Wadi Khaled: The Free Syrian Army Base in Lebanon (II)

Everyone else listens as the man in the balaclava speaks. He introduces himself as Omran, and is evidently the commander. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The second part of Al-Akhbar’s exclusive series on the Free Syrian Army in Lebanon delves into the organization’s shaky command structures, casualty smuggling, and political convictions.

Part II: One Mission, Many Loyalties

Members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) active in northeastern Lebanon belong to a number of distinct groups.

Each controls its own cross-border access routes. They do deals with local smugglers to help them bring wounded people into Lebanon, and to buy weapons and take them into Syria.

They also enjoy the support of powerful political forces in the areas where they operate, as well as popular backing bolstered by ties of kinship and sectarian solidarity.

Al-Akhbar met with the officers and men of three of these groups.

Though united in their commitment to supporting the “Syrian revolution” by any means, they rival each other for control and influence, and contact between these group’s commanders is minimal. They find fault in each others’ performance, and trade charges of exploiting the “revolution” for personal gain.

Al-Dhaher Bibars Brigade

I am taken to meet the largest of the three in a convoy of two cars and three motorcycles, each carrying three people. We struggle to negotiate the rough terrain and after a lengthy drive pull up at a house in one of the hamlets in Wadi Khaled.

At the entrance, my 20-odd companions separate. Through a door to the right, a kerosene lamp illuminates a large reception area where at least 30 people are seated.

They get up to greet us. Most are bearded, and aged between 20 and 40. One of them produces a the new flag adopted by the uprising and tapes it to the wall to prepare for filming. A man in a balaclava gets up and stands in front of it, and begins the announcement: “We are members of the Free Army. We are under the command of Col Riyadh al-Asaad.”

This group calls itself the al-Dhaher Bibars Brigade, after the 13th century Mameluke Sultan who helped defeat the Crusaders on the Syrian coast. Many of the FSA’s 12 reported brigades are similarly named after historic Muslim military commanders, or bear religious titles such as the Allahu Akbar Brigade. Spokesmen have denied, however, that this implies any Islamist ideological bent or Sunni sectarian bias.

The number of men attached to this particular unit varies, depending on the tasks it is allocated. At different times, it can be as high as 100 or as low as 10.

Everyone else listens as the man in the balaclava speaks. He introduces himself as Omran, and is evidently the commander.

“Our reasons for being in Lebanon are not military,” he explains. “Our job is confined to providing logistical support.”

But the group does “from time to time” carry out operations against targets inside Syria. They only possess light weapons – Kalashnikovs, other automatic rifles, hand grenades, and rocket-propelled grenades. But these are “sufficient to wage guerrilla warfare.”

Omran says that the group’s main job is to bring people who have been injured in Syria over the border into Lebanon for treatment. They use mountain bikes to cross the rough terrain “but sometimes we carry them on our backs.”

About a month ago, they transported 11 wounded FSA soldiers this way. “Three of them died on the way because of the long and difficult journey.”

As for smuggling weapons, Omran says, “there has been less of that in recent times.” He denies that they buy weapons from smugglers, however, as other members of the group had acknowledged. He insists that the FSA purchases its arms “from the regular army itself, in Syria.”

Omran says the Syrian army has tightened its control along the border and strewn it with landmines. However, his group was joined by three sappers who defected from a Syrian army engineers unit. They managed to clear enough of them to create a passage which could be safely crossed, and then replanted them along routes used by “Assad’s brigades.”

Omran says planting mines is easy, as his men keep a close watch on the movements and timing of Syrian army patrols and know how to evade them.

Before the three sappers defected, Omran’s group employed a local Lebanese man for the job.

He first volunteered to help them defuse a land-mine they had discovered, but when they sought his help with others, he demanded payment. He then offered to help for free, on condition he could keep the mines. But the FSA group wanted to re-plant them. Eventually, a deal was arrived at: He would re-fuse any mines defused by the FSA men without payment, but could keep any which he defused himself. Apparently, a single landmine fetches about US$400. This Lebanese man is said to have acquired about 100 of them.

The FSA itself is reported to have about 100 Lebanese members, many hailing from border areas where ties with villages across the border in Syria have always been close. They are said to include the four Lebanese who were reported killed on January 29 in an army ambush near the Syrian town of Tal Kalakh.

Omran acknowledges that all members of his group are Sunnis, but stresses his commitment to the “unity of the Syrian people.” He points out that there are Sunni officials in the regime too. “We will hold all who have blood on their hands to account. We will exempt nobody, Sunni or Alawi,” he says.

