Journalist Nir Rosen spent nearly two months traveling across Syria discussing the potential for armed struggle with army officers who have defected to join the opposition. In the first in a series of articles, Rosen reports on his interviews with members of the armed opposition in the city of HOMS.
"They gave me a thin ski mask and asked me to put it on in reverse so it covered my eyes ... I felt claustrophobic and trapped."
-- Nir Rosen, journalist
"Our revolution is peaceful still and we don't have weapons ... but it is time to arm the revolution."
-- 1st Lieutenant Muhamad Abdelaziz Tlass, Free Officer
HOMS (September 23, 2011) -- Al Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen spent seven weeks travelling throughout Syria with unique access to all sides. He visited Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo to explore the uprising and growing internal conflict. In the first article of his series he meets with leaders of the armed opposition in Homs. Names of some of the indivduals quoted have been changed to protect their identities.
HOMS -- On August 31, I met up with a trusted acquaintance called Abu Omar (not his real name). I had been waiting for this meeting with anticipation, as the people involved were extremely hard to reach. They were constantly evading the regime.
Abu Omar called the night before to let me know it was going to happen. The next morning I awoke excited. Adding to my nervous energy, the mobile network in town was shut off. Unable to call Abu Omar, I decided to go to the café near where we had last met, hoping he would find me.
Concurrently, he was sitting in the car near where he had last dropped me off, hoping I would find him. Two hours after the pre-arranged time, he pulled up to the café. He asked me what devices I had and instructed me to remove the batteries from my mobile phone.
We drove north to Rastan, a city with a strong opposition presence. The last time I was there, several weeks earlier, I had counted 50 tanks along the perimeter of the town. As we drove toward the town, the scene was wholly different, not a single tank in sight. Rastan felt liberated.
Abu Omar was a senior coordinator in the country's six-month-old uprising and was involved in opposition activities since 2007. He lamented that to date, the revolution had only succeeded in costing the lives of three thousand people.
"After Libya, many people said it was a mistake to have a peaceful revolution and if they had done it like the Libyans they would be free by now," he said.
As I spent more time in Syria, I could see a clear theme developing in the discourse of the opposition: A call for an organised armed response to the government crackdown, mainly from the opposition within Syria. Demonstrators had hoped the holy month of Ramadan would be the turning point in their revolution, but as it came to an end -- six months into the Syrian uprising -- many realised the regime was too powerful to be overthrown peacefully.
Previously, on August 25, I met with a senior opposition leader in Damascus' large suburb of Harasta, an anti-regime stronghold. The government had cracked down harshly on demonstrations there, though the armed opposition had been able to kill many members of the security forces.
"In the end we cannot be free without weapons," the leader said. "It's necessary, but not by the people, by the army; we need defections."
A few days later, on August 28, I attended an anti-regime demonstration in the Bab Assiba neighbourhood of Homs. Demonstrators there were calling for a no-fly zone, much like the one imposed over Libya. Many of them hoped for international intervention.
In Rastan, Abu Omar introduced me to Firas -- an organiser of the nightly anti-regime demonstrations. Firas (not his real name) asked me how much justification NATO needed before it intervened. It would be better if NATO helped without the destruction of infrastructure that had taken place in Libya, he said.
Anatomy of the Opposition
Along with the army, the country has several intelligence and security services tasked with preserving order. Protesters correctly surmise that any defections will come from the heavily Sunni army and not various security forces, which are primarily staffed by Alawites, the heterodox sect of President Bashar al-Assad.
The opposition is loath to admit it but they are effectively all Sunni. The diverse ethnic makeup of Syria makes for a complicated map of allegiances within the country. Christians, by and large, support the regime out of fear of the unknown realities of a post-Assad Syria, while the Druze are sitting in the wings, waiting to see which side will emerge victorious. The Kurds, however, secretly hope for the regime to collapse.
Such is the segregation, that those who support the opposition know little about those who support the regime, and vice versa. They watch and believe different news media, they attend funerals for different "martyrs", (dead security forces or dead opposition supporters), and they believe the worst rumours about each other and are increasingly divided by an unbridgeable gap.
In the propaganda war being waged between opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime, the nature and make up of the opposition has been a key point. Opponents of the regime insist that the opposition is entirely peaceful and if any security forces have been killed it is only at the hands of other security forces in order to blame the opposition. Defenders of the regime describe the opposition as Salafi terrorists, arms dealers, drug smugglers, mercenaries or criminals.
The overwhelming majority of the opposition is peaceful and unarmed.
For some it is a question of principal or strategy; for many it is simply because they do not have access to weapons that would be useful against the powerful Syrian security forces. There are various different armed opposition actors in Syria. Together they have killed around 700 hundred members of the Syrian security forces in various clashes and ambushes.
