The Free Syrian Army’s hopeless courage

(Photograph courtesy of Natasha Fillion)

ANTAKYA, December 2011, The Times

The ambush had been going well. Twenty fighters from the Free Syrian Army, armed with rifles and home-made bombs, had stopped a military convoy heading to raid the village of Khan Shekhon.

Then they ran out of bullets. Fleeing, they had no choice but to leave a comrade, 25-year-old Muhammad Kataini, wounded in the arm and leg, to a fate worse than death. “They captured him,” recalled Musa, one of the fighters. “We tried to go back for him, but we couldn’t get him. If we had more ammunition we could have saved him.”

Poorly armed, isolated and living as fugitives in remote corners of Syria, the rebels are mounting a desperate insurgency, though one that even they admit has no chance of toppling the Assad regime unaided.

A senior commander told The Times that a Libya-style intervention with targeted bombing and a buffer zone might be needed to prevent the country sliding into civil war.

“If the international community does not do something to help Syria it will become another Somalia. It will not be stable for decades,” said Captain Ayham al-Kurdi, who is charged with co-ordinating Free Army operations in the western city of Hama.

Speaking in Antakya, Turkey, near where the Free Army’s exiled leaders co-ordinate operations from a refugee camp, Captain al-Kurdi claimed that they had more than 10,000 fighters, almost all army deserters. The figure cannot be independently verified, but even if it is true, the rebels are outgunned by Syria’s 300,000-strong regular army and a sprawling police state adept at instilling terror in its populace.

Nonetheless, in areas such as Daraa, Idlib, Homs and Hama, they appear to be mounting increasingly deadly attacks against the military and security forces. Yesterday, there were reports that rebels shot dead eight soldiers travelling in a military convoy in Hama province after government troops destroyed a civilian car.

At least 25 people were reported killed around the country, after a surge in violence on Tuesday that left 38 dead.

Since peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations began in March against President Assad and his family, who have ruled Syria for more than 40 years, more than 5,000 people have been killed.

In Idlib, where rebel fighters are supported by extensive smuggling networks from neighbouring Turkey, they have carved out fragile pockets of territory.

“We are surrounded by Syrian army troops, we have less than ten square kilometres, and any safe area we’re in can be invaded at any time,” said Alaa, 29, a taxi driver turned activist, who regularly ferries injured civilians and rebels to secret makeshift field hospitals.

“Every day there are wounded and martyrs, and every day I do this. It is my duty as a Syrian,” he said in a Skype interview with The Times.

Alaa is a wanted man whose home has been raided five times since the start of the uprising, although he has done nothing more than treat the injured and relay reports of regime outrages to the outside world.

While he and many other rebels and dissidents clamour for outside intervention, others fear that it could merely fuel a conflict already heading for civil war, pitting the country’s disenfranchised Sunni Muslim majority against the minority Alawite sect whose members make up the regime’s backbone.

But Captain al-Kurdi says there is a greater risk in doing nothing. “Yes, there’s a fear of it turning into a sectarian conflict,” he said. “In fact the regime is trying to provoke this by arming Alawite villages and raiding Sunni ones. But if the international community does not act, then it will not just be soldiers picking up arms, but ordinary people, and that is the danger.”

The hope on the horizon, he said, was that the army would collapse under mass defections once outside powers have created a safe zone for deserters.

“When the uprising started, maybe 50 per cent of the people in the army believed the regime’s lies, but now I believe that 90 per cent want to desert,” said Musa, 25. He deserted from the security forces 40 days ago and fought in the ambush outside Khan Shekhon, in Idlib province, last week.

Musa and his comrades had been sent to Deraa at the start of the uprising and told they were fighting Islamist terrorists. What he witnessed was a terror campaign waged by the Government on its own people.

“Our duty was to raid houses and arrest wanted people. I saw them rape women in public, without shame,” he told The Times from inside Syria.

“There was one woman with her children. When we came into the house, she begged us not to rape her in front of them. We just walked out the house, her words hurt so much. Even if I had no weapons we would keep doing this, to defend our land and our dignity from this Nazi regime.”

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