A loosely knit collection of Syrian rebel fighters set up positions on March 18, 2013, and fired several barrages of rockets at targets in the heart of Damascus, Bashar al-Assad’s capital. The attack was a brazen show of force by rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, targeting the presidential palace, Damascus International Airport, and a government security compound. It sent a chilling message to the regime about its increasingly shaky hold on the country, two years after an uprising against its rule began.
Behind the attacks, the influence of a foreign power loomed. According to a top-secret National Security Agency document provided by whistleblower Edward Snowden, the March 2013 rocket attacks were directly ordered by a member of the Saudi royal family, Prince Salman bin Sultan, to help mark the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution. Salman had provided 120 tons of explosives and other weaponry to opposition forces, giving them instructions to “light up Damascus” and “flatten” the airport, the document, produced by U.S. government surveillance on Syrian opposition factions, shows.
The Saudis were long bent on unseating Assad. Salman was one of the key Saudi officials responsible for prosecuting the war in Syria, serving as a high-ranking intelligence official before being promoted to deputy minister of defense later in 2013.
The NSA document provides a glimpse into how the war had evolved from its early stages of popular uprisings and repression. By the time of the March 2013 attack, arguably the most salient dynamic in the conflict was the foreign powers on both sides fueling what appeared to be a bloody, entrenched stalemate. The document points to how deeply these foreign powers would become involved in parts of the armed uprising, even choosing specific operations for their local allies to carry out.
“A revolution, a proxy war, and a civil war are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other.”
“A revolution, a proxy war, and a civil war are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other,” said Aron Lund, an expert on Syria at The Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank. “All these things can exist simultaneously in the same country, as seems to have been the case in Syria.”
The uprising against the Assad regime in 2011 was in line with a wave of civil revolutions that broke out across the Middle East that year. Thousands of people living under much-reviled dictatorships sought to overthrow their rulers, launching mass demonstrations and sometimes engaging in armed attacks. Inspired by initial successes in Tunisia and Egypt, Syrians took to the streets in huge numbers. But their uprising would not be able to chart the same peaceful trajectory. In response to the protests, the Assad regime and its security forces waged an open war against their own people, refusing to countenance any change in power.
The crackdown shocked international observers. The then-largely civilian uprising, faced with extermination or resistance, took up arms. Assad’s response, though, coupled with the burgeoning revolution, also opened the door for the involvement of unscrupulous foreign powers. Since the conflict began, both sides of Syria’s civil war have received significant support from abroad. Opposition groups got help from Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, while the government has been propped up by the efforts of Iran and Russia.
The March 2013 attacks in Damascus provide a concrete example of the role that foreign powers played in the day-to-day reality of the conflict. A number of videos posted by Syrian opposition media on the day of the attacks purport to show rebel fighters firing rockets at the same sites mentioned in the U.S. document. Local media reports from that day described an attack in which rockets struck within the areas of the presidential palace, a local government security branch, and the airport. A representative of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted in a story the next day reporting the attacks, stating that they were unable to confirm whether they resulted in casualties.
The U.S. document, based on surveillance of “opposition plans and operations,” did not indicate whether the attacks deliberately targeted civilians or involved any extremist groups — but it did show that American spies found out about the attacks several days before they were launched.
Analyzing the videos of the attacks posted online by opposition factions, Lund said, “There appear to be several different groups involved, all identifying themselves as different factions of the ‘Free Syrian Army,’ and all apparently linking back to the same sponsor.”
Because of the fragmentary nature of the Syrian opposition since the early days of the conflict, it is difficult to know who else received arms or what strategy, if any, was being employed by outside sponsors to try and place various factions under central control. Over time, however, this chaotic strategic environment aided the cause of terrorist groups in Syria, as well as the regime.
The NSA document speaks to a defining question faced by the Syrian opposition — and any insurgent group: Where to get weapons and supplies?
In Syria, the uprising’s arms initially came from defecting army units that, outraged at the regime’s crackdown, joined the opposition. Among those who turned against Assad were high-ranking officials like Lt. Col. Hussein al-Harmoush, an army officer who had denounced the Syrian dictator after a wave of massacres in 2011. (Harmoush was likely abducted in Turkey and returned to Syria. After giving a videotaped “confession” on Syrian state television after his return, he has not been heard from since.)
“Refusenik” officers like Harmoush helped found the original armed groups that coalesced into the “Free Syrian Army,” a name that was more of a brand for the opposition than a singular entity. Groups identifying themselves as Free Syrian Army adopted Syria’s old independence flag and began conducting small operations across the country to defend protesters and requisition arms. Over time, the Free Syrian Army came to represent a diverse spectrum of nationalist opposition, Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Islamists, and family and tribal networks that took up arms to defend their villages and towns. (In contrast, hardline Islamists like Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State did not take up the Free Syrian Army name or flag, due to their ideological opposition to nationalism.)
It would not be long before foreign states were providing arms to groups fighting the regime. But the flow of foreign-sponsored arms was a development that would contribute to the fracturing of the opposition.
As the ferocious crackdown proceeded and refugees began to stream out of the country, the arms afforded to rebels by defectors and raids on government facilities became insufficient. The opposition started to open channels with outside powers eager to see Assad fall. It would not be long before foreign states were providing arms to groups fighting the regime. But the flow of foreign-sponsored arms was a development that would contribute to the fracturing of the opposition.
“By 2013, there was a great division opening up between the sources of support for fighters, due to a growing rivalry between the Saudis and the Qataris,” said Lund, adding that Turkey sided with Qatar. “And this rivalry helped undermine the insurgency.”
