David Ignatius
Opinion writer June 6, 2013

As Syrian rebel commanders assess their defeat this week in Qusair, a strategic crossroads near the Lebanese border, they see a painful new demonstration of the need for a strong command-and-control structure to coordinate weapons and fighters.

Encouraging better coordination is a central theme in the new push by the U.S. and its allies to train and assist the rebels. But the Qusair battle showed how much work still needs to be done as the rebels were overwhelmed Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and by Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

The Qusair defeat demonstrated the rebels’ weakness, but also highlighted the ways the opposition can improve its military performance. Individual brigade leaders should now see the advantages of a centralized command, especially in the flow of weapons. And Hezbollah, flush with a victory near its base in Lebanon, may be tempted to fight farther from home, in Aleppo and other northern battlefronts — stretching their supply lines and making them vulnerable to rebel counterattack.

To combat Hezbollah and Assad regime fighters in Qusair, the Free Syrian Army tried to mobilize battalions from distant areas. The call went out to Deir el-Zor in the east, Aleppo and Idlib in the north and Damascus and Homs in the center. But rebel sources say that the response was disorganized and ultimately unsuccessful, because of a weak chain of command.

The rebels’ Supreme Military Command distributed about 35 tons of weapons and ammunition, provided by Saudi Arabia. The supplies were distributed to the Tawhid brigade from Aleppo, the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade from Damascus and other provinces, the Soukor al-Sham brigade from Idlib, and the Liwa al-Islam brigade from Damascus. But rebel sources say that only the Tawhid brigade was able to fight inside Qusair in a coordinated way.

“Most of the fighters within these big brigades are loyal to their group leaders more than the Supreme Military Council, since they get their share of support from the group leaders,” noted one Syrian who’s in close touch with rebel commanders. He said the loyalty of these fighters is conditional, dependent on the support they receive, and that the Supreme Military Council could now gain their backing “if it can support them directly, without intermediaries.”

The loose coalition of nations backing the rebels, known as the “friends of Syria,” has called for all military aid to be distributed through the Supreme Military Council, headed by Brig. Gen. Salim Idriss. This group includes the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But despite this mandate for centralization, “most of the chain of command still lies with brigade leaders,” the Syrian source explained.

Would-be local warlords also remain a problem among the opposition. A fighter known as Abu Issa, who heads Soukor al-Sham, still controls the Bab al-Hawa crossing south of the Turkish border, and the Free Syrian Army command must negotiate with him and his fighters. Similar pockets of local control impede coordination in other areas of Syria.

“Lack of coordination in Qusair was expected, due to the new environment that FSA fighters found themselves in, the lack of communications equipment they had been promised from the U.S., and most importantly, the increased challenge from Hezbollah (15,000 plus fighters) and Iraqi-Iranian fighters,” the Syrian source argued. He said that to succeed in the future, the opposition fighters “would need weapons to come in a consistent way, from both the north (through Turkey) and the south (through Jordan), so a chain of command can be implemented.”

Assad had wisely concentrated his forces in Qusair and other key nodes along the supply route that links Damascus with the Alawite homeland in Latakia and along the northwestern coast. But rebel sources think the Syrian leader and his Hezbollah allies may be tempted now to try to regain control of Aleppo and the north, exposing their forces to rebel hit-and-run operations.

“Free Syrian Army strategy should focus on bringing Hezbollah inside, and then attacking them when they are spread, using their own technique against them,” the source contended.

Perhaps the biggest danger is that the Qusair battle sharpened the sectarian lens of this war, pitting Iran-backed Shiite fighters against Sunni rebels backed chiefly by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. This Shiite-Sunni divide is driving a wedge through the Middle East that could splinter the entire region, even as it devastates Syria. That’s why the U.S. still hopes, after two years of diplomatic failure, that it can convince Russia to help broker a negotiated political transition.

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