Syria’s Many Militias: Inside the Chaos of the Anti-Assad Rebellion

The chief of the Syrian rebels' new Military Command faces a tough task not simply coordinating a war against the Assad regime, but controlling the patchwork of militant groups and rebel outfits that make up his fighting force.

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Sarmad Al-Shamali / HANDOUT / REUTERS

A Free Syrian Army fighter looks back while pointing his weapon at a police academy as smoke rises during fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, on the outskirt of Aleppo, March 2, 2013.

In the midst of all this, the latest American initiative is to provide direct non-lethal assistance to rebels, including body armor. But some U.S.-donated body armor is already in Syria, and it’s not what the men on the ground want. “You know how many of Assad’s men we killed who were wearing those?” one fighter in Idlib province said, dismissing the vests and helmets. “The U.S can keep them. We are seeking martyrdom anyway. We need heavy weapons.”

While some rebels have embraced a fervent religiosity, others have opted for criminal activity. Some groups have resorted to kidnapping, sometimes for revenge, but most often to secure money for weapons like anti-aircraft guns. (The 14.5mm is common; the larger caliber 23mm is widely considered more of a status symbol because of its size, while the humble 12.7mm is now almost a little passé.) Kidnap victims are also sold from one group to another. On a recent day, TIME overheard a commander say that another group offered to sell him three civilians for 1 million Syrian pounds (about $14,150) and that they’d toss in a fourth civilian for free.

The Free Syrian Army’s various hierarchical structures, including the 14 provincial military councils, were supposed to be the main taps for weapons and ammunition, and thereby a form of leverage with fighting groups. But the military councils were never the main tap, and certainly aren’t now. Colonel Afif Suleiman, head of the Idlib Military Council, says he makes it clear that he has very little to offer the battalions that are part of the council. “They know that the councils are just a way to organize their activities, they don’t expect anything else from them,” he says. “If somebody says they fought in this battle, if there is no proof, if he was not registered, who will believe him? The council is a means to organize and to prove the participation of people and groups.” In other words, a record keeper that occasionally distributes arms and ammunition.

(MORE: U.S. Steps Up Aid, but Syria’s Rebels Want Arms)

Alloush’s friend and colleague in Maaret al-Numan, Radad Khalouf, leader of Dara’ Maaret which is part of the Islamist Suqoor al-Sham brigade, says that the military councils do more than they take responsibility for—he contends that they fomented the splits within rebel ranks by trying to micro-manage units on the ground, down to handpicking a group’s leader, for example, at the threat of withholding ammunition. “In the beginning, we just had sticks and pump action shotguns,” Khalouf said. “We will go back to the stick and pump action rather than have somebody enforce their views on us.” He has the same opinion about the rebels’ international backers, and their perceived agendas.

Still, both Alloush and Khalouf like many of their ilk say they welcome the formation of the Military Command, but as Khalouf says, “we are reserving judgment until we see what it has to offer.” It’s a widely held view that makes Idris, the chief of staff, bristle. “Do they ask themselves where am I supposed to get the money from? Am I a government?” Idris says. “Everybody is an analyst, from a fighter to a commander to somebody who has nothing to do with anything, to the refugee.”

Nonetheless, Idris says that the Military Command is withholding support from groups it considers ineffective, and reserving supplies for those it deems worthy, based on their battlefield results. He denies that it is akin to the patronage networks senior defectors instituted in the past, where favoritism was shown to certain units often based on little more than a pledge of personal loyalty to the senior defector. Idris also doesn’t think it will foment the rivalry that already exists within rebel ranks for funding and armaments; rather, he thinks he’ll be better able to weed out ineffective groups.

(MORE: Assad’s Big Ally: How Deeply Entrenched Is Iran in Syria?)

