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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