Rebels in the war-ravaged northern city of Aleppo greeted the announcement that their central command has moved from Turkey to inside Syria with indifference bordering on hostility.
“The arrival of one single new fighter would be more useful than the Free Syrian Army chiefs,” said Abdullah, spokesman for the Al-Tawhid Brigade, the most important rebel unit in Aleppo, of Saturday’s announcement.
“Combatants on the ground are worth more than guys who’ve been sitting behind a table for a year and a half outside Syria,” he said.
While the FSA leadership has presented its transfer to inside Syria as “good news,” it barely registered with front line fighters in Aleppo who have developed their own tactics.
Abu Somer, head of the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade (Grandchildren of the Prophet) had learned three days previously that the FSA’s command, holed up thus far in neighbouring Turkey, was moving across the border.
But he and his men, positioned on three fronts in the Salaheddin and Saif al-Dawla districts of the city, continued operations as if nothing had changed.
“At this very moment I have men on the front,” he told AFP, stressing that “strategy is decided by those on the ground.”
The rebels in the city, beset by violent clashes and bombardments since July 20, already have their own local command centre and meet up regularly.
“We don’t follow any religious or political ideology. Not the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda, or any other foreign movement. We are the FSA on the ground,” he said.
Abu Somer takes his orders at meetings with other brigades in the city, in consultation with the recently set up Aleppo military revolutionary council.
The commanders on the ground share one goal: “That (President) Bashar al-Assad falls as soon as possible.”
For this to happen, Abu Somer calls for all insurgent commanders still in refugee camps abroad, especially in Turkey, “to get onto the ground.”
Abu Riad, an army officer who defected and now heads a brigade in Aleppo’s old town, first learned of the central command move when he saw the FSA chief Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad’s YouTube video announcement broadcast on television.
The armed opposition leader, under pressure from the international community to keep a leash on extremist splinter groups operating under the auspices of the FSA, declared in the video: “We announce good news to our free, brave Syrian people. The FSA command has moved into liberated areas of Syria.”
He did not specify what those areas were.
Abu Riad deplored the absence of a “true military structure” for the rebels at the national level, but also said the leadership from abroad did not have the same “expertise” that the insurgents, even civilians who had taken up arms, had gained through fighting.
Various rebel commanders have privately accused the top FSA leadership of monopolising power.
They have also questioned the distribution of funds within the FSA, and complain that because of a lack of funds to buy ammunition the rebels have been unable to make advances in Aleppo for several days now.