There is an operations center, which sends monitors to the battlefield to watch and report on who fought where and how, who abandoned their posts, who responded to advice, who worked well with others, and who sat back, watched and waited to move in and grab the war booty. Take Commander X, Idris says, who in the past to impress his overseas or local patrons “goes and fires a few rockets, creates a bit of dust, films it and puts it on YouTube so that he can say ‘see, I worked.’ Now, it’s no longer like that.” Commander X won’t be supplied by the Military Command or included in future battles, Idris says. If his patrons are overseas, or private donors, Idris says he will inform them too, something he says he has already done although he refused to divulge which groups had been reprimanded. “Syrians don’t have time to stage these plays,” he says.

Idris says if he can organize and coordinate a little over half of the groups on the ground he’ll consider it a success “because 70-80% of the fighting men are civilians (i.e. not defectors), with civilian leaders. They are not used to being told ‘no, you can’t participate in this fight.’ He’s fighting in his town, he bought his own gun, his brother may have been killed, his son wounded. How can I impose anything on him? I can’t.” Soldiers are used to taking orders, Idris says. Armed civilians are not.

“Bashar is not better than us at organizing his men, but he has the power of a state,” Idris says. “He can bring that to bear and punish a man who won’t follow orders. It’s not easy [for us]. It’s very difficult to command this.”

MORE: On Patrol in Syria with Assad’s Most Diligent Enemies

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10 comments
JanFearing
JanFearing

Time World - Start telling the REAL story of Syria. The story of a president who was getting too popular, too influential and it was worrying Saudi Arabian Wahhabi extremists, Muslim Brotherhood extremists, Qatar extremists. Start telling the story of oil fields and gas pipelines. Start telling the story of Israel wanting Iran to 'get a message'. Start telling the story of Qatar's hundreds of millions of bribe money, excuse me, unsolicited donations to pet projects in the US/UK/France. Start telling the story of the Islamist 'revival' going on in the ME right now where, with US and NATO support, extremists are getting power in more and more areas and over more and more oil and gas fields. Hmm. Big bad Assad is actually the ONE guy in the ME that makes any sense or who has been telling the truth about the sordid business from the get go.

JanFearing
JanFearing

This is a very complicated situation; however it can be summed up simply. The rebels and the opposition are overwhelmingly Islamists. The legitimate government of Assad is secular. The Syrian people support Assad and his army. The opposition does not 'enjoy' the support of either. Under Assad, Syria protected and respected the Christians there. Where the western backed rebels are in control, the Christians are tortured, murdered, displaced. Under Assad, women had equal rights. Where the rebels are there are Sharia courts arresting women for not having 'appropriate dress'. Under Assad, 16-17% of GDP was spent on secular education for all kids, boys and girls. Where the rebels are schools and universities are bombed. Scientists and professors are murdered.

William
William

It would be appropriate for Time World to instigate some controls over what people post in response to lead articles. For this site to be a benefit for all readers there needs to be some discipline. Posting what are no more than 'dispatches from the front' which Mark Fisher did three times or a list of books and references as Sid Harth put up is not comment. 

In Australia any number of newspapers have an on-line commentary facility. In most instances the comments are restricted to a max. of 1500 characters. This ensures comments are focused and to the point. Those responsible for Time World should consider adopting a similar approach as it will improve the standard of comment and make it more rewarding for readers.  

elcidharth
elcidharth

Development of Conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From Revolution to Civil War By Maya Bhardwaj

http://pages.wustl.edu/wuir/development-conflict-arab-spring-libya-and-syria-revolution-civil-war

Middle East and Islam: Syria Scholarly Articles

©2002. Middle Eastern Studies Links - University of Oklahoma (Prof. Joshua Landis).

Get smart, it pays.

...and I am Sid Harth@elcidharth.com

William
William

I have no idea who Mark Fisher is but what this site needs is concise opinion not three posts that resemble dispatches from the front to army HQ.

