An alarming video shows members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) chanting threats in reaction to American troops entering a small town in northern Syria.
The video might really show us that Americans are in danger in Syria. It also shows we are not necessarily winning hearts and minds. Above all, it shows that Syria, like the rest of the Middle East, is like a shirt with a thousand pockets. Each pocket is a different tribe or family with a separate identity. Some might be splintered from one another, some belong to a greater whole, but the identities in the region are fractured by design. They have commonalities, but they answer to their family and tribal identities at the end of the day. This is why dictatorships arise so frequently in the Middle East.
However, there is no official statement or report confirming these individuals are members of the FSA. They may be locals who opted to fight to protect their land. They may also be past or current FSA members. This begs the question as to what membership in the FSA means in Syria. It seems every time a local group that is not al-Qaeda or ISIS does something, they’re the FSA. It might be as simple as that inside Syria. This war has exposed old tribal identities. Each of the main groups are likely comprised of sub-groups, tribal members who feud with one another frequently. The same was true during the times of Lawrence of Arabia, and the same is true today.
The FSA may not be a tightly woven group at all, and may instead be a large group of people who have to give some loyalty to local warlords who are members of the FSA. That would be a tribal or community-based militia willing to fight if need be. This is more likely than the accepted narrative that the FSA is a larger coordinated army at play. In fact, if they were comprised of militiamen, it would be ideal for guerrilla warfare and would help keep tribal feuds at bay.
It could be a lack of U.S. leadership on the ground. Varied reports make it difficult to imagine concrete alliances. It seems local leaders do not have total control. Regardless, these are Syrians. They’re not an organized force of jihadi fighters, but local peoples, and they are in open revolt of our presence. We need the hearts and minds to view us as an answer to oppression, not the beginning to more of it.
If the FSA was loosely connected, but connected nonetheless, by groups of fighters, they might have some autonomy regarding which battles in which they choose to participate. If so, it would explain the practical reason rumors exist that the FSA coordinates with other local groups. Those stories run the gamut. Here is one where FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra team up. Here’s one where the FSA and ISIS work together. Here are two articles saying that al-Qaeda is winning Syrian hearts and minds and the war itself. The FSA might be more like a neighborhood Wiffle Ball or kickball game: It’s one neighborhood versus another, but one neighborhood has people from all over the place, and the other is a gated community.
The situation is complicated, as this video shows. It also indicates that Syria is more porous and less of a hell than people choose to believe. No war zone is a constant running battle, and most battles are cyclical and short-lived compared to life at large in a war zone. It also shows the conflict among the Syrian people and that emotions are running high. If nothing else, it shows a strong anti-American sentiment and suspicion of conspiracy among those in the video.
Now, I’m glad the U.S. soldiers were with the Turks for added protection. The FSA are our partners, too. At this point, the FSA represents a non-secular, moderate people willing to fight for a peaceful democratic Syria. It’s the name we’ve given to the Syrians we want to win. We very possibly might have not found them—yet. Our best allies could be waiting for us to enter the fray and fight alongside them. That’s what unconventional warfare is; that’s what worked in Afghanistan against the Taliban.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have a roster change. We just have to find the country’s best champions. But as far as anyone can tell reading the news reports coming out of the region, Iraqi SOF is the closest thing to an FSA, except they’re Iraqi.
The idea of a real moderate and battle-ready FSA is a beautiful one and thoroughly American. It taps into our raison d’etre: to free others from oppression and usher in a democratic society. That’s what founded our nation. Finding the FSA’s successor, a group in Syria who can do the job, is a priority. Because perceived failure matters on the world stage when you are the de facto leader. It’s been made clear Assad must go, and whatever the outcome will have a profound effect. His demise or his survival will leave a great wake around the world. Nations that are otherwise acting in ways we condone might reconsider alliances. Everyone loves an underdog, and no ever likes whoever is in charge.
A lot is going on here. But ISIS, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China all have the same claim. They tell the world things are tilted to the West, and it’s not unfair—it’s a conspiracy. Anyone who feels as though they’ve been marginalized in society could buy into that philosophy and blame the West. It’s powerful, and with enough countries and regional powers co-opted, productive.
We’ve fallen under a global expectation of being the world police. We have some reason to behave as such in some scenarios. In this case, if a group that’s given us some solidarity is openly betraying that agreement, they should be punished. Because if punishment and retribution are not clear, it puts our people in great danger.
The cell shown in this video, if they’re really a part of the FSA, can no longer be trusted. Their leaders must tell ours if this video is, in fact, the reality. This highlights the need for a more robust U.S. presence in Syria alongside our nation-state partners. There, we can collectively assess the situation on the ground and seek out real moderates who are willing to fight in hopes of a future peaceful Syrian sovereignty.
It makes me upset that our fighting men and women are working hard to help these people overthrow an oppressive regime, yet some view us as the strategic enemy. We have people deployed away from their families to help those who aren’t in a position to help themselves. Power and training can fill a group of people with a false sense of superiority.
The inability to trust partner forces in foreign lands at war is a reality. This real fear is reinforced by the actual instances of green-on-blue killings in Afghanistan. It’s impossible to distinguish who to trust, especially when it isn’t the operator’s job or within the training to make that distinction with accuracy. There are larger, overarching questions as to who the people in this video are and what their motivation is.
This group is threatening our troops who are there to help them. Whatever group they belong to—within the FSA or not—should be blacklisted from assistance of any kind. Threatening American troops should not be tolerated.
Featured image courtesy of middleeasteye.net.
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