Commander of Free Syrian Army to Enab Baladi: We are open to dialogue with everyone

Free Syrian Army commander Salem Turki al-Antari (Edited by Enab Baladi)

Free Syrian Army commander Salem Turki al-Antari (Edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

In 2015, the New Syrian Army was established with the goal of fighting the Islamic State organization and the Syrian regime forces, but successive developments in the events led to the disintegration of the faction, with its nucleus remaining centered at the al-Tanf base, known as the “55-kilometer area,” where International Coalition Forces led by the United States are stationed. It later became known as the “Free Syrian Army” and defines itself as one of the Free Syrian Army factions opposing the regime.

Over the years, the faction has come to be known as the garrison of the al-Tanf base, after its activity against regime forces ceased by directive of the United States, limiting this activity to counter-narcotics operations and the war on the Islamic State led by Washington in the eastern part of Syria.

The Free Syrian Army shares the vision with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) controlling northeastern Syria, but it shares the identity with the Syrian opposition factions controlling northwestern Syria, while it has not conducted any declared communication with these factions.

New leader

On February 29, the Free Syrian Army faction announced that it had made a change in its general leadership, appointing Colonel Salem Turki al-Antari as the new commander of the army and ending the mission of his predecessor, Farid al-Qasim, which lasted 16 months.

A post on the army’s official Facebook page at the time stated, “We are excited for the new opportunities that Colonel Salem Turki will bring to (Free Syrian Army) and the leadership he will provide”.

This step was considered a completion of the army’s mission to secure stability in the “55-kilometer area” and defeat the Islamic State organization.

Abd al-Razzaq al-Khadr, the spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s media office, told Enab Baladi in a previous conversation that appointing a new leader for the faction was routine and not related to any dispute or problem.

He added that the International Coalition did not intervene in the appointment process, but it was a decision unanimously agreed upon by the faction’s leadership, according to his expression.

Al-Khadr pointed out that Salem Turki al-Antari is one of the faction’s officers and hails from the city of Palmyra in eastern Homs.

Who is Salem Turki al-Antari?

Al-Antari defined himself in an interview with Enab Baladi as an officer who defected from the Syrian regime’s forces in 2012, a few months after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and was active in the advisory field with opposition factions, specifically “instructing fighters and opposition factions on the laws of war, military laws, and international humanitarian law”.

With the emergence of the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq in 2014, al-Antari abandoned his advisory role and turned to fighting the organization, he told Enab Baladi.

In 2016, al-Antari moved to participate in battles against the organization in the Syrian Badia region stretching from As-Suwayda province in eastern Syria, all the way to Deir Ezzor province and through his home province of Homs, alongside US-backed opposition factions.

Since 2016, al-Antari has worked as a “partner to the International Coalition Forces” in the war against the Islamic State organization and held leadership positions, according to his expression, a mission he continued to work on until he took over the leadership of the Free Syrian Army last February.

New commander of the Free Syrian Army Salem Turki al-Antari - February 29, 2024 (Free Syrian Army/Facebook)

New commander of the Free Syrian Army Salem Turki al-Antari – February 29, 2024 (Free Syrian Army/Facebook)

What is Free Syrian Army’s relationship with military parties?

From time to time, leaks, not attributed to clear sources, about coordination between the faction stationed at the al-Tanf base and the Syrian National Army factions supported by Turkey in the north of Aleppo province, and part of its east, which was denied by the military spokesman of the Syrian National Army, in a previous statement to Enab Baladi.

At the same time, other talks circulate among activists about the International Coalition’s intention to launch military operations from the al-Tanf base, involving SDF and Free Syrian Army towards the north, to close the Iraqi-Syrian borders against Iranian activity, which is considered an open passage for supplying Damascus and Hezbollah with weapons.

Although these discussions periodically appear publicly, the parties referred to have not announced any efforts to implement these types of movements, nor have any signs of coordination between them appeared, as the Free Syrian Army distances itself from disputes between these entities, or even from establishing relations and opening communication channels with them.

Lt. Colonel Salem Turki al-Antari told Enab Baladi that the Free Syrian Army is open to every “national project built on national foundations for the future Syria,” and added that his faction has not closed the door in the face of any faction or group working “within the guidelines of the Syrian revolution and its goals of justice, equality, and shared living”.

He added that this openness aims to cooperate in the war against the Islamic State and to end its presence throughout Syrian geography, noting that some military factions have not communicated with the Free Syrian Army and vice versa, attributing this to “the nature of current military circumstances and geographical conditions”, emphasizing his faction’s openness to everyone, without any preconditions for talking with any Syrian national component.

 

Our openness to a healthy relationship with opposition components is not limited; we are opening the doors for discussion with everyone towards practical steps that lead to ending the suffering of the Syrian people across Syrian geography.

