Free Syrian Army

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Flag of the Syrian Republic (1930-1958), ruled by France for most of its existence, used by the FSA
Free Syrian Army on Wikipedia

Free Syrian Army (FSA) (Arabic: الجيش السوري الحر‎, al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) is a much misused and confused term widely used to describe various factions of anti-government fighters in Syria.

A well-researched March 16, 2013 article at Joshua Landis' Syria Comment blog argues that, essentially, "The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist." [1] The original group and even its name and symbols have faded away under an array of various organization schemes that have largely fallen apart and given way to more overtly Islamist groupings like Jabhat Al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. As the author, Aron Lund, pointed out:

Today, the FSA brand name remains in use within the Syrian opposition, but mostly as a term for the armed uprising in general. It’s quite similar to how a French person would have employed the term ”La Résistance” during WW2 – not in reference to a specific organization fighting against Hitler, but as an umbrella term for them all. With time, many people inside and outside Syria have started to use the FSA term to distinguish mainstream non-ideological or soft-Islamist groups from salafi factions. The salafis themselves used to be divided on the issue, but they aren’t anymore. The more ideological ones (like Jabhat el-nosra and Ahrar el-Sham) never used it, but at the start of the uprising, others did (like Liwa el-Islam and Suqour el-Sham). [1]

Rebel leaders

Hassan Abboud(†) of Ahrar al-Sham, Ahmad Aisa al-Shaykh of Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Abdelqader Saleh(†) of Liwaa al-Tawhid, Zahran Alloush(†) of the Islam Army

Joshua Landis has published a list of the most important rebel leaders as of October 2013.[2]

  1. Hassan Abboud(†), the general head of the Islamic movement of Ahrar Al-Sham, spearheaded the joint position of what some are calling the Islamic Alliance, but which is looser than an alliance of mainly northern-based militias. Abboud was killed on September 9, 2014 together with several other Ahrar Al-Sham leaders by what the group says was a car bomb.[3][4] New head of Ahrar Al-Sham is Hashem al-Sheikh.[5]
  2. Zahran Alloush(†), the general Commander of Jaysh al-Islam or Islam Army, a group of more than 50 brigades. He is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush. Syrian authorities released him from prison in mid-2011. He was incarcerated for his Salafist opposition activities. Killed by an air strike in a rural place in the eastern Ghouta on December 25, 2015[6]
  3. Ahmad `Aisa al-Shaykh, or Abu Aissa, commander of Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Falcons of Syria Brigade, based in Idlib.
  4. Abdul Qader Al-Salih (†), the high Commander of Liwa al-Tawhid, Unity Brigade, in Aleppo. The formal top leader is Abdelaziz Salame. Salih was killed and Salame wounded in an air strike in mid November 2013.[7]
  5. Bashar Al-Zoubi, the Commander of Liwa al-Yarmouk in the south of Syria around Deraa.


Formation of Islamic Front

Groups aligned with the Islamic Front
Emblem of Jabha al-Islamiya

On November 22, 2013, in a statement[8] read by Suqour al-Sham's Ahmad Aisa Al-Shaykh, the formation of al-Jabha al-Islamiya (the Islamic Front) was announced, which merges all above listed important militant groups. Present were among others Abboud, who became the new "political commander", and Alloush who is the new "military commander" of the group presided by Al-Shaykh. With this move the different fractions of what was once called the FSA are maybe closest to the organized structure the FSA was described as in the early days of misreporting, although with explicit denunciation of the external "SNC" leadership and the artificial FSA command structure "SMC" led by Salem Idris, and with the explicit goal of forming an Islamic state under Sharia law. The original alleged head of the FSA, Riad Al-As'aad, was reported missing around the time of the group's formation.

