Divided Front

The fragmenting coalition of the Free Syrian Army

01 June 2017
In February, the Free Syrian Army, with support from Turkey and the United States, took control of the city of al-Bab.
emin sansar / anadolu agency / getty images

On 7 April, the United States launched 59 cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea into Syria, taking aim at an airfield of the Syrian government. Reports cited damage to airplane hangars, and between nine and 13 casualties. The strikes were a response to an alleged use of chemical weapons three days earlier by the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, that killed 87 people.

According to Feras al-Bayush, the airstrikes were far too mild a response. Bayush formerly served as a lieutenant colonel with the Syrian air force, but defected in 2013 and joined the Free Syrian Army—a loose coalition of armed groups attempting to overthrow Assad in the bloody civil war that has wracked the country for the last six years. Now, Bayush, who is based out of Turkey, is a commander of the FSA. “I’ve seen the video footage Assad’s regime published,” he told me in an email, on 19 April. “The losses are minimal, and with what I know about military air-force bases, these are not even considered losses.”

The FSA’s individual groups have a wide range of interests and ideologies. Over 80 of them have been vetted by the United States, to verify, among other things, that they are not Islamist organisations, and subsequently cleared to receive US funding. I spoke to several FSA fighters to understand their perspectives on the alliance’s future. From those conversations, it was clear that the FSA is seeking to draw in more fighters from different backgrounds—a bid for more robust forces that is also causing the organisation to fragment, and could potentially lead the rebels towards collaboration with fundamentalist groups.

Anchal Vohra is a journalist who covers West Asia and Europe. She has also reported on South Asia for over a decade.