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Syria Debate: Does the "Free Syrian Army" Exist? (Lund and Debeuf)

General Salim Idriss, head of the insurgent Supreme Military Council, addresses Syrian expatriates, 24 February 2013

One of the themes in our daily coverage of Syria is the state of the insurgency, from the ideology and organisation of different factions to the supply of weapons to the efforts to declare an umbrella leadership such as the "Free Syrian Army".

Last week, Aron Lund brought these issues into stark relief with a post on Syria Comment questioning if one could even speak of an FSA. Days later, Koert Debeuf replied on the website with a vigorous defence of a leading group directing the insurgency.

EA's James Miller comments:

Lund made some important points in his initial article. To criticise it by saying that it was an oversimplification would be unfair. After all, nothing is more complex than the "Free Syrian Army", and Lund has produced an impressively concise summary.

Debeuf, however, makes a more important point. The "Free Syrian Army" has never had any meaning more than it does today. Its overall head, Salim Idriss, legitimately commands a large swathe of the insurgent forces now. As the recent capture and release of 21 United Nations peacekeepers shows, Idriss can even assert some level of control over the most radical elements inside the "FSA".

Lund raises another point that needs to be addressed: what does the media mean when it says "Free Syrian Army"?

EA tries to identify specific units when possible. When this is not possible, we identify them as "rebels" or "insurgents", general terms that we use to describe any faction that oppose Assad with military action.

When units identify themselves as Free Syrian Army, we label them as such.. we also believe that it is accurate to call the elements under the direct control of Idriss and the Supreme Military Council "FSA".

The opening and closing sections of the Lund and Debeuf articles are posted below --- Lund has also given a lengthy interview to "The Angry Arab News Service":

The Free Syrian Army Doesn't Exist
Aron Lund

Is the FSA losing influence in Syria? How many people are in the FSA? Is the FSA receiving enough guns from the West, or too many? Will the FSA participate in elections after the fall of Bahar el-Assad? What is the ideology of the FSA? What’s the FSA’s view of Israel? Is Jabhat el-Nosra now bigger than the FSA? What does the FSA think about the Kurds? Who is the leader of the FSA? How much control does the central command of the FSA really have over their fighters?

All these and similar questions keep popping up in news articles and op-ed chinstrokers in the Western media, and in much of the Arabic media too.

They all deal with important issues, but they disregard an important fact: the FSA doesn’t really exist....

I wish that the FSA did exist.

A unified rebel leadership would spare Syria much of the bloodshed that lies ahead. Not just because an organized rebel army would pack more of a punch in the struggle against Bashar el-Assad’s fascist dictatorship, and could put a leash on the most unpleasant salafi extremist factions. But also --- and this matters a lot more than the fate of either Assad or al-Qaida --- because only a functioning opposition leadership will be able to minimize the period of Lebanon-style armed anarchy and sectarian bloodshed that lies ahead for Syria, and help reestablish a central government when Assad’s is gone for good.

Unfortunately, my mere wishing won’t make it so. But neither will sloppy and distorted news reporting.

The Free Syrian Army Does Exist and is Growing Stronger by the Day<
Koert Debeuf

When I read the piece of Aron Lund, "The FSA doesn’t exist", I was utterly surprised. Of course the FSA does exist. And it is changing rapidly.Over the last few months, the FSA has transformed itself from a loose structure into a functioning organization. In fact, what Lund describes is an era of the FSA that no longer exists. It ignores the developments of the last several months and the present reality on the ground.

Last month, I visited Northern Syria three times with the Free Syrian 
Army (FSA). I spoke to many generals who had defected from the Syrian Army, to commanders on
 the ground,to people in the headquarters of the FSA and
 to military-civilian organizers of humanitarian aid of all parts of
 Syria. I also spent many hours with Dr. Brigadier General Salim 
Idriss, Chief of Staff of the FSA; I was in the middle of a battle 
at Quweris airport, then one of the main front lines.

Many points Lund is making, were correct three months ago. But not now. Colonel Riaad Assad, for example, is completely out of the picture, whatever he himself might say. Another example is Qasem Saadeddin. He did indeed try to create some unity in Homs and had difficulties in doing so. But that too is history. Today he is a Commander of one of the five fronts under the umbrella of the FSA and he is working very closely with Chief of Staff Salim Idriss.

It is also not true that Idriss would not use the ‘brand’ FSA. One example is the fact that he recently started his own Twitter and Facebook account as well as one for the headquarters....

Nevertheless, I must admit that at first sight, the structure of the FSA is utterly confusing. Whomever 
you talk to on the ground will pretend he is the most important 
commander in Syria. He will denounce formal structures and glorify his 
own past as a freedom fighter. I learned that the
 best strategy is smiling. And waiting. After an hour of ranting, the real story comes out. Every time. Then it appears that the FSA does
have a structure, that these commanders do operate within this structure, but that it is not fully established.
 The FSA is not just a brand. It does exist. The FSA building has been framed in, but remains under construction....

Just like in France during the Second World War we can’t expect a
 bottom-up resistance to become a unified front in a few months.
 Becoming cynical now or even giving up on the FSA would be one of the
 biggest strategic mistakes the West could make.

Last month’s work is done and a lot 
of progress has been made. If the international community decides to 
support the FSA, it will help them even more to unify, strategize and avoid 

 There is a structure of command. The headquarters will only provide arms to those battalions that follow their instructions. But they are still waiting for those arms. What is coming in is peanuts compared with what they need in order to win this war against one of the most brutal dictators of the world. What are we waiting for?

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