The Free Syrian Army and its “moderate” allies that operate in Syria and lobby abroad have been positioned since the start of the conflict by Western governments as an alternative to both the Syrian government and the Islamic State. On numerous occasions it has been suggested by spokesmen representing Western administrations that these opposition groups could cooperate with elements of the current government to create a national unity cabinet, free from President Assad and ISIS. The offer was unable to entice Syrian military and government personnel, which ensured continued unity in their ranks. The insistence of the FSA and SNC (Syria National Coalition) that Assad first step down ultimately lead the talks nowhere. There was little appetite in FSA ranks to cooperate with a government they despise and a president they refuse to acknowledge has support inside Syria. Western-backed organizations had so little presence on the ground in Syria, few groups were even available for this level of cooperation to develop.
Their fists remained clenched through one diplomatic exercise after another, while the majority of combat shifted to Islamist militants, backed by external proxy’s. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar’s inability to work with one another towards the goal of regime change slowed each proxies effectiveness and ability to gain territory. As the Islamic State swept through Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, taking Nineveh and Mosul in the summer of 2014, the Gulf and Turkey shifted their posture and agreed to integrate their forces. Although Turkey spearheaded the introduction of the Islamic State into the Syrian conflict, intense pressure from NATO allies forced the Muslim Brotherhood government in Turkey to relax their relations to the group. Jaish al Fateh, the Army of Conquest, was organized as an Islamic coalition in opposition territories, most notably Idlib and rural areas of Hama province.
The irrelevance of the FSA and “moderate opposition” increased as they pledged to cooperate with the Islamic coalition, including Ahrar Ash-Sham and Jahbat Al Nusra, the Al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Now they survive only by the good graces of these commanders. By choosing to support the Islamist’s instead of the Syrian government, the FSA has been forced to hand over weapons and equipment from Western friends, including advanced, anti-armor TOW weapons systems. They live and are judged under the laws of the Wahabbi and Salafi militants. They don’t have the capacity to disobey direct orders from these larger groups. Their incapacity means that their time as an officially considered alternative is over.
A new social campaign began in Idlib by Jaish Fateh, “My Veil is My Chasity”, codifying a strict Islamic dress code for women. The FSA is now forced to live under the Sharia Law of those groups actually controlling the territory. The penalty for refusal is severe. In the Fall and Summer of 2014 the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Harakat Hazzm (Hazzm Movement) clashed with Al Qaeda in Idlib, ending in the assassination of the majority of these groups leaders. The remainder of its members switched sides to Jahbat al Nusra, or fled to Turkey.
The FSA, having been unable to carve out their own fiefdoms as the Islamic opposition groups ISIS and Al Qaeda have, are left with a choice. Will they continue to submit to the radical agendas of terrorists, becoming themselves terrorists with no distinction from those they serve with, or are they ready to talk to the Syrian government?
Russia has opened a new diplomatic front with the moderate opposition, in line with its fresh position as the major outside arbiter of the Syrian conflict. In RT it was reported that the Russian Defense Ministry is ready to assist Assad’s military and the Free Syrian Army in uniting forces against Islamic State jihadists and other terror groups, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said. Joint combat operations between the Syrian forces and the remnants of the FSA, with the help of Russian air strikes, could pave the way for a political settlement that includes amnesty for those who served in the past against the government, and eventually a new constitution and elections. The FSA alone is in no position to claim it has authority or legitimacy in Syria, especially as they take orders and gift their weapons to terrorist groups. However, if they were align with the government, a new internal equilibrium could be drafted. Russia having brought both to the table, could then oversee an international diplomatic effort including FSA-backers. The FSA won’t get what it wants if they continue their opposition, but they are more likely to be part of Syria’s future if they cooperate with Russia and the government.
They are caught between a secular Syrian government that fights for a united Syria free from foreign terrorists, and a medieval opposition filled with foreigners. They will end up under the weight of one or the other, but they have no alternative that lands them in the driver’s seat for Syria’s future through continued violence. The FSA have been used as a human shield to avert Western airstrikes from Islamist territory, but Russian airstrikes make no distinction between the two, nor should they if they continue to support Al Qaeda and the implementation of Sharia Law in Syria.
The offer for a gradual transition of FSA allegiances from Al Qaeda to the government is on the table. Backed by Russia, it could pave the way for their eventual rehabilitation into Syrian society. Their continuing insistence that Assad step down before this step occurs will leave them under the thumb of Sharia Law or in a grave. If recent reports that they reject this outright prove true, they become the ones with no alternative.