In more than a year of fighting, there have been so many conflicting things written about the Free Syrian Army (FSA). What started as a peaceful protest has become an armed struggle against the military might of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
The aim of our trip was to see FSA up close, and work out exactly who they are and what they want.
I can’t reveal how we got into Syria. We agreed not to divulge any details. Routes into the country are not only used by journalists, they are a humanitarian lifeline. But I can tell you it was difficult, and very dangerous process, involving considerable risk.
We had arranged to travel to Al Qusayr, an important strategic town, close to Lebanon.
It is less than 30km from Homs, and many of its fighters were involved in the battles when the forces of regime launched their major offensive in the province three months ago.
Entering Al Qusayr, we found a town completely divided. I have never been to any like it before. It is a small place – which now is a patchwork of multiple frontlines. About half of the territory of town, which before the start of the uprising had a population of 40,000, is in the hands of the opposition.
The government forces hold the other half – including the municipal headquarters and the town’s main hospital. Both have been turned into military bases.
Local people can sometimes cross the frontlines, and the shaky ceasefire has made life just a little easier for people that have been suffering during the fourteen months of violence and turmoil.
No room for extremists
Inside their parts of the town, the Free Syria Army can be seen everywhere.
There are two separate brigades operating in al Qusayr – and they clearly demonstrate the two distinct wings of the FSA that exist across the country.
The 77 Brigade is a unit made up almost entirely of former regime soldiers. In the town they are under the command of a captain who used to head an elite commando unit in the national army. He brought many of his men, and their weapons with him, when he defected.
They are very well-trained and well disciplined. After morning prayers, they fall in on the parade ground for drill, and a work out.
When they took us to frontline areas, they were alert and capable. They looked far more professional than the majority of units that I saw when I spent months reporting from Libya last year.
The other unit in Al Qusayr, the al-Farouq brigade, includes many more civilian volunteers. Many don’t wear uniform, and some cover their faces with the keffiyeh, or arabic scarf. We were told some of these fighters had fought in Iraq. But their commanders insisted there was no room for extremists. Those in charge of the al-Farouq were also mostly former regime defectors.
It was clearly the two brigades in the town worked separately – but with co-ordination, and under the same overall commander.
I asked to meet him and discovered that he has a remarkable story. I can’t give you his name. He is a Colonel. And technically he is still a member of Syria’s national army. He has not yet come out publicly to defect.
It means the man leading all the opposition forces in and around the town is an officer that the Assad government believes is still on its side.
‘FSA hopelessly outgunned’
Like all the FSA commanders I spoke to, the Colonel does not believe the UN ceasefire will last much longer.
“The situation in this city is bad, it is getting worse. Ceasefire is violated by the regime’s army on daily basis. Snipers are stationed on top of high buildings. They are firing at any moving person, no matter how he is dressed, military or civilian, men or women,” the Colonel said.
“Tanks are always repositioning. About a week ago, more than 15 tanks have violated the ceasefire in an attempt by the regime to cut off the city and divided into sectors.
“I believe Kofi Anan’s plan is not viable it is throttled at birth the regime is only trying to buy more time. This regime is deceitful it is murderous.”
The FSA maintain they are scrupulously observing the ceasefire. But it was clear they are also using it to their advantage. They are using the time they have to train and re-supply their forces, and to recce and probe their enemy’s defences.
We travelled with them to the frontline positions inside the town, and in the poppy fields and apple orchards that surround it.
We got as close as we could in order to see the Syrian army fortifications. They have mortars, tanks, and heavy guns.
By comparison, the FSA have small arms and a handful of rocket propelled grenades. They only possess a handful of heavier guns, and one tank that a soldier used to drive away, while defecting.
Most of their weapons originally came from the Assad army stocks, or were bought on the black market in neighbouring countries.
It is clear the FSA is hopelessly outgunned.
One commander in the al-Farouq brigade, a lieutenant colonel who goes by the name of Abu Arab, told me he feared that if the UN plan fails, there will be offensive by government troops to retake the town.
“It is likely. The regime is fighting with full army. We are a small number of defecting officers and soldiers. It is very likely they will destroy us.
“We are willing to sacrifice our lives for this town, we are ready to fight with stones, sticks or rifles.”
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