The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was forced to abort a planned ambush in Idlib province against a column of tanks belonging to the Syrian army that was supposed to pass by on the Damascus–Aleppo highway on its way to Aleppo. The long-awaited tanks never showed up, despite the fact that residents of neighboring towns had informed the FSA that they had seen the tanks passing on their way to Aleppo. Prior to the FSA’s planned ambush, the inhabitants of the towns and cities currently under the FSA’s control knew that certain groups were preparing an ambush somewhere along the aforementioned highway. However, the inhabitants did not complain about the FSA’s plan, even though they knew such an ambush could be costly to the region. Idlib is accustomed to these types of ambushes, and has promised to help Aleppo in impeding the arrival of these tanks, despite some minor conflicts between the two cities that existed prior to the revolution.
For residents of Idlib, participating in the armed struggle in Aleppo is viewed with respect and dignity, and many FSA groups are choosing to get involved. The geographic and demographic distribution of the region plays a crucial role in strengthening ties between inhabitants of Aleppo and Idlib. Residents of Idlib believe that the battle in Aleppo is of utmost importance to the revolution and should be given priority. They also feel that the residents of Aleppo should be forgiven for failing to participate in the revolution at an earlier time.
They feel that Idlib’s efforts to help Aleppo played a primary role in the fight. Moreover, the FSA has similar brigades in Idlib and Aleppo, further linking the two cities. For instance, the “al-Farouq” brigade in Aleppo and the Islamic “Ahrar al-Sham” brigade (the Free Men of the Levant) in Idlib support one another and take pride in the accomplishments of the other. However, amid such an enthusiastic exchange of stories, previous conflicts can unexpectedly flare up.
Lebanese and Iraqi reporters covering the war in Syria cannot help but compare their life-changing experiences in Syria to their experiences in their war-tattered home countries. In Syria, we notice that revolutionary brigades frequently consist of a group of relatives and neighbors, who have little experience as fighters on the ground. The leader of the brigade, who is generally the brother or cousin of a martyr, often boasts about the group’s local accomplishments. His glorious stories are steeped in familial values. Kareem, a 30-year-old former soldier and prisoner, is today a fighter in a rebel brigade. The leader of their brigade was murdered, and the current members are now opposed to the former leader’s brother taking over the reins. He is 35 years old, which most consider too old to participate in fighting.
Local characteristics are very noticeable among the members of the FSA’s multiple brigades. In many instances, local identity is more significant than the political identity that a given group has adopted. For example, “al-Farouq” brigade in Taftnaz attaches greater importance to its “Taftnaz” identity than to its political identity. This focus on local identities has had noticeable consequences on the ground. When [FSA commander] Riad al-Asaad announced a cease fire at Kofi Annan’s request, only a few FSA’s brigades observed the cease-fire due to local, not political, considerations.
The local characteristics that heavily influence the performance of the FSA’s brigades will likely compel some brigades to retreat from necessary battles. Among these brigades, local concerns remain the most decisive factor of any decision-making process. Idlib’s decision to help Aleppo is subject to the give-and-take policy. However, when comparing the situation on the ground in both provinces, we see that Aleppo has purged its whole area of the regime’s army, in a bid to protect the city’s main battlefront and provide a supply channel to the fighters. However Idlib, who joined the armed resistance even before Hamah, did not follow in Aleppo’s footsteps.
According to several brigade leaders, certain brigades in Aleppo were able to obtain specific types of weapons that facilitated their mission. “It was hard for us, because of the available weapons we had [before], to access the radio broadcast center located in downtown Saraqib,” confirmed Abou Trad, the FSA’s commander in Saraqib. He added, “We are planning to attack the center after Ramadan, despite the losses we might endure in the line of duty as we don’t have any cannons that could lay the groundwork for the attack and cover our withdrawal.”
Wahhab, a defected republican guard soldier who has joined the FSA, revealed that the regime army and the FSA often know each other’s plans. “We know that a column of tanks will travel tonight to Aleppo and they know that we will ambush them somewhere along the way. Despite the ambushes, they are determined to invade Aleppo and we are also determined to attack them. We know at what time the tank column will arrive and they have leads concerning the locations of the ambushes. However, both parties cannot determine the extent of the losses they will incur in the line of duty…it is something left to fate.”