Lt. Colonel Salem Turki al-Antari, leader of the Free Syrian Army

 

Regarding the SDF, al-Antari said that so far, there are no direct communication channels with them, without mentioning more details.

The Syrian Democratic Forces are also supported by the International Coalition Forces led by the United States in Syria, which is the same entity supporting the Free Syrian Army.

Free Syrian Army forces and US forces in the al-Tanf area in southern Syria - July 4, 2023 (Free Syrian Army)

Free Syrian Army forces and US forces in the al-Tanf area in southern Syria – July 4, 2023 (Free Syrian Army)

What form does partnership with the coalition take?

The armed faction’s areas of presence are not limited to the al-Tanf base, as the region includes a camp housing Syrian IDPs known as “Rukban camp”, whose residents live in difficult living conditions, reflected in the form of regular living crises.

The Free Syrian Army is responsible for managing the camp’s affairs, in cooperation with headmen, a local council, and with the support of International Coalition Forces.

Lt. Colonel Salem Turki al-Antari said that the Free Syrian Army and the International Coalition are partners in the war against the Islamic State organization, and the relationship between the two sides is based on “partnership,” as he put it.

He added that the army’s mission focuses on fighting the Islamic State organization and preventing its resurgence in Syria, as well as combating illicit activities such as drug trafficking in the 55-kilometer area and maintaining the security of neighboring countries.

Al-Antari indicated that one of the faction’s top priorities today is “establishing a professional army and honing the skills of its fighters, to be a true partner of the International Coalition in its war against the Islamic State organization”.

He added that the logistic support received by the region comes through non-governmental organizations such as the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), which has previously introduced logistic support to the Rukban camp located in the 55-kilometer area, and the Global Justice organization.

He stated that these entities provide “good” support to the area, but it does not match the level of suffering there.

Al-Antari expressed no concern about the potential withdrawal of International Coalition Forces from Syria, a matter that has been recently brought to the table based on leaks carried by Western media repeatedly since the beginning of this year.

He added that any such step that the American forces in Syria would undertake would be subject to discussion with the Free Syrian Army, but no actual ideas have been put forward in this context recently.

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army during military training sessions overseen by US forces in the al-Tanf base in eastern Syria - February 20, 2024 (Free Syrian Army/Facebook)

Fighters of the Free Syrian Army during military training sessions overseen by US forces in the al-Tanf base in eastern Syria – February 20, 2024 (Free Syrian Army/Facebook)

Repeated Iranian targetings

Militias backed by Iran have repeatedly targeted the al-Tanf military base since the beginning of Al-Aqsa Flood on October 7, 2023. Many times, these attacks have resulted in casualties among US forces and their local partners.

Previously, drones launched by a Shia Iraqi faction targeted an American military point inside Jordan known as “Tower 22,” adjacent to the al-Tanf base on Jordanian territory, resulting in the deaths of three US soldiers and injuries to more than 40 others.

The United States responded to the attack with a wide-ranging bombing campaign that hit 85 locations in Iraq and Syria, all affiliated with Shia militias supported by Iran.

Lt. Colonel Salem al-Antari attributed these targetings to the “strategic importance” of the 55-kilometer area, which includes the al-Tanf base and Free Syrian Army camps.

He told Enab Baladi that most of these attacks were concentrated on the civilian population residing in the Rukban camp in the same area, with the aim of destabilizing the region and creating confusion.

The remains of a drone that targeted the International Coalition base in the al-Tanf area, southeastern Syria - August 15, 2022 (Maghaweir al-Thawra/Facebook)

The remains of a drone that targeted the International Coalition base in the al-Tanf area, southeastern Syria – August 15, 2022 (Maghaweir al-Thawra/Facebook)

Coordination with Jordan

Free Syrian Army positioning has significance for Jordan because the al-Tanf base blocks smuggling routes supervised by the Syrian regime for drug trafficking towards Jordan, while the army has repeatedly declared its efforts to combat this activity.

Al-Antari told Enab Baladi that the chronological and visual timeline of drug smuggling operations from Syria to Jordan clearly shows the successful activities of the army in combating drug smuggling operations.

He added that the security activities and military patrols conducted by the Free Syrian Army in the 55-kilometer area pursue these activities, aiming to cut them off completely and put an end to drug smuggling in the area.

Al-Antari said his faction is committed to protecting the borders on the Syrian side, with the goal of stopping drug smuggling operations towards Jordan, by regularly conducting patrols that carry out precise and comprehensive surveillance of the border to prevent these smuggling operations.

Al-Antari considered these counter-narcotics operations a “duty towards the Jordanian brothers to protect them from any substances that might be smuggled into the kingdom, threatening its security.”

While the Free Syrian Army and its former leaders face accusations of involvement in drug trafficking and trade—a claim that has been repeated over the past years—al-Antari said, “These accusations are false; they are rumors deliberately spread by some sites or individuals for special motives and goals.”

 

 

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