Khaldun Mador

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You are Khaldun Mador, Field Commander of Failaq al Sham, one of the pre-eminent rebel armies within the Free Syrian Army, an indigenous, moderate opposition force that has fought against Bashir Assad’s army all the way back to the explosion of tensions in 2011. The name of your militia, which translates to the “Legion of Sham,” refers to the historic name of the area that we now know as Syria (“Bilad al Sham”). You are known to keep a very low profile, and little is known about you, but you clearly have the respect of your fighters, maintaining control over your forces after you succeeded Yasser Abdul Rahim as Field Commander in February 2018. Rather than talk about your personal story, then, we will focus in this profile on the Free Syrian Army, the Legion of Sham, and on the significance of your stronghold in Idlib Province, in the Northwest corner of Syria very near the border with Turkey.

The Free Syrian Army

It is important to briefly go over the rise of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA. The Free Syrian Army was formed on the 27th of July, 2011, when a large contingent of soldiers, under Reyad Al-Assad, defected from the Syrian Military in the early days of what became the Syrian Civil War. It is well to remember that in those early days, the “rebellion” started with some kids in the southern city of Daraa, inspired by the street rebellions taking place in Egypt and Tunisia, posting graffiti demanding more democracy and the release of political prisoners. Syrian President Bashir Assad made the decision, early on, that the way to respond to these protests was not to engage politically but rather to crack down hard, bringing in government forces to attack protesters and putting forth the line that the protests were not coming from Syrians but, instead, from outside agitators. The FSA is comprised of largely secular soldiers from the Syrian army who refused to take arms against the Syrian populace, siding with the protesters and abandoning Assad’s army. As the revolution spread, however, more and more groups took up arms alongside the FSA, which was both a challenge and a blessing. The FSA was once seen as the sole rebel group fighting Assad, and this made it easy to show to the world that the Syrian opposition could be trusted and supplied. However, many of the new groups that sprouted up were not secular, and some are quite fervently Islamist, including forces linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIL). This gave many donors cold feet about supplying the FSA and other secular groups with weapons; they feared that these weapons might find their way into the hands of Islamist extremists. From the start, this fear was a major hindrance to the FSA’s ability to acquire arms and ammunition from the West. What made things even worse was that the FSA needed the Islamists. Though they had different motives, they were fighting the same enemy, and the FSA could not fight both them and Assad, nor could they hope to defeat Assad’s army without their help.

The situation was made even worse by the first person to hold this position. Riyad Al-Assad, the Commander who led the defection, established bases in Turkey from which to launch attacks into Syria. However, this left a gap in terms of FSA presence within Syria itself. Other groups moved in and the FSA began to look marginalized. Seeing the flaw in this plan, the FSA relocated all of its resources into Syria, seeking to demonstrate that it was in the fight for the long haul. Still, the damage had been done, and numerous splinter groups jumped into the void. Indeed, the FSA and the leadership of the Syrian government in exile—the Syrian National Council—has fought the perception of their being absentee leaders, and this has resulted in a sometimes disorganized campaign and the ineffective dispersal of supplies across Syria. ' Recognizing the fractured nature of the opposition, the U.S. and several other western groups pulled their support of the FSA. The message was simple--get your house in order, control the Islamists, and then we will support you. Your predecessors, Riyad Al-Assad, Salim Idris and Abdul Ilah al-Bashir, all tried to lead that process, but all seemed to lack the political skills. To be fair, they were placed in deeply challenging positions, as the Syrian Army, with military aid from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, was able to recover from what seemed to be a bleak situation, and to regain the military initiative across wide swaths of Syria. All is not completely lost for the FSA, as you have significant strongholds in the area of Idlib and other pockets of Eastern Syria, but if you cannot convince the West to support you militarily, it seems unlikely that you will regain the upper hand. Indeed, it may be that the only scraps of hope for victory over Assad rests in the power of the very extremist Islamist opposition forces that took the initiative from the FSA in so many places, and that also won some stunning victories in Iraq.

Legion of Sham

Although its fighters have been battling the Syrian Army since 2011, the Legion of Sham only formally came into existence in March 2014, a union of nineteen Sunni Islamist rebel militias. Although the Legion works with militias affiliated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, it was vetted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) which determined that it was not an extremist organization, clearing the way for the Legion of Sham to receive anti-tank missiles from the US. The Legion has also been supported by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and The United Arab Emirates. Legion of Sham fighters have battled the Syrian Army in Homs and Hama, two important cities north of Damascus, but in both places the Syrian Army has essentially regained military control. The center of the Legion’s remaining influence in Syria is in Idlib, where it fights with significant support from the Turks.

Turkey’s Actions & Idlib

Although Turkish President Erdogan is no fan of Bashir Assad, with Turkish forces once actively opposing Assad’s armies, Turkey’s interest in Idlib Province has less to do with Syria per se, and reflects Turkey’s own strategic interests instead. Turkey’s two major strategic interests are, first of all, to have some control on the ground in Syria that can be used as a bargaining chip as Russia, Iran and President Assad negotiate the future of Syria. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Turkish control in Idlib acts as foothold for their battle against Kurdish forces, and against any notion of an independent Kurdish state (which would be partially carved out of Turkish-controlled lands). Indeed, the Legion of Sham and other FSA militia have found themselves fighting in support of Turkish political aims. Specifically, they have joined Turkish forces doing battle against the Kurdish YPG (“People’s Protection Units”) militia, an army on the front line of the fight for Kurdish independence, which Turkey sees as a fundamentally threating force. On the other hand, the YPG played a huge role in supporting the American-led battle against forces of the Islamic State in Syria, something for which the US (and many other nations!) owes the YPG a great debt. In this sense, both the Legion and the FSA more generally are caught between two strong and politically opposed allies, which does not make your job any easier.

It should finally be stated that Idlib has political significance for all sides, with the Assad government (and their Russian allies) liking the fact that there’s one place in Syria where internal refugees—most recently from Daraa in the South—can be shipped. Being able to move Syrians to this so-called “de-escalation zone” makes Assad and his Russian allies look somewhat more reasonable and humane in the eyes of the world, even though Syrian air forces continue to attack in the Idlib region at the same time. Indeed, President Assad has ominously said, in reference to the Legion of Sham and others in Idlib fighting the regime, that “you have to clean. You have to keep cleaning this area to push the terrorists into Turkey, back to where they come from, or to kill them.”

The Challenges You Face

Many of your soldiers are from predominately Sunni areas of the country. For decades they have been subjugated by an Alawite minority in Syria that has limited their chances for advancement within the military or within the government. The urge for retribution is only natural. This is also something that gives strength to the Assad Regime. The Alawite minority is powerful, wealthy, and entrenched. Fear that your forces will begin exacting revenge will drive them closer to Assad and make them much more willing to fight. This could be catastrophic, as not only will it lengthen the war, but it could lead to a geographical division of the nation. If the Alawites leave, they will take with them many of the Syrian peoples’ sources of revenue. It is key to the campaign that you comfort the fears of the Alawite business class, and assure them that revenge will not be taken against them should your forces win the day. You must also contend with the fatigue factor, as the civil war enters its eighth year, and as the initial surge of energy and passion that fueled the resistance in its early months has waned in the face of the resilience of Assad’s forces and their powerful allies. Your army, with so many of its members having defected from the Syrian Army, is now facing defections of its own, and problems of morale. Some of your fighters are joining other armies, or are giving up the cause and joining the exodus out of Syria. The combination of battle fatigue, more visible successes by other opposition forces, continued lack of military support from the West, and the ongoing perception that the FSA leadership has often not been present in Syria, gives you a complex set of challenges to face.

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