IDLIB, Syria – In a cave hewed into the craggy rock of the north Syrian countryside, a dozen men sit planning the future of the Syrian insurgency.
A mix of army deserters and volunteers, they are part of the Free Syrian Army, a group — one of many across Syria — that is trying to take on the army of President Bashar Assad.
The brigade of 71 men calls itself Al Haq (The Truth). Their weapons consist of battered Kalashnikovs and some machine guns. A generator powers a satellite dish providing foreign television and high-speed wireless Internet via Turkey, dodging the spies of the Syrian regime.
They say they want to create a “free zone” here, like Benghazi in last year’s Libyan war, where defected soldiers and those loyal to the opposition could be safe.
“As Libya,” says Abu Khalid, one of the fighters, “like Benghazi. Where people in government who want to leave the regime can go.”
“In Syria,” he explains, that option is not available. “If someone wants to leave the regime, he fears his family will be killed or tortured.”
It has been more than a year since the arrest and torture of a few teenagers in Daraa for making anti-Assad remarks ignited a protest movement against an autocratic regime that has controlled Syria for decades. As the Arab Spring saw the toppling governments across the region, Assad met the unrest in his country with swift and unrelenting force.
His military has killed as many as 10,000 people to put down the insurrection in much the same manner as his father, Hafez Assad, did when he faced similar uprising in 1982, according to the United Nations.
But the overmatched rebels refuse to quit.
“If Assad succeeded in putting down the rebellion, Iran would have effective control of one more country in the Middle East, this one right on Israel’s border,” says John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush.
The conflict playing out in Syria, between Shiites backed by Iran and Sunnis backed by Saudi Arabia, “would spread somewhere else, Bahrain, or some place in the Arabian Peninsula, and continue,” he says.
Others are not so sure of what would follow. “A sectarian war in Syria is a huge concern” whether Assad prevails or not, says Joseph Holliday, a former military intelligence analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Meantime, the ragtag rebels resisting the barrage of the Assad regime see themselves — though underarmed and underfunded — as a thin firewall between the Syrian government and its citizens in opposition.
This week, the Syrian Army continued its pounding of rebellious towns. Dozens of people have been killed in the past few days alone in Homs, Rastan and Hama, all major population centers, says the Local Coordination Committees, an anti-Assad group in Syria.
Assad has said the rebels are “thugs” and “terrorists” backed by foreign governments and not supported by the Syrian people. The members of the Free Syrian Army, who have refused to budge from their home villages, say that’s just propaganda.
“We started in a peaceful way. We didn’t choose this, but the government pushed us this way,” said Abu Mahmoud, one of the men in the cave.
Idlib is a sun-dappled farming region of rolling hills and low mountains near the border with Turkey. There are villages of ancient stone houses where generations of a single family live together, growing fruit and roses in their gardens and tomatoes and olives in surrounding fields.
Children play as shepherds herd goats along the roads. The ruins from storied civilizations going back 5,000 years can be found here in “dead cities,” the abandoned settlements of the ancient world including Roman roads, pagan cemeteries and Byzantine churches.
Assad moves in
In December, Assad ordered his military into this province to crush the “armed terrorists.” Idlib residents told Amnesty International that tanks and armored vehicles lined up a road overlooking a valley and fired shells, machine-guns and anti-aircraft weapons at them.
Syrian forces executed dozens of people suspected of sympathizing with the rebels, according to Amnesty. Hundreds of homes were burned. Thousands fled to the border, but many have remained.
It was then that the people put aside their peaceful demonstrations and began joining the fight, pulling together a loose coalition of deserters from Syria’s military, activists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On a day in May, the rebels here drank Coke out of cans and wore a mixture of civilian clothes and tattered camouflage fatigues. Some hid their faces with scarves as they patrolled their villages in civilian cars. Barricades sat on roads that link villages to keep out Assad’s forces. Some are made of boulders, others had checkpoint cabins painted with the green and black that the Syrian opposition has adopted for its flag.
“Until now, the army didn’t come inside this area — so the people are safe” said Abu Khalid, 38, a salesman who had lived abroad for much of his life but returned home from Saudi Arabia when the revolution began.
