Monday, March 11, 2013

Syrian Rebels: Who are they and should we trust them?

Syrian Rebels: Who are they and should we trust them?

The Free Syrian Army and other Rebel Groups in Syria

(Photo from

This photo is one of many disturbing photos that can be found online showing the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the most powerful rebel group in Syria today. While there are many different rebel groups in Syria, the organization of the FSA has helped the Syrian opposition gain momentum. But who are these rebel fighters?

According to the economist article we read for class, “Syria, the death of a country,” 1 of 5 Syrian rebels is a Jihadist. While we cannot be sure that these rebels are aligned with the FSA, recent news provides concerning information.

Earlier today, Monday, March 11th, 2013, a Ukrainian journalist Anhar Kochneva was able to escape form the captivity of the FSA after being kidnapped last October, according to the New York Times. Earlier in the year the rebels had scheduled for her execution after ransom money never came, below is a picture of Anhar Kochneva in FSA captivity (notice the bullet hole in the wall near her head). The FSA wanted 50 million dollars for her release. How can we support an organization that kidnapped and threatened to execute a foreign journalist?

Last Wednesday March 6th, rebel forces in Syria known as the Martyrs of Yarmouk, illegally detained 21 UN peacekeepers. The group released these peacekeepers unharmed Saturday the 9th of March after great international pressure. While this group was not affiliated directly with the FSA, it does provide a good example of how different rebel groups have power in Syria and how the opposition is not entirely unified. This can lead to problems in supporting the FSA and we can also expect conflict between rebel groups with different goals if Bashir is to fall.

Furthermore, there is some evidence that the FSA deals with terrorist organizations. Al Nusra Front, a rebel group accused of being a terrorist organization by the US in Jan 2012, is alleged with fractions of the FSA. This expresses the concern that the rebels will turn Syria into an Islamic revolution, clearly not ideal for the West.

Despite all of the serious concerns for supporting rebels, Syrian rebels have been gaining ground with the international community and have been receiving lots of aid recently with more aid expected in the near future.

Syrian rebels are gaining ground despite hostage scares, disorganization, and ties to terrorist organizations

 Theoretically, the FSA is a good candidate to receive foreign aid.  Our reading by Salehyan, Gleditsch, and Cunningham, “Explaining External Support for Insurgent Groups,” provides many reasons for why the FSA should be receiving aid. According the Cunningham “rebels who are moderately strong, have a transnational constituency, and who are fighting governments that are engaged in an international rivalry with other states are most likely to receive external support” (711), all of these prerequisites are present in the case of Syrian.
Firstly, the rebels in Syria are moderately strong, which is in their favor because the supply and demand for aid is at its equilibrium. The FSA is not too strong to deny aid, nor are they too weak to be a good candidate to receive aid. As rebels have a good chance of victory in Syria external countries should want to help them to further their interests in the event of a rebel victory.

In addition, transnational constituency is present as the majority ethnicity in Syria is Sunni. Currently the Sunni ethnic groups are being ruled by the minority Alawite ethnic group that runs the govenment government lead by Assad (Ethnicity plays a key role in the Syrian conflict, Cederman, et al. 2010 from our class reading would use information such as this to predict the causes of civil wars). As a result the Syrian opposition has recently been offered a seat on the Arab League (AL). While Syria was kicked out in 2011, ethnicity could play a role in the AL’s decision to offer a seat to the rebels as many Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain have ruling Sunni leaders and could benefit from a Sunni controlled Syria.

Finally, we do see international rivalry playing a role in Syria. The Syrian government currently receives aid from Russia and Iran which should influence the countries of the West to aid the rebels to counter Russian and especially Iranian interests. We just saw an example of this with the US commitment last week to donate 60 million dollars in non-lethal aid to the FSA. Now we have rival foreign countries sponsoring opposite sides of the Syrian Civil War.

As the theory would suggest we do see international actors seeking to support rebels. Today in Brussels France urged the EU to lift the arms embargo on Syria in an effort to help rebels win the war in Syria. While this is a heated debate in the EU and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle opposes the idea, international actors are trying to gain support for Syrian rebels and are acting independently to support rebels as well.

The UK has increased aid to rebels and just declared it will supply rebels with “armored vehicles, non-lethal military equipment and technical aid.”

Based on theories from our readings we should see the rebels in Syria continue to gain support.

