The four men had journeyed for seven hours by bus from the southern Turkish city of Antakya for a meeting they considered crucial. It was about to take place on the patio of a three-star hotel in the southeastern Turkish city of Urfa. The men — two young Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders from Raqqa province in eastern Syria, a prominent civilian activist from the area and an FSA military adviser from the outskirts of Aleppo — were concerned with just one thing: which rebel group would control the border crossing of Tal Abyad, which had been taken less than two weeks earlier, on Sept. 19, from the forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar Assad.
In the hotel patio were more than a dozen men, representatives of various rebel groups operating in Raqqa province, drinking water and milling about several tables organized into a long row. The four warmly greeted those they knew, but there were many they clearly did not. It was 8:45 p.m. The bordercrossing was a priority, but so too was dinner. Most of the group broke awayand headed to a nearby restaurant. The four men waited on the patio, along with several others, including a man named Abu Ahmad, who had participated in the fight for Tal Abyad.
All it took was one question for the night’s schedule to be upended. “Who is now in control of the border post?” the civilian activist, Mohammad, asked Abu Ahmad. “The Farouq Brigades,” Abu Ahmad said, referring to the one of the largest, best organized and most well-known of Syria’s many military brigades.
Mohammad and his three companions exchanged exasperated glances.“Why did you all cede control to them? When did this happen? They aren’t even from here!” Mohammad said.
“We don’t want problems between revolutionaries now,” Abu Ahmad replied. “We don’t want to take them on. They said they are in control.”
And with that, just minutes after they arrived, the four men abruptly got up and left. There was nothing to discuss, they decided, giventhat the post was in the Farouq’s hands. “We as the sons of the area don’t want anyone to control the fate of our area,” Mohammad said. “The crossing is for everyone, for all the brigades that participated in its liberation, not for one group of outsiders.”
The Farouq Brigades emerged from the central city of Homs and nearby Rastan just months into the now 18-month Syrian uprising. In the period since, operating under the FSA umbrella, they have formed units across the country, from Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border to the northern region bordering Turkey. According to some of their leaders, they comprise a force of 20,000 fighters. The brigades take the name Farouq from Omar bin al-Khatab, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and, historically, the second Caliph.
The brigades are both a source of envy and pride among the rebels. Dressed in their matching military fatigues emblazoned with the brigade’s black insignia, they look like a professional fighting force, unlike the many hodgepodge groups in their mismatched items of military and civilian clothing. The Farouq’s slick media operation ensures that their exploits are widely known. Their videos are quickly uploaded onto YouTube, along with the group’s statements. Most importantly, their support — both in terms of money and weapons — is strong and consistent.
As the Syrian uprising grinds on, rivalries between the disparate rebel groups have come more sharply into focus. There has always been competition for weapons, money and influence, but now they seem to be angling to take each other on — even before their common enemy of President Basharal-Assad falls. The potential for warlordism is great, and worrisome.
The Free Syrian Army was never more than an umbrella term that provided political cover for the loose franchise of defectors and armed civilians fighting Assad’s regime. It meant the difference between being perceived as part of a rebel army or a group of independent militias. New groups, or kataeb, continue to proliferate even amid efforts to unite the existing ones. Some of these kataeb consist of just 10 people. A large number of kataeb are also unaffiliated with the FSA, particularly those that exhibit varying shades of Islamist hues.
Farouq al-Shemal (or the Northern Farouq), in particular, has drawn the ire of other FSA groups operating near the Turkish border, mainly because it controls two key border posts, Bab al-Hawa (near the Turkish city of Reyhanli) which was seized in clashes in mid-July, and Tal Abyad (near the Turkish city of Akçakale).
All in all, there are seven main border posts on the Turkish-Syrian frontier, and a smattering of smaller ones. Four are in the hands of rebelsunder the FSA umbrella. Of the other two posts, Jrablous is controlled by Liwa al-Tawheed, an Islamist coalition of military groups that is strongest in Aleppo and its surroundings; Bab al-Salam is controlled by the Northern Storm brigade, led by Ammar Dadikhi, a smuggler who kidnapped 11 Lebanese men months ago whom he claimed were operatives of the Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim group Hizballah but whom Beirut insists are religious pilgrims.
The border post at Tal Abyad remains closed and has continued tocome under heavy shelling from the Syrian army since regime forces were ousted from it and the town of the same name. Depending on who you talk to, the border post was liberated by two groups (Farouq and Ghoraba al-Sham ) or a combination of seven or eight groups, or two dozen.
Mohammad al-Daher, better known as Abu Azzam, is the local Farouq leader in charge. He says the Farouq has no intention of maintaining control of the crossing, and that it is in talks to establish a civilian committee comprised of representatives from the city of Raqqa and former employees at the post. “We’re going to leave just a few members of the Farouq for the security of the crossing and start working toward Raqqa,” he says, referring to the city which remains firmly in the regime’s hands.
