Rebels try to win the hearts of the Syrian people


Syrian rebels steal diesel from army trucks to give to the poor, form councils to restore basic services, fix power lines and make sure bakeries have flour for bread.

But the attempts to win over public opinion come with a flip side, with the fighters increasingly accused of circulating exaggerated or false statements to stoke world outrage against the regime amid a deepening civil war.

Over the past few months, rebels known as the Free Syrian Army have taken control of wide swaths of Syria after battles with government forces that have devastated vast swaths of territory and left entire villages without fuel, money and many basic foodstuffs.

As they sweep into the impoverished areas, they’re also doing their best to ease the suffering.

The goal is to gain support for the fight against President Bashar Assad by showing Syrians that they are nicer than the ruthless regime that rules as a police state.

Most Syrians have lived in fear during four decades of Assad family rule. The regime’s notorious security agencies often detain and torture people for matters that in other countries are taken for granted such as complaining about water cuts or state corruption.

The rebels are seeking to prove they will be different if Assad is ousted by not disrupting life in the villages and towns they seize and distributing desperately needed goods such as food and medicine.

The effort is limited. The opposition doesn’t have the power to rebuild destroyed areas or fix infrastructure that has been heavily damaged by the war. They also have faced allegations of torture and mistreatment of pro-regime elements by human rights groups.

Many Syrians in rebel-controlled areas say the gunmen are polite at checkpoints, apologizing for any inconvenience as they verify identity cards and search cars.

“The Free Syrian Army played an extraordinary role by supplying people with food and makeshift hospitals with medicine and equipment in the suburbs of Damascus,” Damascus resident and activist Maath al-Shami said.

He added that while some people see the FSA presence in their areas as a blessing, others are scared because it usually brings “destructive retaliation” from regime forces.

Residents in the countryside between the northern city of Aleppo and the Turkish border are largely sympathetic to the rebels.

In some of these areas, rebel leaders have formed councils that are trying to restore services by trying to persuade electric company workers who aren’t working because of the violence to help repair damaged power lines.

In other areas, rebels work to ensure bakeries keep running by providing them with gas and collecting flour from safer areas so they can continue to make the flatbread that is the main staple in many households.

Mohammed, a Syrian citizen who recently fled to Lebanon from the northern province of Aleppo, said the region is suffering from a lack of cooking oil and diesel for generators that make up for power outages that can last for days in some areas. He added that many people are cooking on wood fires outside.

He said rebels seized his town in July, but “did not bother any of us or damage any private property.” Mohammed said they entered government buildings and stayed there. He withheld the name of the town because he has to pass through government-held territories when he returns to Syria.

Mohammed, who asked to be identified by his first name only for fear of government reprisals against relatives remaining in Syria, described one incident in which rebels captured a diesel tanker truck and distributed the fuel to residents.

“The Free Syrian Army is gaining people’s support because of these acts,” Mohammed said in an interview in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

Faiz Amru, an FSA general, said the rebels serve the people because it is their duty.

“When we capture a diesel truck, we keep the regime from filling up tanks to shell the people and we give it to the people instead,” Amru said. “Who are the Free Syrian Army and the rebels? They are the sons of people in this country.”

A resident of the central city of Homs’ neighborhood of Baba Amr said rebel gunmen made sure all residents had bread and offered money to people in need before the government regained control of the area in March.

“When I said I want to leave, they smuggled me out of Baba Amr,” said the man who identified himself as Farouk. He also spoke in an interview in Tripoli, where many refugees have sought shelter.

The effort to win public support, however, has been tarnished by acts of violence blamed on the rebels.

In July, rebels captured members of a pro-regime clan in the northern city of Aleppo and made them identify themselves on camera with clear marks of torture on their bodies and faces. Another video, apparently taken by rebels, showed at least four members of the Barri clan being shot dead on an Aleppo street.

Earlier this month, another video showed the bodies of dead policemen as they were being thrown from the top of a building in the northern town of al-Bab.

It was not possible to independently verify any of the videos, but such reports appear to have thrust the rebels into damage-control mode, particularly when it comes to treatment of prisoners of war.

On Aug. 13, rebels captured a Syrian army pilot whose plane went down while bombing rebel-held areas in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour. The pilot later appeared in a video in which a rebel promised the colonel would be treated according to the Geneva Conventions.

In pitching their cause to the outside world, rebels and opposition activists also have developed media operations to give information and videos to journalists who cannot freely travel in the country due to the violence and regime restrictions. But many of these activists manipulate the reports or provide incomplete information to ensure they are largely sympathetic to the rebels.

In a small media office in the town of Marea, 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Aleppo, an activist who goes by the name Abu al-Hassan spends his days corresponding via Skype with activists elsewhere, compiling reports and relaying them to foreign journalists.

On a recent afternoon, he spoke with an Arab satellite network producer about an interview, then went on the air with a private pro-rebel channel called Barada.

Speaking in the formal Arabic of a professional TV correspondent, he gave the station a full report on the location of shelling by regime forces in Aleppo and where “honorable revolutionaries” were resisting government advances. When he finished, the channel thanked him for his contribution from “the city of Aleppo.”

However, Abu al-Hassan told a visiting Associated Press reporter that he had last been to Aleppo a month and a half ago, before the current violence in the longtime regime stronghold had even begun.

At the Bab al-Salamah border point with Turkey, hundreds of families fleeing the violence seek refuge in the old customs warehouses where goods brought from Turkey used to be stored.

They are waiting to be transferred to refugee camps in Turkey, but for now they are dependent on mats, blankets, bread and water bottles distributed by Free Syrian Army volunteers.

One woman who identified herself only as Um Ali, 63, said the rebels have good intensions, but she was skeptical they would be able to follow through.

“I can see that they are doing their level best, but it’s not enough for our country,” she said. “Our country is too big and the population is enormous, no matter how much they try it will never be enough.”

Washington Post/AP