Armed defenders of Syria’s revolution

Nir Rosen discusses instances of armed clashes between Syrian army defectors and state security forces.

syrian teen protesters
It is still unknown whether Syria’s peaceful protesters will decide to arm themselves against the regime [Reuters]

Editor’s noteAl Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen spent seven weeks travelling throughout Syria with unique access to all sides. He visited Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo to explore the uprising and growing internal conflict. In the second article of his series he meets with leaders of the armed opposition in Homs. Names of some of the indivduals quoted have been changed to protect their identities. 

While outsiders debate when or if the Syrian opposition will turn to arms, on the ground it is clear that elements of the opposition have used violence against the security forces from early in the uprising in response to the regime’s harsh crackdown.

Over a period of seven weeks, from July to September, I spent time among the many factions in the strugle for Syria. It is a conflict fought on the streets and in the media. For the most part, unarmed opposition activists seeking the overthrow of the regime have used demonstrations as their guerrilla tactic. The regime has succeeded in containing or suppressing the opposition, limiting the times and places they can demonstrate. The opposition has failed to expand its constituency outside the Sunni majority or even to win over the Sunni bourgeois of Damascus and Aleppo. Sectarian hatred grows on both sides, leading to early signs of communal violence. At the same time, a more professional and organised armed opposition movement has emerged.

Hit and run

Spend enough time in Homs and you will be confronted with the battles between security forces and their armed opponents. On July 21 Syrian security forces clashed with opposition fighters in the city’s Bab Assiba neighbourhood.

The following day I met several members of state security. They were saddened by the loss of a captain in the Ministry of Interior’s SWAT unit – he had been shot in the neck just above his vest. I was told that the day before, opposition fighters had used a rocket propelled grenade in Ashiri on the outskirts of Homs. One State security man called Shaaban complained that Bab Assiba had become its own state. The day before, he had taken part in heavy fighting there and helped transport 35 wounded soldiers out. “It was like a wedding,” he laughed as he described the shooting. 

Some wore paramilitary style vests and, in the darkness, I made out what looked like an M16 rifle.

– Nir Rosen, journalist

Some attacks resemble a nascent insurgency. The next day, a train from Aleppo was derailed nearby in Qizhi. Official reports said the conductor was killed, and his assistant along with many of the 480 passengers were injured. I drove west out of the city and then along a canal to the site of the train crash. The tracks on a small bridge had clearly been removed and the train had been knocked off the tracks with some of the carriages turned over on their side, and the conductor’s carriage partially burned. It seemed real enough, though it was odd that only the conductor had been killed. Several days later, an oil-pipeline was blown up outside Homs.

Caught in the line of fire

On August 17, pro-regime gunmen stood outside the Fatima Mosque in the Waer neighbourhood of Homs and shot into it, killing three men. They then attacked an internet cafe used by the opposition to send films of demonstrations to the outside media. Residents of Waer blamed Shias from the nearby area of Mazraa. I drove over to Waer with a friend. We were stopped by a local Sunni man with a pistol standing by a roadblock.

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade came and shot at them.

– Nir Rosen, journalist

He recognised my friend and let us pass. When we got to the hospital, heavy automatic gunfire erupted and we raced in for safety. During a lull in the shooting we tried to leave, and saw a group of armed local men emerging. Some wore paramilitary style vests and, in the darkness, I made out what looked like an M16 rifle.

That night back in my hotel I was kept up for hours by an ongoing loud gun battle involving rifles and heavy machine guns.

Five days later, on August 22, a United Nations delegation assessing whether there was a humanitarian crisis in Syria visited Homs. Desperate opposition supporters staging a demonstration at Clock Square tried to stop them only to be met by security forces with clubs. An April attempt to stage a sit-in at Clock Square ended in a night time massacre by security forces determined to prevent a permanent opposition presence, such as existed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Sanaa’s Change Square.

On August 22, when security forces tried to disperse them, demonstrators responded by throwing stones. “They turned savage on us,” said an opposition leader who was present. “Clock Square is a red line for them, so security came and shot at us. First they shot into the air. It hit the glass and the walls. We stayed so they stayed. Then the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade came and shot at them.”

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade is a unit of several hundred Syrian army officers and soldiers who defected and now stage attacks against Syrian security forces. They are based in Homs and have the support of most local opponents of the regime, who view them as defenders of demonstrations.

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade did not announce that it had participated in the events of August 22, but locals still credited it. Security forces killed several demonstrators, and armed opposition members killed at least two security forces. One policeman was shot and an alleged opposition sniper killed a colonel in the army called Ali Nidal Hassan. “Ali Hassan died because of the UN delegation,” lamented the general who commanded the unit he was attached to, claiming attackers from Rastan had used sniper rifles.

The general said Security forces had intercepted phone calls discussing an operation in the area of the UN mission. He claimed he placed well trained soldiers on rooftops but somehow opposition snipers knew in advance. There was an exchange of fire and the colonel was shot in the head and killed.

