Marie-Ève BédardInside Syria
Free Syrian Army an uneasy mix of religious extremes
By Marie-Eve Bedard, CBC News
Posted: Dec 7, 2012 5:32 AM ET
Last Updated: Dec 7, 2012 5:36 PM ET
It's late at night on our first day in Syria when we get the phone call: Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi is willing to meet us, but we have to come right away.
The next day, we are following a group of Syrian rebels to the front. Akaidi is the commander of the makeshift base of operation for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the city of Aleppo. An early defector from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces, Akaidi has just come back from a key victory — the FSA's seizure of Base 46, an important military facility.
While the success is a sign of greater strategic planning for Syria's rebel forces, Akaidi has choice words for foreign governments.
"We're outraged that the so-called civilized world that claims to defend the oppressed people and always talks of combatting dictatorships looks idly by as Syrian blood is shed," he says.
Indeed, while NATO has voted to deploy Patriot missiles on the Turkish border, most foreign governments stop short of fully embracing the FSA.
For the most part, they cannot shake their concerns that by supplying weapons to the FSA, they could aggravate a brutal war that has already claimed approximately 40,000 lives, and that these munitions could fall into the wrong hands — namely religious extremists.
Taken by the rebels two weeks ago, Base 46 was a nerve centre for Syrian government forces, a 12-square-kilometre garrison supplying the cities of Idlib and Aleppo, which have become two major fronts in the rebels' efforts to topple the regime.A group of anti-government militiamen huddle around a fire in the Syrian city of Aleppo. (CBC)
Assad's army and support appear weakened, though one should be careful not to predict his demise too quickly.
Western powers have increased the pressure on Assad and expressed renewed support for the recently formed coalition of opposition forces.
Created in Doha, Qatar, a month ago out of elements from the former Syrian National Council and other opposition groups, the FSA struggles to come up with a formal political structure. It remains a loose alliance, struggling to unite local councils, splinter organizations and divergent opposition groups, as well as secure the loyalties of the various armed units.
Ahead of a Friends of Syria meeting set to take place next week in Marrakesh, Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton declared, "Now that there is a new opposition formed, we are going to be doing what we can to support that opposition."
But western powers are apprehensive about the religious underpinnings of the Free Syrian Army.
A charismatic man, Abu Mohammad commands the Kata ib-Essalam, or peace brigades, a large anti-Assad militia operating in the old city of Aleppo. The majority are Sunni Muslims and are self-proclaimed Islamists. A dozen of his men, all very young and neatly dressed in black combat uniforms, sit in silence at his sides as we converse over sweet tea.
When probed about the FSA and how it operates, he asks, "Do you want the truth or the storyline?"
"The FSA and the coalition is only ink on paper," he says, elaborating that it's more of an image created to present a united front for foreign governments.
Abu Mohammad wants to be clear that he takes orders from no one. Sitting next to him is an animated man named Abu Yasser Nejjar. An engineer who used to work in Assad's government, Nejjar explains the virtues of Islam and Shariah law.
"We have tried secularism under Bashar al-Assad. That is not what the majority of the people want," he says.
Sensing that his audience might doubt that Shariah law provides greater justice and compassion, Nejjar makes a final point. "Today, the secularism you so prize is murdering children in hospitals," he says.
Later, at the siege of a military academy in the town of Faveen, young combatants from Kata ib-Essalam are in a cheerful mood. They've killed some government soldiers who were attempting to escape amidst the fighting, and insist on showing us the blood stains that remain next to a half-empty cup of tea on a rooftop, as well as the bloody vest of a government soldier that they kept as a souvenir.
They tell us that first and foremost, they fight for Allah and his prophet, Mohammed. Then, they fight for Syria.
Abu Muhamdeen, a young father of two from Aleppo, leads the rest of the katiba (or brigade) in chants praising jihad and Allah.
He pauses to express admiration for a fierce group of fellow rebels called Jabhat al-Nusra, a sort of elite commando unit of jihadists supported by al-Qaeda.
