An Urgent Effort To Organize Syria's Rebels

Members of the group Hamza Abdualmuttalib trained this week near the Syrian city of Aleppo. i i

Members of the group Hamza Abdualmuttalib trained this week near the Syrian city of Aleppo. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
Members of the group Hamza Abdualmuttalib trained this week near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Members of the group Hamza Abdualmuttalib trained this week near the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

The battle for Syria appears to have reached a decisive stage. Tanks are on the streets of Damascus as civilians flee the city, and rebels have seized outposts on the borders with Turkey and Iraq.

The opposition has shown a surprising military capability over the past few days. As fighting intensifies in the Syrian capital, there's an urgent push under way to organize the rebel force.

Lt. Gen. Faiz Amro, speaking by phone from a camp on the Turkish border for top Syrian military defectors, says there's been a shakeup in the command of the Free Syrian Army. He says 20 senior officers have formed a new military council.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has become a dominant force in Syria's fragmented opposition, agrees that a military reorganization is needed now.

"What's important is that the people are talking to each other," says Molhelm al-Drobi is a member of the Brotherhood's leadership. "Outside moderators are trying to play [a] role to unify the officers under one umbrella."

Rebel commanders confirm unity talks have accelerated during the past few days, and many say a unified command is crucial.

One rebel, Abu Amar, says the Free Syrian Army has been an army in name only, expressing the frustration many fighters inside Syria have with officers outside. "We don't take any order from them, we don't listen to them, and actually we don't have any real communication with them," he says.

An Attempt to Fight Together

A barely furnished apartment in southern Turkey serves as headquarters for a brigade fighting in a province on Syria's northern border. Some fighters sleep draped over couches; others watch the news, drink sweet tea and smoke. This brigade began with local army defectors and civilians who sold land, cars, houses — anything of value — to buy weapons.

Nidal Dura Mohammed, part of the brigade's leadership, echoes the call for a new command.

"We need our officers to take their correct places in the revolution," he says, because the regime still hasn't fallen yet.

He says there's a tough fight ahead. Many worry there will also be chaos.

Concerns Of Infighting

Mohammed Fiso is the logistics chief for the Farouk Brigade, one of the most respected rebels groups. It now controls the town of Rastan in central Syria. "We are afraid that after the fall of the regime, we will enter a civil war," he says through an interpreter.

It is a widespread fear that the hundreds of groups fighting the regime will turn on each other in a struggle for power. Fiso supports some military authority to disarm the militias once President Bashar Assad's regime has been ousted.

"So the idea is that to avoid different groups fighting other groups, they should all give back their weapons once the regime has fallen," Fiso says.

That will be difficult. Anyone can become a rebel — all it takes is money. And not all of them serve under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. There are al-Qaida-style radicals, conservative Muslims called Salafis who get support from private Arab donors in the Gulf. The Muslim Brotherhood also funds brigades, and there are local secular groups. Some brigades accept only army defectors and impose strict military discipline.

Abu Bashar is a logistics chief for one brigade of defectors. His financial backers — he refuses to identify them — insist he keep track of every bullet, registering the serial numbers of all the smuggled arms.

"Once a week, they get a document, a columned Excel sheet with the military operation carried out and the type of weapons that were bought," he says through an interpreter.

Many of the rebel groups follow the same procedures to account for the weapons once the regime falls. But with so many weapons now in Syria, he says, there is trouble ahead.

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