Connect to share and comment
Broken and battered, the Free Syrian Army is united only in its will to oust President Assad.
Sunni Islamist group, much larger and much more organized: The Muslim Brotherhood.
More from GlobalPost: Mass killings uncovered near Damascus
It was members of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood who led the first major armed rebellion against Assad’s father, Hafez, culminating in the 1982 massacre in Hama, just north of Homs, during which Assad’s troops pounded civilian areas with artillery before going house to house, killing an estimated 20,000 people, the majority civilians.
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the current uprising has not been well documented, but a 29-year-old Lebanese member of the group, from a village on the northern border with Syria, proudly described how he helped equip activists in Homs with internet and phone connections, as well as food and medicine.
“I am proud to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and we do not hide the fact that we support the Syrian revolution and support the Free Syrian Army who are defending the Syrian people,” he said.
When injured FSA fighters cross into Lebanon for emergency treatment the majority are received in a private hospital in Tripoli run by an Islamic charity believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But religious motivation was not what drove 22-year-old Mohammed, a conscript, to defect from his brigade’s deployment to Damascus and return home to Homs. His brother had been arrested and killed, said Mohammed, by members of Airforce Intelligence and the young man now fights with the a group of 15 defected soldiers and five armed civilians.
“I am not religious and I don’t even pray,” Mohammed said. “I fight to revenge the killing of my brother. But I am a Sunni and it is hard to hear that Allawite Shabiha are attacking women who wear the veil. This increases sectarian feelings among Sunnis.”
Spread across a wide spectrum of ideologies and backgrounds, the FSA must also struggle to maintain cohesion amid the chaos unleashed in a country pervaded by secret police.
Abu Annas al-Homsi, the Salafi leader, said his group had fought with men claiming to be FSA but which he said were in fact regime plants, while Capt. Ammar al-Wawi, another FSA leader, said his men had arrested several members of “gangs who pretend to be in the FSA but who damage the revolution.”
Divisions on the ground reflect and are likely exacerbated by open feuds between rival leaders of the armed uprising and their civilian representatives.
In mid February, Riad Asaad, who was one of the earliest high-ranking defectors who first made public the FSA, went on TV to brand the Syrian National Council (SNC), the mainly exiled political opposition group that has gained the ear of international powers, “traitors” for failing to support the rebels with money and supplies.
The move followed the formation of the Supreme Syrian Military Council by General Mustafa Sheikh, who outranks Riad Asaad but only defected in January. Riad Asaad has since been named as head of operations and Sheikh as leading the defected officers.
After months of resisting calls to support the FSA, Burhan Ghalioun, head of the SNC, announced on March 1 the formation of a Military Bureau to “organize and unify” the armed opposition “under the political supervision of the SNC.”
“With all due respect, Ghalioun is a professor, not a politician,” said Abu Omar. “He understands politics but he has not practiced it. On the ground we are organizing ourselves, not waiting for the SNC to end their disagreements.”
Given the rifts, Western diplomats say they have no plans to arm the FSA, arguing such a move would lead to a full blown civil war between the Allawite-dominated regime and the Sunni-led rebels.
It’s a view not shared by Imad Salameh, professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.
“Civil wars typically need two equal-sized groups to fight one another and this does not exist in Syria,” he said. “The international community finds pretexts to make the Syrian revolution complicated, arguing there are Islamist fundamentalists in Syria and so to arm the rebels would mean weapons going to Al Qaeda.
No revolution in history has ever been perfect: That’s why revolutions start in the first place. The way to marginalize extremists is to insist on human rights and justice. But the international community is doing very little.”
As the sectarian violence in Homs peaks and the regime uses heavy weaponry to shell its own population with seeming impunity, both FSA and civilian opposition leaders warn conditions are growing ever more favorable for the growth of extremism.
“The Syrian people are desperate, poor and bleeding and are disappointed by the non reaction of the international community,” said Abu Fares, a member of Homs’ Revolutionary Council who lived through the latest assault on the city. “This is the environment for radical groups to come and sympathize. Every day of killings helps the extremists and weakens the moderates.”