The West would be well advised to pull stumps and leave the arabs to sort out this mess because either way it's not going to turn out as anyone wants except the jihadist's. While Russia backs Assad, the likelihood of a change in government is remote. So Syria will endure a long protracted civil war. And if the opposition were to take power the blood letting will be even worse without the intervention of peace keeping forces. And what is the Arab League doing or the Muslim clerics who are so fond of telling us they are a religion of peace and harmony. 

In the end, regardless of the outcome, Syria will look to the West for aid on the basis that we should pay because we are richer. Like so many of its counter parts, Syria could be a progressive country with a good standard of living for its people. What holds it back and the whole of the Middle East is Islam. No religious force has been so counter productive for so long. It has been an ally to all the repressive regimes and a tool to enslave the people in a cloak of smoke and mirrors. Only when the people realise that Islam has been used to repress them will they make any real progress to addressing their short comings.




MarkFisher
MarkFisher

Army Carries Out Operations against Terrorists in Several Areas

Units of our Armed Forces on Monday carried out special operations against terrorists in several areas in Idleb countryside.

A source in the province told SANA reporter that Armed Forces units destroyed terrorists hideouts, killing a number of terrorists and injuring others in the western farms surrounding Idleb city and on Idleb-Filon highway and in the towns of Merand, al-Douisat, al-Janorieh and Qatron in Jisr al-Shughour countryside.

The source added that a number of the terrorists vehicles and weapons were also destroyed in the operations.

It also said that the operations inflicted heavy losses upon terrorists in the areas surrounding Wadi al-Daif and al-Hamidiya in Maaret al-Nou'man .

A number of terrorists were killed among them terrorists Ahmad Taher al-Said, nicknamed Saso and Adnan al-Makhzoum, nicknamed al-Dish and Samer Bakfalouni.

A warehouse for ammunition was also destroyed with all the weapons and ammunition in it, and all the terrorists in it were killed.

Terrorists were also killed in Binish city in addition to destroying hideouts for terrorists in al-Nirab village and the farms of Broma, Kafr Rohin and Taftanaz.

In Abu al-Duhour city, a unit of our Armed Forces targeted an armed terrorist group, killing a number of its member.

Meanwhile, two vans were destroyed on Sunday with all the weapons and ammunitions in them , in addition to a DShk-equipped car in Bani Zeid in Aleppo in a special operation by Armed Forces.

The operation resulted in the killing of all the terrorists in the two vans.

SANA reporter quoted a source in the province as saying that the army stormed into two terrorists' hideouts in Areha city in Idleb countryside and inflicted heavy losses upon the terrorists in them.

The source added that another army unit targeted terrorists' gatherings in the towns of al-Sheikh Yousef and Maardabsi, killing scores of them and destroying many of their vehicles.

The army also dismantled 15 explosive devices weighing between 50-70 kg each planted by terrorists on Areha-Saraqeb highway.




Army Eliminates Terrorists' Leaders in Damascus Countryside

The army units pursued armed terrorist groups in Jubar area in Damascus Countryside and killed scores of terrorists.

An official source told SANA reporter that leaders of terrorist groups were killed in the operations, adding that among them were Yaser al-Harah, Bashar Qasem, Waleed Jouma and Khaled Qartouma.

Terrorists Bassam al-Aghawani and Taha Yahya were also identified among the dead.

Armed Forces units carried out several operations targeting terrorist hideouts in al-Rihan farms in the eastern Ghouta area, destroying a terrorist hideout along with the weapons and munitions inside it and eliminating a number of terrorist including Amer Kahteh, Mahmoud Allam and Ziyad al-Nabki.

In Adra area and the surrounding farms, Armed Forces units continued pursuing terrorists, killing a number of them and injuring others.

MarkFisher
MarkFisher



Army Units Kill Terrorists in Damascus Countryside

Unit of our Armed Forces carried out operations against the armed terrorist groups in Daraya and al-Zabadani in Damascus countryside, killing and injuring terrorists, in addition to dismantling several explosive devices.

