The term “The Syrian Free Army (SFA)” (sometimes referred to as Free Syrian Army FSA) has been making headlines and front covers for months now. Observing western media and the way they have been discussing this, I couldn’t help but notice that, although many media channels have been racing to get exclusive interviews and stories from this new “entity”, very few of them really asked the question: What exactly is SFA?
In this article, we will discuss SFA from different angles, using, as usual, information we were able to verify ourselves.
In the western eye
In this video, distributed by Associated Press, we see a group of armed men, mostly in civilian outfits, in firefight. They are, as described by AP, “apparently taking up positions against Syrian government troops.” What AP neglects to explain though is why these men appear kidnapping a civilian (please slide to 1.20), and why they keep him locked and hand-cuffed.
In this article, published on Nov 3
, 2011, The Telegraph quotes SFA leader saying that his armed forces will be the army of the new Syria. A clear indication that the Syrian National Army will remain the enemy, regardless to any political arrangement that could end the crisis in the country. In the same article, The telegraph refers to SFA as the "military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime". It also mentions that SFA “claims” to have around 15000 armed men, calling them an “insurgent army”. But further down, it says that “the size of the movement is unclear, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 15,000.”
This uncertainty regarding the real numbers continues inthis exclusive interviewthat Voices of America scored with SFA leader, where VOA says that “reports” indicate that the numbers are “anywhere between 1,000 and 25,000”. The funny part is that this pretty informative estimation comes in the very same interview with the alleged SFA leader. Couldn’t he give them a better estimation, with a narrower margin of error than 24,000 fighters?
In this interview, Al-Asaad claims that his mission is “to protect the protesters and defend Syrian people and cities against violations.” He also claims that his forces are “inclusive and non-sectarian.”
In this other article, VOA interviews another alleged SFA member, Captain Iyad Deek. This interview was just so full of inconsistencies that we felt it was necessary to discuss it point by point in a detailed article.
In this video, Channel 4 News shows what they claim to be a group of army defectors, but in civilian outfit, crossing the Lebanese-Syrian borders to operate in Syria, “with the ultimate mission of toppling the regime.” Please slide to 2.40, where Channel 4 did a tiny translation error: The “defector” claims that they were ordered to “exterminate” protesters in Baba Amro in Homs. But Channel 4 chose to translate “Ibadeh” as “crush” instead of “exterminate”. They are right of course. It does not make sense that security forces were ordered to exterminate protesters, yet only a few died. This does not go well with the stories usually told about firing live bullets and bombarding neighborhoods on a daily basis.
In this same video, Channel 4 quotes the armed men “insisting they were not Islamic radicals or terrorists.” But in this video, Aljazeera shows a few SFA fighters that suit the profile of Islamic radicals. I find it specially ironic that despite the obvious Islamic nature of those appearing in the video (and the ample evidence of the radical nature of the fighters), western media still shows sympathy with this armed group. It is interesting to know how they would react if similar videos leak from Iraq or Afghanistan, on the way to attack USA troops.
On the other hand, one of the most famous Facebook pages that spoke on behalf of SFA (now disabled for unknown reasons) shows clear indications of the radical nature of this armed group. Please see our article here for more details.
There are many other examples of reports covering SFA and its activities, but they all seem to lack an essential element a journalist should be focusing on: What is the nature of SFA operations in Syria? And are they all, or mostly, army defectors?
An umbrella for armed assaults
On April 11th, 2011, an armed group ambushed a Syrian Army convoy in Banias, resulting in the killing of one officer and 8 soldiers. Sometime during the same month, an armed group attacked the main camp for the first army division in Kisweh near Damascus. Back then, there was no SFA to claim responsibility, so the opposition just denied the events (Syria Tribune was able to verify these events from reliable sources). Armed assaults continued over the coming months, with many famous events, such as the massacre in Jisr Al Shoghour on June 5th, where about 120 security service personnel lost their lives. Not to mention this famous video, where militants in Hama appear throwing dead bodies of security personnel in the river.
But then, there was no SFA to claim responsibility for these actions, and the opposition, along with many media channels, insisted that the uprising was peaceful.
But what changed now? Virtually nothing. Except that such acts became “heroic acts to protect the peaceful nature of the uprising,” a controversy that I was never able to comprehend.
