On Monday the Syrian opposition chose naturalized Syrian-born American citizen Ghassan Hitto to lead an interim government tasked with aiding rebels and serving as an alternative to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.Hitto is backed by the Free Syrian Army, a Western-backed group first formed in 2011 with a headquarters in southern Turkey. The FSA mostly comprises Syrian army soldiers and high-level officers who defected from the regime in addition to local (mostly secular) militias.
The hope is that a functional transition will be established to administer war-torn areas in the north until and after Assad is toppled — but that appears to be a stretch.
The primary problems are that jihadist rebels control most of the north and are unlikely to relinquish territory they’ve captured, while the top-down structure of the FSA doesn’t have authority in practice.
Earlier this month extremist rebels — mostly from large armed groups Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra — captured the provincial capital of Raqqa, Syria’s sixth largest city and the first to fall into rebel hands.
Also in February Nusra fighters advanced within 30 miles of the far northeastern provincial capital of Hasakah.
Jihadists fighting with Nusra — led by veterans of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) — have said that they will fight any post-Assad secular government in addition to going to jihad with their Sunni brothers in Iraq.
Does a Free Syrian Army even exist?
Defected Gen. Selim Idriss, who heads the FSA’s Supreme Military Command, says the rebels will support and “work under the umbrella of [Hitto's] government,” but experts such as Aron Lund point out that the FSA is more of a brand than an actual organisation.
Lund details how the FSA organisation in Turkey is split between “a whole bunch of defected officers who claim to be leaders of the FSA,” and the powerful Islamist brigades don’t recognise the authority of the Supreme Military Command.
Gen. Idriss “controls” the most men, but Lund explains that the various groups claim allegiance to the FSA to get weapons from the opposition’s foreign backers, and ultimately only follow their own leaders.
“The elaborate command structure which has been released by the General Staff is a figment of the imagination, intended to create the impression of a unified organisation that isn’t there.”
The overriding problem
As jihadist rebels — who have long been the oppositions best and most organised fighters — continue to acquire territory, a set of entirely new and devastating set of problems face the new government.
Toppling Assad is only half the battle, and the FSA will have to prepare to fight against the powerful Islamic militias like Nusra and al Sham.
“After the fall of Bashar there will be so many battles between these groups,” an Iraqi who joined the regular Free Syrian Army told the New York Times in December. “All the groups will unite against al-Nusra.”
Given that the powerful Islamic brigades are the opposition’s best chance to defeat Assad, it seems likely that they’ll be the strongest force in Syria when he’s gone.