Photos by Robert King.
When violence broke out in Syria in March of 2011, sparking a civil war and bringing about a call for the end of the Bashar al-Assad regime, a group of defected military commanders developed the Free Syrian Army to counter the brutal killing of civilians by the Syrian army. The FSA, formed with the noblest of intentions, has since been running on very little funding, equipment, or training. They have no central command. While the FSA seems to be the most necessary group in a clusterfuck of Assad sponsored torture and killing, with little help from the international community, they seem to be rife with problems. There are reports that extremists have joined their ranks and that certain members of the FSA have been killing prisoners.
With these problems in mind, a group of Syrian expatriates currently living throughout North America have joined together to form the Syrian Support Group, an organization looking to help the FSA topple the Assad regime through completely legal means. In July of 2012, they were granted a license by the United States Department of Treasury to provide the FSA with financial, logistical, and communications help. The license restricts the group from providing direct military aid. They’ve since set up offices in Washington, D.C. and Turkey, and have hired former NATO Advisor Brian Sayers as their Director of Government Relations to fundraise and lobby their cause. We spoke to Brian over the phone from Washington about the role that the Syrian Support Group currently plays within the war in Syria, what they’re hoping to do in the future, and what will happen to the FSA's troops whenever Assad falls.
VICE: Can you tell me exactly what the Syrian Support Group does?
We’ve built very good relationships with the Military Council commanders. There are nine of them. These commanders have all signed up through a Proclamation of Principles that they've agreed on, and they have agreed to help inculcate those principles among the rank and file. We find them to be moderate, we find them to be professional, and we find them to be very good candidates for receiving all kinds of support. This includes financial support for salaries or support for material goods, but not if it’s for lethal support. That is not within the context of our license.
What is your role in interacting with the fighters on the ground?
Our role has been to continue to lobby their case here in Washington and abroad. We talk about who their people are, what their structures look like, how they operate, which brigades they work with, how they are vetted by us... We’re not talking incredibly formal vetting right now. We’re trying to make that more formal.
What kind of “vetting" are we talking about, then?
Vetting is a procedure by which you gain some kind of confidence that the person you are talking to is who he says he is, and does what he says he does. It’s about a soldier who knows the ground, who knows the rules of war, knows the Geneva conventions, plays by those rules, and has combat experience. In our case, it starts with the Proclamation that they’ve signed. We use third party individuals through our network of contacts to check whether or not there are any issues. We also do random checks, and if there’s anything that compromises that Proclamation, we have to take care of that. We’re in the process of formalizing this so it’s more in line with standardized vetting.
After the FSA battalion is vetted, then what happens? Where do you come into play?
We have four ways of active support: finance, logistics, communications, and services. We can purchase things, we can export things, and we can provide money in a very clear way. We don’t just hand over money because then there’s a risk that it could go to lethal aid. We have to fundraise in order to cover a lot of our costs, and in order to get the right materials to the right people that need them. It’s very broad, because I think we’re the only group that has the license, that I know of, both domestically and internationally to provide this type of support to the FSA.
So you say that you send financial support and that you’re careful with the money, to make sure it’s not used for lethal means but what kinds of safeguards do you have in place for that?
Right now we are not providing direct funds into the country, because even if we could have the confidence of the commanders and even if we have good relations or even a receipt that says that the money went to pay the salaries of the right people, there is a risk that money could be used for lethal purposes. The safer way, is to actually purchase things for them and have them sent in to Turkey.
And you’re in the process of doing that now?
Yes. I’ll be honest with you, we’re in the process of fundraising for a lot of different things. Our budget is very limited because we haven’t had any real institutional support. We’ve had a lot of good, very honorable donations from what I would call Mom and Pop funds, Syrian ex-pats, and Americans who are very sympathetic with our cause and find that the situation on the ground in Syria is a tragedy. But, our efforts thus far have really not been able to provide what is necessary on the ground.
How much have you raised so far?
We’ve been able to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars.
What exactly is the goal of the Syrian Support Group?
The goal is to help stand up and support the FSA as the next army of Syria, as the future army, by providing them with all the resources that they require. I can’t even put a military advisor on the ground right now, because that’s looked upon as a defense item. What we can do, though, is start to prepare and pave the way for tomorrow. That means bringing people from the FSA over to Europe, to help broaden their message among the European countries. Once those countries are able to meet with these guys, then they have a better understanding of who they’re dealing with and who they could support. That’s the big elephant in the room.
