Ill-armed Syrian rebels wage unequal struggle

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 06, 2012 11:15 AM
Ill-armed Syrian rebels wage unequal struggle

By Alexander Dziadosz

QUSAIR, Syria (Reuters) - The computer engineer from Homs had hoped to work in Dubai after his military service. Make some money, marry his fiancee. Carve out a comfortable life in Syria's slowly liberalizing economy.

His dreams and those of thousands of other young Syrians collapsed when the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, 46, broke out a year ago.

For one thing, the overstretched army prolonged his two-year military service beyond its July end-date, keeping him four more months before he deserted and made his way to Qusair, a town of 40,000 people, 12 km (seven miles) from the Lebanese border.

A husky, bearded man in his early 30s, he took the nom de guerre, Homsi, after his battered home city, and joined rebels fighting in the hills and fields for a "free and dignified life." But Homsi had no gun. For that he would have to wait.

"We are in a poor revolution," he said last week, standing by a crumbling mud brick wall in Qusair. "We have to buy weapons with our own money ... When we defected from Assad's army, some took their guns. But not all of us did."

Army deserters like Homsi form the backbone of the loosely organized Free Syrian Army, nominally led by officers based in Turkey from where they proclaimed its existence over the summer.

Syria's protest movement was mostly peaceful at the outset, but Assad's relentlessly violent response prompted more Syrians to fight back, catapulting the FSA to prominence, despite its frailties in weaponry, logistics and command and control.

The fighters, and the thousands of Syrians supporting them, span a religious and ideological spectrum. Smugglers, teachers, engineers or farmers, some are secular, many more are pious and a few wear the long beards favored by radical Salafi Muslims.

Overwhelmingly, they are Sunni Muslim former conscripts in their 20s who deserted while on leave or during operations when, they said, they disobeyed orders to shoot unarmed demonstrators.

Most are motivated primarily by grievances accumulated under decades of authoritarian rule. "We only need freedom - no need to hide, no need for blood on the streets," Homsi said.

Armed mostly with smuggled or stolen weapons, the fighters in and around Qusair have given residents some respite from Assad's ruthless "shabbiha" (ghost) militias, and have forged routes to Lebanon to bring medicine in and take casualties out.

They benefit from local support and from the rugged border terrain where low concrete houses dot farmland and mountains.

But as a military outfit, they are far from formidable. Their light weapons and scarce ammunition cannot match the army's tanks and artillery in battle. When Assad's forces shell Qusair, the fighters melt away into the fields.

ARMING REBELS

The disparity in firepower has led to calls from some Gulf states and others to arm the rebels, as in Libya last year.

But Western powers have so far been wary of fuelling a conflict that could ignite broader strife in a region whose political struggles often take on an ethnic or sectarian color.

Syria, where an Alawite minority elite dominates a Sunni majority living alongside Christians, Druze, Kurds and Palestinian refugees, borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, whose complex histories are threaded with communal bloodshed.

With his black Afghan-style tunic, baggy trousers and heavy beard, Abu Omar cuts the kind of figure who might set off alarm bells for Western governments calculating how much support to give Syrian insurgents trying to topple the secular Assad.

Peppering his speech with religious expressions, Abu Omar, from the Qusair area, says he fought U.S. forces in Afghanistan's Helmand province and then in Iraq before returning to battle Assad in his homeland.

"We don't want support from the United States. They're our enemy," Abu Omar said, a Kalashnikov rifle across his shoulder. "Once we finish with Bashar, we'll go fight America," he said, and then chuckled. "We're kidding. That's a joke."

Like other fighters, Abu Omar denied that al Qaeda foreign militants, whose chief has urged Syrians to fight Assad, had joined the fray. "Have you seen them? They aren't here."

All the rebels encountered by Reuters in Qusair were Syrian, many of them local or from nearby Homs and some from cities as far away as Deir al-Zor in the east or Deraa in the south.

Sensitive to their portrayal by state media as "armed terrorists" and al Qaeda militants, many fighters deny the revolt has a sectarian aspect, accusing Assad's government or foreign powers of trying to exploit religious divisions.

"Salafis? What are these Salafis? Someone who prays? Plenty of people pray, but I don't know what Salafi means," said a 24-year-old army defector nicknamed al-Hassan. "Bashar al-Assad's regime taught us that Salafis love to kill. That's all."

He said Syrian officers are harassed or detained if they grow beards, pray frequently or are overtly pious. "If you pray in the army, it's a huge problem," Hassan added.