Fighters say they can move confidently through several villages, past regime tanks. The men coordinate to check roads, communicating with short-wave radios bought in Turkey. Some openly carry weapons while walking on public roads. Driving through the villages in plain clothes, they receive salutes from people along the way.
While the network of rebels can ensure some security for the people here, they are powerless against the tanks and heavy weaponry of the regime army. All they can do when government forces advance is alert people in nearby villages and give them time to flee.
The rebels in Idlib appeared to be low on weapons and ammunition. Their guns looked old, and they don’t have the body armor or military boots that the Syrian army enjoys. They say they’ve received no help from foreign governments.
At one checkpoint, a group of men huddled under a tent sipping tea. They checked each car that passed but confessed that there was little they could do when Assad’s forces decide to move in.
“We need more guns, more ammunition,” said Abu Omara.
When rebels in Libya asked for military help to overthrow Gadhafi, President Obama joined a coalition of NATO nations whose air raids on Libyan tanks and bases last year led to the dictator’s fall, and death. Obama has said he believes Assad should go too, but that what worked in Libya should not be pursued in Syria.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, appointed by Obama as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says attacking Syria would present challenges not faced in Libya. He says Syria’s air defenses are concentrated in urban areas, and so taking them out ahead of airstrikes would cause greater civilian casualties than in Libya.
Obama says that the United States wants a change in Syria through diplomatic pressure and sanctions, not military force, which he says will result in more civilian deaths.
“We believe that a political transition in Syria would be an enormous strategic blow to Iran,” says Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.
Holliday, the military analyst, said Syria does have considerable air defense equipment, but he says the U.S. Air Force is up to the task.
“We’re really good at finding radar (facilities) and blowing them up,” he says, noting that in the 1982 Israeli-Syrian air battle over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Israel destroyed 19 of 20 Syrian anti-aircraft systems.
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and Middle East adviser to four presidents, says changing the regime in Syria would be a defeat to Iran and Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy in Lebanon that has fought wars with Israel and killed scores of Americans in terror attacks. But he says it might take combat troops to oust Assad, not just airstrikes.
“We have to be careful about how we use American young men and women to promote change,” Riedel says.
Several Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, pledged in March to send weapons to the Free Syrian Army, but the men from the Al Haq brigade said they’ve received no such support. Syrians opposed to Assad have been traveling to Arab capitals as well as Washington to seek such assistance.
‘Not any support’ for rebels
In Idlib, fighter Abu Khalid walks through the acquisition process for his brigade. They got their generator from an army base after a battle. The satellite dish was bought from Hatay Market in Turkey. The radios and walkie-talkies made their way from a market in Istanbul.
“Not any support from USA or any country,” Abu Khalid said. “We don’t want them to help us with (words); we want them to help us with weapons.”
They say their guns have been mostly bought from corrupt regime soldiers. Others were purchased from the Turkish mafia. They say a Kalashnikov can cost $4,000 on the black market.
Abdullah Al Sayed, a former Free Syrian Army commander for the town of Zabadani who now helps coordinate FSA communications from Virginia, says the rebels need assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft machine guns that could be used against helicopters. Contacted this week, Abu Khalid said some RPGs had arrived, but he didn’t say from where.
Though the precise size of the resistance forces is impossible to ascertain, Al Sayed says 60,000 men are fighting the Assad government. USA TODAY could not independently verify this claim. In Idlib, about 300 men were watching over 18 villages.
On a recent evening in one village near the Turkish border, a few dozen children and young men gathered outside a mosque, chanting anti-regime slogans and burning pictures of Assad as village elders smoked cigarettes and sipped orange juice nearby. They were not optimistic about the ability of the Free Syrian Army to protect them.
“In this time, they’re in Hama and Idlib,” says Abu Ahmed, speaking of the regime forces, “but they’ll come here. All the time, the people in this village are in danger.”
Asked how long it would take to prevail, the fighters were uncertain.
“It’s up to God. We don’t know, because the world closed their eyes to what happens, to what Assad is doing,” said fighter Abu Mahmoud.
Source: USA Today