A Syrian rebel commander bemoans lack of international aid

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2012 

ISTANBUL, Turkey — After spending six and a half months in northern Syria commanding a ragtag local resistance force, whose small arms and homemade bombs are no match for the army's tanks, artillery and militia, Abdullah Awdeh crossed the border into Turkey late last month in search of aid.

Awdeh, 27, said he had been a lieutenant in the Syrian army until he fled to Turkey in June, and that since August he had commanded about 100 fighters in villages near the town of Idlib. He allowed is own name to be used because he said he's already known to the regime and would face death in any case if he were captured.

Awdeh was in Istanbul last Sunday, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and more than 70 foreign ministers from around the world arrived for the second meeting of the "Friends of the People of Syria." There the United States and other countries gave the first hints they will send non-lethal military support and funds to the Syrian resistance, channeling it through the Syrian National Council.

But for a donation from a Syrian businessman, Awdeh said he left here empty-handed. He said he hopes to reinfiltrate into Syria shortly.

The resistance lacks weapons, but also training, communications and cash. It lacks organization as well. The United States has used the lack of a central organization as its reason for not providing supplies or aid — it was only during last week's meeting that the Friends of Syria recognized the SNC as the main umbrella group for the group's seeking the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

But the fighters, as Awdeh describes them, have almost no connection with the SNC and he has no expectation that a relationship will come about. How aid will reach them — and if it will reach them — remains a critical question as the Syrian military presses a campaign across northern Syria ahead of a ceasefire now scheduled to go into effect Tuesday.

Thousands of new refugees have fled the onslaught this week to Turkey, telling of rebel efforts to resist the onslaught that end with the rebels being overwhelmed by the far superior government forces.

Awdeh said the rebellion consists of small units that developed spontaneously around the country during the anti-government uprising in the past year but have little contact with either the military officers in Turkey who call themselves the Free Syrian Army or the civilian-led SNC.

He speaks contemptuously of defected Col. Riad al Assad, the ostensible leader of the FSA. "I know him personally," Awdeh said. "He's stupid, he's inarticulate and he's not a senior officer."

Awdeh said no one sent him on his first mission, and no one supported him. "I was alone," he said, and he knew he could die. "As a Muslim, if I get killed, it will be as a martyr."

As it attempts to flush out its opponents from the cities and towns, the Syrian government is deploying weapons bought from Russia over the past four decades, ostensibly to defend the country against Israel. Meanwhile, the resistance, according to Awdeh, has AK-47 submachine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade "Molotov cocktails" or gasoline bombs.

"We communicate with walkie-talkies. The regular army can monitor us," Awdeh said. "But we are lucky because we stay one step ahead of the regime. When we mount an attack, we keep radio silence and use code words."

He said in Idlib, the Syrian military has deployed 7,000 to 8,000 troops, 250 tanks and a large number of armored vehicles. In addition, he said, there are thousands in the pro-Assad Shabiha militia, who drive around in civilian cars.

The resistance, on the other hand, is "all local people," he said. "Maybe I am the only one from outside." Awleh said he was welcomed as a volunteer commander, because he is from Deraa in southern Syria and his presence made it possible to overcome the enmities and rivalries of families in the region.

He said there are no real leaders yet in the resistance. "Revolutions give birth to leaders. Until now, ours has not." And there's no aid.

"You know, we have a real revolution in Syria. And no support," he said.

Awdeh described a typical operation of the 100 local fighters he commanded. In early March local fighters staged a road accident on the main road between Damascus and Idlib. They then set up an ambush for when army forces moved in to clear the road.

"We partially destroyed the wheels of a tank and rendered it useless, at least temporarily," he said.

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