What is SFA, really?
SFA claims to consist of defected soldiers. But there are many indications that this is not true.
- In this report, Alarbiya news channel quotes one of the “founders” of SFA, Captain Ibraheem Majbour, saying that SFA is welcoming civilian volunteers.
- In this video, a school teacher in a small town in Der Al Zur governorate is shown leading a children demonstration. But this video shows the exact same person in military uniform claiming to be an army defector.
- On this link, Bilal Al Kinn, a man who appeared in many photos carrying machine guns, is introduced as an army defector. The link contains videos and links showing SFA’s Khalid Bin Al Waleed Phalange speaking of Al Kinn’s death, and admitting he was one of the phalange commanders. But Bilal Al Kinn is well known in Homs, and we were able to confirm that he has never been in the Army to defect.
- In this photo album, a group of militants appear claiming to be SFA fighters. You may easily notice the following:
- Many of these militants suit the Islamic radical profile.
- Many of the weapons appearing in these pics are not of types used in the Syrian Army. Even the Kalashnikovs that appear, they are suited with an extra handle in the front that is not seen in the type used by the Syrian Army.
- There are a few really young boys carrying weapons. They cannot be old enough to have been in the army (see pics 5-11-21-22-25).
What does SFA do exactly?
This video shows some SFA members in Baba Amro Homs, trying to convince viewers they are there to protect civilians. So they were fighting in Baba Amro. But news channels kept saying the Syrian Army was bombarding civilians there, and they neglected to mention SFA fighters.
SFA is indeed fighting the Syrian Army. Its dedicated pages on social media, quoted frequently by many media channels, have so far posted tens of videos showing attacks on the Syrian army and police forces. But this is not the only thing SFA has been busy doing.
SFA does other things:
· Kidnapping and interrogation: Many videos (like this one) appear continuously on SFA social media pages, showing what is claimed to be “confessions” by regime supporters. These confessions come from civilians who had been kidnapped and interrogated by SFA, and many prove to be forced confessions, like this one, where the girl is obviously scared and being told what to say.
· Smuggling weapons: Plenty of media reports show that smuggling weapons to Syria is taking place more often than what could be considered personal deeds (take a look at this New TV report for example). These weapons make their way to armed groups in Syria, including SFA fighters.
· Forcing people to strike: This informed Al-Akhbar newspaper report from Idleb (we are working on translating the report to English) confirms the numerous stories that militia is forcing civilians to close their stores and not go to work. We were able to confirm from reliable sources that militants, under the SFA umbrella, have been forcing people to strike, and in some incidents, to demonstrate as well.
· Providing LCCs with casualties that they could portray as civilians killed by the regime: We hear of attacks SFA takes on the Syrian army on a daily basis, but we hardly ever hear of SFA members killed in these attacks. On several occasions, we were able to verify that SFA casualties are counted as civilians. Even Bilal Al Kinn, the above mentioned SFA commander, was counted as a civilian when he was killed. In fact, if you follow the reports released by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, the main source for death tolls in Syria, you will clearly see that it hardly ever attributes causalities to SFA battles with the Syrian Army.
From the above, we can conclude that SFA is an umbrella name for armed groups and opposition militia in Syria. It serves as a pretext under which smuggling weapons and arming civilians can be justified (civilians would be called “volunteers”, as mentioned clearly by Captain Ibraheem Majbour in his Alarbiya interview above, or even claim to be army defectors like the school teacher in the video above). But the more important role SFA plays is providing a pretext for imposing foreign military intervention in Syria, whether in the form of a no-fly zone (as requested by SFA leader himself), or other scenarios that have been proposed by other parties, such as the Alain Juppe’s infamous “humanitarian corridor”.
The inconsistent numbers of SFA members continuously reported by SFA leaders show that they don’t have that many army defectors, because those should be easy to count (as they cannot stay at their homes, they need to flee the scene to SFA camps). Instead, these shaky numbers suggest that the larger portion of SFA consists of civilians who took weapons. This falls under the “armed groups” category, rather than the “free army”. Moreover, the type of operations SFA claims responsibility for could not be described as “protecting civilians”, but rather as guerilla war against the Syrian army, combined with assaults against civilians.