Before taking Tal Abyad, Abu Azzam was in charge of the Bab al-Hawa crossing hundreds of kilometers away. (His colleague, Abu Ali Thaier, has assumed his role.) The Farouq does not take customs duties at the border, unlike Liwa al-Tawheed at Jrablous. There was no battle for Jrablous which fell in mid-July. The customs officers simply fled. While others are vying to snatch control of border posts from the Farouq, Liwa al-Tawheed doesn’t face the same opposition, mainly it seems, because military units from Jrablous control it.
“It’s just like before,” says Sheikh Ahmad Mustafa, the head of the Revolutionary Council in Jrablous which incorporates all of the kataeb in the town as well as the revolutionary police. “Travelers with a passport pay 500 [Syrian pounds or about $7.50]. A private vehicle, 2,000, a public vehicle 1,000.” The sheikh, a soft-spoken 36-year-old who had served as the imam in the town’s mosque since 1997, doesn’t hesitate to say what the money is used for: “We buy weapons with it.”
In a home on the outskirts of Raqqa city, meanwhile, a group of local brigade leaders were discussing the Farouq and Tal Abyad. “The border posts are like gold,” says one. “If somebody wants to send you weapons, and [the Farouq] control all the border posts, can they do it except under the Farouq’s conditions? How will you get weapons in? Does anyone cement their door closed?”
Abu Azzam, the Farouq leader, dispels the fears, as well as allegations that the Farouq is involved in the smuggling of diesel, cement and even hashish along the border. It’s all a media campaign, he says, because “we don’t have good relations with the Muslim Brothers, and the Muslim Brothersdominate the media and its channels.”
The 33-year-old native of Raqqa says the crossings are a key part of the Farouq’s strategy to help carve out a liberated zone in northern Syria. “Naturally, we must work on the crossings, liberate them. We can’t leave areas behind us that are not liberated as we push forward.” At the same time, the Farouq continues to gain men and strength. Some 17 local military units from Raqqaprovince joined the Farouq in the past few days, swelling its numbers at thecrossing to about 500. The men were key for any push on Raqqa city, Abu Azzam said.
As he spoke, within the span of 10 minutes, three Syrian regime shells landed less than 50 meters away from where we sat, in the semi-destroyed main building at the crossing, kicking up thick plumes of grayish-black smoke. The first and second floors of the building have partially collapsed, pancaked atop a ground floor office that now functions as the Farouq’s headquarters. The shelling was coming from the nearest regime outpost, “it’s 17,850 meters away to be exact,” Abu Azzam said.
The Farouq also faces opposition from rebels at Bab al-Hawa. It has already disposed of one of its rivals there, a Syrian Islamist extremist called Abu Mohamad al-Absi, who led a group of foreign jihadis who at one point controlled one of Bab al-Hawa’s two gates. Absi was kidnapped and killed in early September. The Jihadis are still waiting for the Farouq to hand over the 16 men who were reportedly involved in Absi’s murder.
“They can wait,” Abu Azzam says. “The man made many mistakes. He raised the al-Qaeda flag and Al-Qaeda is not welcomed by us in the country. … We do not want to raise our weapons against anyone who is also fighting theregime, but when these people forget about fighting the regime and start preparing armed groups with a view to what comes after the regime, this is unacceptable. If these people want to raise their weapons against us, we have the right to defend ourselves.” The Jihadis have now retreated to a small pocket inside the Bab al-Hawa outpost.
But the Farouq also faces some opposition from more secular forces, like General Mithqal al-Bateesh, a defector from Rastan who last week announced the creation of a joint command of all revolutionary military councils inside Syria. Bateesh, who holds court in a school in the Syrian village of Atme just across the Turkish border not far from Bab al-Hawa, says the crossing should be under civilian control and have a token military presence for security. “This is a transitional period. We want to bring interior security forces, police. We can’t have civilians there now because it’s still unsafe, still under threat from the regime, but once civilians take control, there will be no Farouq or anyone else,” he said. Bateesh said he was talking to the Farouq about it ceding control.
Abu Azzam, a burly man with a disarming smile and a neat Salafi-style black beard, smirked when he was asked about the general’s request. “When somebody other than the Farouq liberates an area, then he can make such a request,” he said. “The military councils, whether Colonel Mithqal or anyone else, with all due respect, we would respect them more if they picked up a gun and joined the fight with us. … If he or anyone else like him came here and told me that I must hand over the position that I liberated, I will ask him ‘by what right?’ We are the ones who spilt our blood here, who are sleeping under artillery bombardments.”