On Patrol With The Free Syrian Army

The ongoing bloodbath in Syria seems in some ways a recurrence of the violence which wracked the country a generation ago, and which ended in the massacre at Hama in 1982. One difference is the emergence this time of the shadowy “Free Syrian Army”, which has rallied defectors from the military and others to an apparently nationwide armed revolt.

Part I: Winter Patrol

The freezing cold bears down heavily, deadening the footsteps of passersby and turning their breath into vapor clouds that rise into the air like chimney-smoke. This is a typical winter morning in Wadi Khaled, the valley in Lebanon’s far northeastern corner named – depending on who you ask – after the forebear of a clan of the Aneza tribe, or the Muslim conqueror of Syria Khaled Ibn al-Waleed, who is said to have passed through here after the battle of Yarmouk in 636 A.D. I have been directed here to meet fighters of the Free Syrian Army. The only precaution my contact advised me to take was to detour along a dirt track just before reaching the village of Chadra, to avoid a checkpoint manned jointly by the Lebanese army and internal security forces. Apparently, they have been turning back journalists and telling them to get permits from the Lebanese army command.

After a four-hour drive, I meet my contact as arranged. He turns out to be the FSA’s “liaison officer,” a well-built man in his thirties, his religiosity apparent from his flowing beard and close-cropped moustache.We proceed to a house, where a group of about 10 men are gathered. Hours pass as we discuss the situation in Syria over endless cups of tea. Finally, the conversation is broken by the sound of the noon prayer-call. All rise to head for the mosque. Five of us squeeze into one car for the ten-minute drive.

At the mosque, most of the worshippers are Syrians. The Syrian sheikh, Abd al-Rahman al-Akkari, begins his sermon with a religious oration which quickly turns into a diatribe against “the regime which is murdering our brothers and raping our women.” The sheikh calls on the assembled faithful to revolt, and not to fear impending death. They are moved by his exhortations. Shouts and cries rise up from the congregation, which begins chanting Allahu Akbar and for the downfall of the regime. One worshipper tells me that the sheikh’s wife was martyred while trying to cross covertly into Lebanon. Another says Syrian army soldiers deliberately killed her when they realised who her husband was.

After prayers, the congregation leaves the mosque to hold an anti-regime demonstration outside, and a crowd of hundreds of people gathers. Banners are raised, some the work of calligraphers, others in amateur scrawl. Many call for the fall of “the Assad regime.” Some accuse the Arab League Observer mission of “collusion in shedding Syrian blood” while others demand international intervention to “halt the blood-letting.” In the slogans shouted by the crowd, a good deal of the denunciation is directed at Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. A loudspeaker broadcasts excerpts from his speeches, carefully edited to make them sound as though they were directed against the Sunni sect. Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar also comes in for its share of name-calling, along with al-Jadeed. One banner shows the logos of both alongside those of Syrian state TV and Syrian pro-regime station Dunya TV. The sheikh calls on the assembled faithful to revolt, and not to fear impending death.”The media kill us twice over,” says one demonstrator, who chants: “Down with Manar! Down with Jadeed! Agents of the murderous regime!” Flags of the “New Syria” abound, some of them home-made, as do Turkish flags. The blue banner of the Future Movement is also much in evidence. The demonstrators include members of the FSA in civilian clothing. Three of them were interviewed by Al-Akhbar last month. They ask that their faces not be photographed. My “host” informs me that there are tens of FSA fighters here. The demonstration lasts about one hour, but before it is over, my host pulls me aside and tells me we have to leave quickly. “The intelligence people are here.”

I am hurried away, and from a short distance he points out five young men in leather jackets. They are from Lebanese intelligence, he says. “They would have stopped you if they knew you were a journalist taking photos without a permit.” The intelligence agents operating here seem well known to most of the inhabitants of Wadi Khaled. Another of my companions points to a red Skoda Rapid, which he says belongs to one of them. He lists the names of others, including an officer, who he says are on his payroll. “Security agencies everywhere are corrupt,” he quips. Everyone laughs.

Safe in Lebanon

After a drive through a succession of almost indistinguishable hamlets, my host announces that we have reached the last inhabited stretch of Wadi Khaled. A crossroads points to the villages of Kniseh in one direction and Qarha in the other. This area is called al-Waar, (the rough ground). Everyone disembarks, and a telephone call is made. A few minutes later, a four-wheel drive vehicle appears accompanied by three motorcycles. I am ushered in, and we are driven on through the rocky terrain. “We’re in Lebanon,” explains my host. “The pathway alongside is in Syria.” He gestures with his head in the direction of the Syrian army’s positions.