Rebel Gains

Recently, the opposition in Syria has been seeing some gains, despite the disconcerting hostage situation of UN peace keepers last week, known kidnappings and extortion, as well as known ties to terrorist organizations.  According to Al Jazeera correspondents, last Tuesday rebels claimed the city of al-Raqqa, a large city in the central north part of the county, located on the north bank of the Euphrates River as shown in the map below. It is clear that rebel groups are gaining ground and becoming more powerful.
 (The green circles denote areas and cities controlled by the Syrian government, in brown cities controlled by opposition or Kurdish forces, and blue are active conflict areas. As denoted by the picture the conflict is widespread but it is also important to notice the West coast from Latakia down through Tartus is staying out of the conflict as it is predominantly populated by ethnic Alawite elites. This map complements of a Wikimedia commons page updated regularly  

War wages on

Today, March 11th, 2013, marks 727 days since the Syrian conflict began. The death tolls in Syria are staggering and the civil war wages on at peak levels of violence. This is a photo of Baba Amr a district of Homs and Syria’s third largest city. Today, the city has been under heavy fire from state machine guns and air strikes. This has become a common story for Syria as this type of conflict wages every day. Official death counts are not recorded for this particular attack but Al Jazeera stated at least a few rebels were killed. This picture is truly worth more than a thousand words, showing the city in ruble.

Why do we care?

We, the able world, have a humanitarian need to end this violence if we can.

Syria is on the borderline of becoming a failed state and violence in this country is unacceptable. Syria is affecting the international community with over a million refugees that have already spilled over the Syrian borders.

However, if we are going to support the rebels we need to know if that investment will pay off and not backfire.  The issue in Syria and Syria’s future is crucial to US interests and we should be active in solving this problem.

Furthermore, there are clearly humanitarian reasons to provide non-lethal aid, but is this a good investment? The rebels are not even grateful for the aid since they feel they are being deprived of military aid. Therefore does this investment even support US interests in the future? And most problematically, are we now funding terrorists? We all know how supporting Al-Qaeda against Russia in Afghanistan has paid off, is history going to repeat itself?  The Syrian issue is so complicated and urgent we have a crucial need to focus on this issue and resolve it as soon as possible.


I would recommend to policy makers to allow Assad to form a Alawite state in Western Syria and create two new states with a reliable peace treaty between the two new nations.

This will help to reduce violence now and help maintain good relations with Russia.

If this cannot be done through diplomatic measures, working with China and Russia, then military action from the West must be taken.

I would encourage active participation from the West in the rebuilding of the new Syrian state, requiring the rebels to create a free and democratic government, and enforcing the new peace treaty between Western and Eastern Syria.


  1. Excellent writing, though somewhat lengthy. I like that you chose to address the often clouded or unclear intentions and nature of rebel groups as this is not emphasized enough in the media. One thing I would like to note is that your recommendation with regard to creating two autonomous states from the present territory of Syria seems overly simplified and many complicating factors are overlooked in your recommendation. The religious/political affiliation and ehtnicity of present-day citizens of Syria cannot simply be organized into two separate states. Look at Palestine for example; the borders of these region have still not been explicitly defined and was only recently granted UN observer status in late 2012. Nevertheless, your call to action for the West to aid in the reformation and rebuilding of the state is something that resonates with the contemporary philosophy of state-building and deeper engagement is certainly beneficial to both establishing solid relations between Syria and the international community, and creating a solid foundation for a new and reformed Syria.

  2. I think something that is really frightening in Syria is how the rebel causes has been diverted among some many different armed groups claiming they are fighting for the benefit of the Syrian people. As we discussed, strategically it seems near impossible at this moment to bring in any international aid or humanitarian workers in Syria due to the situation becoming so chaotic. The outlying rural towns and regions seem to have little security or even resemble functioning communities making outreach extremely difficult until the state and the rebels arrive at some level of negotiations and a cease-fire.

  3. Joep, thank you for reading my blog, sorry it was lengthy but I have a lot to say about this. I agree with you that my solution was oversimplified. I don’t think this by any means will be easy to accomplish and there are issues with which rebel groups will take control of Eastern Syria, but I think that this solution may work and I do not see ANY pretty or easy solution available. Bashir Al-Assad has already declared that he would try and carve out an Alawite state in the West in a case of last-resort. In addition, Assad is still strong and able to continue this bloody conflict and fight this civil war as long as external actors do not intervene. However, as Kristina mention, since there are so many different groups coming out against Assad, it becomes a number game. Every day more and more citizens lose faith in Assad, join rebels, or flee the country. I do not see any chance of victory for Assad or his regime in the future. Eventually, Assad will have to retreat to his stronghold in the West with the Alawite elite in order to form an independent state. My solution of forcing Assad to do this now would simply speed up this seemingly inevitable event.