Syria’s rebel groups united only by opposition to Bashar Assad

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 24, 2012 


A rebel fighter gives a victory cry after capturing a government position in Al Tal, Syria


— When members of the Farouq Battalions first began to wear distinctive green T-shirts with their fighting unit’s logo in the spring, you could see them only around Homs, more than 100 miles south of the crossing point of Bab al Howa along the border with Turkey.

Now, however, they can be seen not only in Bab al Howa, one of two crossing points the Syrian rebels control, but all over northern Syria, a sign that as the war goes on, some of the rebel groups that began as local rebellions now stretch throughout the country, with a chain of command that’s national in scope; in Farouq’s case, stretching all the way to Damascus.

Farouq’s T-shirts identify their wearers as part of the Free Syrian Army, but Farouq itself has no operational links to the former army officers who defected, now reside in Turkey and nominally claim leadership of the Free Syrian Army. Neither do a number of other battalions and brigades, big and small, that have emerged across the country. By one count, there are more than 600 battalions, though fewer than 10 stand out as having significant organizational capability across large swaths of territory.

Indeed, the news media convention of referring to all these groups as the Free Syrian Army is accurate only in that they all oppose the government of President Bashar Assad. In reality, they’re independent actors, sharing little in ideologies or resources.

In northern Syria, the largest of these groups is Ahrar al Sham, a unit whose fighters generally belong to the conservative Salafi strain of Islam and have proudly hoisted their banner from Aleppo to the outskirts of Hama. There are even reports of them fighting as far south as Syria’s border with Jordan.

“If you want to join Ahrar al Sham, you have to pray,” said one Ahrar fighter near the city of Hama, who asked not to be identified out of security concerns.

In Aleppo, the country’s largest city, the Tawhid Brigade controls the largest number of fighters, many of whom also espouse a fundamentalist Islamist creed.

In Damascus, much of the fight is led by the Islam Brigade, which one Syrian analyst, who also asked not to be named for security reasons, described as a grouping of battalions that also are primarily Salafists.

The idea that army defectors make up much of the rebel forces has long been a myth, one that in past months rebel media spokesmen have done less to promote. Farouq’s fighters are largely volunteers, as are those of Ahrar al Sham.

“We are making a lot of progress. In the past, we were unorganized; now we are much more systematic and organized,” said Khalid Amin, a member of Ahrar al Sham in Qalat al Mudiq, a city of about 30,000 in the western part of Syria where rebels move with relative ease and use the space they’ve carved out to train and to construct weapons.

Though the rebels largely solved problems with acquiring light weapons and ammunition earlier this year, Amin said both remained expensive. That’s a major impediment, the rebels say.

“As long as bullets are 100 lira (about $1.50 each) or more, it will take more than a year to topple the regime,” Amin said.

Rebels in Turkey and Syria confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing financial support for different rebel groups. They said the Qatari government was directly involved in supporting groups associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a longtime opponent of the Assad dynasty, and that Saudi Arabia was channeling money to Salafi groups such as Ahrar al Sham.

The Farouq Battalions, fighters said, get support from both governments, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood. Many fighters said that even though the Brotherhood lacked a network in Syria, its alliance with the Qatari government had given it significant economic clout.

In rural areas outside Hama, the rebels have set up local administrations to take care of basic governmental functions. The most senior military and police defectors get responsibility for everything from trash collection to controlling the prices of fuel and bread to filling the security vacuum left by government officials who’ve fled.

Demonstrating some of its newfound organization, the military council in Hama recently distributed a list of local members of Assad’s Syrian Arab Baath Party, which has controlled the country for decades.

“We have captured 15 of them in the last 15 days,” said Abdel Razaq Freiji, the deputy commander of the military council for Hama governorate.

The military council has registered more than 400 army defectors, issuing papers to protect them from arrest at rebel checkpoints. It holds court sessions four days a week – at night, because most of the air force assaults and shelling take place during the day.

The council is also responsible for negotiating with the government when soldiers are captured. Some are traded for prisoners held by the government, others are released after their families pay a ransom.

“We captured 112 soldiers in Kafr Nabl,” Freiji said, referring to a city from which the army withdrew after a battle with rebels in August. “We have people in every city in the country who make contact with the government for us.”

But not all brigades in the area answer to the military council. One member of Ahrar al Sham said his men had simply buried a number of soldiers killed by the group in unmarked graves.

“The regime doesn’t care about getting the bodies back,” he said.

While some rebel organizations claim to police their ranks, the chaos in Syria makes it easy to shift blame. In Aleppo, Abdul Hakim, who’s in charge of security for Tawhid Brigade, shrugged off questions recently about the summary executions of 20 government soldiers in a nearby neighborhood, as depicted in a video.

“Those people died fighting,” Hakim said rather lamely, considering that the video showed a line of men who appeared to have been mowed down in place. Off camera, two people can be heard discussing whether filming the scene was a good idea.


Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @davidjenders

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