"There's no one here who wants Islamic government ... When Assad goes, we just want someone who fears God. Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Christian. One who fears God, rules us with justice and gives us our rights."

Some fighters explain the limited number of Christians and Alawites in FSA ranks by saying that rebels from those groups would be at greater risk of torture or death if captured.

"All people from every religion know that the revolution is right," said a former army lieutenant nicknamed Ibra. "But as minorities, other than majority Sunnis, their situation doesn't allow them to be effective participants in the revolution."

FSA officers say they want to prevent Syria from sliding into civil war and their main aim is to protect civilians and provide as much aid as possible to residents of besieged areas.

One officer, nicknamed Abu Arab, appeared affronted when a journalist asked whether Salafis were among the rebels. "Why is the West afraid of Salafis? Why is it afraid of Islam?" he demanded. "This is a Muslim country."

The rebels were motivated solely by Assad's injustices, he said. "The army here is attacking the country. Have you ever seen the U.S. army attack New York? The truth is clear, but the world is committed to falsehood when it comes to Syria."

OLD GRIEVANCES

Still, there is an undeniably religious vein running through the movement. Most of the Qusair fighters pray regularly. Many have grown beards, now they are free of secret police scrutiny.

One of the largest brigades in the area is called al-Farouq, a reference to an early Islamic leader who many Shi'ites consider was against their cause. The name is sewn in gold letters into the camouflage jackets of some local fighters.

Some, like Abu Omar, are ostentatiously devout. "Salaam aleikum (peace be upon you)" one fighter with a heavy beard and no moustache greeted a Western journalist at a checkpoint. "You must pray to God. God is greatest," he smiled, pointing skyward.

And sectarian-tinged suspicion and bitterness is widespread. Fighters question visitors from Iraq and Lebanon about whether they are Sunni or Shi'ite, and often relay rumors of atrocities carried out by "Iranian" militias against Syrian civilians.

Many were convinced that Shi'ites from abroad had entered Syria to bolster a government perceived as favoring Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, over Sunnis.

One Sunni army deserter from the Baba Amr district of Homs, devastated in a month-long siege, said an Alawite official had denied him a university teaching post, a decision he viewed as sectarian discrimination.

Smoking constantly, with dark circles under his eyes, the man insisted that in his hometown government rules meant that Sunni couples seeking marriage had to undergo a ceremony conducted by an Alawite.

"Can you imagine a Christian getting married by a Muslim?" he asked, flicking ash from his cigarette, as other fighters listened intently.

Some nearby villages, scatterings of unfinished concrete houses and shops, are mostly Christian, others mostly Alawite. Sunnis dominate Qusair itself, as they do in Syria as a whole.

The fighters prefer this rural terrain, where they can dart through trees and take cover in ditches from shelling and sniper fire, to the towns where troops man checkpoints on main roads.

Their hand-held radios, brought in from Lebanon, crackle constantly.

LOOSE CONTROL

Syria's border with Lebanon may have become a combat zone, but it retains its natural beauty. Snow-capped mountain ranges run across the horizon. Sunlight pierces purple clouds. Shepherds shield their faces from a bitter wind with red-and-white kaffiya scarves.

To reach Qusair, the rebels must take a winding route down dirt and gravel roads, climbing over hills and cutting through cedar groves, olive fields and orchards to circumvent the security checkpoints ringing the town.

Crammed into battered minivans and pickup trucks alongside green wooden boxes of rifle cartridges and grenades, they stop often, checking for army activity or transferring ammunition to their comrades.

Men in camouflage jackets or, more often, leather jackets and other civilian clothes, squat under bridges or in small concrete shelters, rifles slung over their backs.

Rebels use whatever shelter they can find. In one town, the rebels took over an abandoned school, sleeping in the classrooms and piling ammunition against walls marked with graffiti.

Nominally commanded from Turkey by FSA leader Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the rebels around Qusair and nearby mountains, who number 2,000 by their own possibly exaggerated estimate, appear to operate autonomously for the most part.

They are divided into groups, one in charge of smuggling medicine in from Lebanon, another with taking wounded people the other way and a third with defending demonstrations from attack.

This is a tall order for lightly armed fighters. During several days in Qusair, this correspondent saw only assault rifles, a few grenade launchers and one heavy machinegun.

"The FSA only has small and light arms. These weapons are just enough to defend the town and ourselves - and not for very long," said Ibra, a former army lieutenant, with his M4 rifle leaning against the wall.

