“Oftentimes, the challenge is if you have former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who now are taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime, with support from external actors that have a lot at stake, how quickly can you get them trained; how effective are you able to mobilize them.” 

–President Obama, news conference, June 19, 2014

“When you talk about the moderate opposition, many of these people were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting.” 

This column has been updated

Twice in the past month, President Obama has referred to the Syrian opposition in what some have taken as disparaging terms: “farmers or teachers or pharmacists” or “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters.” He made these references in the context of trying to explain why military assistance from the United States has not been effective in molding a strong force of fighters.

Obama’s remarks have already sparked a Facebook campaign by Syrian opposition activists, drawing an explicit link to the revolutionaries who led the American Revolution against the British monarchy.

What do we know about the background of the “moderate opposition”?

The Facts

When we asked the White House for statistical back-up for president’s description of the opposition, officials referred us to the office of the Director of National Intelligence. We did not get a timely answer. (See Update below.)

But analysts who have studied the Syrian opposition say that a large portion of the fighters are former regime soldiers who defected and joined the opposition. Precise numbers are hard to come by, however.

“There are tens of thousands of defectors from the Syrian military, many of whom fled to neighboring countries (some were put into a refugee camp in Turkey), while others stayed to fight as part of the overall FSA,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There was also the Supreme Military Council, the armed affiliate of the Syrian National Coalition, which also included a number of defected commanders. I met a lot of them in southern Turkey over the last few years. The problem was as assistance didn’t arrive, the defectors became disheartened so not sure where they all are at the moment.”

Oubai Shahbandar, political and strategic communications adviser to the Free Syria Foreign Mission in Washington, estimated that “approximately half of the Free Syrian Army are defectors from the Assad regime military.” He noted that the commander of the Free Syrian Army is a former military officer.

“There are thousands of citizen Free Syrian Army fighters that have proven their abilities to fight off both the Assad regime and the al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS,” Shahbandar said. “Over a thousand of these fighters have gone through U.S.-supported training programs and they’ve proven their capabilities on the ground.” He added that “Free Syrian Army commanders like Jamal Maarouf who were not professional military officers when the revolution began were able to eject Assad regime forces and then ISIS from northwest Syria. Jamal Maarouf commands approximately 30,000 fighters in northern and southern Syria.”

“While it is true that a significant portion of the Free Syrian Army is composed of local civilians who picked up arms to protect their homes and villages from the Assad regime, there are also several thousand former officers and soldiers in the Syrian Army who defected to the FSA. Several brigades are highly professional and are led by former colonels and captains in the Syrian Army, said Ken Sofer, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress who has written on the structure of the opposition. “The problem is that while some brigades in the FSA are highly professional, effective fighting forces, they are the minority.” The civilians generally have no military background, he said, though he acknowledged Syria has military conscription.

“Just from my experience interviewing fighters on the Turkish-Syrian border, several rebel commanders complained about the difficulty of training fighters and getting them to adhere to military-style discipline,” Sofer added. “They didn’t say they were all former farmers and teachers, but they said that in the larger rebel battalions, most of the fighters had no military experience, had never fired a gun, etc.”

While exact numbers are not clear, the Violations Documentation Center in Syria, a respected opposition source that is considered reliable, has listed the known occupations of those who have been killed while fighting on behalf of the opposition. The figures only concern 12 percent of the more than 27,000 deaths and cannot be verified; VDC is an activist organization. But with that caveat, the numbers provide additional evidence that former military personnel make up a relatively large percentage of opposition fighters—in fact, more than 50 percent. Farmers and teachers, by contrast, make up less than 2 percent.

Soldier: 2,084 (62 percent)
Worker: 358 (10.5 percent)
Student (18 & Over): 272 (8 percent)
Activist: 153 (4.5 percent)
Police: 116 (3.4 percent)
Engineer: 110 (3.2 percent)
Medic: 39 (1.1 percent)
Doctor: 34 (1 percent)
Driver: 32 (0.9 percent)
Teacher: 29 (0.85 percent)
Farmer: 24 (0.7 percent)
Military/Police Security: 17 (0.5 percent)
Other categories: 132 (3.9 percent)

Frederic Hof, a former top Obama administration adviser on Syria, noted that Syria has required military service and thus many civilians likely would have received some military training.

“The president and his strategic communications people should drop this alibi.  It is inaccurate, unworthy, and patronizing, if not insulting,” Hof wrote in an article for the the Atlantic Council.  “President Obama fails to mention the tens of thousands of Syrian Army officers and soldiers who abandoned the Assad regime rather than participate in that regime’s campaign of mass homicide. Why is the totality of what the president calls “the moderate opposition” characterized by him as entirely civilian, and therefore inadequate, in nature?  And why does he not assume that a healthy percentage of the farmers, teachers, pharmacists, dentists, and radio reporters to whom he refers have had significant prior military training as conscripts in Syria? Does he think that Syria has had an all-volunteer military force for the past fifty years?”

One additional note: In the interview with NPR, the president made a reference to “radio reporters” being among the fighters. Perhaps that was just a nod to the fact he was being interviewed on the radio. But before the uprising, Syria had a tightly run state media with very few outlets. There are now a lot of radio reporters in the opposition because the United States has provided funds for the opposition to set up radio stations. But these people report on the radio; they don’t fight.

Update, July 2: A week after this column first posted, White House aide Benjamin Rhodes was asked at a media briefing at the Foreign Press Center about the president’s remarks. Here is the explanation he gave, which makes it even more curious why the White House did not initially respond–and DNI never provided a promised explanation:

“What President Obama was saying is at the outset of the Syrian protest against the Assad regime, many of the protesters were not trained fighters. They were ordinary citizens who were standing up and demanding their rights. So that was an assessment he was making — the comments he made the other day — that didn’t apply to the opposition today. It applied to the opposition at the outset of this crisis.”

The Pinocchio Test

The president is being misleading when he describes the Syrian opposition in purely civilian terms without acknowledging that a substantial portion of the fighters are actually ex-military personnel.  Clearly there is a civilian component and training – and weapons —are necessary to forge an effective force, especially one that has the capability to achieve more than just tactical victories. But the fighters are certainly much more than “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists.”

Three Pinocchios

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