Following the formation, an intense lobbying campaign by a Saudi-Israeli alliance started to sell this group as the new and last "moderate" hope to American policy makers, asking them to increase training and fund a support plan budgeted around 6 billion dollars.[9]

Apparently without success, because on December 11, 2013 the US and Britain announced that they were freezing non-lethal aid to the opposition indefinitely after the Islamic Front took control of several bases in northern Syria. The same day Salim Idris fled over Turkey to Qatar. Said an US official "I wouldn't say this is the end of the SMC and the end of Gen. Idris".[10]

During early 2014 with the rise of ISIS, important people in the Islamic Front made more moderate statements trying to distance themselves and winning central funding sources back, while continuing to fight alongside Al-Nusra Front.[4]

Killed Ahrar Al-Sham leaders

By Summer 2014, the Islamic Front remained the largest organized Syrian anti-government militia not part of ISIS. With the September 9 death of almost the entire leadership of Ahrar al-Sham, many of which had also important roles in the Islamic Front, it remains to be seen if this organization will continue to play its role as intermediary between hardcore Wahhabi and the few remaining "secular" FSA-type groups.[4]

After smaller groups joined in the following months, in late March 2015 it was announced that Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham would join forces and merge into Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya under the leadership of Hashem al-Sheikh with Ahmad Aisa Al-Shaykh as deputy. This makes it the largest fraction inside Islamic Front with estimated 15-25,000 fighters, taking over from Alloush's Army of Islam.[11]

In September 2015, apparently pretty healthy, not least because they are what's left to be seriously called "moderate rebels" by Western media, Ahrar al-Sham elected as new head of the organization a certain Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, aka Mohannad al-Masri, a Syrian citizen born in 1981 originating from Idlib province, after the previous leader resigned.[12]

2014 Developments


  • It s reported that "The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the main opposition political alliance, has dissolved the leadership of its armed wing, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Gen. Abdelila al-Bashir, on the grounds that it does not represent all the opposition forces. In a statement Monday, the head of the SNC, Hadi al-Bahra, explained that the "dissolution" of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA was aimed at including all the military factions and revolutionary groups operating in Syria." [13]
  • Congress gave President Obama authority to provide funding and military training to Syrian opposition forces [14] , now led by Bahra (SNC). "Critics are skeptical that arms provided by the West could fall into the wrong hands and that the vetting and training process will take too long to effectively combat ISIS." [15]
  • Hadi al Bahra (SNC) addresses United Nations General Assembly [16]

The 5th Corps

In an October 21, 2014, article with the ambitious title "The Moderate Rebels: A Complete and Growing List of Vetted Groups", Hasan Mustafa starts with the following before going into details of a rather long list of subgroups:

5th Corps: The 5th Corps is a recently declared formation consisting of five moderate rebel groups linked to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) that have all adopted the revolutionary independence flag as their symbol. Led by a joint command council, it consists of the 13th Division, the 101st Division, Knights of Truth Brigade, Suqour Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade, and the 1st Brigades. All five have received TOWs provided by the international “Friends of Syria” alliance led by the U.S. through the Military Operations Command center in Reyhanli, Turkey. Active in northern Syria, the 5th Corps commands a few thousand men who fight against both the Syrian regime and ISIS.[17]

Revolutionary Command Council

At a three day meeting in Turkey in late November, a new umbrella group named Revolutionary Command Council (RCC, majlis qiyadat al-thawra) was formed among 72 "rebel" groups, including most of the usual suspects. Apparently to the surprise of the organizers, "only 6 or 7" of the 17 seats in the council went to "moderate" groups with the rest going to the likes of Ahrar Al Sham. This happened while the not-invited Al Nusra Front again raided some of the "moderate" groups bases and captured an additional bunch of shiny U.S. weapons.[18][19]


According to a Reuters article from December 2, the U.S. "vetted" militias Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm dropped out of the RCC after the conference because of the dominance of Islamists. According to the article, "there are at least two other projects underway, albeit at a nascent stage, to create a credible, unified military opposition that could be supported by foreign states."[20]

Despite the pull out, according to "rebel"/mercenary sources cited by McClatchy, the U.S. stopped paying salary to most fighters of the two groups a week later.[21]

In late December groups belonging to the RCC announced to have formed a joint command specifically for Aleppo, called al-Jabha al-Shamiya or the "Levant Front". It is headed by Liwa Al-Tawhid leader Adelaziz Salame. Aron Lund suspects that this was mainly done to be able to speak with one voice in the negotiations about a "freeze" the UN is trying to broker in face of the Syrian Arab Army coming close to finishing their encirclement of the militant-controlled eastern part of the city.[22]

2015 Developments

US Support

Main article: US involvement in Syria
  • Syrian rebels say they receive more weapons for Aleppo battle -Reuters, October 19, 2015

The delivery of the U.S.-made [anti-tank] TOW missiles to rebels in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria appears to be an initial response to the new Russian-Iranian intervention.

