One face of the Syrian revolt: a jihadi comes home

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 31, 2012 

NEAR RAMTHA, Jordan — Outside a Bedouin shepherd's tent, in view of the Syrian border, Abu Khalid sits in the grass, a laptop perched on his knees. He is using Skype and a pair of cell phones to speak with fellow militants across the border who are waiting to take delivery of weapons and ammunition he has procured.

Abu Khalid, 28, was born and reared in Daraa, the Syrian city just two miles across the border. For months, he has been providing logistical support to his comrades there as they battled the army and paramilitary forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"Since the 18th of March, we were involved with the demonstrations," he said, referring to the date last year when Syrian security forces attacked large anti-government demonstrations in Daraa, killing dozens and fuelling further demonstrations that spread across the country. Daraa's Omari Mosque became a symbol of the rebellion. "I was there when they raided the Omari Mosque, and started shooting bullets at the protesters."

Last week, Abu Khalid was trying, unsuccessfully, to get himself and a half dozen automatic rifles and ammunition across the border. He said there were Libyans and a Palestinian in Jordan also waiting to cross the border to join the fight.

Abu Khalid — the name is a pseudonym that means father of Khalid in Arabic — is one face of the armed rebellion that has come to be known as the Free Syrian Army, the short hand phrase for the mosaic of army defectors, volunteers and religious militants who make up the anti-Assad forces.

But the phrase suggests more of an organization than may actually exist, and Abu Khalid's story underscores the difficulty of knowing to whom to provide arms, should western nations and their Persian Gulf allies decide to give weapons to the rebels. That will be one of the topics on the table when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and representatives of 59 other nations gather Sunday in Turkey for a "Friends of Syria" meeting.

Abu Khalid says his group, the Tawhid (Monotheism) Brigade, has never had contact with the defected Syrian army officers in Turkey who claim to lead the FSA. With about 80 men under arms, the Monotheism Brigade operates in the villages and countryside outside Daraa, he said. They openly describe themselves as jihadis and Salafis, holy warriors and followers of a conservative strain of Islam. They play well into the Syrian government's claims that the rebels are religious zealots.

Abu Khalid says his own career as a religious militant began in 2004, in a group that in part was sponsored, ironically, by the Syrian government.

After completing his mandatory service in the Syrian army, Abu Khalid joined Fatah al Islam, a group largely comprised of Palestinians and an offshoot of former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah Movement. Fatah al Islam is best known for a 2007 standoff in northern Lebanon that completely destroyed a Palestinian refugee camp and left hundreds of soldiers, civilians and militants dead.

Abu Khalid became disillusioned, he said, when he realized he was being sent to Lebanon. He'd joined the group to fight Americans in Iraq. He left the group in May 2005.

"We didn't know it was part of Syrian intelligence," he said. "The idea when we enlisted in Fatah al Islam was we would be fighting the Americans in Iraq and that we wouldn't have any armed work outside Iraq."

Abu Khalid traveled to Iraq, only to find that Iraqis were largely unsupportive of jihadis from other countries. After only 10 days, he decided to return to Syria.

In 2007 he was arrested in Syria and accused of fomenting rebellion against the Assad government. It's a charge he doesn't deny.

"I've been arrested four times. All the time I was thinking about how to get rid of the regime," he said.

Abu Khalid traces his grievances to the brutal repression in 1982 by Assad's father, Hafez Assad, of the Sunni Muslim religious party the Muslim Brotherhood. Assad, like his son, was an Allawite, a heterodox Muslim sect related to Shiite Islam that dominates Syria's government and army, even though Sunnis make up the majority of Syria's population.

But it was the government's repression of peaceful protests last year that spurred Abu Khalid's group to take up arms, he said.

"We formed before the revolution as peaceful cells, but after the killing and torture took place in Syria, we decided to carry weapons," Abu Khalid said.

Abu Khalid said Syrian authorities arrested him last April for his activities but released him in June. After that he fled to Jordan, where he began running guns.

Getting those weapons has become increasingly difficult as the conflict has dragged on, however. Two weeks after Abu Khalid had procured weapons inside Jordan at inflated prices — $8,000 for an M4 rifle, and $1 per bullet — he still had not been able to get them across the border.

The problem is as much Jordanian authorities as Syrian. He was held recently for four days by what he said was Jordanian intelligence.

Most of the cross-border smuggling, he said, now requires bribing Jordanian army officers. For fighters trying to enter Syria from Jordan with weapons, the price has gone up to nearly $2,000 per person.

"If the border guards want to help, they have to do it secretively and individually, without the government knowing," he said. "The border guards are really acting from a humanitarian point of view."

The money for the weapons, he said, comes not from hostile governments, as the Syrian government has claimed, but from individual donors.

"The funding is coming from Syrians in the Gulf and Europe, as individual actions, from our own network," he said. "We're not going to allow any non-Syrian people to have any power, even if that person is a Muslim or Arab. But we don't mind any kind of cooperation," even from the U.S.

Abu Khalid predicted the campaign to oust Assad would be a long one. He declined to say how many attacks his group had carried out, but said that they are focused on using roadside bombs to attack the Syrian military.

He said he had little sympathy for the tactics of al Qaida, which has been blamed for some of the more spectacular bombings in Syrian cities, and that those tactics were another reason he'd returned from Iraq.

"Al Qaida does not pay attention to whether it's positive or negative, or if it's good or not," he said. "I met with (al Qaida). We disagreed about many things, including killing Shiites. We refused to kill women and children."

But he expects a bloody struggle in Syria.

"Our goal now is to end the regime, even if another million people are killed," he said. "We think it's going to be a long war. Not less than one year."

When the fight is over, Abu Khalid said, he envisioned Syria would join the list of Arab countries that have seen religious political parties empowered by the upheavals of the last year.

"It's not a revolution for Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood, it's a people's revolution. But each string is trying to pull things in their direction," he said. "We wish a moderate Islamist trend, as happened in Egypt, to give the rights to the people."

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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