Faces of the Free Syrian Army
Five resistance fighters, five tales of war, victory and defeat
by MITCH SWENSON
The Syrian civil war is being waged by a complex mosaic of governments, rebel factions, civil councils and religious sects.
The opposition is made up of volunteer militias from across Syria and the region. Many of them started as neighborhood security forces — in essence, civilians with guns defending their own homes. Others, such as the Islamic States of Iraq and Syria, are largely ideological bodies populated mostly by foreign fighters. Many units are bolstered by highly-trained professional soldiers who defected from Assad’s army.
Most opposition forces — ISIS notably excluded — fall under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, some 200,000 strong and largely in charge of most of northern Syria. Nearly three years of combat has united many rebels under the FSA banner, but ideological, religious and ethnic differences remain.
Traveling across Lebanon, Turkey and Syria we have met FSA fighters of all stripes. Here are five.
Twenty-eight years old but as weary and bent as a much older man, Fayad has a large scar running up his leg from a mortar blast that struck him during the Battle of Qusayr in May. He is sitting on his bed in the Al Zahraa hospital in Tripoli, Lebanon — and is very cautious about what he says and how he says it.
Tarek joined the Al Waheed battalion in Qusayr in order to defend his hometown. In May Assad’s forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah militants, were able to surround the rebel Al Waheed and Al Farouk Brigades. The regime shelled them with 200 rounds per minute from heavy artillery.
After Fayad was injured, Hezbollah and the FSA agreed to a ceasefire: the rebels could evacuate 30 wounded fighters to hospitals in Lebanon in exchange for the dead bodies of Hezbollah fighters. Hezbollah men took Fayad in a civilian car and through back roads to Lebanon. Now he’s worried that Hezbollah has his name.
Fayad’s family has been deeply affected by the war. Only one of Tarek’s 16 brothers hasn’t been injured or killed.
He picks us up in his car after we cross into Syria. Aarif, 33, is a colonel in the Sham Falcons Brigade in Bab Al Hawa. He says he knew he was going to war when the regime fired on a crowd of demonstrators in Daraa in 2011, before the FSA had even formed.
After his neighbor was killed by his side while protesting in Damascus, Aarif joined the Sham Falcons because, he says, they are moderates. He doesn’t want outside extremist groups like ISIS taking Syria away from Syrians. All of his cousins from Azawi Mountain in western Syria also joined Sham Falcons.
With around 9,000 soldiers, the Sham Falcons Brigade plays a significant role in the FSA in Bab Al Hawa. His personal feelings aside, Aarif says the brigade has good relations with ISIS. The Sham Falcons can be pretty extreme themselves. The unit has reportedly released captured regime soldiers back to their bases in booby-trapped vehicles.
Hassan Mahmoud Souror
This 22-year-old from Tripoli in northern Lebanon had just slipped over the border into Syria with his older brother Hussein when he was ambushed by regime forces
Hassan and his family are Sunnis living in Tripoli’s Bab Al Tabaneh district, a stronghold of anti-Syrian sentiment. Last fall Hassan, his brother Hussein and some friends crossed the border on foot. Most of the group had little training and had borrowed their weapons from family members. Hassan had taken his uncle’s rifle.
Hassan believes that there was a traitor in their group who betrayed them to regime troops, giving them plenty of time to lay an ambush. “There is no other way they could have been that well-armed,” he says. “They shelled us for 30 minutes without stopping.”
The attack killed 14 of the 17 men in the group, including Hassan’s brother Hussein. Hassan returned home by himself while the other two survivors fled to Africa. He says he learned later that the regime took photos of his dead friends and replaced the medical supplies they carried with heavy weapons … to make it seem like they were gunrunners.
He’s crossing the Syrian-Turkish border when we meet him. Thirty-year-old Muhammad is traveling into Reyhanli, the Turkish border town, in order to have a third operation on his knee after a bullet from a regime sniper caught him during fighting near Hama two months ago.
A convoy of 16 regime vehicles, including tanks and gun-armed pickup trucks called “technicals,” crossed into Al Moorig. Six hundred rebels from the Ansaar Al Haag, Ahfad Al Rasool, Jabhat Al Nusra and Martyrs of Hama brigades opened fire. The tanks retreated and the rebels destroyed the rest of the convoy.
Muhammad joined Ansaar Al Haag in Hama after fighting intensified in late 2011. A former Syrian army draftee, he already knew how to use heavy weapons including 14.5-millimeter and 23-millimeter anti-aircraft guns.
“Unfortunately I will have to come back to Turkey again before I can go back to fighting,” he says. “I have to have more operations after this one.”
Moustafa “Basel” Abo Zyed
Just 20 years old, Abo Zyed isn’t wearing a trace of camouflage on his body but, like many other young fighters, he is always holding his rifle. It’s either between his legs while he sits or in his hands while he’s standing. He speaks quietly as he describes the chemical-filled barrels that fell from a regime helicopter during a battle at the Abu Al Duhur Airport in northwest Syria on March 29.
He’d been fighting for four months.
When the barrels exploded he says a strange smell filled the area. He tried to get away but made it only five steps before collapsing. He thanks God that some of his friends found him before he died.
When Abo Zyed woke up he was in the hospital. He didn’t know how long he was unconscious. He could barely breathe. Over the next several days the doctor gave him a series of injections that calmed the shaking in his hands and feet. Eventually he was able to inhale normally. So he came to Bab Al Hawa, in northern Syria near the Turkish border, to continue his war.
In a room surrounded by a dozen other members of the Qadesyya Brigade, Abo Zyed says he isn’t afraid of anything except the helicopters and fighter jets. It was because of the chemical attack that he started training with anti-aircraft guns. Recently, however, he has been too busy fighting Kurdish militants from the PKK party to even bother with Assad’s army. Like many brigades in the FSA, Qadesyya is fighting a war on two fronts.
“It is a good feeling to know that I am killing those who are killing my people. I’m trying to finish this massacre through and through,” he says.
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