only oppressed Syria’s Sunni masses for years but also failed to adhere to their more conservative religious and cultural norms.

The Regional Struggle
The FSA believes it is under siege not only from the al-Assad regime, but from a vast cross-section of regional state, sub-state, and extra regional state actors. A conflict in Syria is one that cannot help but pull in regional and global actors due to its critical geography in the Levant. The FSA argues that such interlopers harbor deep fears of Syria becoming a representative democracy with a Sunni-led governing structure. While the forces of the Maher al-Assad-led Fourth Armored Division coupled with the various tiers of Syria’s mukhabarat intelligence services are seen as the armed opposition’s main battlefield opponents, the FSA also views Iran along with its Lebanese and Iraqi clients as principal belligerents in the conflict.

Since the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad began to tilt toward Hizb Allah at the end of the 1980s after it defeated its Shi`a peer competitor Harakat Amal in a sub-conflict within Lebanon’s civil war, Syria has acted as a land and air bridge for Iranian arms and materiel to reach Hizb Allah in Lebanon.[15] When Bashar al-Assad ascended to power upon the death of his father in 2000, Syria became a principal supplier of arms to Hizb Allah as well as being an Iranian conduit.[16] Syria and Iran have little to no common ground in terms of theological ideology, which makes opposition to Israel the glue that bonds these two very different states together.

The FSA stated to this author that Tehran is supplying highly trained military men including experienced snipers to assist its regular army as well as the freelance shabiha militiamen.[17] A pro-FSA humanitarian logistician claimed that non-lethal Iranian materiel used to suppress demonstrators was being offloaded at the port of Latakia.[18] The FSA also spoke of a civilian airfield in the Latakia area that was being upgraded to accept Iranian aircraft so that they could swiftly offload weapons to Syrian forces fighting the FSA.[19] They believe the regime would crumble in short order without such steadfast Iranian support.

Lebanese Hizb Allah became subordinate to a Damascene agenda when it “sacrificed its political independence and integrity…for the sake of preserving the resistance to Israeli occupation.”[20] The FSA accuses Hizb Allah of being directly involved in the conflict in its support of the Syrian  regime, a charge the group’s leaders flatly deny, contradicting their well-known stance, stating, “After some Syrian opposition parties and Arab media accused Hizb Allah of shelling the city of Zabadani, Hizb Allah deems this accusation silly, funny and baseless.”[21]

As for Iraq, under former leader Saddam Hussein the country was isolated for decades by Iran with which it fought an eight-year long war. After a bitter schism developed within the Ba`ath, Iraq also sparred with Syria for the leadership of Arab socialism. With both Saddam long dead and the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq almost gone, a Baghdad no longer tethered to Washington is able to pursue an overtly pro-Iranian foreign policy, with its Shi`a prime minister Nuri al-Maliki openly buttressing the al-Assad regime. The al-Maliki government had quarreled with Syria for several years, but Baghdad has moved closer to al-Assad. Al-Maliki is unable, however, to back al-Assad as unequivocally as Iran due to possible spillover effects that could upset Iraq’s fragile sectarian and ethnic balancing act. In fact, more recently al-Maliki softened his supportive stance, stating in the Saudi daily Okaz that al-Assad was not immune to the winds of change. A statement issued by the Iraqi prime minister’s office read, “Iraq backs change in Syria…Change is necessary. The situation will not be stable without change.”[22] As the head of a fractious coalition government beguiled by a fugitive Sunni vice president, al-Maliki now insists that Iraq must remain neutral with regard to Syria while simultaneously criticizing Saudi and Qatari talk of openly arming the FSA.[23]

At least a limited amount of small arms are being smuggled into eastern Syria from Mosul, and it is likely that some fighters from the ISI or other al-Qa`ida fighters have entered Syria. This belief is being used as a wedge issue by the international community to avoid intervening militarily in the conflict as it did in Libya in 2011. The Iraqi government has said that it is beefing up security along its 373-mile long border with Syria to thwart possible infiltration of arms and presumably Sunni fighters.[24]