"What can a rifle do facing artillery and rockets? It can't do anything. And these are the Free Syrian Army's weapons."

The rebels scrounge weapons where they can. Deserters bring some, others are captured in raids. Still more are purchased from "corrupt officers" in the national army, fighters say.

Well-worn smuggling routes to Lebanon have yielded some heavier, but unreliable, weapons from the stocks of Hezbollah, an armed Shi'ite Lebanese movement that supports Assad.

"In Lebanon, Hezbollah is playing a game with us. They sell us defective weapons," a rebel commander nicknamed al-Ameed (the general) said. "When you fire an RPG, the firing capsule just breaks down."

In any case, the stretched resources of the fighters can only go so far. Several fighters said the price of a Kalashnikov rifle had risen to more than $2,000, up from only a few hundred dollars before the war. Bullets can cost as much as $2 each.

"The Libyans were better supported than us - they had more money, more weapons," one fighter named Tarek complained.

"NOT SO MUCH TO ASK..."

Many Syrians who are not fighters nevertheless play their part in the struggle against Assad.

In Qusair, men and women gather in a house every night to make green, white and black independence-era flags and banners, as well as camouflage jackets and black masks for the fighters.

Townsfolk stage nightly demonstrations after evening prayers in defiance of the military's six-month blockade. They dance to drums and sing. "Syria is not the Assad family's estate," one sign held by a child read at a recent protest.

"We only have the Free Army protecting us here," a protester named Feda said. "We're coming out to demand freedom, like in any country. We want to live like any other country. That's not so much to ask."

Some Christians attend protest rallies, although religion sometimes intrudes. Men bellow Muslim prayers on loudspeakers. One banner read: "A nation with Mohammad as its guide will not kneel."

After soldiers occupied Qusair's main hospital, doctors set up a makeshift clinic in a private villa, where a gas generator rumbles in the courtyard under the shade of an orange tree. Every couple of weeks, they change the clinic's location.

When the shelling is heavy, medics with blood-stained latex gloves scramble between rooms, bumping into one another as they pass through the small hallways to grab gauze from small tables.

Kassem al-Zain, the clinic's chief medic, estimated about 100 people had died in Qusair since the uprising started. He said some wounds are beyond locally available treatment. Serious cases are sent to Lebanon, he said, but most die on the way.

One Sunday last month, the hospital received four people with sniper wounds, including a 50-year-old woman shot in the chest and a 70-year-old man shot in the abdomen, Zain said. On one of the worst days, 52 people were wounded by shelling and sniper fire about a month ago. Seven died.

"We have a lot of shortages. The equipment we have is terrible," Zain said, pointing to an anesthesia machine he estimated was 45 years old and to a row of old oxygen canisters.

BATTLE OF THE MEDIA

Other volunteers have thrown themselves into media work, which they see as important because of the limited access for foreign journalists and the hostility of Syrian state media.

Squatting before his laptop in a small sitting room, a 30-year-old activist nicknamed Abu Habib flipped between images of a funeral held for a local man earlier that day, as well as Facebook and Gmail, which he uses to distribute his footage.

Using Lebanese phone lines, a few of Qusair's activists can get a meager Internet signal, just enough to send out images, although rarely fast enough to keep pace with daily news cycles.

"It's a bad signal, a bad speed. And it doesn't work all the time," Abu Habib said.

It is also dangerous. Shabbiha militiamen often target media activists such as Mohammed Jarban, who went by the name Abu Hamza. A flower seller before the revolt, he took up a camera and started filming Qusair demonstrations early on.

"Everyone knew him," Abu Habib said. "At protests we used to sing, 'Oh Abu Hamza, precious one, where's the live feed?'"

Then in November, a government informer spotted him near the hospital. He disappeared that day. A worker later found his body on a road, riddled with bullets and scarred by knife wounds.

That night the pro-government television channel reported Jarban's death, describing him as "the biggest terrorist in Qusair," Abu Habib said. "Imagine that. He never held a weapon, not even a knife. He was a flower seller."

Many activists see the FSA, for all its limitations, as the only line of defence against the military, and they have little faith in the exile opposition Syrian National Council.

"It's not doing enough to halt the bloodshed in the streets," said Hassan, a 40-year-old Arabic professor now working with the opposition in Qusair. "All we want from the council is support for the Free Army."

He pointed to the vast disparity in technology and equipment between Qusair's defenders and superior government forces.

"This," he said, "is not a fair fight."

(Editing by Alistair Lyon and Peter Millership)