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.”
Bilal Khabir, the formidable commander of the FSA in the town of Sarmeen in Idleb, abandoned his seven-year career as a member of Assad’s air force to join the insurgency. “The FSA is the real Syrian army,” he told me. “Law and justice is with our side, and we will fight to the end.” Khabir, like Mohammed, chose to desert after witnessing the suppression of demonstrations in Dera’a, where the uprising began. In his case, the precipitating incident for joining the FSA was when Iranian officers executed one of his friends when the friend refused to fire on demonstrators. (The presence of Iranian officers alongside Assad’s forces is one of the most noteworthy elements of the regime’s attempt to suppress the Syrian revolution, and it is a matter of particular anger to the insurgents.)
Not all the FSA fighters I met were army deserters. Some were local, relatively apolitical young men who had decided to join the FSA as part of a more general commitment to bring down the regime. Salafi Islamists, too, formed a recognizable sub-group within the broader ranks of the movement, though I saw no evidence that they dominated or set the tone. The Salafis I spoke to tended not to stress religious or ideological goals. Rather, like the others, they spoke of the cruelty of the regime and the need to destroy it.
But the overwhelming characteristic of the FSA is that it is Sunni. There is an unmistakable and strong sectarian element in the revolt against the Assad regime, even though this is something that FSA fighters and opposition activists prefer not to emphasize in front of visitors. They do not wish to be seen as a sectarian militia, but rather as an organization battling a dictatorship.
Yet the fact that the Assad regime now rests almost entirely on the support of the country’s 12 percent Alawi minority is not lost on the Sunni fighters of Idleb. “This is war between the clans, between the Sunni and the Shia and the Alawis,” a middle-aged civilian opposition activist said to me one evening as we sat drinking tea in his home. But then, a moment later, he corrected himself. “But the Sunnis reject the possibility of civil war between the clans. We don’t want it.”
The FSA fighters may lack a unified political ideology, but they do have a very clear set of shared tactical demands. As Bilal Khabir, commander of the FSA in Sarmeen, told me: “A buffer zone, a no-fly zone, and supply of weapons are the way to victory.” It was a sentence I’d hear again and again from FSA men and opposition activists. The FSA fighters know that unless international help comes in the form of a safe zone, the situation and the carnage could drag on for months or years. At the moment, the FSA has AK-47s, RPG-7s, heavy machine guns, and some mortars. They will need more than this to face down an assault from Assad’s Russian-supplied, modern weaponry.
The people I met were also acutely aware that an existing de facto international coalition is the single most important factor ensuring the dictator’s current survival. “Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and China are against us,” a black-bearded Salafi fighter told me, shortly after he had returned from an attack on an army checkpoint outside Idleb City. When I asked Bilal Khabir to list the elements that had so far prevented Assad’s fall, he answered, “Iran and Hezbollah.” Ayham al-Kurdi claimed that FSA fighters had captured five Iranians in Hama.
Again and again, I heard stories of Lebanese Hezbollah men operating on the ground with Assad’s forces and of non-Arab-speaking advisers, likely Iranians, deployed with the government forces.
So, while FSA fighters may have little coherent idea of what they are for, they have a very clear and detailed conception of what they are against. And if what they are against is first and foremost the Assad regime itself, they are no less clearly and passionately opposed to the regional and international alliance that supports the dictator.
Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah are constantly cited as enemies of the Syrian revolution. Ayham al-Kurdi was clear that “if the revolution succeeds, we will neither depend on, nor have relations with, nor take weapons from Russia.” He also stressed that the Syrian revolution had come to “break the dream” of Iranian domination of the region—and more specifically, Tehran’s strategic ambition to create a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states stretching from Iran’s western borders to the Mediterranean Sea.
This all sounds like good news for Israel. But while the FSA may be resolute foes of the Iran-led regional bloc, there is little reason to think that the rebels and the broader opposition depart significantly from the usual Arab attitudes toward Israel and Jews. One older activist in Antakya said to me that a plan was under way to divide Syria into ethnic enclaves and that the opposition needed to be aware of this and counteract it. Who was responsible for this plan? Israel, he told me. “Zionism’s project is to divide the Arab world,” he said.
On a few occasions, I heard plaintive assertions that Assad was “worse than Israel.” Muhya-din, a young opposition organizer in Bini’ish, was more precise in his definition. “The Israelis kill Palestinians to protect their own people,” he said. “But we are Assad’s people, and he is killing us purely to retain power.” One of his friends then said, “The Israelis do what they do in the name of their God. Assad, however, thinks that he is God.”
I can think of a number of other throwaway remarks made to me regarding a desire to seek help from anyone—“even Israel,” said one fighter, if the situation continues. But the general and very clear sense was that Israel was simply not a relevant factor. The fury and hatred was reserved for Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah; the appeals for support were and are being made to the West. From Israel’s point of view, this is probably the best that can be hoped for from Arab opposition movements at the present time.
I left Idleb the way I came—over the mountains. There were no horses on the way out, and we had to wade through frozen streams and fields of mud. The day after I left, Assad’s army entered Idleb City with tanks, reportedly killing a number of FSA fighters.
I remember Muhya-Din’s dismissive response when I tried to ask him about his plans for his family and the child that his wife is due to give birth to in the spring, their third. “Right now, I just can’t think about anything,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the victory. Waiting for when we end this regime. After that, I’ll think only about my family again.”