Experts argue that the move was an important step as the FSA has been criticized considerably for not leading from Syria but from Turkey and not being in touch with the groups on the ground.
“The biggest problem within the FSA was that its leadership was not fighting on the ground in Syria but was based in Turkey. In order to overcome this problem, the FSA decided to move its leadership to Syria,” Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert from the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said in remarks to Today’s Zaman.
Turkish diplomatic sources told Today’s Zaman that the decision to move the leadership was made by the FSA, adding that the Syrians have the right to decide on their future and Turkey will respect their rights.
Col. Riad al-Asaad, the group’s commander-in-chief, said on Saturday that the group has moved its leadership to parts of Syria that are controlled by opposition forces.
“The leadership of the FSA has entered the liberated areas [of Syria] after the success of a plan which the FSA worked on with other battalions and units to safeguard free areas,” Asaad said in a video statement.
The FSA, which has been based in Turkey for more than a year, was also criticized for not taking any real action, while those on the ground struggle against the forces loyal to Assad.
Although the opposition forces now for the most part control important positions in Syria, the disunity among the leadership and the groups is considered to be a problem.
Orhan said the unorganized structure of the groups fighting against the Syrian regime on the ground was the other reason for the move. “This relocation is a step to gather the groups under one roof in Syria,” said Orhan, adding that the move also aims to unite the groups that deny the FSA’s leadership.
In the video, posted on the Internet, Asaad said his men would “fight side-by-side” with all opposition groups and planned to take Damascus soon.
A source from the FSA has told Reuters that Col. Asaad arrived in Syria two days ago. “The plan is that all the leadership of the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib province or Aleppo province,” said the source, adding that the move would be completed within two weeks.
“Syrian forces have seriously lost control in the border areas. The FSA is planning to move its leadership to those areas, while Turkey will continue to deploy military vehicles to the border with Syria. This is an important strategic step that aims to maintain power in Syria,” said Orhan.
Syrian opposition forces seized control of a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey on Wednesday. The opposition holds two other crossings on the northern border with Turkey.
On Saturday, the Turkish military deployed armored vehicles and heavy weaponry to the border with Syria, near a crossing that has seen intense fighting between opposition forces and government forces, local media said. Turkey, a member of NATO, has conducted a number of troop deployments in recent months along its border with Syria, where the opposition is fighting against Assad forces.
Turkey is one of the staunchest supporters of the opposition forces that are trying to topple Assad. According to experts, Turkey, which is hosting more than 80,000 refugees from Syria, is facing internal pressure to distance itself from the conflict.
Mehmet Seyfettin Erol, the head of Ankara’s International Strategic and Security Research Center (USGAM), told Today’s Zaman that the FSA has lost its positive image in the eyes of the international public as well as the Syrian public due to its way of waging its battle. “The FSA’s way of waging its battle keeps Turkey in a difficult situation, and Turkey has started to face criticism from its public. The main reason for the move of the leadership is the criticism Turkey faces,” said Erol.
According to Orhan, the residents near the border are uncomfortable with the FSA presence in Turkey. “Turkey was criticized for hosting the FSA on its soil. In order to eliminate these criticisms, the FSA might have taken such a step,” said Orhan.
The 18-month conflict between the regime of Assad and the opposition began with peaceful protests that were attacked by government security forces, and has since evolved into a civil war. Activists say at least 23,000 people have died, many of them civilians who fell victim to the regime’s brutal crackdown, although opposition forces have also been accused of summary executions and other abuses.
“The FSA’s way of waging its battle was putting the countries that support the FSA, including Turkey, in a difficult situation,” said Orhan, adding that Turkey was considered to be part of the conflict between FSA and regime forces. “Turkey wants to avoid having such an image that supports one side of the armed conflict,” said Orhan.
Erol underlined that the move of the leadership of the FSA should not be read as the increasing power of the FSA and that it does not need to continue its struggle from Turkey. “On the contrary, this move is the result of the pressure faced by Turkey both domestically and externally,” said Erol.