The driver slows down and comes to a halt. The motorbikes’ engines are switched off. Darkness is beginning to a fall, and we are shown into a house. While weapons have flooded into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey, the flow of arms has been reduced of late.Inside is a scene of traditional Arab hospitality. About 30 men are gathered around a wood-burning stove, and they welcome the 20 or so of us joining them. Tea is served, followed by coffee. My companion makes the introductions. These are FSA officers, he says, pointing out their commander, a major. As we converse, it becomes obvious that they are not all Syrians. Some are Lebanese, among them smugglers. They say that the FSA’s commander in the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs – just a few kilometers across the border – was here in Lebanon just a couple of days ago. He was feted in traditional fashion, with sheep slaughtered in his honor.

Some of the men tell us their defection stories. They voice dismay that the outside world has let them down, providing no more than hollow words in their support. A man in his 50s and dressed in Bedouin garb takes charge of the conversation. “The situation is bad,” he declares. “We have struck hard, but the regime has not yet been shaken. It will be a very long battle.” Nevertheless, he maintains that the FSA is in control of 80 percent of Homs, and speaks of splits in the ranks of the army, though he concedes that the army as a whole “is still holding together.” His great hope is that a “no-fly zone” will change all that. The moment one is imposed, he insists, a major split will result in the military.

Another man present says that while weapons have flooded into Syria form Lebanon and Turkey, the flow of arms has been reduced of late. The conversation turns to three young Lebanese men – Maher Abu-Zaid, Ahmad Hussein Zaid, and his brother Kaser – who were recently killed in the area by Syrian forces. One man says members of Syrian air force intelligence sprung an ambush for them inside Lebanese territory. There is talk of “treachery,” and of the trio having been led into a trap by a member of al-Aswad family from the village of Msheirfeh. All concur that the youths used to procure weapons for the “revolutionaries” in Syria.” One says they refused to surrender when they realized they were surrounded, but “faced bullets with bullets” and died fighting. Another vows vengeance against the “agent” who betrayed them. He had been wounded in the incident, and has since been visited by family members in hospital. The man in his fifties declares that someone should be sent to kill him there.

In an adjoining room, I am introduced to the man who will be my guide, a first lieutenant, in his 30s and bearded. He briefs me on the “operation” to come, which will begin with reconnaissance of the border. I am told how I should move, and asked to follow his instructions strictly. The patrol gathers, more than 20 men, all armed. Some carry Kalashnikov machine guns, others Vals. One of them claims to be wearing an explosive belt. The commander throws him a dirty look, and he quickly explains that he was only joking. They shoulder their weapons, and don their balaclavas to conceal their identities, before posing for photographs.

There are about 200 FSA fighters in North Lebanon, though the number at any one time varies as groups of them move into and out of Syrian territory to conduct operations. Based mainly in the Wadi Khaled villages and at Arsal in the northern Bekaa Valley, they are not obviously soldiers, and their civilian dress makes them appear ordinary refugees. They operate out of houses located close to the border, and are sometimes hard to distinguish from the smugglers who have long been active in the area.

Night Patrol

Nightfall provides the cover for the FSA to move about freely. I set out with a squad of nine men, seated on the back seat of a motorbike which speeds along the rocky path. I cannot feel my ears, nose, or hands from the cold. The riders arrive at an arranged meeting-point and dismount. It is on foot from here. I ask about the minefields laid by the Syrian army. “We’ve cleared them,” one man replies. Another explains that they have found and lifted almost 200 land-mines in the area. I do not find this too reassuring. With a prayer, I follow in my companions’ footsteps – literally – to avoid treading on a mine they may have overlooked. After ten minutes of this, someone says: “We are in Syrian territory.”

The commander points out a Syrian army position just a few tens of meters away. “We monitor them closely,” he says. “We know the times when they change guard, and when and where they go out on patrol.” But this is not the only purpose of our foray. The commander announces that the FSA has a surprise in store that I should tell readers about. Someone produces an anti-tank mine. Four of us advance to a point which they say lies on a route frequented by armored-personnel carriers. One man starts digging, while the other two stand guard. The ground seems too hard at first, but he manages to make a hole, place the mine in the middle, and cover it with soil. They pull back, hoping it will explode in the face of one of “Assad’s Brigades.”

