The carnage in Syria continues and is intensifying as Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship pushes on in its countrywide effort to destroy the armed resistance against it. It appears increasingly likely that the struggle can only be settled by force. Either the dictator will crush the rebellion or the regime will fall. As a result, the rebel Free Syrian Army, as the armed element among the opposition, is playing an increasingly important role in the uprising. Yet who composes this group, and what does it stand for? How does it fit in the larger rebellion against Assad? And, perhaps most crucially, is it an appropriate recipient for Western aid in the near future?
In early February, having made initial arrangements through FSA contacts in Turkey, I made my way to Idlib Province, on Syria’s northwestern border, to spend a week in the company of fighters and civilian activists and see elements of the rebel army firsthand in the towns of Sarmin and Binnish.
In Sarmin, the FSA appears to consist almost entirely of defectors from Assad’s army, several hundred of them. The force appeared disciplined and serious. The fighters are uniformed, equipped with AK-47 rifles; I saw RPG-7s, heavy machine guns, and a mortar. They are commanded by an impressive figure, Lieutenant Bilal Khabir, a twenty-five-year-old former officer of the airborne forces of Assad’s army. He and his men are motivated, respond to commands with military precision, and appear willing to fight to the end. “Either Bashar stays or we stay,” Khabir told me. “The regime has the heavy weapons—the people are with us.”
Khabir speaks with the earnestness and sincerity of a youth counsellor—hardly a macho stereotype. Yet volunteer soldiers seem far more likely to trust a leader like Khabir over a glory-seeker (especially when they are out-manned and out-gunned), and the young officer left me with the impression that the fighters in Sarmin mean business.
In Binnish, on the other hand, the FSA is a smaller force, the majority of which is made up of local men who have taken up arms rather than former members of the army. Uniforms are scarcer, and the local FSA fighters do not bear arms during the Friday demonstrations that accompany prayer services, and hence have a less imposing and visible presence in the town.
Not surprisingly, given its organic development, and consistent with similarly formed rebel groups in Libya, the FSA generally appears to be a loose collection of local militias, consisting largely of army deserters but also of Syrian civilians who have taken up arms against the regime. It is well equipped for street fighting, but does not have the weaponry or the expertise to withstand a frontal assault from Assad’s forces at this stage. It also does not appear to have an efficient or centralized command structure, though there is clearly communication on some level between different local elements. There is a notional, Syria-wide leadership cadre based in Antakya, Turkey, and headed by former Air Force Colonel Riyad al-Asaad. But local FSA commanders readily admit that they are not under the daily command and control of this leadership. One civilian activist whom I spoke to openly dismissed the “national” leaders, noting (accurately) that they are confined to their compound by Turkish authorities and unable to keep up with, much less direct, fast-moving events on the ground in Syria. The FSA officers I spoke to also acknowledged the splits that have emerged in the ostensible leadership of the organization—with General Mustafa al-Sheikh, a recent defector from the Syrian Army, emerging as a rival potential leader to Riyad al-Asaad.
Asked what they needed to win their fight against Assad, the FSA men I spoke to—Lieutenant Khabir in Sarmin, Captain Ayham al-Kurdi in Antakya, and the fighters Mohammed and Ahmed in Binnish—all repeated a single demand: an internationally imposed zone from which they could organize and operate. A secondary, often-repeated demand was for arms and supplies—from the West, from Arab countries, or, as a few men said, “even from Israel.” When I asked if the FSA could win in the absence of outside assistance, they demurred. Kurdi and Khabir both acknowledged that, without international aid, the situation could continue “for years” (Kurdi’s phrase). Khabir also mentioned the possibility of a long guerrilla war, “like pesh merga,” as he put it, referring to the Kurdish guerrilla force. Kurdi added that the regime would not ultimately fall solely at the hands of the FSA, but rather as a result of a combined political struggle, in which the main job of the FSA would be protecting demonstrators and guarding the free zones carved out by the rebels. As he put it, “We don’t follow the typical way of war. We use the strategy of gangs. The revolution will not win because of the military force of the FSA, but rather by the will of the people. Our main job is to try and protect protesters and thus allow protest to occur.”