The most organised and professional armed opposition members are those who are deserters from the army. However, it is important to point out they have not deserted with their weapons and it is not entire units that are deserting, currently just individuals. In much of the country young men arm themselves or are provided weapons by wealthier people to protect themselves from the onslaught of security forces.
There are also local self-defence militias and armed civilians throughout various villages and slums. Though many are socially and religiously conservative, they do not appear to consider themselves mujahedin or otherwise fit the stereotype of Islamic extremists. Accordingly, individuals have told me that Islam does provide them with inspiration and strength but they do not fight for Islam and their goals are generally secular.
Abu Omar is a senior opposition leader in Homs who coordinates with the defecting military personnel. These defectors are not very religious, Abu Omar told me. "They drink, they have girlfriends," he said. "They are mostly young. They are free thinking. They don't believe Dunya TV (a pro-regime channel). They saw there is no justice in the army, that they cannot advance in the army, and what was happening to the people, who are their family."
Back in Rastan
We were told to drive to a certain corner at a certain time. We arrived and saw a car on the opposite corner. Inside were three men each with an equally stern gaze.
I was worried that they were with the regime and we had been set up. Another car was parked on the corner diagonal to us. Abu Omar got out, walked to it and spoke to the men inside. We followed a lead car while being tailgated by another.
Abu Omar told me that several other cars were watching us. We drove towards the outskirts of town past some orchards and stopped by a house under construction.
A man got out of the car in front, and headed towards the car I was sitting in. He was tall and wore the uniform of a first lieutenant in the Syrian army with a patch from the 5th Special Forces unit, a pistol in his belt and his pants tucked into black military boots. As he came over he gestured that I follow him, without much recourse I hesitantly complied.
He took me to a stairwell and handed me a tracksuit and a pair of sneakers and told me to change. I undressed down to my underwear. We were clearly both a bit uncomfortable.
They did not give me a shirt, so I put on the track jacket that was a couple of sizes too small for me. It was also inappropriately warm for the summer. The training pants weren't much better either -- I felt nervous, uncomfortable and to top it off very sweaty. He asked me to open my mouth and looked up and down it and then in my ears and felt my scalp.
We left my clothes in Abu Omar's car and entered the leas car. Inside was a Kalashnikov. Adding to my physical discomfort, they gave me a thin ski mask and asked me to put it on in reverse so it covered my eyes. However, once it was stretched out on my face I could just about see through it. It was hot and uncomfortable.
I felt claustrophobic and trapped. I could hear my own breathing louder than usual as we bounced around on a rough road.
In eight years of working in conflict zones with armed groups I had never been told to put a mask on. Abu Omar told me it was also for my protection so people outside would not recognise me. "Do you trust these people?" I whispered to Abu Omar.
"Its too late now," he laughed at me.
The driver communicated with some people on his walkie-talkie, informing them of his whereabouts and asking them what was happening where they were. We drove around for a few minutes and pulled up to another orchard.
I took off the mask. We continued to walk behind a house, and proceeded to sit on some plastic chairs that sunk into the soft dirt, under the shade of some fruit trees. Someone brought us coffee and water; my hands trembled as I drank. Suddenly the silence was broken by a couple of gunshots. Immediately my mind flashed images of being ambushed by security forces. The man got on his radio to inquire about the shots but he didn't seem too phased.
"We are free officers rejecting the oppression of people and we are protecting the innocent people," first lieutenant Muhamad Abdelaziz Tlass of the 5th special forces told me. I was with a leader of the Khalid bin al Walid brigade of the Free Officers' Battalion. The other unit of deserters in Homs was called the Salahedin Victory brigade.
Homs was the centre of armed opposition in Syria. Rastan was the centre for the armed opposition in Homs. There were also deserters operating in Jabal Azzawiya in the north and Daraa in the south. Most of them had deserted from different units on May 30.
Tlass estimated the number of deserters in and around Homs at 500, however many defectors did not have rifles and only stocked with a few rocket propelled grenades (RPGs). Most of the men were originally from Homs, he said. They were mostly from the army because the regime controlled the security units.
"After the year 2000 they recruited Alawites to the security services," he said. "The regime is Alawite and security forces are the ones doing the killing. The government has convinced Alawites that this is an existential battle for them but this is not true."
The Resistance Strikes Back
Tlass claimed their first operation occurred on June 20 when they defended a demonstration. Military security ordered an armoured personnel vehicle belonging to the army to shoot at a demonstration. Four children were killed and he claimed security forces killed an army general for refusing to shoot. But it was more likely that the deserting soldiers had killed the general.
