Free Syrian Army takes shape on Lebanese border


A disaffected soldier who has fled the Syrian military explains why he is fighting to bring down Assad’s regime.

The man from the Free Syrian Army pointed to a spot on a distant hill marked by a lone white tent and a cluster of trees. “That’s how we get in,” he said of his furtive and increasingly frequent trips back to Syria. “We wait for them to look the other way and we move.”

In early May, Ahmed al-Arabi left his job as a captain in the Syrian army and took to life as a rebel in exile in the foothills of northern Lebanon. Ever since, his role as a revolutionary seems to have grown by the month.

But the events of the past week, which have seen Syria suspended from the Arab League and a spike in an already bloody crackdown, appear to have propelled Arabi and his cause to a point he thought it would take much longer to reach. “There is a real chance now,” he said of the Free Syria Army’s intensifying guerrilla campaign against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. “Just in the past few days in Homs alone, we have seen 70 defections from the regular troops and 13 from the special forces.”

Now, the loose alliance of disaffected soldiers who have left the Syrian military since its violent crackdown against rights demonstrators began in March, appears to have announced its arrival as a national resistance movement.

Three attacks on Wednesday morning targeted key sites in Syria. All were launched by men who, like Arabi, were reluctant loyalists at the start of the year. And all were soon shown on regional television, which has become a veritable operations room for rebels, who rarely get to communicate directly.

“That was us,” said Arabi as al-Jazeera showed footage of a man firing a machine gun, followed by a huge roadside bomb targeting what looked like a convoy. “There will be many more of them,” he added. “Most defectors who have come to Wadi Khaled have now gone back to organise and launch attacks. The regime is in trouble now.”

This tiny, drab border town in Lebanon’s impoverished north has become one of two main hubs for an armed resistance campaign that is increasingly taking shape inside Syria; the other is in southern Turkey. With rugged hills and plunging valleys on both sides, the town has always been an ideal smuggling route for Lebanese and Syrians, supplying a vibrant black market. These same well-plied routes are now used to move men and women – many of them former soldiers who have regrouped in Wadi Khaled and travelled back home, in some cases with extra weapons sourced in Lebanon.

Arabi was reluctant to discuss weapons supply lines into Syria, although he said no states were involved. He was more comfortable talking about Syrian military infiltrations and the planting by the Assad regime of land mines in the past month, which have sharply raised the stakes on the mountain trails.

Under a light rain, Arabi stepped over a small wall and pulled a vegetable sack from the foliage. He dropped it on the cement with a little too much abandon given what was inside, before pulling out a large anti-tank mine. “I pulled it out of the ground last week,” he said. Fresh mud was still caked to the weapon, about the size of a dinner plate. “Don’t step on it if you’re heavy.

“There are hundreds along the border. But there are soldiers who have told us where the mines were planted and where it is still safe to travel.”

The veteran of 29 years in the Syrian military paints a picture of soldiers increasingly reluctant to stick to the official narrative of the uprising, which tells of an out-manoeuvred national army fighting armed extremists backed by Europe, the US and the Sunni Arab world. “In the officer corps, they know what is going on, but are too scared to do anything. There are many people inside the military who are better off for us there.”

Arabi, a native of Homs, where an armed fightback has been gathering steam since August, suggests the Free Syria Army’s strength is about 15,000 nationwide. “Many of those who have joined us have come with their weapons, or pointed us to places where weapons are being stored,” he said. If his estimate is correct, the force, though loosely organised and lacking a cohesive command and control structure, poses a potent and growing problem for the military.

Military leaders are likely to focus on the relative ease with which rebels such as Arabi and former colonel Riad al-Assad, who commands a separate force from southern Turkey, are able to slip across the border and help with decision making.

Arabi said he shuttled to Homs most weeks. And the former colonel’s men are known to use routes to Idlib in the north, where they claim to have established a haven.

For the Free Syria Army, however, a large obstacle stands in front of their ultimate goal – the fall of the Assad regime. The senior military leadership and the Syrian establishment remain entwined by members of the Alawite sect, to which the Assad clan belongs. There have been no known defections from any senior establishment position.

In a sign of the enduring strength of key military units, the Fourth Division, controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, moved into the National hospital in Homs on Wednesday, setting up what appeared to be a large command post.

However, Arabi believes momentum will soon swing fully in the guerrillas’ favour. “If we can get a UN resolution on a no-fly zone, this will all be over in 24 hours,” he said. “There are thousands who are too scared to move before they know it’s safe to do so.”

Before leaving Wadi Khaled, Arabi joined us on a drive along rain-soaked ridge lines and valleys. A black-and-white scarf bound tight around his head to ward off the cold, he pointed across a muddy field, where he said a friend was killed in a recent battle as he tried to return to Homs. Under grey foreboding skies, it looked like the Yorkshire moors.

At a point down the valley he showed us a Syrian position tucked into a tree line. “I know all of their places,” he said. “We have to.”

With that, Arabi said he had a meeting to attend and bade us farewell. He said he never slept in Wadi Khaled, moving between nearby villages at night to evade Syrian spies or their Lebanese proxies. “When this is all over, we will meet for lunch in Homs.”