Maghawir al-Thawra

According to its leader in an interview in June 2017, a bunch of initially 120 FSA fighters who fled ISIS to Jordan were trained by the US under the initial name "New Syrian Army", starting in May 2015. By the time of the interview they are a couple of hundreds and hang out with US troops at the al-Tanf border crossing, properly indoctrinated to prevent a "Shiite crescent" formed by both Syrian and Iraqi state forces opening the Damascus-Baghdad highway going through this place.[23]

Talks with (or in) Russia

Syrian Democratic Forces

Rojava parliament in Derik
Flag of SDF

On October 15, 2015, the formation of a coalition of 13 armed groups under the name of "Syrian Democratic Forces" was announced. Beside several smaller Arab groups operating in the north-eastern parts of Syria, the by far largest group is the Kurdish YPG/YPJ. In their declaration they express intent to fight ISIS and thank the US-led coalition for their support which they hope will continue in the future.[24][25] Some suspect that the formation of this body of groups that had already worked together anyway is intended for plausible deniability of arming the YPG, which Turkey had warned in no uncertain terms both the US and Russia not to do.[26][27] In July 2017, US General Raymond Thomas revealed that this was indeed the case, that he told the YPG to "change their brand" to appease Turkey.[28]

On December 8, 2015, the SDF held a conference in Derik where the formation of a political body Democratic Syria Assembly (MSD) with 42 seats was announced.[29][30]

In late 2019 the SDF has according to their own account 80,000 fighters and 30,000 security personnel.[31]

2016 Developments

US special forces troops had to withdraw from the town of al-Rai on Syria’s border with Turkey, after allies from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had driven them out, calling them “infidels” and “crusaders,” several media outlets have reported.
Rusvesna, 17 Sep, 2016; video, 16 Sep, 2016.
Lots of shouting on the video. Pickup trucks with mounted machine guns, US style uniform fighters, and a few Abrams tanks seen leaving, while the crowd chants something in Arabic, which includes 'America!'.

Syrian Elite Forces

The self-proclaimed "Syrian Elite Forces" are an Arab tribal militia led by former Syrian National Council president and important Shammar tribe member Ahmad Jarba, and the military wing of his Syrian Tomorrow Party. Supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, the militia initially fought only in Hasakah and Deir Ez-Zor provinces, but in December 2016 joined the US-supported SDF-led effort to conquer Raqqa from ISIS.[32]

2017 Developments

2018 Developments

Erdogan's Gangs

Gangs involved in what Turkey calls the "Syrian National Army", Dec 29, 2018

Many of the groups formed over the years in the several programs find themselves recycled as cannon fodder in the Turkish attack on the Kurdish Afrin canton in the very north-west of Syria. Erdogan threatens to widen this attack to the cantons in the east where the US supports the groups going under the label SDF. Firat News Agency breaks down "Erdogan's gangs" which include some who are allegedly still paid by the Pentagon.

October 2020. It is said that fighters from Syrian pro-Turkish Hamza division (Wikipedia; logo) or Sultan Murad division are fighting in Nagornyi Karabakh on Azerbaijani side.


