On the way to Zabadani, which is located in Damascus province, it is not surprising to be stopped at checkpoints and asked for your ID card and where you came from. What is more surprising is that these checkpoints are not manned by regular soldiers — they are manned by members of a battalion from the self-titled Free Syrian Army.
The people of Homs are used to the gunmen that watch over their demonstrations for the regime’s overthrow, and they are unfazed by the attacks that these gunmen initiate against the security forces and the army. Once these attacks take place, a slew of violent clashes ensue after which the gunmen declare, in the name of a certain battalion, the liberation of one particular area or another. These “liberations” only last for a few days or hours before the regular army launches a major operation to recover the “liberated” areas.
The Free Syrian Army’s “heroic role,” and this scene, have been common sights in in Rastan, Baba Amr, Duma, Harasta, Idlib, Lattakia and Deir Al-Zour. However, while the supporters of the opposition may refer to these fighters as the Free Syrian Army, the supporters of the regime labels them “armed gangs.” Those on the sidelines call them “dissidents.” It was these dissidents who opted for an armed opposition when a number of soldiers in the regular army defected.
The defections accelerated and eventually came to include officers — the most notable among them being Hussein Harmoush. He organized the Free Officers Movement, which made a base for itself near the Syrian-Turkish border. Afterward, several battalions calling themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerged and declared that their mission was limited to protecting peaceful demonstrations. That mission quickly extended to the targeting of security and the army roadblocks, and later to the assassinations of some persons who were charged with collaborating with the regime. Eventually, they started kidnapping civilians.
But, let’s slow down a bit. Maybe the name “Free Syrian Army” is indeed a loose term, or so those living abroad imagined, due to the unprecedented media coverage that the many parties in the Syrian opposition have been receiving. In truth, the FSA are composed of a number of battalions — some are well-organized while others are not involved in military action.
Armed Groups Among Civilians
The armed battalions are spread throughout Syria, and have their strongholds in the cities that witness daily anti-regime protests. There, the FSA battalions set up barricades and spread themselves at a certain gunmen/civilian ratio among the protesters. This has been the course of action in Homs, Hama and Daraa. They are also heavily concentrated in the countryside of these provinces. There they have set up training camps, benefiting from the weak grip of the security forces and the diverse terrain, which is mountainous in Idlib, flat in Houran and populated by orchards in Douma and Maadamiya, in Damascus province.
They also benefit from the areas bordering Lebanon such as Talkalakh and the Wadi Khaled crossing. They are present in the countryside near Idlib, which is adjacent to the Turkish border and where the terrain is ideal for smuggling arms and other materials. In the south, at the Jordanian border, the case is the same. But the FSA has no significant presence in the country’s eastern regions even though the Iraqi border was very porous before the crisis. It has lately been tightly controlled. It should be noted that the Euphrates region was initially well-armed because of the peasants who have long protected their agricultural land and because of the tribal nature of the area.
This is the situation in the country’s “hot” provinces, but even Damascus and Aleppo are no longer immune from armed incidents. Several months ago, Free Syrian Army battalions made made their way into the heart of the capital. Neighborhoods in which government security forces were heavily deployed, such as al-Mazza, witnessed large scale violent incidents, one of which took place near a security headquarters in March 2012.
It is the same case in Kfarsoussa, where the constant nighttime demonstrations are followed by clashes and security sweeps looking for insurgents. The same scene repeats itself in Midan, Barzeh, and Rukn al-Din. According to activists, the gunmen in those areas attend the demonstrations to protect them or to target a nearby security headquarters, which is what happened recently in Qaboun.
A second category of opposition fighters belong to what some call the “sleeper cells.” They are not yet active and many are reticent about giving any details about them except that they are inactive for now. The Free Syrian Army is heavily deployed in the outskirts of Damascus, especially from Douma to Rankous, and to a lesser extent in Harasta, Daraya, Maadamiya, and Yabrud.
There are almost no gunmen in the relatively quiet provinces such as Suwayda and Tartous. However, gunmen made a notable appearance for the first time in the countryside of Latakia, which is ethnically and religiously diverse. The FSA proudly declares that they control large parts of the country and hold them outside of government control. Then, the government proceeds to immediately recover such areas before the gunmen attack the government forces there again. And this is what has happened repeatedly in Homs, where the regime and the insurgents alternate in declaring the area free from the other side.
After the regime took control of the Baba Amr stronghold, the FSA declared that the battle to liberate Baba Amr and Homs has started. And so the largest Syrian province drowned in blood once again. And every time a city turns into a scene of death, iron and fire, the FSA declares a “tactical withdrawal.”
Dissidents and Civilians
Until recently, it was thought that the FSA was made up of the soldiers and officers who refused orders to open fire on the opposing, and instead chose to defect. The activists in the coordination committees used that image as an umbrella to attract any other potential defecting soldiers. However, civilians who decided to take up arms against the regime also joined. Each province has a different numbers of battalions. Some of them are known for their high level of organization and their large-scale military work, while others are there just for show.
According to activists there are more than 40 battalions in the FSA. They are given Islamic names such as Farouq, Ali, Muawiya and Sahhaba [i.e., the companions of Prophet Mohammad]. Other have stranger names such as the Hamad bin Jassem and the Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz brigades. Some interpret that as a kind message toward Arabian Peninsula countries that might help them secure more money and arms.
