Free Syrian Army
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) (Arabic: الجيش السوري الحر, romanized: al-Jaysh as-Sūrī al-Ḥurr) is a loose faction in the Syrian Civil War founded on 29 July 2011 by officers of the Syrian Armed Forces whose stated goal was to bring down the government of Bashar al-Assad. A formal organization at its founding, its structure gradually dissipated by late 2012, and the FSA identity has since been used by various opposition groups.
In late 2011, it was considered the main Syrian military defectors group. It had success against vastly better armed government forces. From July 2012 onward, ill-discipline, infighting and lack of funding weakened the FSA, while Islamist groups became dominant within the armed opposition.
The Free Syrian Army aims to be "the military wing of the Syrian people's opposition to the regime", and it aims to bring down the government by armed operations, encouraging army defections and by carrying out armed action. As the Syrian Army is highly organized and well-armed, the Free Syrian Army has adopted guerrilla-style tactics in the countryside and cities.
The FSA's military strategy is focused on a dispersed countrywide guerrilla campaign with a tactical focus on armed action in the capital of Damascus. The campaign was not meant to hold territory, but rather, to spread government forces and their logistics chains thin in battles for urban centers, to cause attrition in the security forces, to degrade morale and to destabilize Damascus, the center of government.
After the Turkish military intervention in Syria in 2016, an informal group of Turkish-backed Arabs and Turkmen was established under the name "Free Syrian Army", with on-ground support of an organised military backed by Turkish and British airpower. The group closely cooperates with Turkish troops in Syria.
On 20 March 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. The United Nations-sponsored "Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic" has documented war crimes in Syria since the start of the civil war. It said that rebels had committed war crimes, but that they "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale" of those by state forces. Some FSA-aligned groups have also been criticized for their alleged affiliation with Islamists.
In 2012, the FSA was accused of summarily executing numerous prisoners who it claims are government soldiers or Shabiha members, and people who it claims are informers. A rebel commander in Damascus said that over the months his unit had executed perhaps 150 people that the "military council" had found to be informers. He explained: "If a man is accused of being an informer, he is judged by the military council. Then he is either executed or released".
Nadim Houry, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch argued that "Intentionally killing anyone, even a shabiha, once he is outside of combat is a war crime, regardless of how horrible the person may have been". On 10 August 2012, a report indicated that Human Rights Watch was investigating rebel forces for such killings. The FSA, for its part, stated that they would put those fighters that had conducted the unlawful killings on trial.
In 2012, witnesses also reported rebels conducting 'trial by grave' in which an alleged government soldier was given a mock trial next to a pre-made grave and executed on the spot by members of the FSA Amr bin al-Aas brigade. One rebel said: "We took him right to his grave and, after hearing the witnesses' statements, we shot him dead".
The Daoud Battalion, operating in the Jabal-al-Zawiya area, reportedly used captured soldiers in proxy bombings in 2012. This involved tying the captured soldier into a car loaded with explosives and forcing him to drive to an army checkpoint, where the explosives would be remotely detonated.
In 2012, the UN noted some credible allegations that rebel forces, including the FSA, were recruiting children as soldiers, despite stated FSA policy of not recruiting anyone under the age of 17. One rebel commander said that his 16-year-old son had died fighting government troops.
In a video uploaded to the Internet in early August 2012, an FSA representative announced that, in response to international concerns, FSA units would follow the Geneva Convention's guidelines for the treatment of prisoners and would guarantee its captives food, medical attention and holding areas away from combat zones. He also invited Red Cross workers to inspect their detention facilities. On 8 August, FSA commanders distributed an 11-point code of conduct signed by scores of brigade commanders and rebel leaders. It states that all fighters must "respect human rights … our tolerant religious principles and international human rights law – the same human rights that we are struggling for today".
Timeline of some prominent alleged war crimes by groups considered to be part of the FSA:
- On 22 May 2012, the Northern Storm Brigade kidnapped 11 Lebanese pilgrims coming from Iran. Four of them were killed in an airstrike by the Syrian Air Force and the rest were released unharmed.