"Our people tried to defend the demonstration," he said. "We stopped the security forces from killing more and battled with them." He claimed they killed six security force members. "It hurts us when they get killed," Abu Omar said, "they don't know why they are fighting."
In Homs, the resistance was commanded by a major but the highest ranking deserting officer was a colonel, they told me. They were mostly young because young officers were less restricted in their thought. The older officers have a strong historical memory of the harsh suppression of the Hama armed uprising in 1982.
"The army is not loyal to the government," he told me, "but they control media so they don't know the real situation on the ground. One of my soldiers saw a big demonstration on Al Jazeera and asked me 'sir is it possible this is in Syria and they are really asking for the fall of the regime?'"
He told me that the personal mobile phones of soldiers were taken away and even officers were denied access to satellite television so they would only be able to watch state controlled television. The daily reports the government gave the army were written by security forces, he said, and helped motivate soldiers to kill civilians and convince them that civilian demonstrators were terrorists, provocateurs, traitors, foreign agents and Salafi extremists.
According to Tlass, in 2004 the defense ministry became overwhelmed by Alawites and fell under their control, with all senior positions allocated for the minority sect. He explained that this was the reason the army remained strong behind the regime. Though these officers controlled the army, "the army is with the people", he said.
The Issue of Scaling Up
The officer in civilian clothes told me they lacked the ability to initiate large operations.
"Our revolution is peaceful still and we don't have weapons," he said, "but it is time to arm the revolution, especially after Libya. Six months without results, and the number of dead …" He trailed off, but estimated the dead were five thousand, double the official number.
They were hoping for a no-fly zone because they believed this would encourage entire units to desert along with their vehicles without having to worry about being attacked by the regime's helicopters or fighter planes.
It was a flawed logic though because the international community had little pretext for a no-fly zone when the Syrian regime had not yet used its aircraft to attack people and there was no concern for an imminent massacre as had been claimed would happen in Libya.
In addition, Libyan rebels liberated Benghazi from the Gaddafi regime and used it as a base to launch their military and political operations with international assistance. Benghazi was over 1,000km away from Tripoli and the desert terrain made it easy for NATO forces to destroy any regime vehicles on the road. In Syria, there is no equivalent of Benghazi.
In fact there is no remote region that can successfully be severed. Daraa, by the southern border, is 45 minutes away from Damascus, the capital. Idlib by the northern border is 45 minutes away from Aleppo, the country's commercial hub. Syrian towns are too close to each other and the terrain is more mountainous and full of trees. There is no indigenous Syrian force that can seize control of a city, yet.
The armed opposition fighters had not even succeeded in holding on to rebellious Hama. They could not properly defend slums like Ramel in Latakia and Bab Assiba in Homs even though the urban terrain favored defenders.
The men I was meeting claimed to operate in all of Syria and indeed up to 700 members of the Syrian security forces had been killed since the start of the uprising, though most had been killed in clashes with unorganised but armed locals of villages and poor neighbourhoods. They had recently ambushed and killed an Alawite battalion commander on the road from Hama to Homs.
"He had given orders to kill many civilians," Tlass said. I interjected that they [opposition] must have had good intelligence. "We have many eyes," the officer in civilian clothes said.
In the middle of our conversation he got a call on his radio. "We have to go," he stood up.
Everybody unceremoniously and quickly got in their vehicles and drove away. I started to panic that we were going to be attacked and again I imagined being gunned down in a hail of bullets. Fortunately for all concerned, this was not the case and I got up and returned to the same stairwell where I changed clothes. The two cars led us out a bit and then turned away.
Two days later I was watching Al Jazeera in Damascus when I saw the same first lieutenant Tlass with several soldiers standing behind him formally declaring that he was deserting and joining the Khalid bin al Walid brigade.
Within the ranks of the opposition's civilian leadership there is a debate over which course to take. A repeat of the Libya scenario and international military intervention is unlikely. Mostly peaceful demonstrations have failed to shake the foundations of the regime. But an openly armed rebellion would support the regime's narrative and might also lead to a harsher crackdown.
Until now the regime's response has actually been relatively restrained compared to the violence it is capable of unleashing.
"We did not decide to declare this revolution armed yet," Abu Omar told me.
The civilian opposition within Syria was debating whether it was appropriate to declare an armed revolution, he said, explaining why they had not yet broadcast videos of their operations even though on the street in Homs everybody knew about them.
"They say they resigned from the military to defend the civilians but most of their operations involve attacking checkpoints," he said. "They say 'we attack the ones who attack us; this is our way of defending civilians.'"
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