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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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Each Friday, large demonstrations take place across Syria, under a single slogan chosen by the opposition. On the Friday I was in Binnish, the designated slogan was “Russia is killing us.” A British Sky TV crew had entered the town, and was doing a live broadcast from a rooftop next to the rally. All had been peaceful. But as the cameras began to roll, in the area behind them, a large brawl unaccountably erupted. Within seconds, the Sky reporter’s jaunty copy about the revolution in Idleb Province was being recited, absurdly, with a mass fistfight going on behind it.

Opposition activists stepped in, and to the fury of the crew, stopped the live broadcast. To the practiced eye, what had taken place was very apparent. This was a provocation straight out of the dog-eared East German playbook of the Baath regime. Primitive and lowtech, it may have been. But it succeeded in disrupting the only piece of live coverage coming out of Idleb Province that day and served notice that whatever flag flew above the town square, the Assad regime had not entirely left. It turned out that some members of an unruly local clan had been paid to start the fight.

That evening, Abu Steif and his activists began preparing a list of 200 families in the town who would send representatives to a new “security committee” to be formed in Binnish. It is a beginning.

Getting from Binnish to neighboring Sarmin requires venturing back onto the main highway to Damascus. We managed this without incident. In Sarmin, the armed element looks better organized, more professional than in Binnish. There is talk of around a thousand armed men in the town.

I met with one of the commanders, 25-year-old Lieutenant Bilal Khaibar, at a position prepared by the FSA at the entrance to the town. Khaibar, a seven-year veteran of Assad’s airborne forces, is impressive in the classic manner of an elite infantry officer—earnest, clipped, and precise. The outlines of his own story, and the reasons he joined the FSA, were by now familiar.

He and his unit were deployed in the south in the early months of the uprising. They were told that armed Israelis had crossed the border and that they were to engage them. On closing with the “enemy,” they discovered that it consisted of unarmed Syrian civilians. The troops were accompanied into the engagement by non-Arabic-speaking men, who Bilal later discovered were Iranians. These men were responsible for the execution of one of Bilal Khaibar’s brother officers, who refused to fire on civilians in the Daraa area. Khaibar made his way in June 2011 to the Free Syrian Army days after the killing of his friend.

Bilal Khaibar still wears his Syrian Army paratroopers’ wings on his FSA uniform, and was careful to explain to me that he does this because he regards himself as part of the legal army of Syria. “I am with the law, not against the law. The regime is fascist and criminal.” Nor does he have any illusions about what is to come. “We expect what happened in Homs to happen here. But even with our simple weapons, we are ready to fight. Either Bashar stays, or we stay.”

As for what can bring victory, again, the demands are familiar—above all, a buffer zone. A place to which refugees can flee, and from which fighters can organize. Without this, Khaibar sees no end to the situation.

And again, the curious rumor: Three times, he says, three times, in his clipped, officer’s way, the regime has used chemical weapons and pesticides against protesters in the Homs area.

 “Freedom is the promise of God on earth,” Khaibar tells me. So if international help doesn’t come, he and his men will hold the Sarmin free zone for as long as they can, and afterwards fight, he says, “like peshmerga.” The regime, says Khaibar, “has the heavy weapons, but the people are with us.”

Lieutenant Bilal Khaibar of the Sarmin FSA was the most credible of the military men I met in Idleb Province. The presence of individuals of his type in the insurgency is an indication that it is real, it means business, and it will not easily be destroyed. However, without the buffer zone and the assistance that he and others repeatedly demanded, it is difficult to see how victory can come.

In October, when the army of Assad swept through Idleb Province, they began their attack on Binnish from the graveyard outside of the town. On my last day in Idleb, two young fighters of the FSA proudly recounted their own role in the bloody battle in the alleyways of the first neighborhood facing the graveyard, as the fighters sought to stop Assad’s army and irregulars from forcing their way in. “Assad wants to turn the whole of Syria into a graveyard,” one of them told me as we stood by the grave of Ahmed Abd el-Hakim, an FSA fighter killed by a sniper in the October clashes.

The Assad regime’s choice to launch the attack in a graveyard seemed particularly apt. Death and its political uses is the only currency in which this most brutal of dictatorships has ever learned to deal. It has traded in this coin, however, with vigor and skill, and it continues to do so.

Umm Maher, the mother of Ahmed Abd el-Hakim, later summed up for me what this has meant in human terms for the people of Syria.

Sitting in her front room, with her daughter seated next to her holding a picture of Ahmed, she told me that, “for 40 years we’ve lived like this—no law, no rights. We live with terror. We are made to live differently from all other people in the world by this regime. So we’re proud of our son, who was trying to end this. He was brave.”

Umm Maher’s words express a simple and obvious truth regarding the desire of human beings for dignity. As for the instruments in place in Syria for achieving this, the Free Syrian Army in Idleb Province includes many courageous and capable men. Some of them are committed to Salafi Islamist ideologies. They are nearly all Sunni Arabs. There is a clear sectarian logic at work—alongside a desire to see the end of a regime that denies them the most basic and minimal of rights.

In terms of their capabilities, the Free Syrian Army remains something of a fiction. What exists on the ground is a conglomeration of locally organized militias, lacking any coherent central direction or chain of command, and with no real strategy for victory beyond the “buffer zone” constantly referred to.

For the people and the fighters of Idleb, the fight goes on. They know that once Assad is finished with Homs and Hama, and once he thinks he can get away with it, he will turn his attention back to the north. Then it will be their turn, and the dictator will exact a bloody and terrible revenge for their effrontery.

What could prevent this is an effective coalition to counter the anti-Western one (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) that currently underwrites the dictator. This Western coalition can only happen outside the auspices of the U.N., where Russia and China have already vetoed Security Council resolutions demanding Assad step down. Part of that Western response would involve turning the FSA from a collection of ragtag militias into a more formidable force. And it would commit to the creation of a free zone in Syria more solid and guaranteed than those zones currently held, with hope and courage, by fighters armed only with AK-47s and RPG-7s.

Jonathan Spyer is the author of Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.

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