Defying a Dictator: Meet the Free Syrian Army
The carnage in Syria continues and is intensifying as Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship pushes on in its countrywide effort to destroy the armed resistance against it. It appears increasingly likely that the struggle can only be settled by force. Either the dictator will crush the rebellion or the regime will fall. As a result, the rebel Free Syrian Army, as the armed element among the opposition, is playing an increasingly important role in the uprising. Yet who composes this group, and what does it stand for? How does it fit in the larger rebellion against Assad? And, perhaps most crucially, is it an appropriate recipient for Western aid in the near future?
In early February, having made initial arrangements through FSA contacts in Turkey, I made my way to Idlib Province, on Syria’s northwestern border, to spend a week in the company of fighters and civilian activists and see elements of the rebel army firsthand in the towns of Sarmin and Binnish.
In Sarmin, the FSA appears to consist almost entirely of defectors from Assad’s army, several hundred of them. The force appeared disciplined and serious. The fighters are uniformed, equipped with AK-47 rifles; I saw RPG-7s, heavy machine guns, and a mortar. They are commanded by an impressive figure, Lieutenant Bilal Khabir, a twenty-five-year-old former officer of the airborne forces of Assad’s army. He and his men are motivated, respond to commands with military precision, and appear willing to fight to the end. “Either Bashar stays or we stay,” Khabir told me. “The regime has the heavy weapons—the people are with us.”
Today’s major world conflicts—autocracy versus democracy; the West versus the China-Russia axis; Iran and its allies versus the US, Israel, and “moderate” Arab states—intersect and collide in Syria, where sectarianism’s ancient hatreds may well tip their outcomes.
Khabir speaks with the earnestness and sincerity of a youth counsellor—hardly a macho stereotype. Yet volunteer soldiers seem far more likely to trust a leader like Khabir over a glory-seeker (especially when they are out-manned and out-gunned), and the young officer left me with the impression that the fighters in Sarmin mean business.