Jabhat al-Nusra is made up of fighters from other Muslim countries, many of them veterans of other conflicts. The group has taken up residence in the very heart of Aleppo, in what used to be a nursing school.
The U.S. State Department is reportedly about to add Jabhat al-Nusra to its global list of terrorist organizations.
"[Jabhat al-Nusra] are courageous, pious, well trained and they have weapons and money. They are good men," Abu Muhamdeen says. But he quickly adds that he does not share their extreme views.
Life among the ruins
Ordinary citizens have mostly learned to avoid sniper positions, though dozens cross the wrong alleys every day and end up taking a bullet.
Still, people spill into the streets and go about their business, hoping the government fighter jets constantly flying above will keep on passing and drop their lethal load somewhere else.
Children run around and play to the incessant sound of gunfights. But fear dominates. Citizens fear more attacks, but they also fear expressing themselves.
Quietly, away from our camera, many people in the rebel-held part of Aleppo confide that some FSA members have become as much of a terror as Assad's regime. These rebels have become the de facto law, but a law that's as problematic as the many militias.
As the conflicts drags on, many who had supported the initial uprising almost two years ago are beginning to have regrets.
A delicate man who wishes to be called Mr. Adam says he hopes Bashar al-Assad will soon be a thing of the past, but he knows that "soon" is already too late for his country.
Freedom from one dictatorship could very well mean years of tyranny of violence and chaos with no end in sight. It appears to be a very high price indeed for wanting liberty.
Top News Headlines
- Sopranos star James Gandolfini dies in Italy
- Actor James Gandolfini, best known for his Emmy-winning portrayal of a conflicted New Jersey mob boss in the acclaimed HBO cable television series The Sopranos, has died while vacationing in Rome, Italy, the network said on Wednesday. more »
- Canada buys rare War of 1812 collection for $573K
- The government of Canada was the winning bidder for a large collection of letters, maps and other papers that once belonged to Sir John Sherbrooke, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia who conquered Maine for the British during the War of 1812. The collection sold for $573,000 at auction in London. more »
- Caregiving dads pay steep penalties at work, study says
- Fathers who participate in child rearing and housework are likely to be labeled slackers and "failed men" at work, according to a study spearheaded by researchers at the University of Toronto and Long Island University. Are active dads the norm at your workplace? more »
- Dozens of children seized from Manitoba Mennonite community
- Child welfare authorities have removed all but one child from a small Mennonite community in rural Manitoba. more »
Latest World News Headlines
- Obama renews call to cut nuclear stockpiles
- Summoning the harsh history of this once-divided city, President Barack Obama on Wednesday cautioned the U.S. and Europe against "complacency" brought on by peace, pledging to cut America's deployed nuclear weapons by one-third if Cold War foe Russia does the same. more »
- U.S. tries to allay Karzai anger over Taliban peace talks
- Hopes dimmed for talks aimed at ending the Afghan war when an angry President Hamid Karzai suspended security negotiations with the U.S. and scuttled a peace delegation to the Taliban, sending American officials scrambling to preserve the possibility of dialogue with the militants. . more »
- Genetically-modified crop inventors win World Food Prize
- Three pioneers of plant biotechnology whose work brought the world genetically modified crops have been awarded this year's World Food Prize. more »
- Neil Macdonald: Washington's obsession with leakers
- Julian Assange and Edward Snowden are just the most prominent targets in an all-out legal and propaganda campaign that America's security apparatus is mounting against leakers everywhere, Neil Macdonald writes. more »
- Why Canadians get sick from tap water Jun. 19, 2013 5:11 PM Author Chris Wood believes one of the greatest threats to the health of Canadians dribbles into their homes every day from the kitchen faucet.
- Bob Rae quits as MP in 'very emotional' decision
- Wearing a mask at a riot is now a crime
- 2 men jailed in Dominican wedding fight back in Canada
- B.C. teacher duct-taped students' mouths
- Obesity now recognized as a disease
- Half of First Nations children live in poverty
- Huge ancient city at Angkor Wat revealed by lasers
- Are e-cigarettes safe to puff?
- How open is Ottawa's new 'open data' website?