Apr 4, 2012 4:45 AM EDT
Foot soldiers and commanders in the Free Syrian
Army say they have the world’s support in their
fight against Assad, but that hasn’t translated
into arms, ammunition, or proper
The two men sat on plastic chairs in front of a white tent in the southern Turkish town of Antakya. They introduced themselves as fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). They would like to fight, they said, if only they had guns.
Abu Youssef and Abu Mahmoud are from the countryside around Hama, a city in the center of Syria. They gave false names, as did the other people quoted in this article, fearing for their safety.
They defected from the regular army four months ago and joined the ranks of the FSA. Their commanders did not have weapons for them, so the two 20-year-old men waited in the Bohsin camp, one of the five camps created by the Turkish government in the border region of Hatay. The camps host 12,000 Syrians who fled the violence in their country.
International envoy Kofi Annan said on Monday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad accepted an April 10 deadline to start implementing a U.N. peace plan which includes the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the cities.
Violence continues. According to opposition groups, on Tuesday government forces intensified their attacks against antiregime strongholds in the southern region of Daraa, the northwestern Idlib province, Homs, and around Damascus.
At a Friends of Syria conference held in Istanbul on Sunday, 70 countries pledged millions of dollars in aid and communications technologies to the Syrian opposition. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations have agreed to set up an international fund to pay salaries to members of the Free Syrian Army.
These diplomatic efforts gave new strength to a divided opposition, but haven’t changed the situation on the ground, where local FSA commanders are locked in a daily struggle to equip their fighters.
On a recent day in Antakya—a once-tranquil backwater that the opposition has turned into a primary staging ground to keep the rebellion alive—a group of four FSA commanders sat around a table in a local café, sipping tea and chainsmoking cigarettes.
They had shed military uniform for civilians clothes to conduct their business, looking more like entrepreneurs than fighters.
Mohammed M., a 40-year-old, was a first lieutenant in the Syrian army until 1995. Now he is the head of the Saed al Naser unit, operating in the Aleppo countryside. He came from Syria three weeks before to meet with other commanders, he said, to talk about their men’s needs, to collect money for weapons, ammunitions, communications technologies.
“We are getting money mainly from individuals, from Syrians living abroad. We hear a lot of promises from the international community, but nobody will support us,” said Mohammed.
Members of the Free Syrian Army gather inside quarters in the Syrian town of Binnish in the northern Idlib province on March 22, 2012. , Ricardo Garcia Vilanova AFP / Getty Images
His unit has 50 men and two satellite phones in a country where mobile telephone networks are down, security forces tap landlines, and the Internet is dysfunctional.
As for the guns, Mohammed said, his unit has just light weapons, not enough to confront the Syrian army.
“The air force attacks us and we do not have artillery to fight back,” said the commander.
He recently bought some arms on the more porous Iraqi border, but he explained how he usually gets weapons directly from “bad officers” inside the Syrian army. Regular soldiers, the commanders said, sell their Kalashnikovs for up to $2,500. Before the revolt, the price on the black market was $300.
At the same table, Abu Muhammed, a lieutenant who defected in April to become a FSA local commander in the northern area of Idlib, said he recently raised $11,000 to buy 10 Kalashnikovs from the “bad officers” inside Syria.
Abu Zhaki, commander of the Shukur al Shams unit, in the border area of Jabal al Zawiya, is a 43-year-old civilian with no military background but good contacts to raise money for arms.
He said there are a lot of soldiers in the regular army who are too afraid to defect, but help the FSA from the inside.
“Our unit exchanged a carton of cigarettes for 200 bullets; we get gasoline from a soldier who steals it from the tanks in the bases,” he said.
Other local commanders described their constant hustle to-and-fro across the Syrian-Turkish border to secure money for their supplies.
Rami, a former lieutenant in the army, had been in Antakya for 15 days, trying to collect money from rich Syrians abroad for his unit in Idlib.
“We have enough men. The defectors’ numbers have increased. But they do not have weapons. If they have a gun, they do not have ammunition,” he said while busily working on his laptop.
Communications technologies are a precious commodity. Asked about internal FSA communications, Abu Muhammed, commander of a unit in the Idlib countryside, replied with sadness and irony, “We use pigeons.”
“There’s not a lot of direct communication between the ground and the leadership,” he said, explaining how his men do not take specific daily orders from the officers sitting in the Turkish camps, like Col. Riad al Asaad, nominal head of the FSA.
“With the means we have, this is only self-defense,” he admitted.