He is confident that time is not on the regime’s side. “Every day of steadfastness is like a nail in the coffin of the regime,” he says. “But however long it survives, we will never lay down our arms. If we don’t protect our people, who will? The Arab League and its protocols? The Arab states which watch the Syrian people being killed daily on TV without lifting a finger?”

The Lebanese government is a particular object of Omran’s derision, because of “its submission to Hezbollah, which in turn is a stooge of the Syrian regime,” he says.

“Therefore, we will have no relations with that party after the downfall of the regime, unless it abandons its policies and its racism and sectarianism.” How, he wonders, “can Hezbollah be Lebanese when its loyalty is solely to Iran thousands of kilometers away?”

He continues: “Military units from Hezbollah, the [Iraqi] Mahdi Army, and the Iranians are taking part in the massacres in Syria. Tens of Hezbollah fighters and Iranians were killed in Deraa, and their pictures were shown on satellite channels.”

What is his evidence for these revelations? “Their accents and appearances give them away. The Iranians speak broken Arabic and don’t carry ID documents,” he explains. And the Hezbollah fighters? “Any Syrian can tell a Lebanese from his looks.”

He goes on to reveal the FSA itself is holding two Hezbollah fighters captive, one of them from the Zuaiter family.

The Casualty Smugglers

A second group of FSA fighters in Lebanon comprises between 30 and 40 armed men, led by a major who defected from the Syrian army, and introduces himself only as Abu Samer.

He also stresses that his group’s main function is to transport wounded people into Lebanon, though members quietly acknowledge that they also take weapons the other way.

“I’m a casualty smuggler,” quips Abu Samer. They bring the injured across to Arsal and Wadi Khaled, and then to hospitals elsewhere in northern Lebanon, such as Halba, Qubayyat and Tripoli. Most of them are FSA fighters who would not be able to use the legal border crossings.

Abu Samer says his group also takes medical supplies to Syria, such as anesthetics and bags of blood. But they have to be fully-equipped militarily, in case they encounter an ambush and are forced to engage in combat.

The injured are usually carried across the border, his men taking turns to lift them. He will not discuss the routes he uses, “because if I did, they’d be littered with landmines the next day.”

He disapproves when asked how many injured people his group has brought in. “You should ask the question in another way,” he replies. “How many of the injured people you carried died on the way? How many were blown up by mines?” He says tens of his charges bled to death in the mountains and did not make it into Lebanon alive.

Abu Samer’s group is highly security conscious. None of the members reveal their names, or even assumed ones. One of them says they change their mobile phone numbers every ten days to avoid having their calls intercepted by the security forces.

Rivalries

The third FSA group I encountered concentrates on smuggling weapons, cameras, and medical equipment into Syria, and occasionally carries out military operations.

It is led by a former captain in the Syrian army, who uses the assumed name Ahmad. He says that he defected after refusing to fire at peaceful protesters, and made sure to bring his family over to Lebanon so they would not be targeted in revenge.

He speaks of how he and Captain Hussein Harmoush collaborated with al-Asaad in establishing the FSA “whose doctrine is based on protecting the homeland and the people, not on protecting individuals.”

He speaks at length about the regime’s brutality, including “the atrocities committed against citizens by the regime’s shabiha, who rape and dismember women, as happened to Zainab al-Husni.” He appears unaware that Husni, who’s supposedly raped and mutilated corpse was shown on some satellite TV channels some months ago, later appeared on Syrian state TV, alive and well.

The conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Syria. I can only hear one side. “The man who is injured is named Khaled al-Aswad...Thirteen people from intelligence, air force intelligence, came in to carry out the operation...They took him to the military hospital...He’s there now.” He listens for a while, then continues: “He turned out to be a shabiha and an agent of the regime.”

They are clearly discussing the incident on January 27 in which three Lebanese were killed while smuggling weapons into Syria.

While the officers and men of all three FSA groups all stress they they are committed to the revolution and freedom, differences and rivalries between them appear acute.

They seem to be more personal in nature than anything else.

For example, the commander of one group may whisper that the leader of another “steals money that is donated to help Syrian refugees,” or sells supplies he is sent “on the pretext of raising cash to buy medicine or arms.”

One of them goes further, warning that the head of another group is suspected of being an agent of the regime. Yet the accused privately says the same about his accuser. The commander alleged to have stolen funds, for his part, calls the one who made the allegation a “liar and fabricator.”

While such charges fly, and the head of each groups liaises directly with the FSA command in Turkey or inside Syria, one officer affirms: “We need to have single a leader to refer to for coordination, so as to protect the revolution from infiltrators and not lose our way.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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