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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

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Lt. Bilal Khabir of the FSA, formerly of the Syrian paratroops, in Sarmin, Idleb Province, Syria. (All photos Jonathan Spyer)

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.”

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And no one asked you: “Are you a Jew, or coming from Israel? Have you been to Palestine?”

Tony Sandasoury says:

This is a golden opportunity for the west to gain pro-western government on the borders of Northern Isreal and stop the Iranian plan in the region.

J. Abraham says:

Why are you writing this article? These are the same butchers who dragged dead bodies of Israeli pilots through the streets of Damascus not too long ago. It’s not our fight. When they recognize Israel as a state and want to live in peace side by side then a dialogue should be opened, not before.

With a name like "Spyer" says:

It’s really lucky that they didn’t accuse you of espionage! Not only a Jew and an Israeli citizen, but an admitted Spyer!


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A Week With the Free Syrian Army

On the ground with rebel fighters in Idleb Province, Syria