Underfunded and outgunned Free Syrian Army faces additional enemies

The commander of the Free Syrian Army announced it will not attend scheduled peace talks in Geneva and will continue to fight Assad's forces. But the opposition group is also having to combat extremist groups. Margaret Warner reports on the pressures and in-fighting facing the FSA, as well as challenges to diplomatic efforts.


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The head of the Free Syrian Army announced today that his group will not be attending the so-called Geneva II conference aimed at bring a political solution to the country's crisis.

Instead, FSA commander Salim Idris vowed to continue fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But, as Margaret Warner reports, that objective has become increasingly unlikely as the underfunded and outgunned group is forced to fight additional enemies.

MARGARET WARNER: Last November, we met Colonel Abdul-Jabbar Aikidi at his rebel command post outside Aleppo. His Free Syrian Army units were on the march, he told us, taking ground in the city and surrounding area and seizing the momentum against Bashar al-Assad's government forces.

COL. ABDUL JABBAR AL AIKIDI, Free Syrian Army (through interpreter): We have almost full control on the ground, though they are superior in the air and with rocket launchers, tanks and artillery. But we are superior on the ground and we have control.

MARGARET WARNER: But earlier this month, the well-regarded commander resigned his post. In this YouTube video, he voiced frustration with all the in-fighting among the rebellion's disparate units and leaders, including jihadist brigades.

ABDUL JABBAR AL AIKIDI (through interpreter): You warlords, stop chasing positions and status and carrying about being famous. Return to the battlefield and leave behind your egos.

MARGARET WARNER: Joshua Landis, head of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, says the resignation of Aikidi, a favorite of the U.S. and the West, shows a rebellion in crisis.

JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: He was the go-to man for supplying the non-lethal aid, and many people had proposed that he should get most of the lethal aid. His quitting shows you that the Western attempt to develop a supreme military council and the Syrian National Council and so forth has largely collapsed.

MARGARET WARNER: Right now, the regime is attacking rebel-held areas in Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus and in Qalamoun, used by rebels to cross from nearby Lebanon.

Another top commander, Abdul-Qadir al-Saleh, was just killed in an airstrike. And last month, Assad's forces retook the town of Safira outside Aleppo, the latest in a string of setbacks that began with the June siege and fall of Qusayr, where Assad's forces were boosted by fighters from Lebanon Shiite militia Hezbollah.

JEFFREY WHITE, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: They have extended their influence.

MARGARET WARNER: That assault established a playbook for the months ahead, says former defense intelligence official Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

JEFFREY WHITE: This is what I call the Qusayr rules. They use massive firepower, air artillery, armor. They use Hezbollah forces to provide the infantry. If they can, they will isolate an area and pound it into submission.

MARGARET WARNER: Before this reversal of fortune, the U.S. and Russia were pushing to convene a peace conference here in Geneva, hoping that the warring parties, having fought to a stalemate, would negotiate a political solution to their conflict.

Though there's now a new conference date set for January, many who've been involved in the struggle to end the conflict are skeptical of its chances for success, including Fred Hof, who ran the State Department's Syria transition operation until the fall of 2012.

FRED HOF, Atlantic Council: It's going to be very difficult, I think, to convene a Geneva conference and to have a result that essentially amounts to peaceful, negotiated regime change in Syria so long as that regime itself believes it is winning.

MARGARET WARNER: What's more, the Free Syrian Army -- or FSA -- now finds itself fighting on two fronts, against Assad's and against extreme Islamist elements of the rebellion, groups like the al-Qaida-linked Al-Nusra Front and ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.

Funded generously by wealthy individuals from the Gulf, they're attracting Sunni jihadist fighters from throughout the Arab and Muslim world and even non-like-minded Syrians.

FRED HOF: The jihadi groups are well-financed, well-equipped, well-armed. Their priority seems to be to establish various forms of pseudo-Islamic governance on the villages and towns and cities where they're in control.

MARGARET WARNER: They're taking that control in some places from the more centrist FSA forces, says Jeff White.

JEFFREY WHITE: The extreme Islamists, let's say, are very good at taking control. They have a very effective strategy of seizing ground, expanding that area of control, bringing in good governments and -- good governance, in the sense that it's not corrupt and criminal.

Initially, they were pretty clumsy. The first thing they would go would be to establish an extreme form of Sharia law. Now they're more clever. And they also deliver services.

MARGARET WARNER: Their growing power alarms the FSA's commanding general, Salim Idris, who spoke with us by phone from Turkey.

GEN. SALIM IDRIS, Free Syrian Army: They are fighting against the Free Syrian Army. They are trying to control the territories which we liberated before. And they don't fight against the regime. And they are, for us, very dangerous and maybe sometimes more dangerous than the regime.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that because they're better trained and equipped? Why are they so dangerous?

SALIM IDRIS: When the regime is trying to do some pressure on a front, they begin and start to do a lot of trouble for our forces in other regions, so that we are forced to send fighters to face them.

MARGARET WARNER: Idris repeated a longstanding plea, that the U.S. and other friendly powers give his forces more weapons, equipment, training, and money. The lack of those resources helped prompt the resignation of his friend, Colonel Aikidi, he said.

SALIM IDRIS: When we don't receive any support, sometimes, we can't withstand the pressure, and the humans have limits, and sometimes someone as Colonel Abdul-Jabbar comes to the limits and say, OK, enough; as a commander, I can't continue.

MARGARET WARNER: And you're talking about the United States in particular not giving enough support?

SALIM IDRIS: The supporting countries to the regime are doing very well, and supporting countries to the FSA and to the Syrian revolutions in general, the support is very little. Our friends, they hesitate.

MARGARET WARNER: Earlier this year, the Obama administration did approve the shipment of some arms and ammunition to vetted FSA rebels under a covert operation by the CIA.

But, to be effective, says Fred Hof, the mission must be ramped up and aimed at creating a unified, disciplined rebel structure.

FRED HOF: I think the answer is for the United States to employ the U.S. Department of Defense in an effort -- in an effort, really, to take control over the whole process.

MARGARET WARNER: But the counterargument has, for now, won the president's ear.

JOSHUA LANDIS: No, I wouldn't do it. First of all, America has very few interests in Syria.

JEFFREY WHITE: Most of the important militia forces on the ground are loyal to al-Qaida or they're very Salafist. They would see American intrusion as an imperialist act, and they would begin blowing us up, in the same way that they did in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: So where does this brutal war go from here? Jeffrey White thinks the regime is going to wear down the fragmented rebel forces.

JEFFREY WHITE: They can't match up to the regime. And the regime is going to keep winning these local battles. And the regime -- and the regime is implacable.

MARGARET WARNER: Landis predicts a conflict that grinds on as far as the eye can see.

JOSHUA LANDIS: No one is willing to intervene. They're going to fight it out. And that's -- that's -- that's been devastating so far, and it will continue to be.

MARGARET WARNER: For a country that suffered three years of war, at least 110,000 dead, more than two million refugees driven out, and four million displaced inside Syria, a grim forecast of more suffering to come.