The pictures from Haffeh are horrifying, though not as stomach-wrenching as those from Houla and other massacre sites. Haffeh, once home to 23,000 people, is a ghost town, a shelled, smoldering, empty city whose few inhabitants are too afraid to come out of hiding to claim and bury the bodies in the street.
And Bashar al Assad keeps insisting he is fighting “armed terrorist gangs being backed by foreign interests,” and Russia insists that the United States is supplying arms to the rebels, and right wing conspiracy theorists insist that the CIA is behind the rebellion. The only people speaking for the rebels are in London, hardly a viable source of information when every statement they issue is accompanied by a media disclaimer that there is no way to independently verify the information. The first independent journalists to enter Syria since the uprising began were either killed, like Marie Colvin, or fled the country.
The one group no one ever really hears from are the Free Syrian Army and the people who are being attacked….until now.
Al Jazeera has managed to get journalists into Syria and their reports are stark, honest and a complete refutation of al Assad’s version of what is going on.
The Free Syrian Army had its beginnings over a year ago, when a group of Syrian soldiers refused an order to open fire on unarmed protesters and turned their guns instead on the security forces giving the orders., killing over a hundred of them. There was no turning back for those soldiers. They faded into the civilian population, taking their rifles and handguns with them. The army was always a problem for al Assad. The leadership is drawn from the Alawite minority loyal to the Assad regime, but most soldiers are Sunni. The security forces and the Shabbiha militia are predominantly Alawite.
The regime’s forces have attacked town, cities and neighborhoods with the excuse that they are attacking rebel forces and those armed foreign terrorists. Al Assad justifies the action by saying that it is necessary to have collateral damage when trying to remove a cancer from a patient’s body. What Al Jazeera’s journalists have found is the full extent of the cancer and how much collateral damage is being justified.
In the mountains of Idlib province, near the Turkish border, a group of rebels who are part of a loosely organized group called the Sham Falcons are hiding out. There are roughly 100 of them, armed with only Russian Kalashnikov rifles, Polish PKT machine guns and some rocket-propelled grenades, hardly the American arms that Russia claims we are supplying. The Sham Falcons are just one of hundreds of such small, independent armed rebel groups across the country. They have no centralized leadership, no real generals or stategists. Some of the guerilla fighters are defectors from the Syrian army. Others are ordinary men who decided to fight back against the brutal way that the protests were handled by the regime.
As journalist Tracey Shelton watched, they watched a convoy of soldiers approaching the site where they had planted a bomb. The detonation device was a converted garage door opener. The man who set off the explosion miscalculated and set it off too soon, blowing a massive crater in the road, but missing the convoy. The soldiers opened fire, with mortars and rifles and the rebels literally ran miles to evade capture. Unit leader Hamza Fatalah summarized the situation for Shelton, “We are using very simple weapons against the highly sophisticated weapons of the regime.” Fatalah was once a lieutenant in the Syrian army. Fatalah explained that there were some like himself, former police officers and soldiers, but others were students, farmers, taxi drivers, shop assistants. They had witnessed snipers firing on unarmed protesters and funerals, tanks raining shells on villages. And, yes, they hide among civilians – in their own villages and towns, among their families and friends. They use homemade bombs, have only the weapons they have brought with them or confiscated from dead soldiers’ bodies, and have very little in the way of medical supplies. They used their own money, in the beginning, to buy hunting rifles. Commander Ahmed al-Sheikh told Shelton that “Some businesses began to donate money for weapons, but anyone supporting the revolution was targeted by the regime and many became scared. Now, most of our weapons we capture during operations.” He also explained that the weapons and ammunition that they purchase comes from corrupt men inside the Syrian army. Kalashinikov bullets have inflated from 40¢ each to $4. “These men are mercenaries. Their only belief is in money.”
The rebels’ transports consist of motorbikes and civilian cars and pickup trucks. They have no tanks, no armored vehicles, no artillery. This is why the United Nations monitors were so positive about the massacre in Houla being carried out by the regime. The rebels simply don’t have the equipment to leave the evidence that was at Houla.
The Sham Falcons of Jabal al-Zawiya say that they have eight battalions of 250 men each spread across eight villages in Idlib province. This is their “territory” and other rebel groups exist, each with a territory similar to the Sham Falcons. They have small units in the larger cities like Idlib, Ma’araat an Nu’man and Ariha, but those are observation units. An entire 250-man unit does not engage in operations outside the villages.
The majority of the men are married, have children and their families live in these villages. The group headed by Hamza Fatalah maintain a “base” outside their village, where half the men will sleep in rotating shifts while others stand guard and confer with other groups by short-wave radio. Not exactly high-tech communications. They live on a simple diet of bread and hummus, with unit commander Asad Ibrahim joking that “We eat this every day. It gives us fast legs so we can run from the enemy.” Regime helicopters run a grid search over the areas until the find a group “camping out” and then strafe the group without verifying if they are in fact rebels or just idiots who decided to go camping. The helicopters are indiscriminate in their strafing attacks.
To root out 250 rebels, the regime does not hesitate to level whole towns, butcher women and children, bombard neighborhoods in large cities. Bashar al Assad can tour the bulldozed rubble of a neighborhood and not understand the human cost of his actions. He sees a “rebel stronghold,” not a residential neighborhood where families lived and worked. The West doesn’t even hear about all the attacks. The regime shelled the village of Kafr Ruma for three days. The circling helicopters fired on anyone who was in the open, killing a father and his 8-year old son who were going to the hospital to see his wife, who had just given birth. Among the 80 people injured in the assault on Kafr Ruma was an 15-year old girl injured by tank fire. The more the regime attacks civilians, the more civilians join the rebellion.
One rebel soldier, Mahmoud Tara, explained to Shelton why he had defected from the army. “We were ordered to shoot the protesters deomonstrating at Aleppo University. Most of the time, I would shoot in the air, but many of my colleagues would use excessive force, hitting, cursing and humiliating those arrested. They dropped one student from the top of a six-story building onto the grounds of the university. They continued as if nothing had happened. It was a horrible feeling. I felt pity but I could say nothing or I would be treated like those students.”
Commander al Shiekh explained that his forces were trying to protect the civilians. They want to end the bloodshed and had accepted the ceasefire agreement arranged by U. N. envoy Kofi Annan.
This began 16 months ago with demonstrations in Dera’a, an area in the south which has suffered from severe drought, where unemployment was very high and food shortages were becoming critical, and where the government had been slow to respond. The protests morphed into demands for a more representative government, one that did not concentrate power in the hands of the minority Alawite sect. When the regime started cracking down on protesters, the dissent increased incrementally. President al Assad promised reforms, but didn’t deliver on them. The protests increased. When the crackdowns reached unacceptable proportions, soldiers started defecting and a rebel army was born.
The rebels risked a great deal in allowing journalists to embed with them, but they needed to get their message out, not through the opposition “leaders” in London, and in answer to the regime’s version of events. Commander al Sheikh told Shelton, “We want the people of the world to understand us as people, to see our revolution from a human prospective. The Syrian people cannot turn back. We must fight until victory.”