Syria Alternatives (I): Man Cannot Live by Guns Alone

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A member of the Free Syrian Army's "Commandos Brigade" takes part in a training session in Qusayr, on 10 May 2012. (Photo: AFP - STR)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Monday, June 11, 2012

Since the start of the Syrian uprising, influential groups have emerged on the ground which have been eclipsed in the media by the high-profile exile politicians who enjoy international backing.

Al-Radeef al-Thawri (“The Revolutionary Reserve”) shares with other armed Syrian opposition groups the goal of toppling the ruling regime. But it insists that Syria must not be destroyed in the process.

It also differs from other factions in believing that the overthrow of the regime by armed revolt alone is unachievable, that the fractious state of the opposition means that time is not on the revolution’s side, and that alternative solutions therefore need to be explored, including dialogue under UN auspices.

Al-Radeef was so named because it was formed as a support network for the uprising in Syria, undertaking the provision of food and medical supplies to areas in revolt. But it soon started assuming an additional role. It formed a fighting wing to provide armed support to the demonstrators, even though it had been strongly opposed to weaponizing the uprising, and its leaders were involved at an early stage in peaceful protests demanding the downfall of the regime.

Their opposition to taking up arms was primarily due to the huge imbalance of military power with the regime’s armed forces, says al-Radeef’s secretary-general, who is known as Abu Abd al-Rahman. “Kalashnikovs cannot topple a regime, nor can RPGs,” he remarks.

“The movement saw the peaceful nature of the revolution as the key to its success,” he explains. But it felt compelled to take up arms “when the regime stopped distinguishing between defenseless demonstrators and gunmen.”

He explains that this was partly done in expectation of international support, but “the international community did not stand with us as it should have.” Countries backing the rebels failed to provide them with high-caliber weapons, and it became apparent that none were willing to force the regime out through direct military intervention. “Fighting with the weapons in our possession will only cause more bloodshed without toppling it,” he says.

“From the start of the revolution, we kept hearing that a no-fly zone would be imposed or there would be foreign intervention,” he says, “but none of that happened and it is does not look as though it will happen, at least not in the near future.”

To Abu Abd al-Rahman’s mind, while the peaceful course would have been more effective, the resort to arms has “postponed the victory” of the revolution. Moreover, “prolonging the duration of the revolution risks wearing it down too,” he warns. A protracted rebellion “poses a real threat to the society that sustains (the rebels). Shortages of food and healthcare and the rising death toll could lead to disillusionment among the Syrian families who are providing a safe haven for the fighters. They could renounce the revolutionaries and demand the return of the regime.”

Parallel Priorities

Leaders of al-Radeef have been critical of external backers that are keen to arm the revolutionaries but neglect the need for parallel food and medical aid.

Many of them are professionals or businessmen who provide clandestine support and funds for the revolution and are not known to the regime as dissidents, operating in the shadows for their personal safety.

They cite examples of cases in which foreign sponsors demonstrated that their support is not motivated by love of the Syrian people but hatred of President Bashar Assad’s regime. One figure based in Turkey, for example, used to provide regular payments to three Free Syrian Army (FSA) members to buy weapons and smuggle them into Syria. Two of them were injured in one attempt and their feet had to be amputated. But when their colleague asked for funds to pay for their treatment, this figure refused, saying his group’s aid was confined to supplying arms, and they should seek the help of some humanitarian organization.

They stress that it is not enough to arm the revolutionaries, and that food and medical aid are vital to sustain the social base that supports them.

They also emphasize that vast numbers of people have been rounded up by the authorities – they estimate that more than 100,000 are being held in detention – and wonder why high-profile political figures and groups do not highlight this issue and demand their immediate release.

Al-Radeef’s leaders also take a dim view of Western and Arab economic sanctions against Syria, arguing that they damage the revolution by hurting ordinary people, but have no impact on the regime, “When the price of a kilo of rice reaches $100,” says Abu Abd al-Rahman, “Bashar will still be able to feed it to his son, but the people will not.”

Despite its focus on relief, he says the movement now has several thousand fighters in its armed wing, organized into various companies and brigades. He stresses that the fighters answer to the movement’s leadership council, and it is therefore in a position to lead a much-needed dialogue between the various factions on the ground.

Unrecognized Opposition

Al-Radeef is one of several opposition movements that have emerged and acquired powerful influence on the ground in Syria while barely attracting any media attention – in stark contrast to the high-profile opposition figures and spokespeople who wield little actual influence.

Its founders included professionals and business people, including physicians, lawyers, small merchants and owners of large enterprises. Many were jailed after joining the ranks of the revolution. Those still free remain active in supporting the fighters with money, arms, food, medical supplies and whatever other aid they can secure.

The group is strongly critical of foreign-backed exile politicians, who they say present themselves as alternatives to the regime despite having lived outside the country for decades. They view their foreign sponsors as constraining their freedom to make policy, unlike the opposition activists inside the country who “live the revolution and smell the blood that is shed.”

A political document produced by al-Radeef on “Syria in the post-Assad stage” stressed the need for a “rational and realistic dialogue” between all factions involved in the revolution in order to agree on a unified stance against the regime, which it said would be a valuable political gain. It charged that foreign meddling has caused additional problems for the revolution, by taking decisions on its behalf and using it as a bargaining-chip in negotiations with the regime itself.

Al-Radeef maintains that history shows that revolutions only ever succeed when armed insurrection is combined with political action. Taking up arms is a means of helping secure political conditions for a successful dialogue that advances the revolution’s interests and fulfills its goals. Accordingly, they see it as their duty to prevent further bargaining in the revolution, and to win back its ability to chart its own course.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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