Despite the lack of a clear military strategy, or the arms needed to mount a serious threat to the country’s standing army, the morale among FSA fighters is high. They seem convinced that the Assad regime will fall soon, though they have a fairly hazy understanding of exactly how this will happen. The power of their moral cause has convinced them that they will carry the day; they take assurance in the fact that Assad’s brutality has shown the world how bankrupt his regime truly is. They also have nowhere to retreat to, and hence have decided, as Bilal Khabir put it, to “fight to the end.” Their belief is that Assad is merely buying time with his ongoing massacres, not changing the ultimate outcome. An older civilian activist I met in Antakya told me that “all dictatorial regimes look strong until the end. Then they fall suddenly—like in Egypt, Libya, Romania.” He continued, “The state has lost control physically over the country, because people have lost their fear. Assad no longer has enough men to reconquer all of Syria.”
Why are army deserters joining the FSA? The fighters I interviewed told similar stories of witnessing atrocities, finally refusing to take part in them any longer, and then making the difficult and hazardous escape from Assad’s army to join the rebels. Mohammed, for example, a former member of the Syrian Army’s Ninth Brigade, who did not offer his full name, told of his disgust at the brutal suppression of protests he had witnessed. When ordered to shoot at army deserters in the Deraa area of southern Syria, he instead chose to join the deserters himself. Ahmed, formerly a member of the 35th Infantry Brigade, chose to desert while manning a checkpoint on the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, and has since taken part in combat in Idlib Province against the army.
Given what has been seen in other revolutions in the region, the question of sectarianism in the struggle to overthrow Assad is an important one as well. Sunni Arab Syrians constitute around sixty percent of the Syrian population and, reportedly, seventy-five to eighty percent of the FSA. The remaining twenty to twenty-five percent are Sunni Kurds, whose attitude toward the uprising has been more cautious. They oppose the Assad regime, but there is a widespread feeling that they were “betrayed” by their Arab fellow citizens when they rose against the same regime in 2004. The Kurdish communities have been only sporadically active in the uprising so far. There are also suspicions among the opposition forces that elements of the nationalist and separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) among the Syrian Kurds have reached an accommodation with the regime.
Idlib Province is a deeply conservative Sunni area. There is also a considerable presence of Salafi Islamist fighters in the FSA in both Binnish and Sarmin. Although these fighters appeared to be local men, not foreign jihadis, the Salafi presence, and the prominent role a number of these individuals have taken in recent fighting against Assad’s forces, should not be ignored.
In conversation with FSA fighters and activists, the sectarian issue, and the differing loyalties of the various Syrian communities, surfaced regularly. Inevitably, I heard a somewhat sanitized version of this from FSA commanders, while rank-and-file fighters and civilian activists were more likely to express openly sectarian views. Captain Ayham al-Kurdi echoed others when he observed that the fight represented a struggle primarily between Sunni Arabs and Alawi Arabs. “Ninety percent of Alawis,” he said, are with the regime. “Christians are neutral, the Druze are split, and the Sunnis who benefitted from the regime support it, while the others are opposed.” A civilian activist speaking to me in Binnish was more blunt: “This is civil war between the clans,” he said, then hurriedly reminding me that Sunnis nevertheless rejected the possibility of sectarian warfare as a matter of principle.
The anger, particularly against the Alawis, is raw and powerful. Hatred of the Shabiha, the Alawi paramilitaries responsible for a number of atrocities against Syrian Sunnis, is particularly intense. I saw representatives from the Shiite village of Kefraya, in Idlib Province, attend a meeting of Sunni leaders in Binnish, the aim of which was to form a security committee to prevent Assad’s security agencies from undermining the resistance effort by buying off local villagers and clans. But the Shia make up a tiny community in Syria, of little political consequence. It is difficult to imagine that a similar level of cooperation could exist today between Sunnis and Alawis.
FSA fighters are also well aware of the international forces aligned with the Assad regime, namely Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, all of which draw hatred from the rebels for their support of Assad.