We have the ability to help give the FSA a public forum. In order to do that, we can help them communicate. We can provide non-defense communication items to them, we can provide satellite equipment, and we can even provide satellite imagery because it’s commercial grade and not military grade. We’re talking about impacting the psychological situation on the ground. We could support a FSA broadcast which we’re trying to work on, where the FSA guys are giving operational updates and providing the real nature of what is happening on the ground, to counter Syrian state TV. There are multiple vectors where we can help out by providing non-lethal weapons. And we’re working on them. People want to shape this so that the outcome is about a unified government under one Syria.
The FSA is without central command, so how do you plan on unifying their fragmented groups?
We can’t tell them who’s in charge, but we can try to bring them together. We’re going to have some guys that like each other and some guys that don’t like each other, but we’re going to be able to tell them that this is an opportunity, with support from the outside, in order to help develop a general commander. Maybe on the first day we won’t have one, maybe on the first day we’re going to put a guy as the leader of a committee to get to that commander, you know what I mean? But at least there has to be some kind of ability to structure this.
Do you have anyone in mind for that position?
I can’t really say that right now, because it’s not our decision to make. But there are a couple leaders that we know, that we’ve talked to.
The Syrian National Coalition was recently formed. Don’t you think they’ll be looking toward doing that same job that you’re doing?
Well, they might. They’re dealing with a huge amount on their plate. It’s a fairly good group of people, but they have to deal with the entire process of the political transition. When you look at that chart, how many of the fighters are involved in that? Not many at all. The bottom line is that it’s not going to be representative of the fighters on the ground, and it’s not supposed to, from what I understand.
It’s really supposed to set the framework for what the opposition will look like on the day after. So I think they could be useful and helpful, but it’s better that they were in the same room as some of the guys on the ground. These guys are not fighters, so when they say arming the opposition, who are they going to arm? Some guy that’s a monk? You have to know that there’s a distinction between the FSA brigades and this group.
Do you think that the aid of Western governments is an important aspect to toppling the Bashar regime at this point?
Absolutely. Even if he went out today, you’d still have a vacuum, you’d still potentially have another volatile situation. You may not have increased any defections. Maybe some people within the revolutionary guard would take up positions. The only way you’re going to be able to deal with that, the day after, is if there’s a concerted effort amongst allies.
I think the ideal form of help would be political recognition and diplomatic recognition of the FSA, which they have not done. I’m not saying they have to recognize all of them, but they have to recognize that broad umbrella, just like our license recognizes that broad umbrella. Our license says FSA on it, but that doesn’t mean we support every single fighter on the ground. We don’t want to deal with some of those guys. Now you’re seeing the first steps of that. Now you see France has declared that they recognize the armed opposition.
Some nuances are hard, because you still have European sanctions on arming the opposition. So, you’d have to get around that just as we’re getting around that. Not through arming, because obviously we can’t arm, but we’re getting around certain sanctions set in place through our license. Arming the right people is part of it, because this war will not end as long as there are planes in the air and tanks on the ground. It's about setting up a fit structure for the day after Bashar is toppled, because there will need to be safe zones where refugees will be located, where refugees will be assisted, and setting up an intelligence platform to help identify those FSA guys on the ground. The big thing would be the no-fly zone, but you don’t hear about that anymore.
Former President of East Timor and Nobel Prize recipient Jose Ramos-Horta wrote a piece for the Huffington Post where he stated, regarding the current Syrian army, “Civilian and military chiefs and soldiers should be reassured that once the Assad family has been offered safe passage out of Syria, there will be no revenge and persecution in the post-Assad Syria.” Do you think such a diplomatic end is possible at this point?
Well I think a diplomatic end to Assad is possible, but I don’t see how anyone could think that there won’t be reprisal killings on the ground. I don’t see the logic in that. Assad goes, and everyone is singing Kumbaya? No. Lots of people have been killed in this conflict through sectarianism, and that just doesn’t end because your delusional president has left.
How can people help the FSA?
By reaching out to the people they know, whether that’s business contacts or institutional contacts, to get the right level of support. They can also help by making sure that the FSA has their own public forum, and by ensuring that the world understands that people in Syria are being killed. More than 30,000 people have been killed, and a 100,000 are on the refugee order of Turkey. That issue seems to slip deeper and deeper into the pages.
We need people to realize that they have to put pressure on their governing structures to actually do something. I mean, when Vietnam was going on and the images were coming back, we got out in the streets. Although we’re not involved in this conflict right now with boots on the ground (and that’s a good thing) we don’t seem to get out in the streets anymore. I don’t know if we just don’t understand the conflict, or if we just don’t like the images.
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin," our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria," a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural, and religious complexities.