By Patrick McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — The rebel Free Syrian Army said Saturday that it was shifting its command headquarters from Turkey to inside Syria, a move meant to bolster its standing among fighters on the ground and supporters abroad.
In a video statement, the group’s leader, Col. Riad Assad, said the command structure had moved to “liberated areas” in Syria.
Although the shift has obvious symbolic importance, it was unclear how much significance it would have on the battlefield in Syria, where the rebellion aimed at ousting the government of President Bashar Assad is entering its 19th month.
The Free Syrian Army, or FSA, has become a popular brand among rebel fighters and their supporters. But the FSA’s effectiveness as a command structure remains limited. There seems to be no central chain of command among the scores of armed factions fighting the Syrian government.
Inside Syria, the rebel force appears to consist largely of disparate militias, sometimes rivals, that seek diverse funding from individuals or groups based abroad, especially in Turkey and the Persian Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Some fighters openly scoff at the Free Syrian Army’s Turkey-based command structure even while embracing the FSA identification.
The atomized and often fractious nature of the rebel front has fanned fears, especially in the West, about the rise of Islamic extremists in the insurgent ranks. Many of the best-organized rebel brigades have an Islamic bent, and some are said to be tied to al-Qaida.
Reports of summary executions by rebel fighters and the use of car bombs have only added to unease in Washington and other Western capitals. The rise of Islamist militias in Libya after the Western-backed fall of Moammar Gadhafi have heightened fears about who would take charge in Syria should Assad’s government topple.
Some rebel leaders have pushed for greater unity under the leadership of officers who defected from the Syrian military, a secular institution. Foreign supporters of the Syrian uprising are generally viewed as more comfortable dealing with former officers than with local militiamen, who may lack sophistication and have an Islamic orientation.
The hope of the rebel leadership is that a united front would be more successful in drawing additional financial and material support from abroad. Fighters in Syria complain about a lack of ammunition and a paucity of heavy weaponry, such as shoulder-fired rockets, to attack government tanks and aircraft.
In his statement, the Free Syrian Army’s Col. Assad said rebels soon planned to push forward in an effort to “liberate” Syria’s capital, Damascus. But such an offensive would probably meet stiff resistance, and many capital residents support the Assad government.
Syrian forces have reasserted tight control over much of the capital since July, when insurgents staged uprisings in several city neighborhoods. The military counterattacked district by district, in some cases block by block, crushing the armed opposition and scattering rebel fighters.
Outside the city, many working-class suburban areas of Damascus remain rebel strongholds. But government forces have been moving methodically through outlying areas of the capital in a bid to snuff out the insurgency. The fighting has left an estimated 20,000 people dead.
Where the Free Syrian Army’s new command headquarters will be situated remains unclear. But a likely spot would be near the Syria-Turkish border, a corridor for supplies from outside Syria. Any central command site would be vulnerable to attack by Syrian forces.
Syrian insurgents exercise effective control of large swaths of territory adjacent to the Turkish border in the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Idlib. However, government forces still maintain checkpoints and bases inside the so-called liberated zones, and government aircraft and artillery regularly pound rebel-held areas.
In the city of Aleppo, just 30 miles from the Turkish border, rebels and government forces have been fighting for two months for control of the nation’s commercial capital. But neither side appears close to victory in what appears to have become a protracted battle of attrition.