Among the Insurgents
Smuggled into Syria, a reporter finds that the Free Syrian Army lacks leadership but is fiercely united against Bashar al-Assad and Iran
Last Thursday afternoon, in the town square of Bini’ish in Idleb Province, northwest Syria, a small group gathered to protest against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. It was drizzling, and the protesters, about 200 of them, were mostly schoolchildren. A group of young men in kaffiyehs soon arrived on the scene. They were carrying a large yellow-and-green flag—the flag of Hezbollah. One of the protesters opened his motorcycle’s gas cap, and seconds later the flag was in flames. The youngsters gathered around the burning flag, whooping, cheering, and chanting slogans against the regime.
The flag burning in the main square in Bini’ish distilled in a single moment much of what I saw and experienced in Syria: The men fighting against the regime lack uniforms, a chain of command, and they have little by way of a unifying ideology. But they are fiercely united against Assad and his chief ally, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Several days before the flag-burning incident, on a black night with heavy rain, I had crossed into Syria. I had come to report on the Free Syrian Army, which has emerged as the most significant organization in the Syrian revolution—though it isn’t really an organization at all. It consists of a series of local armed initiatives centered around strongmen of various political orientations. These militias operate according to their own perceived needs, mainly seeing their job as protecting the precarious autonomous zones carved out from the Assad regime in Idleb, Homs, and other areas in the course of the uprising.
I came by way of the mountains on the Turkish-Syrian border, in the company of a group of Syrian smugglers whose assistance I had paid for. We rode horses laden with contraband in sealed boxes. For parts of the journey, stymied by rough trail, we had to lead the horses by rope. The smugglers moved at lightning speed, almost sprinting up the rocky ascents, and I was worried that I’d fall behind. But we reached Syria safely after a trek of an hour or so.
At a small stone house on the mountains just over the border, I met with a contact from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who was due to take me down into Idleb Province, a deeply religious, conservative, Sunni Muslim region where I would spend the following week in the company of the FSA. The man, in his late 20s, was bespectacled, bearded, and polite, but reserved. His appearance and behavior were familiar to me: This young fighter was obviously a Salafi Islamist. I had heard that there were Salafis—radical Sunnis—among the FSA fighters but was surprised to meet one so soon.
An hour or so after, he and I arrived at one of the “liberated zones” of Idleb Province—one of the towns in this part of northern Syria where signs of the Assad regime have disappeared. The flag of the uprising, which is the flag of the pre-Baath Syrian republic, flies over the town. In the course of my time there, I met not a single fighter or officer who considered Col. Riyad Asaad, the nominal head of the FSA who is based in Antakya, Turkey, to constitute the real directing hand of the movement.
Instead, it is very clear that there is, in fact, no real leader. Armed resistance against the Assad regime has emerged out of the very basic need to protect the Syrian civilian population from their murderous dictator. A united, countrywide armed resistance movement does not yet exist in Syria. Nor do the rebels possess a single, uniting political idea, beyond bringing down the dictatorship. They seemed to be united by something more fundamental: They have all witnessed suffering caused by the regime. A good number of the fighters I spoke with were asked to carry out the violence themselves. The armed men of the FSA and the local civilian leadership of the uprising maintain law and order in the liberated zones of Idleb. It proved a good place from which to observe the Syria that may emerge when—or if—the Assad dictatorship falls.
Many of the FSA fighters are army deserters with similar stories. Mohammed, for example, a tall, brown-haired FSA fighter from Bini’ish, was formerly a soldier in the Syrian Army’s 9th Brigade. Sent to the southern town of Dera’a to suppress demonstrations in mid-2011, he decided to desert after being ordered to fire live ammunition at protesters. He found his way to the FSA in Dera’a and later returned home to Idleb Province. The reason, he told me, was simple: “I took an oath when I joined the army to protect the people. The people—not the regime. And that’s what I’m doing.”
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