In Binnish’s main square, I watched a gathering of schoolchildren whoop and cheer as a group of young men in keffiyehs doused a Hezbollah flag in petrol and set it ablaze. An old man watching the scene referred to the party as “Hizb a-Shaytan” (the Party of the Devil). Anti-Iranian placards were also on display at demonstrations in Sarmin and Binnish. One of these depicted Iran as a crocodile whose jaws were being forced open by a figure bearing the flag of the Syrian revolution (which is the flag of the Syrian Republic prior to the foundation of the United Arab Republic in 1958).
Likewise, Russia has come in for its share of vilification. The demonstrations held across Syria each Friday take place under a particular slogan. On the Friday I was in Idlib Province, the slogan was “Russia is killing us.” Placards, banners, and chanting derided Russia for its arms supplies to the regime, and its UN Security Council efforts to prevent international condemnation of Assad and support of the rebels.
According to several accounts, Iranian and Hezbollah support of the regime goes beyond mere arms shipments and diplomatic intrigue. Binnish resident and opposition activist Muhya-din told me that men with Lebanese accents, who they presumed to be Hezbollah fighters, accompanied Assad’s army into Binnish when it made a large-scale incursion last October. In Sarmin, Lieutenant Khabir described how non-Arabic-speaking Iranian personnel accompanied his unit when it was ordered to suppress demonstrations in Deraa last summer. Khabir’s unit was told they were going to engage Israeli “infiltrators.” Captain Kurdi explained that Iran is involved in the struggle because the Syrian revolution threatens to “break the dream” of Iranian regional domination. The Iranians, said Kurdi, hoped to see the establishment of a contiguous chain of pro-Tehran states stretching from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean Sea, with Assad’s Syria connecting Iraq and Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. “Iran’s project,” as Kurdi called it, “is easy to understand.” Kurdi also remarked that the revolution would remember its friends and its enemies alike. When the rebellion succeeds, he said, the new Syria will refuse to be Moscow’s “regional base” and “neither depend on, nor have relations with, nor take weapons from Russia.”
I left Idlib Province the way I came, via the mountains. Covered in mud from the crossing, we arrived back at the hotel in Antakya at 3 a.m. on a clear night, and drank Efes Pilsen beer to celebrate our return. What I saw in Syria was a young but authentic insurgent movement, developing in a mode well established by others before it and set to fight a long and costly war of attrition against a classically ruthless foe who will do anything to stay in power. The daunting forces of Assad’s dictatorship have already shown their capability in Homs and elsewhere, but the rebel fighters I encountered displayed the will and determination to take on those forces, despite limited weaponry and weak central authority. As Lieutenant Khabir in Sarmin put it to me, “The regime is fascist and criminal. We expect what happened in Homs to happen here. But even with our simple weapons, we’re ready to fight. Our morale is high. We don’t know how to run away.”
The insurgents believe that the international community as a whole is unconcerned with their fate. “The world has no eyes” was the way one activist put it to me. The crucial issue now is whether a rival international effort to counterbalance Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah’s outreach to Assad will come into being. If it does, and if this effort includes training and weaponry for the Free Syrian Army, then the rebel group has a chance to seriously challenge the regime and offer real protection to the Syrian people. If it does not, then scenes similar to those the world has seen in Homs, and far worse, are likely to be repeated across Syria in the months to come. The FSA in Idlib Province have vowed to fight to the end. Whether the next phase will see the beginning of the end for the Assad regime or a long and drawn-out guerrilla war, depends largely on the West. As of now, the latter course appears the more likely.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post.
Author’s note: This article was written in early February. Since then, the Syrian regime has intensified attempts to destroy the Free Syrian Army and retake the precariously liberated areas described here. This effort is ongoing, yet both the FSA and the civilian opposition remain in existence. In Idlib Province today, the fighters described herein are engaged in daily action against the regime’s armed forces and the Alawi Shabiha paramilitaries. Their views and demands as recorded here remain relevant and contemporary.
Photos by the author.