- On 20 July 2012, Iraq's deputy interior minister, Adnan al-Assadi, said that Iraqi border guards had witnessed the FSA take control of a border post, detain a Syrian Army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs before executing 22 Syrian soldiers.
- On 21 July 2012, Turkish truck drivers said that they had their trucks stolen by members of the FSA when it captured a border post. They said that some of the trucks were burnt and others sold back to their drivers after the goods were looted.
- The United Nations report on war crimes states that the FSA's execution of five Alawite soldiers in Latakia, post-July 2012 was a war crime. The report states, "In this instance, the FSA perpetrated the war crime of execution without due process."
- On 13 August 2012, a series of three videos surfaced showing executions of prisoners, apparently by rebel forces, in Aleppo province. In one video, six postal workers were being thrown off the main postal building in Al-Bab to their deaths, purportedly by FSA fighters. The gunmen claimed they were shabiha.
- On 9 September 2012 the FSA exploded a car bomb near al-Hayat Hospital and the Central Hospital in Aleppo. According to Syrian state media, at least 30 people were killed and more than 64 wounded. The FSA claimed that the army had occupied the hospital buildings and were using them as a base.
- On 10 September 2012 the FSA's Hawks of Syria brigade executed more than 20 Syrian soldiers captured in Hanano military base.
- On 2 November 2012 the FSA's al-Siddiq Battalion kidnapped and executed prominent Syrian actor Mohammed Rafeh. It claimed he was a member of the shabiha and was carrying a gun and military ID.
- In May 2013, a video was posted on the internet showing a rebel cutting organs from the dead body of a Syrian soldier and putting one in his mouth, "as if he is taking a bite out of it". He called rebels to follow his example and terrorize the Alawite sect, which mostly backs Assad. Humans Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed the authenticity of the footage, and stated that "The mutilation of the bodies of enemies is a war crime". The rebel was Khalid al-Hamad, known by his nom de guerre "Abu Sakkar", a commander of the Independent Omar al-Farouq Brigade. The BBC called it an offshoot of the FSA's Farouq Brigades, while HRW said it is "not known" whether the brigade is part of the FSA. The incident was condemned by the FSA's Chief of Staff and the Syrian National Coalition said that Abu Sakkar would be put on trial. Abu Sakkar said the mutilation was revenge. He claimed to have found a video on the soldier's cellphone in which the soldier sexually abuses a woman and her two daughters, along with other videos of Assad loyalists raping, torturing, dismembering and killing people, including children. He further stated that if the war was to continue, "all Syrian people" would be like him. He was killed in northwest Latakia province on 6 April 2016 by the Syrian Army, while being affiliated to the al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front.
- In December 2012, militants abducted an NBC News Team of six journalists around NBC's chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel. Engel initially blamed pro-regime Shabiha militants, but it turned out the perpetrators were most likely the FSA-affiliated rebel group North Idlib Falcons Brigade.
- Since July 2013, the al-Nusra Front, at times in coordination with other armed groups, carried out a series of killings of Kurdish civilians in al-Youssoufiyah, Qamishli and al-Asadia (al-Hasakah). During a raid by The Islamic State, al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and FSA groups, fighters killed a Kurdish Yazidi man in al-Asadia who refused to convert to Islam.
- After their capture of the town of Jarabulus from ISIL in September 2016, opposition militias of the Sultan Murad Division published pictures of themselves torturing four YPG members prisoners of war, who were captured by the rebel group while, according to YPG claims, trying to evacuate civilians.
- The FSA group Army of Victory have taken civilians, including children, as prisoners, mainly from Latakia. 112 of them were released in February 2017 as part of a prisoner exchange.
The FSA was mentioned in a 2014 Human Rights Watch report detailing the widespread practice of using child soldiers by non-state armed groups; the report interviewed children as young as 14 who fought with the FSA.
In 2014, the United Nations verified that the Free Syrian army had recruited more than 142 child soldiers. The UN reported stated "fragmentation of FSA resulted in localized and variable recruitment, training and salary practices. During armed battles, children were used for fighting, attending to the wounded or for recording events for propaganda purposes."
In 2016, the United Nations verified another 62 cases where Free Syrian Army had recruited and used child soldiers.