Arab World: 'Either Assad stays or we do'

Whether the West begins to aid, advise and equip Syria's opposition is the crucial variable in Syria.

Fighters in the Free Syrian Army FSA 390 (photo credit: Jonathan Spyer)
Fighters in the Free Syrian Army FSA 390
(photo credit: Jonathan Spyer)
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 feasible.
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.
The Assad 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 submission.
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.
But the 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.”
Secondly, the absence of unity and a real chain of command was acutely apparent.
No one 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 arms.
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 so.
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.
The 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 years.”
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 expertise.
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.