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Inside Free Syria

Poorly armed, lacking in allies, and against all odds, an insurgency seeks to topple the Assad dictatorship.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By JONATHAN SPYER
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The roadblock that meets you at the entry to Binnish is manned by Free Syrian Army fighters. Armed opposition activists are everywhere. A makeshift clubhouse established by Abu Steif, the big man in the opposition in this backwater town, is buzzing with armed young men going in and out until the early hours of the morning. The flag of the Syrian revolution, which is the flag of the Syrian republic before the Baath party took control in 1963, flies above the main square.

The limitations of the revolt are also immediately apparent from a perusal of the armory assembled by the Free Army fighters in their Binnish headquarters. The characterization often heard in the media of the FSA as armed only with Kalashnikovs is not quite accurate, but it’s not far from the truth. The AK-47 is indeed the main weapon of FSA fighters. In addition, I saw RPG-7s, heavy machine guns, and a mortar. Newly arrived body armor, smuggled over the mountains, was stacked up in boxes. There seemed to be no sign of first-aid kits, though, and little indication of any sophisticated communications equipment.

The weapons were the subject of much discussion, and discussion is what the Free Army members in Binnish do a lot of, in their clubhouse, drinking endless quantities of sweet tea and smoking.

The RPG-7, in particular, was an object of enthusiasm. I heard Abdo, a fighter of the FSA and a former Syrian tank corpsman, extolling its virtues to the heavily built, black-bearded Abu Steif on that first evening. “At 300 yards, Abu Steif, at 300 yards, and it can stop a tank. It can take a house down, too. You’ll see it when the time comes.” Abu Steif, a ruminative figure, a prominent local businessman before the revolt, reflected on this information before nodding and concluding, “Praise God.” Assad’s army last entered the town in force in October. No one thinks they won’t be back.

The fighters in Binnish are a mixed bunch. Many are army deserters, with harrowing tales similar to Ayham al-Kurdi’s. The names of the places differ. The details are largely the same: orders to shoot at civilians, a growing realization of having been lied to, and then the decision to escape. The defections are recalled in graphic detail. Sometimes they involve the deaths of friends who sought also to desert, sometimes the turning of guns on fellow Syrian soldiers or officers.

But there is another type of fighter in the ranks of the armed opposition in the town. On the first evening, away from the main opposition center, I met a group of FSA members returning from an attack on an army checkpoint outside Idleb city. Among them were representatives of a type of man immediately familiar to all observers of early 21st-century Middle East politics. A type of man very calm, often smiling, with a sort of serenity about him. Bearded, invoking the authority of holy text, though rarely in a histrionic way. Salafi Islamist fighters are prominent among the FSA men in Binnish. They tended to keep away from Abu Steif’s clubhouse and to have their own gatherings elsewhere. They were local men, though, not foreigners.

I interviewed one of the Salafis shortly after they had returned from the attack on the checkpoint. He was in his mid-30s, black-bearded, and with the attitude typical of FSA fighters, a gloomy assessment of the balance of forces combined with a kind of generalized optimism. “We have no support from any country, and we receive no weapons from anyone,” he told me. “The regime, meanwhile, has Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and China.” How long until Assad is destroyed? I asked. “I give it,” he said, in the manner of a physician revealing a prognosis, “roughly a month.”

The activists in Idleb Province are keen to reassure you that the regime really has gone, without a trace, from the liberated zones. The reality is more complex. The creation of the free zones in Idleb, Homs Province, and elsewhere is the most significant achievement to date of the Syrian revolution. The Assad regime, it should be remembered, was until recently a synonym for the airless, locked-down Arab nationalist police state. In Idleb Province now, there is some room to breathe.

And yet, of course, the regime is still there. Its tanks and armored vehicles are deployed some distance away, in the surrounding fields. But the unseen mechanisms of the dictatorship are present far beyond the FSA roadblock meant to keep out intruders.

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