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Free Syrian Army: Better tool for toppling Syria's Assad than UN?

As Arab and European nations push for a new resolution at the UN Security Council tomorrow, the Free Syrian Army is emerging as an increasingly influential player. But it needs weapons, money.

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37 FSA battalions

There is evidence that some units have managed to obtain relatively advanced systems such as modern Russian anti-tank missiles which can easily penetrate the armor of Syrian BMP fighting vehicles used by front-line troops.

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The FSA says its primary mission is to defend protesters on the streets, and it lacks the manpower, arms, equipment, and cohesion to present a conventional challenge to the regular Syrian forces.

But various FSA units are staging a growing number of offensive operations, chiefly hit-and-run guerrilla tactics in a bid to exhaust the regular forces and encourage further desertions thus weakening the regime. The focus of the attacks are against arms depots, relatively vulnerable buses carrying troop reinforcements, and Shabiha militiamen drawn from the minority Alawite sect which forms the backbone of the Assad regime.

Mr. White says that the international community should support the FSA's campaign of attrition by providing "money, arms, especially anti-tank weapons, command and control means, and operational and tactical advice."

There are estimated to be around 37 FSA battalions of which 17 to 23 are militarily active, according to the recent WINEP study.

The FSA claims as many as 40,000 combatants within its ranks, although the study estimates the actual figure to be closer to 4,000 to 7,000. Abassi said that the various battalions are configured in a cellular structure centered on towns and city districts with little or no communication between themselves. The FSA’s leadership is in Turkey but it remains uncertain how much command and control it exerts over the various battalions.

FSA: We need arms, safe haven

The FSA has called for Western assistance in establishing no-fly zones and safe havens from which rebel forces can regroup and plan in reasonable safety. But the West has demonstrated little appetite to intervene in Syria as NATO did last year in Libya. The Syrian military is equipped with multiple advanced anti-aircraft missile systems that could pose a threat to NATO aircraft policing no-fly zones, risking an unwanted escalation with a country whose allies include Iran and Hezbollah.

FSA officers insist they can do the job if they are given arms and a safe haven from which to operate.

“If we were given these ... most of the Army would desert and join us,” Abassi says. “We are not asking the West to intervene [on the ground] but just to give us weapons, safe havens, and no-fly zones. We can do the rest.”

A Western official closely involved with policy toward Syria says the size and strength of the FSA could become the dominant factor in how the Syrian crisis unfolds, if Assad doesn't step down within three months. “It’s a race against time in how quickly the government loses control over key areas of the country, how violent it becomes in those areas, and how hard the regime protection units are willing to fight to keep control of Damascus and Aleppo,” the official says.

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