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Syria : The “Free Army” defies the regime

Wearing bullet-proof vests and Kevelar helmets and holding assault rifles, 13 men make their way through an enthusiastic crowd (AR) which is warmly welcoming them with slaps on the back.  It is the beginning of September in the Boustan al-Diwan district of Homs.  For the towns activists today's “haul” is substantial.  They are deserters from the Syrian army.

These men were on the front line surrounding Ar-Rastan from 27 September to 5 October.  The town, which lies 20km to the north of the large, central Syrian city of Homs, was the target of a major offensive by government forces following the defection of two army battalions.  Almost 250 troop carriers, with aerial helicopter support, took part in the assault and search operation.  According to witnesses, they were opposed by a thousand deserters and armed villagers.  Damascus regained control of the town following violent skirmishes (AR)and the detention of around 3000 people in schools and storage facilities (AR), after some of the worst clashes the country has seen since the beginning of the uprising.

While a move towards armed resistance by a minority of those opposed to the regime is nothing new, according to NGOs some 800 members of the armed forces have been killed since the spring, the emergence of an organised, armed resistance movement drawn from the ranks of ground forces is relatively recent.

The regime was confronted by the first credible warning signs in the region around the large westerly town of Deir-Ezzor.  At the end of July, following the massacre of young officers at the Homs military academy (distressing images) (AR), the 3rd division armoured units rallied rebels, at Deir-Ezzor and in the surrounding areas, into the opposition movement, going as far as marching their tanks on Al-Boukmal, which was in the hands of the opposition.

In a panic, Damascus dispatched reinforcements.  After mediation by the principle families in the region, which still lives according to tribal customs, the mutineers would have accepted returning the tanks in exchange for assurances the town would not be taken over.  The regime violated this accord by launching an assault.  This fighting lead to nearly 100 deaths at Deir-Ezzor and the town was shelled. (AR)

Riad Asaad

Although it's creation by dissident officers had been announced a few days earlier (AR), it was perhaps at this point that the Free Syrian Army (AR) was really born.

Led by Riad al-Assad (no relation to the ruling family), an Air Force colonel now in exile in Turkey, the FSL today claims to have 10,000 men organised into 12 battalions across the territory.  It has also announced that it is in contact with hundreds of officers from active units that are ready to change sides.  While these numbers seem widely exaggerated, actions by the group have intensified since the beginning of last month, notably around Homs, the epicentre of the Syrian revolution.  There is a veiled recognition of this by the regime in their denunciation of the now almost daily attacks by “terrorist groups”.
This presence is confirmed by a resident of the town who reports that “it is now common, in the small hours of the morning, to come across the shells of burned out security forces vehicles destroyed during night ambushes”.  The attacks are attributed to la katiba Khalid-ibn-al-Walid (AR), an already well-known rebel unit led by a former special forces officer.  Within the unit a few hundred men (AR) are divided into groups of between 10 and 30 members, who are increasing their public sorties.
Their chosen name is a reference to the town's largest mosque as well as the head of Mohammed's army which conquered Syria, clearly marking the deserters out as Sunni, even though the group remains ambiguous about its real objectives, contenting itself with stating “that it is not a political organisation nor movement but an alternative to the army serving the regime.  We serve the will of the people, defending their desire to live freely and with dignity and the transition towards a civil and democratic regime”.

While those opposed have always hoped and prayed for a change of position by the army, keeping a certain distance seemed appropriate, however signs of vigilantism and a movement towards acts of violence are gaining ground for militants who are losing hope in the face of the regime's brutality.
Last month the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (AR), one of the protest's leading networks and now member of the Syrian National Council stated “while we understand the desire to take up arms or to call for military intervention, we reject this position. A militarisation of the protest would erode the moral superiority which has characterised the revolution since its inception“.  These words are carefully chosen, but for the partisans of a common and multifaith movement, any slide towards armed resistance has, up until now, been considered disastrous.

Up until 14 October… and the traditional day of weekly mobilisation.  Dedicated to these “free soldiers” who, the previous day, had once again been in heavy confrontation with the regimes forces at Idlib, in the north, and Deraa, in the south. Accordig to  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (AR) the fighting resulted in 25 deaths.

On Monday morning the army launched a new offensive against the civilian districts of Al-Khalidiye and Adouye in the town of Homs, opening fire on residential drinking water storage tanks, according to the Shaam News Network. (AR)

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