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O Free Syrian Army, Where Art Thou? Nobody Seems to Know Who, Where FSA Is

High-ranking officials in the US and Europe often accuse Russia of targeting moderate opposition in its counterterrorism operation in Syria but no one has clearly explained who the Free Syrian Army is, where it is located or what it wants

Originally appeared at Sputnik

The FSA is as elusive as a proverbial black cat in a dark room… not only for outsiders and experts but for its own members as well. And here is why.

Russia is serious about preventing Islamic extremists from overrunning Syria and then spreading their reach beyond the Middle East. To that end Moscow is trying to recruit as many allies in its multinational efforts as possible, including regional and global stakeholders, both state and non-state groups.

Russia is already coordinating its multinational counterterrorism campaign with Syria, Iraq and Iran through an intelligence sharing center in Baghdad. It will soon launch a similar mechanism with Jordan in Amman. Anyone else willing to destroy terrorists in Syria is welcome to join, Russian officials repeat time and again.

On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed that Moscow was ready to provide aerial support to any patriotic opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army. The only obstacle in the way is the precise location of FSA-affiliated rebels. Moscow does not have this information, although it has repeatedly asked anyone familiar with the FSA (including the United States and Great Britain) to provide it.

Moscow's appeal appeared to have worked on Sunday when Fahad Masri, an FSA cofounder, told RIA Novosti that the group was ready to engage in dialogue with Russia.

"We need to schedule a new meeting to share our vision of the situation and discuss joint actions… We can make a joint decision on what kind of assistance Russia might provide to the Free Syrian Army during the talks," he noted.

What is the US goal in Syria?
  • To fight terrorism, end the violence, and lay the basis for a stable democratic system
  • To maintain full control over the region's natural resources together with its Middle Eastern allies

It could have been a milestone in the counterterrorism campaign but that same day Fares Bayoush, who heads the FSA-affiliated group Fursan al-Haq, refused to accept Russia's help. In his opinion, Moscow "must firstly stop bombing the headquarters of the Free Army before offering air support that we haven't asked for."

Other rebel leaders from FSA-affiliated groups made similar comments in response to Russia's proposal. They all reflect what many in Syria and some outside of it know: the Free Syrian Army is a small decentralized umbrella organization lacking unified leadership and with no real presence on the ground.

As a side note, Russian forces choose their targets in Syria based on its own intelligence, as well as data provided by Damascus, Tehran and Iraq.

"I am sure there is no Free Syrian Army because they refused to cooperate with and receive help from Russia as they are fighting ISIL and others. And at the same time they are ready to hold talks with Russia. What is the meaning of that? They want only a political role or political resolution in Syria because they know they have no real existence on the ground. They have no real forces, there is no Free Syrian Army," deputy director of the Damascus Center for International and Strategic Studies, Dr. Taleb Ibrahim, told Radio Sputnik.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov echoed this sentiment by saying that at the moment the Free Syrian Army has essentially "blended into" the terrorist crowd. "Some were scared, some joined ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra for money. All the Syrians we talked to while trying to contact the Free Syrian Army say that it does not have a single leadership," he told RIA Novosti.

 Syrian Ambassador to Moscow Riad Haddad also confirmed that "the so-called Free Syrian Army once existed but its members later joined other terrorist groups."

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