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Why are fighters leaving the Free Syrian Army?

Free Syrian Army fighters walk with their weapons in Al-Maliha town, in the suburbs of Damascus, April 27. (Badra Mamet/Reuters)
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Why do some fighters who join insurgencies decide to quit? Why do some continue to fight but switch between insurgent groups? We began a survey in August 2013 in Syria to shed light on who leaves insurgencies and why. We have conducted interviews with over 250 rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), civilians in FSA-controlled territory, as well as refugees in FSA-backed camps in Turkey. In April, we completed interviews with 50 former FSA rebels who have abandoned the conflict and moved to Turkey. What were the most common reasons for leaving? They were generally lost hope in the possibility of victory and disarray within the FSA.

These findings offer important insights into the challenges facing the Syrian rebellion, now in its third year – particularly deteriorating morale and attrition. There are growing concerns within the FSA that the organization is losing strength due to the high attrition inside its brigades, jeopardizing its ability to continue the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces as well as rival Islamist rebel groups. According to Abo Hasan, a commander of the al-Abrar group in Hama, who has been fighting with the FSA since 2011, “fighters start losing hope in the war and are leaving their brigades in large numbers.”

The most frequent responses the former rebels selected for leaving the conflict included:

1)     Declining Prospects for Victory: While some ex-fighters still support the goals of the revolution in principle, many have lost hope that victory can be obtained through fighting. About half of surveyed ex-fighters felt it was impossible to win in the current environment, and some openly questioned whether fighting is now worth the risks. Furthermore, most ex-fighters we interviewed did not plan to take up arms again in the future; two-thirds of respondents said that they do not see themselves ever returning to Syria again to fight. Virtually all ex-fighters we interviewed also blamed Western indecisiveness for protracting the conflict, dimming former hopes of a quick, decisive end to the conflict through Western military backing or intervention.

2)     Lack of Discipline and Organization: In addition to despairing over the prospects for victory, some ex-fighters were also frustrated by the lack of organization and cohesion inside the FSA. Many indicated they left because of problems specifically within their unit and chain of command. Nearly half of the respondents reported that a lack of a discipline in the group played an important role in their decision to leave and one-third left for lack of teamwork, suggesting that the FSA continues to face organizational and managerial challenges as the war drags on.

3)     Social and Family Pressure to Leave. Many ex-fighters acknowledged that social pressure played an important role in their decision to join the FSA. Compared to active fighters who have reported strong political grievances against Assad’s regime, we have found that many ex-fighters were more drawn to the FSA due to family and peer pressure. With declining public support for the FSA, social identity and social capital pressures have eroded. Ex-fighters no longer consider fighting with the FSA synonymous with protecting their families and supporting their communities and have transitioned back into civilian life.

Losing hope in the revolution, dissatisfaction with FSA and realization of the slim chances of a military victory have led some former fighters to support a peace deal, but large majorities continue to support the armed struggle. Roughly one-third of ex-fighters support an immediate cease-fire, engaging in negotiations with Assad and making concessions in the interests of peace. Only 3.5 percent of active fighters we interviewed voiced support for negotiations and appeared firmly committed to a military victory in the conflict.

What about those who are disillusioned with the FSA, but still have high morale and a strong drive to continue the fight? Unless the FSA is committed to internal reforms, one option for these fighters is to shop for other groups to join. Islamist brigades are almost always the strongest alternatives, promising disaffected FSA fighters better treatment, organization and unit cohesion to entice them to leave the FSA. One rebel fighter we interviewed (“Abo Farouk”) is currently fighting for the FSA’s Abrar brigade as well as the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, but is considering whether to leave both groups and fight instead with al-Nusra Front, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization. His stated reasons for switching are almost entirely organizational rather than ideological – commanders of Islamist groups are mostly based in Syria (rather than Turkey) and are actively engaged with soldiers in the field. Though ideologically indifferent to the goals of the Islamists, some FSA fighters see the Islamists as a more effective organization for defeating Assad’s forces, and switch for strategic purposes. Although such fighters are a small fraction of those leaving the FSA, their numbers are growing.

There is an urgent cry for better leadership among FSA rebels we interviewed in the field. As one disgruntled FSA fighter put it, “the revolution is now about politics; all big commanders are based in Turkey [rather than Syria]; and corruption is persisting.” Although there is greater confidence in lower-level FSA commanders, who are still based in Syria and are perceived as more fair and open with their soldiers than the top leadership, reforms in the chain-of-command and organizational structure of the FSA could be critical to sustaining an on-going military engagement with Assad’s forces, and preventing moderate fighters from defecting to the ranks of the Islamist groups. The failure to reform could make the FSA increasingly obsolete in the field and marginalized in its ability to speak on behalf of Syrian rebels if negotiations resume in Geneva.

Vera Mironova is a The Program on Negotiation Research Fellow at Harvard Law School, Loubna Mrie is a Syrian freelance journalist, and Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University.