Just hours before an explosion wiped out the entire leadership of one of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria, the head of Ahrar Al-Sham Brigade spent four hours talking to Yvonne Ridley about his vision for the future. In an amazingly frank interview, this is what he told her.
  • Has Russia saved the Assad regime from collapse?, Aljazeera, October 5, 2015. 'Khaled Khoja, president of the Syrian National Coalition, discusses Russia's military offensive in the war-torn country'. -Most of the material is in the embedded interview video. Claims that opposition has 70 thousand loosely linked fighters, and that fighting on the government side is mostly done by Iranians. Calls for a Western-imposed no-fly zone ...
Wikipedia on Syrian opposition
  • "New Approach in Southern Syria", International Crisis Group, 2.9.2015 (US-centric approach, retold/studied on rusvesna...presents the case for how is that Assad fuels more jihadism...)


Western support


  • "TOW" destroys a tent
  • a tank takes a hit (at the end it is shown by what; possibly a version of PTUR, like e.g. here)
  • Rebels received a large shipment of "Grad" missiles -Rusvesna, referring to Reuters report, Feb. 13, 2016. Embedded video shows rebels firing (apparently non-USSR) version of Grad. Video is dated as February 2015 in the report (and February 2016 on the video itself).



  1. 1.0 1.1 The Free Syrian Army doesn’t exist By Aron Lund, for Syria Comment, March 16, 2013
  2. Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders – Joshua Landis, October 1st, 2013
  3. Announcement by official Islamic Front English language Twitter account, September 9, 2014
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Syria’s Ahrar al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing, Aron Lund, September 9, 2014
  5. Syria rebel group names new chiefs after blast kills leaders, NOW., September 10, 2014
  6. Aron Lund on twitter, December 25, 2015
  7. The death of Abdelqader Saleh, Aron Lund, November 17, 2013
  8. The Islamic Front: Largest Rebel Group Merger Aims at Establishing Islamic State in Syria, translated by Eretz Zen, November 23, 2013
  9. Bibi and Bandar Badger Obama, Franklin Lamb, December 6, 2013
  10. Top Western-backed rebel commander run out of Syria by Islamists, RT, December 12, 2013
  11. Syrian Rebellion Observatory on twitter, March 22, 2015
  12. Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader, Aron Lund, September 12, 2015
  13. Leadership of Free Syrian Army dismissed, September 22, 2014
  14. House Approves Arming Syrian Rebels to Fight Islamic State; Measure Passes Along With Stopgap Spending Bill, WSJ, , September 17, 2014
  15. Syrian Opposition Leader: 'We Need Your Assistance' ABC, September 21, 2014
  16. Hadi al Bahra addresses United Nations General Assembly, September 26, 2014
  17. The Moderate Rebels: A Complete and Growing List of Vetted Groups, Hasan Mustafa, October 21, 2014
  18. Islamists come out on top in new effort to unify Syrian rebel groups, Mousab Alhammadee, McClatchyDC, November 29, 2014
  19. The Revolutionary Command Council: Rebel Unity in Syria?, Aron Lund, December 1, 2014
  20. New Syrian opposition grouping fails to entice major rebel factions, Reuters, December 2, 2014
  21. Rebels in northern Syria say U.S. has stopped paying them, McClatchy, December 9, 2104
  22. The Levant Front: Can Aleppo’s Rebels Unite?, Aron Lund, December 26, 2014
  23. Syrian rebel commander: 150 US troops at al-Tanf base, Interview with Mohannad al-Talaa, Al Monitor, June 1, 2017
  24. Declaration of establishment by Syrian Democratic Forces, Firat News Agency, October 15, 2015
  25. Syrian Democratic Forces Announce Final Declaration, YPG Rojava, October 16, 2015
  26. Note: "Some" = the author
  27. Turkey warns U.S., Russia against backing Kurdish militia in Syria, Reuters, October 13, 2015
  28. US General says he told YPG to change their ‘brand’ to appease Turkey, Rudaw, July 22, 2017
  29. Final resolution of the Democratic Syria Congress released, Firat News Agency, December 10, 2015
  30. Executive Board of Democratic Syria Assembly elected, Firat News Agency, December 13, 2015
  31. SDF Commander-in-Chief Says Group Has 110,000 Fighters, Call For Semi-Merge With Syrian Army, SouthFront, December 18, 2019
  32. Elite Forces led by former Syrian opposition chief join SDF in fight against ISIS, ARA News, December 10, 2016