On the front lines of Syria’s guerrilla war

Exclusive account of Sham Falcons, a rebel group waging war against the Assad government from their mountain hideouts.

A member of the armed Syrian opposition group, the Sham Falcons, heads out on a mission in Idlib province [Tracey Shelton/Al Jazeera]

Idlib Province, Syria – Dawn broke over the northern mountains of Jabal al-Zawiya late last month to find a group of anti-government fighters hiding along a ridge line, waiting for their remote-controlled bomb to destroy an army convoy on the road below.

The roughly 100 guerrillas were members of a larger group known as the Sham Falcons. Like many of the hundreds of ad hoc rebel groups that have sprung up across Syria, they are loosely trained but closely knit, and armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, PKT machine guns and a few rocket-propelled grenades.

Like other armed fighting groups, they were drawn from local towns and villages that carried fierce resistance to the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad and claimed to have suffered from its brutality. Like so many Syrians, they decided to fight back.

In the distance, headlights approached. Dozens of government soldiers approached in a procession of pick-up trucks and an armoured infantry vehicle. The night before, the rebels had planted a roadside TNT explosive at a key point on the way to a government position.

As the convoy passed below, the designated triggerman detonated the bomb with a converted garage-door opener. The ensuing blast ripped up a massive section of road, but was detonated too soon to destroy the infantry carrier that was the target of the attack.

Return fire came within seconds. Mortars and gunfire from the pursuing government soldiers filled the mountains as the rebel fighters ran several kilometres to escape.

On this day, the men were lucky. They sustained no injuries, and rebel fighter Hamza Fatalah said the ambush had killed three enemy soldiers. The morning’s bombing was a small victory for the Sham Falcons, but its leaders were realistic.

We are using very simple weapons against the highly sophisticated weapons of the regime,” said Fatalah, a former Syrian army lieutenant who defected at the beginning of the uprising.

Before the revolution many, like Fatalah, worked as police officers or soldiers for the government. Others were students, farmers or taxi drivers. United by the government’s alleged atrocities, Fatalah said they now fight like brothers.

In pockets of resistance across Syria, groups such as these carry out missions against an army equipped with tanks and helicopters. They fight back with homemade bombs, limited weapons and meagre medical supplies. Many of these operations are carried out on foot or on motorbikes, with the occasional pick-up truck concealed beneath trees a safe distance away.

Attack aftermath

After the narrow escape, the men regrouped and returned to their various village bases.

In the village of Shanan, the men from Fatalah’s unit discussed various aspects of the mission and plans for the next one while they sipped tea under the shade of a large fruit tree.

“I’m responsible for planning operations and discussing them with the other fighters,” Fatalah said.

“Before an operation, we first monitor the location and plan the attack, making sure we have a secure withdrawal.”

The Sham Falcons of Jabal al-Zawiya claim to number about 2,000 armed men, broken down into eight 250-man battalions.

Of the 36 villages that form the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the province of Idlib, eight are currently under rebel control. These opposition villages form the core of the Sham Falcon network, bases that control security, conduct checkpoints and carry out missions in the surrounding areas against Assad’s forces.

Most are sniper operations or roadside bombs, the Sham Falcons’ leaders said. Sometimes they launch full-scale attacks on government checkpoints and weapons caches.

“At first, we used our own money to buy hunting rifles,” said Sham Falcon commander Ahmed al-Sheikh.

“Some businessmen began to donate money for weapons, but anyone supporting the revolution was targeted by the regime and many became scared. Now, most of our weapons we capture during operations like this.”

Al-Sheikh said of the weapons and ammunition purchased, the majority is brought from the regime itself. Corrupt officers sell government weapons stocks at inflated prices. Kalashnikov bullets that once sold for $0.40 a piece have risen to $4 each.

“These men are mercenaries,” he said of his suppliers. “Their only belief is in money.”

Rest and recuperation

Back in the village of Shanan, the fighters gathered for lunch on the floor around a spread of falafel, hummus and vegetables. 

The majority of the men are fathers with families living nearby. Since the uprising, their lives now centre around the fight and most of their meals are shared at the base. On any given night, around half of the men sleep at the base with rotating shifts to stand guard and man the radio.

As he dipped bread into a bowl of hummus, unit commander Asad Ibrahim said their meals are basic, but hearty.

“We eat this every day. It gives us fast legs so we can run from the enemy,” he joked.

The following day, that mobility was definitely in order. Government helicopters found the men during a meeting in an area that offered only the feeble cover of olive trees, and strafed them with heavy fire.

Helicopter attacks are frequent in these mountains, the men said. In the neighbouring village of Kafr Ruma, the smoke from air and artillery shelling rose in columns for three days. Al Jazeera witnessed as two helicopters circled the area, the deadly spray of their indiscriminate gunfire echoing in the distance.

Among those killed in the attacks were an eight-year-old boy and his father, who were shot en route to the government hospital, where the man’s wife had just given birth to their second child. In this same hospital, a 15-year-old girl lay in critical condition, injured by tank fire. Village leaders say 80 more were injured in the attacks.

Government crackdowns like these have led many men to leave the army and join the Sham Falcons in their fight to topple the Assad regime.

For Mohmoud Tara, who defected six months ago to the Falcons, it was one scene in particular that convinced him to leave his post in Aleppo.

“We were ordered to shoot the protesters demonstrating at Aleppo University,” he said.

“Most of the time I would shoot in the air, but many of my colleagues would use excessive force, hitting, cursing and humiliating those arrested. They dropped one student from the top of a six-storey building onto the grounds of the university. They continued as if nothing had happened. It was a horrible feeling. I felt pity but I could say nothing or I would be treated like those students.”

Tara soon defected and joined the rebel forces.

Al Shiekh said the goal of the Sham Falcons and other rebel groups operating throughout Syria is simply to protect the Syrian people, to end the bloodshed and insure a fair and democratic political system is installed.

“We want the people of the world to understand us as people, to see our revolution from a human prospective,” said Al Sheikh. “The Syrian people can not turn back. We must fight until victory.”

Follow Tracey Shelton on Twitter: @tracey_shelton

Source: Al Jazeera