He claimed that leaflets signed by the Khalid bin al Walid “militia” warned the security forces they had 72 hours to leave Homs or 100 kidnapped Alawites would be killed, and Homs would be burned. The opposition was lightly armed, he said, and the most they had were RPGs – which require a skill set to operate that they did not necessarily possess. The general wondered why there had been no decision to “clean up Homs like other cities”. The deadline came and went without major events.

Some factions of the opposition are deciding to pick up arms because peaceful protests have not been successful in ridding the country of Bashar al Assad [Reuters]

The ‘Fire’ Brigade

I was introduced to the Khalid bin al Walid brigade by a senior civilian opposition leader, called Abu Omar, who coordinated with them. In mid-September, members of the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade in Rastan tried to kill Hassan Tlass, a notorious spy for the regime, Abu Omar told me. They attacked Tlass’ car and then his house. During the attack, the men accidentally killed his 15 year-old-son Raed. They captured thirteen Kalashnikovs from his house, which Abu Omar described as a base for the regime’s spies in Rastan. The father fled the city and most other spies did the same. The regime released this video of Hassan Tlass.

In the past, Hassan had taken bribes to get people jobs with the government and he extorted from locals, getting them in trouble with the regime and then demanding money in return for solving the problems he created for them.

Since the uprising began, many people had been killed or arrested because of him, Abu Omar told me. The next day, the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade killed three members of the security forces in an ambush on the highway from Rastan to Homs. The slain men were Abass Adib al Yusuf, who they claimed was a shabih, or pro-regime militiaman, first lieutenant Baha’ Masir Khadur, and sergeant Osama Ali Ibrahim.

On September 14th, Syrian television aired an interview with the captured defector lieutenant colonel Hussein Harmoush, who had first announced his defection in early June. It alleged that he was captured in Turkey in an intelligence operation, but two reliable security sources confirmed that he had in fact been captured in the northern governorate of Idlib, where Harmoush commanded military defectors. 

The opposition in Syria have been fired on by security forces for uploading videos of the protests [Reuters]

“Harmoush was not an easy going guy,” Abu Omar said, and even when he was still in the service he had alienated many colleagues because of his difficult personality. Many of his fellow defectors in Idlib had left him as a result of personal disagreements. “He became almost alone and not covered, that’s what made his capture easy for this government,” Abu Omar told me. “You can feel he has been forced to say most of the speech,” said Abu Omar. He was sceptical of the claims that various Islamists and a long list of exile opposition leaders had tried to coordinate with Harmoush.

If the goal of airing the forced confession was to discourage further defections, it failed. On Friday September 23, a soldier in Rastan publicly defected in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators after the noon prayers. Earlier that morning, armed defectors were reported to have clashed with security forces in the town of Zabadani, on the anti-Lebanon mountain range near Damascus.

Also on that day in Tel Bissah, near Rastan, fifteen defectors clashed with security forces after two civilians were killed. One day earlier, the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade conducted a successful operation. A man in Tel Bissah, who was wanted by security forces, knew that they would be searching for him by looking for his car. He asked a friend to drive the car into Tel Bissah for him. Security forces at a checkpoint confiscated it anyway. The car was then used by a colonel and two other officers from security. Defecting officers and soldiers attacked the car with rifles and killed all three men inside at 5 PM on the highway, nine kilometres north of Homs.

The effectiveness of such small scale hit-and-run attacks is not clear. Opposition members feel they have been pushed to violence by a brutal regime that shows itself incapable of or unwilling to fulfill its promises of reform. However, this level of opposition violence cannot overthrow the regime. It does allow the regime to justify its narrative of fighting armed groups. In addition, it allows foreign backers of the regime, such as Russia, to justify their intransigent support for it. Insiders in the Russian foreign ministry maintain that Syria is in a civil war, with two sides fighting, and not just a government killing unarmed demonstrators. Instead the Russians maintain that both sides provoke each other and respond with violence.

Rastan saw the largest demonstrations in Syria on Friday September 23, with crowds in the tens of thousands. “Tel Bissah and Rastan are a headache for the government,” Abu Omar said. The regime may be trying to suppress the recalcitrant towns. As of Monday September 26, Rastan and Tel Bisah were allegedly surrounded by about two hundred armoured personnel carriers and tanks, and Tel Bisah was besieged. “They are in a big prison,” said Abu Omar. Security forces had positioned themselves in west Rastan, Kaseer, Tel Bisah, Farhaneh – just south east of Rastan – as well as Derful and Zaafaraneh. As a result, Rastan was now surrounded from every direction. I reached Abu Omar briefly on Tuesday. “Rastan is a warzone,” he said, “anyone moving is a target.”

What may have also provoked security forces was a significant victory for the defecting officers. In late September, opposition fighters from Homs captured a Syrian Army colonel. The colonel is an Alawite originally from the area of Qardaha, the town in Latakia from where the Assad family originates, and indeed is a distant relative of the president. The opposition fighters hoped to exchange him for their own captured officers, including Hussein Harmoush. The capture was also confirmed by a source in the security forces.

You can follow Nir Rosen on Twitter @nirrosen

Source: Al Jazeera