An official source told SANA that an Army unit clashed with an armed terrorist group in al-Alali area in Daraya, killing and injuring several terrorists, among the dead terrorists were Foua'd Barakat, Hussam Muhammad and Adnad Aouyda.

The source added that an Army unit destroyed an armored car, two cars equipped with heavy machineguns and a heavy bulldozer which was used by terrorists to make barriers, inflicting heavy losses upon them.

The source pointed out that engineering units dismantled 3 explosive devices in the area with weights over 30Kg.

In al-Zabadani city, Army unit clashed with an armed terrorist group in the north side of the city, inflicting heavy losses upon them, among the injured terrorists were Ahmad al-Dalati.



Terrorists Eliminated in Homs Countryside

Syrian Arab Armed Forces clashed with an armed terrorist group in al-Rastan in Homs countryside and eliminated all of the group's members.

SANA reporter quoted a source in the province as saying that among the killed terrorists were Mohammad Arour, Issa Bakkour, Rami Shreteh and Muhannad Bahbouh.

The source added that an explosion occurred in an explosive devices factory in al-Qseir city, adding that the factory was destroyed and all terrorists in it were killed or injured.

Army Units Inflict Heavy Losses upon Terrorists in Homs Countryside

A unit of our Armed Forces killed a number of terrorists and injured others in Homs countryside.

A source in the province told SANA that the Army units destroyed a number of terrorists' dens in Akrab, al-Tayba, al-Houla and Oum Sharshuh in al-Rastan, inflicting heavy losses upon terrorists.

MarkFisher
MarkFisher


Terrorists Killed and Injured in Deir Ezzor

An Armed Forces unit carried out a special operation in al-Matar al-Qadim neighborhood in Deir Ezzor city, eliminating a number of terrorists, including Ahmad Louay al-Sheikh Hammoud from a terrorist group calling itself "Saraya al-Nasr."

Another unit clashed with a terrorist group that attempted to attack a military point in the 7 KM area in Deir Ezzor countryside, injuring and killing a number of terrorists including Hatem Khalif al-Mutlaq, Ibrhaim al-Elkeh and Bashir Taha al-Bashir.

Three Employees at Hama Water Establishment Martyred in a Terrorist Explosion

Three employees at Hama Water Establishment were martyred on Monday as an explosive device planted by terrorists went off in Hama countryside.

A source in the province told SANA reporter that the three employees were martyred while they were repairing a well in Kurmus town in Hama western countryside.

   

Army Units Inflict Heavy Losses upon Terrorists in Aleppo and its Countryside

Units of our Armed Forces carried out operations against terrorists' gatherings in Aleppo and its countryside, inflicting heavy losses upon them.

An official source in the province told SANA that the Army units destroyed a terrorist den and 4 cars equipped with heavy machineguns, killing and injuring terrorists in al-Mansoura in Aleppo countryside.

The source added that the Army units eliminated terrorists in al-Hader, Der Jammal, Darit Ezza and Ming.

In Aleppo city, Army units killed and injured terrorists in Hananou, Karm al-Tarrab, Boustan al-Kaser, al-Kalasa.

The source pointed out that the Army units continued pursuing terrorists in the old city, killing terrorists and destroying their dens.

bobgreenfield2013
bobgreenfield2013

And why should we arm and support Islamist Jihadists?  So they can use those same weapons against Americans someday?  I'm still upset that Kerry gave them $60 million dollars.  These are the same Al-Qaeda backed terrorists that were killing our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why the hell are we sending them aid?

BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy
BrahmandamLakshmiNarasimhaMurthy

The foolishness of US?NATO in supporting the syrian rebels  has resulted in terrible loss of  syrian life and also presented Alquaida and other Islamists  an opertunity to capture another country. Slowly Egypt , Libya and Syria ,Mali.Algeria will come under islamic fundamentalists and Iraq will follow.All this is not good for the world but by the time the west realises their mistake it will be too late.Dictators or democrats , what ever they were the earlier rulers of these countries were able to keep these countries stable, which is not the case after western intervention