The Russian Federation has been deeply involved in supplying Syria with arms for many years. As the primary successor state of the defunct Soviet Union, Moscow has ties to the al-Assads that date to their earliest days in power at the outset of the 1970s. The Soviets supplied Syria with a massive amount of arms in the build-up to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Soviet military advisers were on the ground inside Syria, and Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres revealed to the Knesset in July 1974 that Israeli forces had killed Soviet officers on the Golan Heights front during battle.[25] Irrespective of Western pressure, the SNC believes that the Russian armaments pipeline is continuing uninterrupted during the current conflict, whereby shipments embark from the small Ukrainian commercial port of Oktyabrsk near the Black Sea, transiting the narrow Bosphorus Straits that divide Istanbul, stopping at the Greek Cypriot port of Limassol before finally arriving at the Russian naval facility in the Alawite stronghold of Tartus to be trucked to various military installations throughout government-held or contested areas of Syria.[26]

Prospects for Arming the Free Syrian Army
The al-Assad regime has repeatedly claimed that it is fighting “foreign-backed terrorists” while refusing to cite any empirical evidence for its assertions.[27] If the FSA has indeed been successful procuring small arms from outside Syria, it is most certainly through its own crude financing and logistics networks. The FSA sees the only possible conduit for outsiders arming them as through Turkish territory with Ankara being the only friendly power in the region. Although there are non-state Sunni actors in Iraq that are sympathetic to their cause, the FSA views the Shi`a-led government in Baghdad as being overtly hostile to their aims. While a certain amount of arms have been smuggled into southeastern Syria from Lebanon, the FSA sees the fractious Lebanese state as being either dominated by, or fearful of, Hizb Allah’s power and hence unable to aid Syrian rebels. Hizb Allah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has enacted what he calls a “disassociation policy” to avoid an internal split among Lebanon’s political leaders between those supportive of al-Assad and the anti-Syrian, pro-Western March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri.[28]

An FSA commander who spoke with this author at a front line position in northwestern Syria’s Idlib Governorate said that the only practical way for his rebels to get the arms they claim to desperately need is vis-à-vis Turkey. In his view, Turkey, in its capacity as both a comparatively open society and a NATO military power, is the only realistic prospect for creating the desired “buffer zone” and delivering arms to the rebels.[29] Turkey has strenuously avoided getting militarily involved in the Syrian war despite such egregious transgressions as Syrian forces shooting and killing individuals in the Oncupinar refugee camp inside Turkey’s Kilis Province on April 9.[30]

The FSA boasted to this author that they could “finish off the [Assad] regime in a month’s time” if an outside actor would step in and arm them. Unfortunately for the FSA, NATO command in Brussels has adamantly and consistently stated it will not become involved in the Syrian conflict in the manner it intervened in Libya even if a UN mandate were to emerge providing NATO the crucial legal framework to do so.[31]

The arms race between the two belligerents in Syria is quintessentially asymmetrical as a trickle of well-worn, light weapons fall into rebel hands while the military, irregular shabiha militia and mukhabarat continue to be supplied with guns and materiel from Russia and Iran as well as China and North Korea. Rebel prospects may change if saber-rattling Saudi Arabia or Qatar follow up with recent statements of support they have issued in the wake of a hamstrung international community,[32] the latter of which is unwilling to act on the FSA’s behalf due to concerns about igniting a much wider conflict in the region or enabling further destabilization.[33]

Derek Henry Flood is an independent analyst focusing on MENA, Central and South Asia. Mr. Flood is a correspondent for Asia Times Online and has written for Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst. Previously, he served as editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor, a terrorism publication he launched. Mr. Flood regularly speaks on insurgency, irregular warfare and geopolitics in the media and at conferences in the United States and in the European Union.

[1] “Syria: What Really Happened in Jisr al-Shughour?” BBC, June 7, 2011.

[2] “A Surge in Syrian Refugees to Turkey,” Arab News, April 8, 2012.

[3] The Syrian National Council is an exile political opposition body headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey. The SNC was formed on August 23, 2011, to coordinate the efforts of differing dissident factions seeking the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. See “Syrian Opposition Moves Toward Setting up National Council,” Associated Press, August 23, 2011.

