Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Istanbul-based Syrian interim government is moving towards forming a “Free National Army” to continue the fight against both extremist Islamist rebel groups and forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, according to a senior Syrian opposition official.
In exclusive comments to Asharq Al-Awsat, Syrian interim Defense Minister Asaad Mustafa, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council, said: “Discussions are currently taking place with all [opposition] military forces, including the Islamic Front, the largest alliance of Islamist battalions” in Syria, in a bid to push for the establishment of an army that encapsulates all moderate military factions fighting Assad.
“The Islamic Front is considering whether to join the new army,” Mustafa said, praising the newly formed Islamist alliance’s “role in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.”
As for the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an anti-Assad military umbrella group backed by the West, the interim minister said that the rebel government intends to “completely restructure the FSA’s Supreme Military Council,” but refused to comment on the future of its commanders.
The FSA has been led by Brig. Gen. Salim Idris since December 2012.
The latest move to unify the ranks of Syria’s anti-Assad rebels comes amid the continuing fragmentation of the Syrian revolution. The Islamic Front defected from the FSA in late 2013, with reported clashes breaking out between the two major rebel coalitions. Recently, the FSA and Islamic Front have appeared to join forces to combat the Al-Qaeda-backed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in a number of Syrian governorates following ISIS extending its control into neighboring Iraq. The Al-Nusra Front, also an Al-Qaeda-affiliate, has also joined the inter-rebel conflict, but on the perceived “moderate” Islamist side, fighting against ISIS in Aleppo and elsewhere.
According to Mustafa, a large number of Syrian rebel battalions have expressed their approval of the idea of a new army.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The practical steps towards establishing the army, which will guarantee the unification of the FSA battalions, will begin soon,” adding that steps will include “paying salaries and determining military needs.”
“The military doctrine of the new army will be based on non-intervention in politics,” he said, adding that “protecting the homeland will be the army’s key task.”
German press agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) quoted an unnamed Syrian interim minister as saying: “The Ministry of Defense is working with several sides inside and outside Syria, especially with officers who have defected from the Assad military, about organizing military issues in a bid to establish a Free National Army that protects all Syrians and is subject to the constitution.”
The idea of forming a Free National Army to replace the FSA was first mooted by Manaf Tlass, a former Syrian Defense Minister and close aide to Bashar Al-Assad who defected last year. In mid-2013, reports emerged that Tlass was coordinating with military defectors and current Syrian army officers sympathetic to the rebels to establish a new army.
The conflict between Syrian rebel factions continued this week with the embattled Al-Qaeda-linked ISIS making advances in Raqqa province on Friday, taking over the Al-Nusra Front headquarters in the city, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Violent clashes between ISIS and more moderate Islamist rebel factions erupted last week in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa, in another sign of rebel-on-rebel violence ahead of the Geneva II peace talks later this month.
The rebel infighting has so far caused 500 deaths, with 85 civilians, 240 moderate rebels and 157 ISIS fighters reported killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.