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The Free Syrian Army began in order to fight against the Assad regime and for democracy, but a lack of support has changed its direction. Now some FSA fighters are backing Turkey's incursion into northern Syria.
In mid-January, a delegation from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) traveled to Washington, seeking to convince the CIA to resume the military aid frozen under President Donald Trump. Otherwise, the group argued, Iran's influence would continue to grow in Syria. There was little they could do to counter that on their own, said Mustafa Sejari, an FSA commander.
The situation was urgent, Sejari told the Reuters news agency. "It is time to turn words into action. Until now on the ground it's the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance," he said. "We asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support."
Events a week later showed what Sejari was talking about.
Around 35,000 FSA fighters moved into the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, side-by-side with Turkish forces. The FSA was formed in July 2011 as a group of secular opponents to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and now, in January 2018, it is fighting Syrian Kurds— that is, the citizens of the very country whose democratic and republican nature the FSA once defended.
'The FSA is a smokescreen'
The decision to fight against citizens of one's own country is the result of the widely non-transparent, constantly changing alliances that characterized the varied Assad opponents at an early stage of the insurgency. The FSA has been on a political and most of all military odyssey in recent years — and at its end, the group's initial nature has been reversed.
"The Free Syrian Army practically doesn't exist," Kamal Sido, a Mideast expert at the human rights group Society for Threatened Peoples (GfbV) told Germany's Deutschlandfunk broadcaster. "The Free Syrian Army is a smokescreen hiding various names, and if you look at the names, at these groups' videos, you'll find they are radical Islamist, Jihadist groups."
A large part of the groups on the FSA ticket represent Islamist programs, some more moderate, others more radical. Some groups continue to pursue secular goals. Charles Lister of the Brookings Institution think tank lists almost 80 different factions that identify with the FSA brand. They often pursue completely different political goals, and their military action varies as well.
The term FSA suggests a unity that is a thing of the past.
The demise of the group's ideology follows on the heels of its military disintegration. The US, which stood behind the moderate opponents of Assad in the Syrian war, never saw the FSA as a fully reliable partner, and feared the aid they gave the group might fall into the hands of Jihadist fighters like the "Islamic State." That skepticism has carried over from the Obama to the Trump administration, which is reluctant to arm the FSA.
Seeking a strong partner
As a result, the FSA is searching for other allies, and has inched closer to often well-equipped Jihadist groups. They feel as though they have had little choice given the military pressure exerted by the Assad regime. And so, Washington's concerns of backing the wrong partner appears to tragically have come true: The lack of support contributed to creating the kind of group the US did not want to back in the first place. Some of these radical groups are now marching on the Kurds alongside Turkey.
But only some of the FSA units are fighting on Turkey's side. "The broadly delineated lines that existed for some years are now fuzzy; the days when the supporters of the Al Assad regime were on one side and FSA on the other have gone," wrote journalist Faisal al-Yafai in UAE newspaper The National.
War in the name of the Republic
The attack on Afrin highlights the consequences of that collapsed front. Jihadists and secular forces — all using the FSA brand — marched alongside the Turks. Many who support the revolution are in favor the idea of maintaining Syrian territorial integrity, an integrity they see threatened by the Kurds in Afrin, according al-Yafai.
The FSA fears the region in northwestern Syria might one day no longer be Syrian territory, but Kurdish territory, perhaps even part of an independent Kurdish state. That is a goal the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that rules the region around Afrin rejects, but Turkey and the FSA marching by its side are both wary.
There is one discrepancy the FSA can't elude: The people they attack in the name of Syrian territorial integrity are Syrian Kurds, members of the republic the FSA pretends to be defending. Political ideology and military practice contradict one another.
It seems as if the uprising in Syria no longer has a goal. Supported by Russia and Iran, Assad is still in power. It is less clear what the rebels of yore are continuing to fight for these days.