[4] The forces of Libya’s National Transitional Council employed the tricolor flag that existed during Libya’s pre-Qadhafi, post-independence period under King Idriss Sanussi, while destroying the monochromatic green flag designated as Libya’s national symbol in 1977 denoting the enforced ideology of Qadhafi’s pervasive Green Book.

[5] Cleveland Henry Smith and Gertrude Rhoda Taylor, Flags of All Nations (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1946), p. 137.

[6] For example, see “Homs | Formation of Al-Bara’a Bin Malik Battalion – FSA,” accessed February 29, 2012, available at

[7] Lara Jakes and Mazin Yahya, “Iraqis Profit From Syrian Arms Smuggling,” Associated Press, February 18, 2012.

[8] Albert Aji and Lee Keath, “Syria Says Suicide Bombers Kill 28 in Aleppo,” Associated Press, February 10, 2012; “Syrian Opposition Figure Says Assad’s Regime Plotting a Massive Blast in Aleppo,” al-Arabiya, January 6, 2012.

[9] Abdul Sattar Hatita, “Free Syrian Army Reject Jihadists Help,” Asharq al-Awsat, February 23, 2012.

[10] Personal interview, regional FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[11] William Harris, Challenges to Democracy in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1997), p. 10.

[12] Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (New York: Nation Books, 2002), p. 183.

[13] Personal interview, local FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[14] Personal interview, regional FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[15] Nicholas Blanford, Warriors of God: Hezbollah’s Thirty Year Struggle Against Israel (New York: Random House, 2011), pp. xvi, 90-92.

[16] Ibid., pp. 337-338.

[17] Personal interview, regional FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[18] Derek Henry Flood, “Looking into the Syrian Abyss,” Asia Times Online, January 28, 2012.

[19] Personal interview, local FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[20] Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu’allah: Politics & Religion (London: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 116.

[21] “Hezbollah Slams Accusations of Shelling Syria’s Zabadani,” Now Lebanon, January 18, 2012.

[22] “UN Urges Immediate Ceasefire Amid Worsening Conditions in Syria,” Gulf News, February 29, 2012.

[23] Mohamad Ali Harissi and Ammar Karim, “Iraq Slams Qatar, Saudi on Arms for Syria Rebels,” Agence France-Presse, April 1, 2012; “Iraqi PM Says Syria’s ‘Neutrality’ is for the Country’s ‘Best Interest,’” Agence France-Presse, April 15, 2012.

[24] Ahmed Rasheed, “Iraq Tightens Security at Syria Border to Stop Arms Flow,” Reuters, February 18, 2012.

[25] Bruce D. Porter, The USSR in Third World Conflicts: Soviet Arms and Diplomacy in Local Wars 1945-1980 (Cambridge, NJ: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 123-124, 135.

[26] Personal interview, Khaled Khoja, Istanbul, Turkey, February 4, 2012. Also see Thomas Grove and Erika Solomon, “Russia Boosts Arms Sales to Syria Despite World Pressure,” Reuters, February 21, 2012.

[27] Dominic Evans, “Friends of Syria to Call for Ceasefire, Aid Access,” Reuters, February 24, 2012.

[28] “Hezbollah: Disassociation Policy, Compromise to Keep Cabinet,” Now Lebanon, February 24, 2012.

[29] Personal interview, local FSA commander, Idlib Governorate, Syria, January 29, 2012.

[30] Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Andrea Glioti, “Syria Violence Crosses into Turkey, Lebanon,” Associated Press, April 9, 2012; Tulay Karadeniz and Khaled Oweis, “Syrian Border Clashes Wound at least 5 in Turkey,” Reuters, April 9, 2012.

[31] Simon Cameron-Moore and Tulay Karadeniz, “NATO to Stay out of Syria Even if U.N. Mandate Emerges,” Reuters, February 18, 2012.

[32] The normally quiescent Saudis have become increasingly and unusually vocal about the prospect of openly arming the FSA. Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought numerous sectarian proxy battles for decades, most notably in Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

[33] Khaled Yacoub Oweis, “Syrian Army Pounds Rebels, New Move at U.N,” Reuters, February 28, 2012.

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