FPI Fact Sheet: Syria’s Moderate Opposition

September 16, 2014

Congress plans to vote this week on legislation that would authorize the Obama administration to provide the moderate Syrian opposition with equipment and training to combat ISIS. Media reports indicate that significant bipartisan cooperation will be required in order to approve the measure. The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) believes the following fact sheet will be useful as lawmakers and staffers prepare for a vote on this critical legislation.


I. Key Background on the Moderate Armed Syrian Opposition

  • The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC, also called the Syrian National Coalition) is recognized by the United States as the official representative of the country’s moderate opposition. The SOC is currently led by Hadi al Bahra, a businessman who has served as a negotiator at the unsuccessful Geneva talks and was elected to the position on July 9, 2014.
  • The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is the umbrella group that was formed in July 2011 by Syrian army defectors who refused to participate in the Assad regime’s campaign against civilian protesters. The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2013 that the FSA consisted of approximately 40,000 fighters, down from an earlier estimate of 70,000-150,000 men. The FSA does not function as a centrally controlled organization, but consists of a number of brigades that are fighting in various parts of Syria.
  • The FSA and other moderate opposition groups are fighting a two-front war against both the Assad regime and ISIS. For much of the Syrian conflict, the regime forces and ISIS forces have focused their efforts on fighting the moderate opposition, not each other. Indeed, the Assad regime has even purchased oil that ISIS and other extremist groups had seized from territory under their control. The Syrian opposition has no choice but to fight both the Assad regime and ISIS simultaneously, as even now, Assad’s forces and ISIS are waging offensives against the opposition stronghold of Aleppo.
  • Contrary to recent wire reports, the moderate Syrian opposition did not sign a wide-ranging non-aggression deal with ISIS. Rather, as The Hill reported, a “there was only a 24-hour truce between ISIS and a Free Syrian Army brigade called the ‘Sons of the Golan’ in that same area on Friday in order to allow both sides to retrieve bodies of those killed.”
  • The United States has already provided limited backing to vetted groups within the Free Syrian Army, and has identified potential partners:
    • Harakat Hazm (Steadfastness Movement) is an opposition group that Jeffrey White of the WINEP writes “seems to provide at least a partial answer to longstanding questions about which rebel groups Washington should arm.” White noted that Harakat Hazm “appears secular in orientation, is well organized from a military perspective, has a significant inventory of heavy weapons, operates across an important area of Syria, and has an established combat record in fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.” Harakat Hazm numbers approximately 7,000 fighters today.
       
    • The Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) was formed in December 2013 to combat the Syrian regime while also providing a moderate counterweight to the growing strength of many radical Islamist militias fighting Assad. Foreign Policy reported in March that the SRF “is a collection of moderate rebel groups, about 25,000 fighters in all, bound more by their common cause to roll back Islamist influence in Syria than a specific ideology.” Last week, SRF leader Jamal Marouf pledged that “we will fight [both] the tyrannical state of Bashar Assad, and the tyrannical state of [ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi.” The SRF along with other rebel groups was instrumental in expelling ISIS from terrain in northern Syria in January 2014. It has a proven record of fighting against ISIS with some success.

II. Lack of Weaponry Has Limited FSA’s Success

  • The United States has provided a limited number of anti-tank weapons to vetted members of the Syrian opposition, but they have been insufficient to make a meaningful impact on the ground. The Wall Street Journal reported in April 2014 that the United States had begun a “pilot program” to provide a limited number of anti-tank weapons to Harakat Hazm. However, that militia and other vetted groups received only a few dozen missiles that lacked the power and range of newer weaponry, according to a September report in the Los Angeles Times.
  • The former U.S. ambassador to Syria has urged the Obama administration to provide additional support to the FSA. As Robert Ford wrote in The New York Times in June 2014, the FSA “needs far greater material support and training” as well as “more military hardware, including mortars and rockets to pound airfields to impede regime air supply operations and, subject to reasonable safeguards, surface-to-air missiles.” Ambassador Ford resigned his position because he “could no longer” publicly defend the administration’s Syria policy.
  • The moderate opposition’s lack of high-grade weaponry contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda linked groups such as ISIS and Jahbat al-Nusra. As Ambassador Ford told PBS Newshour in June 2014, had the United States provided anti-tank or anti-aircraft weapons to the mainstream opposition earlier, “the al Qaeda groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates, who, frankly, we have much in common with. But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaeda groups in Syria do.” If the moderate opposition is unable to emerge as a viable alternative to both ISIS and Assad, then U.S. military action against ISIS may create a vacuum in which Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is allowed to flourish.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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