Part II: Divided they Stand

Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) active in northeastern Lebanon belong to a number of distinct groups. Each controls its own cross-border access routes. They do deals with local smugglers to help them bring wounded people into Lebanon, and to buy weapons and take them into Syria. They also enjoy the support of powerful political forces in the areas where they operate, as well as popular backing bolstered by ties of kinship and sectarian solidarity. Al-Akhbar met with the officers and men of three of these groups.

Though united in their commitment to supporting the “Syrian revolution” by any means, they rival each other for control and influence, and contact between these group’s commanders is minimal. They find fault in each others’ performance, and trade charges of exploiting the “revolution” for personal gain.

The Al-Dhaher Bibars Brigade

I am taken to meet the largest of the three in a convoy of two cars and three motorcycles, each carrying three people. We struggle to negotiate the rough terrain and after a lengthy drive pull up at a house in one of the hamlets in Wadi Khaled. At the entrance, my 20-odd companions separate. Through a door to the right, a kerosene lamp illuminates a large reception area where at least 30 people are seated. They get up to greet us. Most are bearded, and aged between 20 and 40. One of them produces a the new flag adopted by the uprising and tapes it to the wall to prepare for filming. A man in a balaclava gets up and stands in front of it, and begins the announcement: “We are members of the Free Army. We are under the command of Col Riyadh al-Asaad.”

The number of men attached to this particular unit varies, depending on the tasks it is allocated. At different times, it can be as high as 100 or as low as 10. Everyone else listens as the man in the balaclava speaks. He introduces himself as Omran, and is evidently the commander. “Our reasons for being in Lebanon are not military,” he explains. “Our job is confined to providing logistical support.” But the group does “from time to time” carry out operations against targets inside Syria. They only possess light weapons – Kalashnikovs, other automatic rifles, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades. But these are “sufficient to wage guerrilla warfare.” Omran says that the group’s main job is to bring people who have been injured in Syria over the border into Lebanon for treatment. They use mountain bikes to cross the rough terrain “but sometimes we carry them on our backs.”

About a month ago, they transported 11 wounded FSA soldiers this way. “Three of them died on the way because of the long and difficult journey.” As for smuggling weapons, Omran says, “there has been less of that in recent times.” He denies that they buy weapons from smugglers, however, as other members of the group had acknowledged. He insists that the FSA purchases its arms “from the regular army itself, in Syria.” Omran says the Syrian army has tightened its control along the border and strewn it with landmines. However, his group was joined by three sappers who defected from a Syrian army engineers unit. They managed to clear enough of them to create a passage which could be safely crossed, and then replanted them along routes used by “Assad’s brigades.” Omran says planting mines is easy, as his men keep a close watch on the movements and timing of Syrian army patrols and know how to evade them. Before the three sappers defected, Omran’s group employed a local Lebanese man for the job. He first volunteered to help them defuse a land-mine they had discovered, but when they sought his help with others, he demanded payment. He then offered to help for free, on condition he could keep the mines. But the FSA group wanted to re-plant them. Eventually, a deal was arrived at: He would re-fuse any mines defused by the FSA men without payment, but could keep any which he defused himself. Apparently, a single landmine fetches about US$400. This Lebanese man is said to have acquired about 100 of them.

The FSA itself is reported to have about 100 Lebanese members, many hailing from border areas where ties with villages across the border in Syria have always been close. They are said to include the four Lebanese who were reported killed on January 29 in an army ambush near the Syrian town of Tal Kalakh. Omran acknowledges that all members of his group are Sunnis, but stresses his commitment to the “unity of the Syrian people.” He points out that there are Sunni officials in the regime too. “We will hold all who have blood on their hands to account. We will exempt nobody, Sunni or Alawi,” he says. He is confident that time is not on the regime’s side. “Every day of steadfastness is like a nail in the coffin of the regime,” he says. “But however long it survives, we will never lay down our arms. If we don’t protect our people, who will? The Arab League and its protocols? The Arab states which watch the Syrian people being killed daily on TV without lifting a finger?”

