The heirarchy and command structure of the rebels in Syria can be difficult to navigate. The rebel group that is most likely to get U.S. arms and aid in Syria is the Supreme Military Command.
Western and Gulf Arab backers sought to encourage a centralized rebel leadership, and in December 2012 the Supreme Military Command (SMC) was created. It is also called the Supreme Military Council.
SMC-aligned brigades still keep separate identities, agendas and commands. Some work with hardline Islamist groups that alarm the West, such as Ahrar al-Sham, and al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.
The SMC’s chief-of-staff, Gen. Idris, wanted it to be a more moderate and stronger alternative to the jihadist rebel groups in Syria. However, Idris was removed from his position as Chief-of-Staff of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council in an announcement on February 16th, 2014, and he was replaced with Brigadier General Leader Abdul-lla al-Bashir.
The SMC is the moderate “darling” of the U.S. State Department.
Let’s try and navigate more through Syrian rebel waters, shall we?
The Free Syrian Army (FSA)
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is one of the rebel groups under the umbrella group Supreme Military Command. It was formed in August 2011 by Syrian army deserters based in Turkey, led by Col Riad al-Asaad.
The FSA is also a loose confederation of fighting groups with little operational control over them.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “…(T)he success of President Obama’s strategy in Syria clearly depends on the ability of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS. The good news is the FSA has established a command center outside the village of Marea in the strategically important province of Aleppo to direct and manage the battle against ISIS in northern Syria.”
“…How can these rebel groups help the U.S. assault on ISIS? Even with the world’s most advanced intelligence reconnaissance and surveillance platforms, the U.S. military still needs ‘eyes on the ground’ to round out the intelligence picture of ISIS’s capabilities, locations and vulnerabilities.”
Martyrs of Syria Brigades
Originally called the Martyrs of Jabal al-Zawiya Brigade, the group was formed in late 2011 in Idlib province. Although its name was changed in mid-2012 to the Martyrs of Syria Brigades to reflect the growing ambitions of its leader, its operations are still focused in north-western Syria. The Martyrs of Syria Brigades reportedly ascribe to no particular ideology.
Northern Storm Brigade
The Northern Storm Brigade is an Islamist FSA unit that controls an important border crossing between Syria and Turkey. In September 2013, there were deadly clashes between the Northern Storm Brigade and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).
John McCain had well-publicized pictures supposedly taken with this group in 2013.
Ahrar Souriya Brigade
The Ahrar Souriya (Free Men of Syria) Brigade, which operates under the SMC, was set up by Col Qassem Saad al-Din, a former air force pilot from the northern town of Rastan.
The number of fighters in these groups is not certain. For example, the number of fighters in the Free Syrian Army has been estimated to be between 1,000 to 25,000.
War Crimes Accusations
On March 20th, 2012, Human Rights Watch issued an open letter to the opposition (including the FSA), accusing them of carrying out kidnappings, torture and executions and calling on them to halt these unlawful practices.
A story in the New York Times provides further reason to be concerned about the strategy of working with the rebels:
“After more than three years of civil war, there are hundreds of militias fighting President Bashar al-Assad—and one another. Among them, even the more secular forces have turned to Islamists for support and weapons over the years, and the remaining moderate rebels often fight alongside extremists like the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.”
“‘You are not going to find this neat, clean, secular rebel group that respects human rights and that is waiting and ready because they don’t exist,’ said Aron Lund, a Syria analyst who edits the Syria in Crisis blog for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace….”