x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Leadership crisis as Syrian rebels losing support

Syria's rebel fighters, poorly-led militarily and even worse-led politically, are beginning to damage the cause they support.

Even the best-disciplined armies have been accused of looting, rape and other crimes. And the Free Syrian Army is far from well-governed; its fragmented nature means command, control and discipline are rudimentary.

As The National reports today, the result is that the FSA may be losing public support, in Damascus and elsewhere. Reported thuggery has compounded Damascenes' resentment at being dragged into a shooting war that the city's residents had managed to avoid mainly through discreet silence.

To be sure, many of those fighting the Assad regime condemn the merchant class, and others in Syria's big cities, for protecting families and property by sitting on the sidelines. But that argument is now moot; the war has reached the cities.

And a horrible war it is. The initial peaceful protests calling for reform were met by regime massacres, systematic shelling and bombing of civilian centres, as well as deliberate terrorist tactics, including the targeting of children. Asking the opposition to remain dispassionate is pointless under those circumstances.

Those watching Syria's trauma from a distance - those who have not had to bury murdered children - must avoid glib condemnation of FSA soldiers. But any clear analysis leads inexorably to the conclusion that if the rebels respond to the regime's tactics in kind, Syria's future is very bleak. Indeed, if the FSA continues to alienate Syrians, and fails to win hearts and minds, it will play directly into the hands of the Assads.

The lack of discipline in the ranks of the FSA is a reflection of the divisions among the political opposition. To be sure, some in the FSA signed on to a code of conduct promulgated after the July 31 executions of pro-regime prisoners in Aleppo. But there is no political or military authority to enforce those rules.

This week, unconfirmed reports have FSA members threatening to attack civilian airports near Damascus and Aleppo, on the pretext that they are being used to import arms for the regime. (Etihad, among other airlines, has suspended flights to Damascus.) This may be regime propaganda, or at the most irresponsible bluster - an attack on civilian aircraft or facilities would be grossly counterproductive. The lack of sensible political leadership may open the way for serious military miscalculations.

Without a unified political vision, the FSA is in danger of becoming a mere militia, or several militias, maintaining itself by force and even banditry in a decaying state. Syrians deserve better.