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Russian warplanes strike at a bad time for the Free Syrian Army

Advancing IS, hostile al-Nusra Front, and a string of assassinations frustrate the FSA, as Russia strikes from the sky
Rebel fighters from the "First Battalion" under the Free Syrian Army take part in a military training (AFP)

As Russia expands its military operation in Syria, its warplanes have continued bombing positions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Evidence from the ground has shown that Russian airstrikes have hit FSA positions in Homs, Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia and Hama provinces.

Opposition commander Faras al-Bayoush says that Russian airstrikes hit the positions of Liwa Soqour al-Jabal, Tajamu al-Azza, al-Wasta Division, and the First Coastal Division, all factions of the FSA.

“The airstrikes that hit closest to us were in Jabal al-Zawiya, just 4 kilometres away [from our positions],” al-Bayoush told Middle East Eye. He is the commander of Fursan al-Haqq Brigade, which operates in Idlib province.

He says that the Russian intervention has effectively opened another front against the FSA.

“We have already many fronts on which the FSA is fighting: the regime, ISIL [IS], Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and now Russia.”

Russia has previously denied targeting the FSA, saying that it does not consider it a terrorist organisation. According to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, the purpose of the Russian military operation is to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy to consolidate his hold over Syria’s urban areas.

“As [the Russians] bomb, they want Assad to take these territories,” he said, pointing out that Russian planes have struck only a few IS positions.

Osama al-Koshak, a Syrian researcher based in Deraa, says Russian airstrikes have targeted areas where the FSA had recently advanced. He says that Russia’s intervention began as the FSA was facing growing pressure in the northern front.

In the past year, the FSA has been struggling to retain its gains while facing increasing aggression from IS, clashes with al-Nusra Front, and a number of assassinations of high-level commanders. 

“The situation has become very bad. IS is advancing to take control of the border with Turkey,” says an FSA commander, who requested anonymity. In September, IS fighters attacked his division in north Aleppo province, but the FSA managed to repel them, suffering heavy casualties. The number of injured and dead FSA soldiers was close to 90.

Al-Koshak says that the FSA has been so engaged in its struggle against the government that it has not had enough human and military resources to battle IS effectively. More recently in the fighting between the two, IS has had the upper hand in the Northern Front, he says.

As Russian airstrikes have continued, IS managed to expand its gains in Aleppo province.

In the past year, various FSA divisions have also clashed with al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front. Although the FSA and al-Nusra had cooperated in the past in the fight against the Assad government, their relations have become increasingly tense recently.

Starting in late 2014 al-Nusra Front attacked and overran the positions of the Hazem Movement in Idlib, which later led to its dissolution. It has also fought and destroyed other FSA factions such as Thawar Suriya Front and Haqq al-Muqatila Front. Most recently, al-Nusra attacked and destroyed the 30th Division, which was trained and equipped under a US assistance programme.

“There were always problems with al-Nusra Front,” says another FSA commander who also asked not to be named. Al-Nusra Front attacked his division over suspicions that it withheld weapons which belonged to the dissolved Hazem Movement. He says that after the initial clashes, a third party got involved and mediated a truce, dispelling al-Nusra’s suspicions.

FSA’s effectiveness on the ground has also been affected by a number of assassinations in its ranks, which al-Koshak says have increased in the past year. In September, Yasser Abdul Rahman al-Khalaf, a commander of the Horreya Brigade of Thawar Suriya Front, was gunned down in Deraa, while Mujid al-Zaml commander of the Ahfad Omar Brigade, survived an IED explosion in the same province. In January, Colonel Mohib al-Hamdu from the 101 Division was killed by an IED in his car in the Syrian village of Atma in Idlib governorate, close to the border with Turkey.

The threat of assassinations has also recently spread into Turkey. In August, Jamil Radoun, the commander of the Tajamu Soqour al-Ghab was killed by an IED placed under his car in the southern Turkish city of Antakya. Radoun, who over the summer led the unification of various FSA factions in Hama under the banner of al-Jeish al-Nasr, had been targeted earlier, in April, in Reyhanli, some 60km south of Antakya, where the police discovered an unexploded IED under his car. Just a month before the first attempt on Radoun’s life, an IED was placed under the personal car of Youssef al-Hassan, the former head of the Haqq al-Muqatila Front. The bomb was discovered and dismantled by the Turkish police.

“Jamil was loved by all divisions and he felt safe because of that. He didn’t want to take security measures,” said Mohamed al-Mansour, who took over the leadership of Tajamu Soqour al-Ghab after Radoun’s death.

He says he has decided to stay in Reyhanli for now, unlike a number of FSA commanders who have chosen to move to other cities because of what they perceive as an increasingly insecure environment in the city.

But with less than two months as a commander of the Tajamu Soqour al-Ghab, al-Mansour already faces a formidable new enemy. He says that for the first time in north and north-west Hama Province his troops are facing a ground offensive by government forces who are covered by Russian helicopters.

Both al-Mansour and al-Bayoush agree that what the FSA needs the most right now are anti-aircraft weapons which would help counter aerial threats, including Russian planes.

Al-Koshak says that one of the biggest problems the FSA is currently facing is not just the absence of means to counteract aerial attacks, but also the lack of proper armaments in general. International support with arms has been decreasing, he says.

Over the past week, the Obama administration shut down the controversial US-sponsored $500mn train-and-equip programme for Syrian opposition fighters which has largely been seen as a failure. However, US officials have said that arms supplies to some armed opposition groups will continue.