The Lebanese government is a particular object of Omran’s derision, because of “its submission to Hezbollah, which in turn is a stooge of the Syrian regime,” he says. “Therefore, we will have no relations with that party after the downfall of the regime, unless it abandons its policies and its racism and sectarianism.” How, he wonders, “can Hezbollah be Lebanese when its loyalty is solely to Iran thousands of kilometers away?” He continues: “Military units from Hezbollah, the [Iraqi] Mahdi Army, and the Iranians are taking part in the massacres in Syria. Tens of Hezbollah fighters and Iranians were killed in Deraa, and their pictures were shown on satellite channels.”

What is his evidence for these revelations? “Their accents and appearances give them away. The Iranians speak broken Arabic and don’t carry ID documents,” he explains. And the Hezbollah fighters? “Any Syrian can tell a Lebanese from his looks.” He goes on to reveal the FSA itself is holding two Hezbollah fighters captive, one of them from the Zuaiter family.

Bringing out the Wounded

A second group of FSA fighters in Lebanon comprises between 30 and 40 armed men, led by a major who defected from the Syrian army, and introduces himself only as Abu Samer. He also stresses that his group’s main function is to transport wounded people into Lebanon, though members quietly acknowledge that they also take weapons the other way. “I’m a casualty smuggler,” quips Abu Samer. They bring the injured across to Arsal and Wadi Khaled, and then to hospitals elsewhere in northern Lebanon, such as Halba, Qubayyat and Tripoli. Most of them are FSA fighters who would not be able to use the legal border crossings.

Abu Samer says his group also takes medical supplies to Syria, such as anesthetics and bags of blood. But they have to be fully-equipped militarily, in case they encounter an ambush and are forced to engage in combat. The injured are usually carried across the border, his men taking turns to lift them. He will not discuss the routes he uses, “because if I did, they’d be littered with landmines the next day.” Abu Samer’s group is highly security conscious. None of the members reveal their names, or even assumed ones. One of them says they change their mobile phone numbers every ten days to avoid having their calls intercepted by the security forces.

Disunion and Discord

The third FSA group I encountered concentrates on smuggling weapons, cameras, and medical equipment into Syria, and occasionally carries out military operations. It is led by a former captain in the Syrian army, who uses the assumed name Ahmad. He says that he defected after refusing to fire at peaceful protesters, and made sure to bring his family over to Lebanon so they would not be targeted in revenge. He speaks of how he and Captain Hussein Harmoush collaborated with al-Asaad in establishing the FSA “whose doctrine is based on protecting the homeland and the people, not on protecting individuals.”

He speaks at length about the regime’s brutality, including “the atrocities committed against citizens by the regime’s shabiha, who rape and dismember women, as happened to Zainab al-Husni.” He appears unaware that Husni, who’s supposedly raped and mutilated corpse was shown on some satellite TV channels some months ago, later appeared on Syrian state TV, alive and well. The conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Syria. I can only hear one side. “The man who is injured is named Khaled al-Aswad…Thirteen people from intelligence, air force intelligence, came in to carry out the operation…They took him to the military hospital…He’s there now.” He listens for a while, then continues: “He turned out to be a shabiha and an agent of the regime.” They are clearly discussing the incident on January 27 in which three Lebanese were killed while smuggling weapons into Syria. While the officers and men of all three FSA groups all stress they are committed to the revolution and freedom, differences and rivalries between them appear acute. They seem to be more personal in nature than anything else. For example, the commander of one group may whisper that the leader of another “steals money that is donated to help Syrian refugees,” or sells supplies he is sent “on the pretext of raising cash to buy medicine or arms.” One of them goes further, warning that the head of another group is suspected of being an agent of the regime. Yet the accused privately says the same about his accuser. The commander alleged to have stolen funds, for his part, calls the one who made the allegation a “liar and fabricator.” While such charges fly, and the head of each groups liaises directly with the FSA command in Turkey or inside Syria, one officer affirms: “We need to have single a leader to refer to for coordination, so as to protect the revolution from infiltrators and not lose our way.”

