IDLIB – A week ago, I traveled to Idlib province in Syria, to spend some time in
the company of the Free Syrian Army. My intention was to gain an impression of
this force – its unity, its strength – and whether the possibility that it could
be the instrument to destroy President Bashar Assad’s regime was
Crossing over the mountains from Turkey with smugglers, I
linked up with FSA members in the town of Bini’ish, deep in Idlib province, and
spent the subsequent days in the company of the rebels. I spoke to them after
their return from attacks on army positions, watched them maintain the
roadblocks that guard the entry to the “free zones” and saw them guard the mass
demonstrations that take place across Idlib every Friday.
regime’s war against its own people has been continuing for almost a year. The
city of Homs is under daily bombardment by regime artillery. A humanitarian
crisis is looming in Homs, with parts of the population denied access to food
and medical attention.
Assad remains determined to pummel the revolt into
In Idlib province, meanwhile, the precarious free zones
carved out by the FSA and the civilian opposition defiantly await the coming
attentions of the dictator.
The Assad regime no longer has any visible
presence in these areas. The rebel flag flies everywhere.
regime’s agents are still present, and FSA and civilian activists know that the
current balance cannot hold.
The rebels understand that they are now
engaged in a war of attrition with the regime. Assad is sending his depleted
forces from town to town to crush centers of revolt which spring up again once
the army leaves. Assad knows he must completely extinguish the fire of revolt
before his own forces grow too weak to do so.
THE FSA has gradually
increased in importance in recent months, as it became clear that the Assad
regime was not going to fade quietly, and thus the question – who was stronger,
the regime or the protestors – became more central. What were the main
impressions I gained from observing the FSA on the ground in Idlib, one of its
heartland areas? My first observation was that the high quality and
determination of many of the FSA fighters and officers was immediately apparent.
The majority were recent deserters from Assad’s army, many from frontline
infantry and armored units. The stories they told of the reasons for their
defection were similar and similarly harrowing.
They described being
ordered to shoot live ammunition at demonstrators, the presence of non Arabic-
speaking personnel (Iranians) operating within Assad’s army units and terrible
punishments – including execution – meted out to soldiers who refused to follow
orders. In many cases, the FSA men had taken considerable risks to get away from
the army and join the rebels.
Despite the odds against them, they
appeared convinced of their eventual victory. “The regime has the heavy
weapons,” one FSA officer in the town of Sarmin told me. “The people are with
us...either Bashar [Assad] stays or we stay.”
absence of unity and a real chain of command was acutely apparent.
I met seemed to regard themselves as under the command or authority of the
notional FSA leadership in Antakya, Turkey. In many ways, indeed, there is no
single FSA. Rather, there is a collection of local militias, formed of a
combination of army deserters and local men wanting to take up
These militias are in contact, cooperate with one another and
receive general directives. But each appears to regard itself as autonomous, and
is mainly concerned with ensuring the integrity of its own area and the safety
of the area’s civilian protestors.
My third impression was that the arms
available to the FSA are basic, but not quite as basic as the “ragtag army with
only Kalashnikovs” image might suggest. The AK-47 rifle is indeed the standard
issue to all FSA fighters (who must purchase the rifles themselves if they do
not already have them courtesy of Assad’s army). But the FSA units I saw also
possess RPG-7s, heavy machine guns and mortars. They would not be able to resist
a frontal assault from Assad’s forces on the free zones. But they would
certainly be able to conduct a guerrilla campaign, should they elect to do
Lastly, I observed that the Syrian uprising is very much a sectarian
affair, although the FSA activists prefer not to openly characterize it that
way. Idlib is a very conservative, traditional Sunni province, and the FSA there
is composed entirely of Sunnis.
Anger against the Alawites, on whom the
regime relies for support, spills out at unguarded moments. The murderous
“Shabiha” Alawite paramilitaries are an object of particular hatred.
FSA fighters I spoke to said again and again that without arms from the West and
the establishment of a buffer zone, the killing in Syria could continue “for
Whether these calls will begin to be heeded by the West, as the
carnage in Syria continues, is now the crucial question. A de facto
international coalition stands behind Assad: Iran, well skilled in the art of
suppressing civil revolt, is providing equipment and expertise. Russia continues
to provide diplomatic cover and arms. Hezbollah, too, is lending manpower and
The FSA, from what I saw, possesses the raw material to become
an effective and potent fighting force, and has the potential capabilities to
protect the Syrian people from the rage of the dictator and challenge his rule.
It does not yet constitute such a force, however.
The crucial variable
will be whether the West begins to aid, advise and equip it – as Assad’s friends
are doing for his regime. If so, the uprising has a chance. The outcome of the
crisis in Syria may well now depend on this decision.