Syria: National Defense Forces at Forefront of Qusayr Fighting
By: Marah Mashi
Published Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Backed by local forces, the Syrian army is closing in on the strategic town of Qusayr, which opposition fighters have controlled since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Al-Akhbar toured the villages recently retaken by loyalist forces.
The trip starts at the village of al-Naim. The commander of the National Defense Forces (NDF) has no problem talking openly to the media, nor do his troops evade their cameras.
The soldiers fighting under the NDF banner appear to be the most enthusiastic among the various military formations deployed in the area. Many of them claim to be from the villages around the Assi River near the Lebanese border and have joined the battle to defend their families from the “takfiri” revolution.
The commander rejects that accusation that the NDF is a sectarian militia, pointing out that the troops around him are from the local villages and represent all the sects in the area.
What distinguishes this force from the Syrian army is that the NDF has adopted the guerilla warfare tactics used by the opposition and is not saddled with having to wait for orders from Damascus. He mocks rumors that his men were trained in Iran, dismissing such talk as an attempt to undermine their achievements.
Next stop are the towns of Mount Nabi Mando and Qadesh, a few miles northwest of Qusayr, which have been almost completely destroyed in the fighting. One of the NDF soldiers points to a house that has been levelled and says, “That’s my house, they’ve boobytrapped it.”
We move on to Ayn al-Tannur and arrive at what one soldier refers to as the “officer’s villa,” a house belonging to a retired military officer that served as a base for the opposition. It is clear from the scale of destruction in the area that this is the dividing line between government forces and the opposition in Qusayr.
The villa appears to have only recently been taken over, with the surrounding area and parts of the house still littered with rigged explosives. As soon as the engineering unit defuses some of them, the soldiers empty the house of its large cache of weapons.
Some of the soldiers appear to have a clear Lebanese accent, perhaps confirming opposition claims that Hezbollah fighters are playing a major role in military operations around Qusayr. When asked where they’re from, one says he’s from Zitta and another from al-Burhaniyah, both of which are just inside the Syrian border with Lebanon.
“You are now close to the Lebanese border,” one of the soldiers explains, “most people here speak like I do. It’s different from the way Lebanese talk, it’s the accent of this area.”
We make a quick dash across a sniper zone into the village of Burhaniyah. Some of the soldiers there appear to be from specialized units, until you hear them talking about the intimate details of the area and realize they are natives of these villages.
Most of the houses here are connected to one another by way of tunnels, which the engineering unit immediately started to destroy using explosives. “Our tactics have changed – we are destroying them, so that they cannot make use of them in case they return to the area, as they’ve done elsewhere,” one of the officers explains.
We approach another line of confrontation and come across a small workshop where the opposition made small rockets using fertilizer. In front of it, on a cement wall, someone had written: “Freedom. No Shia After Today.”
We run across another sniper zone situated behind a wall of stones with open gaps in it. A Syrian army tank sits out in the open in a nearby field, with two soldiers moving a hundred meters ahead of it trying to make some headway into enemy territory.
Snipers here are king, with an ability to cover the open fields separating them from the approaching government forces. “Keep your head down,” someone yells from behind. “Why? What’s behind this wall?” I ask. “It’s Qusayr, keep your head down,” the reply comes quickly.
On the way back, one question comes to mind: “When do you expect to enter Qusayr?” One of them says that they are waiting for the order to come from Damascus. It is likely that the military planners in the capital are waiting until their troops reinforce their positions in the villages west of the Assi River before issuing the order.
The recent rocket attacks by the opposition on the Lebanese city of Hermel have raised a lot of questions about Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting around Qusayr.
After this brief survey of the area, one can say that while some of the fighters on the ground have clearly received professional training – thus making them more effective than regular army troops – their familiarity with area’s geography and people suggests that they are not foreign fighters as the opposition would have it.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.