Part III: Safe Houses and Electronic Mujahideen

Fierce fighting in the turbulent parts of Syria has claimed many casualties. Many of the injured are treated at field hospitals. The most seriously wounded are taken into Lebanon through the illegal border crossings in the north and the Bekaa Valley. They are then moved to one of three hospitals in the north. One of these, in Tripoli, specializes in treating injured fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The group has rented out an entire floor of the hospital for that purpose and taken charge of security arrangements there. I was taken to meet some of the patients at this hospital by a Syrian doctor. The doctor explains that he was originally working as a veterinarian in Saudi Arabia, but came to Lebanon to “volunteer to serve the revolution.” He says a shortage of medical supplies means that operations needed by the patients are often delayed.

In one room, two injured men occupy adjacent beds. One has a bullet wound in the groin. He asks the doctor for an injection of morphine. “Have patience for a bit longer, Muhammad,” comes the reply. Muhammad inhales deeply on his cigarette. The smoke seems to ease the pain. He says he was injured while “protecting demonstrators against shabiha raids.” He pauses a while and muses: “We have nothing left. Why not offer our lives?”

The man on a bed next to him, who introduces himself as Ahmad, was shot in the heel and leg. “I am a soldier who defected from the Syrian army. I joined the FSA to protect my honor and my family.” He will not fully recover for months. “But I will not wait. I will take up arms as soon as I get a little better. I’ll hold a crutch in one hand, and the Russian one [the Kalashnikov]in the other,” Ahmad vows. “We were created to die. We will die in God’s Path. We have pledged to the God Almighty that we will fight until martyrdom.” Neither man knows how he made it to Lebanon, or what routes the FSA took to transport them to hospital. Nor do most of the other patients.

Outside the room stands Khaled, who the doctor describes as the “guardian angel” of some of the wounded men. He was in charge of bringing most of them here. Khaled says he was a construction worker “before the revolution,” and then joined a group tasked with bringing injured people into Lebanon through the illegal crossings. “Whenever I cross the border to bring back an injured person, I bid farewell to my wife, because I feel I may not return,” he says. He uses pack animals, motorcycles, and “sometimes our backs” to transport them. He says that tens have died en route.

Safe Houses in Lebanon

We leave the hospital for one of the FSA’s “safe houses.” These can be found in various parts of northern Lebanon. Mainly rented accommodations, it is here that FSA soldiers are sent for recuperation after they have been treated in Lebanese hospitals. Activists who have fled from Syria are also put up in such places. They use them as bases from which to contact the media, issue statements, and give interviews as anonymous “political activists.”

Our destination is a fifth-story apartment in Tripoli. Ten young Syrian men greet us there. Two are still undergoing physiotherapy for their wounds. One of them says he is a defector from the 18th Armored Brigade. There is also a Syrian physician there, who says he used to work in a field hospital in Homs before coming to Lebanon to oversee the treatment of wounded fighters. The field hospital can only administer first aid, so people with head or back wounds or serious injuries, who require operations, are brought to Lebanon. “At least two per day,” he says. He adds that Lebanese military intelligence turns a blind eye to these activities in northern Lebanon, and that the local population is highly supportive.

The Media Front

There are also soldiers of another kind in the safe house. They describe themselves as the FSA’s “hidden brigade” and as “electronic soldiers.” One of them, Muhammad, identifies himself as a political activist and a history teacher from Banyas. He used to contact the media to provide them with images of what was going on in his home city, but was arrested along with his family in a raid by security forces. He says he was tortured before being released ten days later. He stresses that Syria is in the throes of a “patriotic revolution” that cannot be branded as Islamist or sectarian. The “electronic soldiers” have a massive horde of photographs and video recordings of clashes, dead bodies, and wounded people who they say were victims of the Syrian army. They send clips of them to television channels or upload them onto websites.

In another safe house – this one in Wadi Khaled – a Lebanese man in his thirties, married to a Syrian, introduces himself as the “electronic soldiers’ coordinator.” His job is to arrange for cameras to be distributed to FSA fighters inside Syria and to process their memory cards when they are sent back. “I send over the cameras, then recover the USBs containing the images,” he explains. “I put those into the computer, and send them to a television channel to show them to the world.” Some of these have yet to be screened. He says the fact that he is not Syrian himself is immaterial. “I am Lebanese, but my blood is with the people being killed,” he says. “I am an activist in the Syrian revolution, and I am prepared to recruit all my relatives to serve this revolution. I don’t feel I have done anything yet. I want to do more.”

Nevertheless, he reveals at the end of the conversation: “A lot of the videos that you see on Al-Jazeera and the Internet come from me.”

By Radwan Mortada