There is also the Kamal Jumblatt battalion and the Rafik Hariri company. While some activists find those names provocative or radical, those who supported the militarization of the Syrian revolution make light of these battalions’ names and merely deem them congruent to the religious nature of most Syrians.
There are many reasons why civilians joined the FSA. Many of them boast of their high level of education. Some are doctors, engineers and teachers, and some had been working abroad but decided to quit their jobs, return to the homeland, and join the armed groups. According to activists, some chose to sell their property to buy arms.
According to some residents from Douma, some battalions require young recruits to obtain their parents’ consent before they can join. The battalion sends a delegation to visit the father, whose consent is necessary before his son is allowed to join.
Some battalions imitate Robin Hood by seizing fuel and gas shipments that are not reaching the disturbed areas, then organizing their sale to those areas’ inhabitants. This scene has been frequently repeated in the country sides around Damascus, Homs and Idlib. Some say that these armed groups are using bully tactics and that their fighters will not hesitate to loot homes and property under the pretext of protecting the people.
They have no qualms with settling scores or with liquidating any person suspected of having ties to state security. This has taken place several times in the countryside around Damascus. One of the FSA’s latest “achievements” was to kidnap civilians and blackmail the state for their release. This has happened repeatedly in Homs. Supporters of the regime have been abducted, as have police officers and soldiers. Some of these individuals were forced to confess their crimes on videotape in order to create videos that show that the FSA has superior morals, even though some of these confessions were clearly extracted by force. When engineers working in the oil fields in the eastern regions were kidnapped, all were released except the Alawites.
The Missing Organizational Structure
The FSA’s military structure is not clear and those close to it are reticent on the details. They say that giving too much information would harm their fight to liberate the country. An examination of the armed groups gives a picture of how these battalions operate. Most take orders from a military council formed by army defectors. This council is responsible for coordinating and planning for these battalions in each province.
Activists point out that the defected officer Riad al-Asaad and the military council in Turkey do not have genuine authority over the militants in Syria. In contrast, the local military councils coordinate with each other without sometimes even having a specific operations commander. However, some activists question this, citing what happened in the heart of the capital a week ago when the residents of Kfar Soussa were surprised by the deployment of fighters proclaiming “the battle to liberate the capital”. The gunmen did not know that the regime had cut off communications and the Internet from the entire region. In addition, they had spies among them. This facilitated their pursuit, which made the other battalions and Barza, Rukn al-Din, and Qaboun fire several shells to ease the pressure being faced by their comrades. This put the people of Damascus in a war zone for the first time. The result was a widespread security deployment — and showed that the FSA is eager for action but that it does not plan its military operations very thoroughly.
The inhabitants of the hot spots play a role by informing the military councils about newly formed armed groups so that they can either come under the umbrella of the FSA or be rejected for membership in the organization. The people of Homs say that the area’s sparse population makes it easy to identify the battalions working for the FSA and those operating without planning or coordination. The inhabitants also help identify the civilian recruits in the latter.
This does not necessarily apply to other groups and other provinces were armed groups unknown to the local people suddenly emerge. This is especially taking place in the north where the Ammar Dadikhi battalion announced the liquidation of the Lebanese hostages only for it to be later revealed that it was just a media battalion. Of course, the military council did not dare to adopt that battalion.
“Whoever Helps a Warrior is a Warrior!!!”
For those involved in military action, money and arms are the first and last goals. This matter is in their slogans, their media, and even at their fundraising campaigns abroad, which are the FSA’s primary source of funding. Other battalions are only for show such as the Sahhaba battalion in Damascus. It issued a statement a few weeks ago announcing the death of the Syrian regime’s key leaders. The news quickly spread among the opposition before the official media quickly denied the story and showed the supposedly dead persons on TV. The battalion then issues a second statement announcing the death of another officer, which was accompanied by rumors that this officer’s village was preparing for his burial. But the story was revealed to have been false.
According to activists in Damascus, the purpose of that stunt was to send a message that this armed group is able to reach the heart of the regime and can target its key leaders, thus allowing it to attract financial contributions.
But money does not go to a specific destination in the FSA. Each battalion has its independent funding sources. This also applies to the Farouk battalion in Homs, which is the most numerous, the best funded, and the best armed of all battalions by virtue of its effective media activities.
The huge donation campaigns by residents abroad, especially in the Gulf, was accompanied by a huge Internet campaign for donations and arms. One of the Friday demonstrations happened under the slogan: “Whoever helps a warrior is a warrior.” Other have called for setting up no-fly zones, which they think will encourage more defections.
According to sources close to the FSA, the amount of arms coming in from Lebanon and Turkey is small despite the presence of smuggling corridors, smugglers and intermediaries who can transport large amounts of weaponry across the borders. Those who support arming the Syrian opposition say that the inhabitants [in those border areas] are sympathetic to the “jihad” but that weapons generally do not directly reach their intended recipients.
The main weapons source is Syria itself, where dealers specialize in transporting arms to various regions across the border, especially from Lebanon, and then to Homs. Others prefer to defect with their weapons, as happened in the Damascus countryside because it is difficult for weapons from neighboring countries to reach that region. It is the same case for Hama. Sources close to other battalions have repeatedly announced on satellite TV channels that they are buying weapons from the state security services themselves.