“Much of the support seems to have run along personal lines, with support being provided by people who had personal connections with Syrians on the ground,” he added, a dynamic that impacted the armed uprising from the beginning. “But there was an ideological dimension to it as well.” Lund said that in general, Qatari- and Turkish-sponsored groups tended more toward Islamist ideology, while those supported by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi were either non-Islamist or adhered to a version of Islamism that did not threaten them, reflecting those countries’ opposition to the populism of the Muslim Brotherhood: “The Saudis and Emiratis were never really comfortable with most Syrian Islamists, though they supported some hardline groups at times.”
The Free Syrian Army factions in the videos of the March 2013 attacks appear to have belonged to Saudi- and Jordanian-supported Southern Front, as well as the Ahfad al-Rasul (“Grandsons of the Prophet”) Brigades. The group’s name offers a poignant example of the sort of confusion that reigned over rebel forces: The moniker Ahfad al-Rasul appears to have been used by different groups, with different ideological leanings, at different times in the conflict.
The Syrian conflict is notable for the extent to which the rebel opposition was able to arm itself and continue challenging the regime over years of grinding warfare, experts on the internal dynamics of civil wars say. The 2013 assault on Damascus described in the NSA document, along with an unknown number of other attacks, were only possible thanks to the support of a powerful patron like Saudi Arabia. (The Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington and the Syrian mission at the U.N. in New York did not offer comment for this story.)
“Generally, a large number of civil wars tend to start from the periphery, with a small group of people who assemble in isolated areas of the country and take time to build up a military structure. That is the general idea behind a guerilla war,” said Stathis Kalyvas, a professor of political science at Yale University and author of “The Logic of Violence in Civil War.”
“The Syrian case is striking for the extent and the speed with which the opposition was able to arm itself,” Kalyvas said. “Despite the fact that there were many defections from the military, we didn’t really observe the implosion of Syrian state. At the same time, we saw this very decentralized but rapid emergence of a rebel army — which, for me, is quite puzzling — and the most likely explanation is the extent and ability of the opposition to gain external assistance.”
Unlike nationalist and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned groups, it has never been firmly established that terrorist organizations like ISIS benefitted from direct state sponsorship. ISIS did, however, manage to get a hold of both private funding and significant quantities of foreign armaments, including U.S. arms, during the maelstrom of the wars in Syria and Iraq. While largely independent, in 2015, Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, also benefitted from its participation in an umbrella coalition of Saudi-, Turkish-, and Qatari-sponsored groups known a Jaish al-Fatah, or the “Army of Conquest.” The relative independence of the most extreme groups over the course of the war – granted by the absence of state sponsorship – stood as a major advantage in the jockeying between various rebel factions. The extremist jihadists had a free hand to set their own agendas in everything from taking territory to running propaganda campaigns aimed at recruitment.
Over the course of the conflict, the most extreme groups, with the support of private donors and foreign volunteers, were largely able to defeat their rivals in the opposition that lined up under the Free Syrian Army umbrella. The Free Syrian Army-type factions had to manage their operations and alliances in order to keep their foreign backers on-side; some groups, for instance, were forced to turn against erstwhile allies like the Syrian Kurds to maintain their Turkish sponsorship. On the other hand, the extremists were able to operate with astounding flexibility. And they benefitted from having a coherent, if harsh, ideological doctrine to impose onto their cadres and areas under their control — another advantage while operating among populations desperate for any kind of order amid the terrifying insecurity of civil war.
“During the Cold War, you had many conflicts in which the rebels were divided by nationalist and communist factions. And very often, the communist factions were both more radical and more ruthless,” said Kalyvas. “Radical parties are often much more centralized and disciplined, making them better able to compete with non-radical rebel groups. The way that they deal with local populations also employs an effective mixture of propaganda — which they tend to be more skilled at — and the brutal suppression of any dissent.”
“This strategy,” Kalyvas added, “can often dominate a civil war and lead to the elimination of any rebel competition.”
Instead of foreshadowing a campaign to take Damascus, the 2013 mortar attacks wound up being just another episode in a long, grueling effort to unseat Assad by force.
There are still nationalist armed revolutionary factions operating in Syria, including the Manbij Military Council, a faction of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, as well as countless civil society activists and groups working in areas liberated from government control. But six years after the war began and four years since the attacks described in the NSA document, the tide of the war has turned dramatically. Caught between the hammer and anvil of extremist groups on one side and the regime on the other, the nationalist Syrian opposition has been largely defeated in its confrontation with the regime. Their slow – and, seemingly, final — vanquish came thanks in no small part to foreign intervention by Iran and Russia, but also, crucially, through the rebels’ own internal divisions.
In one of the videos purporting to show rockets being fired at Damascus International Airport, a rebel commander identified as member of the Free Syrian Army tells the camera that the attack was “in memory of the second anniversary of the Syrian revolution” — just as the Saudi prince had declared. A few months after the daring assault on the Syrian capital, the regime carried out one of the single greatest atrocities of the war: a chemical weapons attack on the Damascus suburb of Ghouta that killed upwards of 1,400 people, according to the U.S. The chemical massacre, and the muted international reaction to it, demoralized the opposition and helped galvanize a long fight back by the regime that ended the war in its favor.
Instead of foreshadowing a campaign to take Damascus, the 2013 mortar attacks wound up being just another episode in a long, grueling effort to unseat Assad by force. The direct foreign involvement in the attack paints a more sharply outlined picture of a war that had already begun to spin out of local control — with foreign powers manipulating Syrians on both sides. While outsiders have written checks, shipped arms, and fired missiles into Syria, it has been the Syrians who have been killed, driven into exile, and seen their country carved into pieces, in a conflict that, despite being more or less decided, continues to rage to this today.