How to start a battalion in Syria (in five easy lessons)

Eight Syrian rebel brothers, the youngest just 18 and the oldest 34, pose for a picture in Aleppo

From Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, London Review of Books:  In the cramped living room of a run-down flat near the Aleppo frontline, two Syrian rebels sat opposite each other. The one on the left was stout, broad-shouldered, with a neat beard that looked as though it had been outlined in sharp pencil around his throat and cheeks. His shirt and trousers were immaculately pressed and he wore brand-new military webbing – the expensive Turkish kind, not the Syrian knock-off. The rebel sitting opposite him was younger, gaunt and tired-looking. His hands were filthy and his trousers caked in mud and diesel. . . .

‘I am taking my cousins away from the front,’ the stout man finally said.

‘Why?’ the young rebel whined, as if one of the mortar shells had smacked him in the head. ‘Did we do anything wrong? Didn’t we feed them properly? Didn’t they get their daily rations? Whatever ammunition we get we divide equally: tell me what we did wrong.’

‘No, no, nothing wrong – but you seem not to have any work here.’

‘But this is an important defensive position,’ the young rebel pleaded. ‘All of Aleppo depends on this hill. If you go, two frontline posts will be left empty. They’ll be able to skirt around us.’

‘I’m sure you’ll take care of it. Allah bless your men, they’re very good.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘A very good man, a seeker of good deeds – he is from our town but he lives in the Gulf – told me he would fund my new battalion. He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting. We just have to supply him with videos.’

‘But why would he do that? What’s he getting in return?’

‘He wants to appease God, and he wants us to give him videos of all our operations. That’s all – just YouTube videos.’

‘So he can get more money.’

‘Well, that’s up to him.’

They spent some more time on pleasantries but the divorce was done. The stout man walked out. Waiting for him in the cold were half a dozen men, young, earnest, country boys with four guns between them. Their cigarettes glowed in the dark as they walked behind their cousin, their new commander, in his pressed trousers and shirt, who promised them better food, plentiful ammunition and victory. So a new battalion is formed, one more among the many hundreds of other battalions fighting a war of insurgency and revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. . . .

Many of the battalions dotted across the Syrian countryside consist only of a man with a connection to a financier, along with a few of his cousins and clansmen. They become itinerant fighting groups, moving from one battle to another, desperate for more funds and a fight and all the spoils that follow.

Officially – or at least this is what many would like to believe – all the battalions are part of the Free Syrian Army. But from the start of the uprising in March 2011, the FSA has never managed to become an organisation with the kind of centralised command structure that would allow it to co-ordinate attacks and move units on the ground. Until recently, Colonel Riad al-Asad, the nominal head of the FSA, and his fellow defectors from the Syrian army were interned in the Officers’ Camp, a special refugee camp in southern Turkey – for their protection, the Turks say. All meetings and interviews with the defecting colonel had to go through Turkish intelligence. Towards the end of last year the FSA announced that it had moved its headquarters to the Syrian side of the border, in an attempt to prove its relevance. But battalions are still formed by commanders working and fighting on their own initiative across Syria, arming themselves via many different channels and facing challenges unique to their towns and villages. For these people the colonel was just a talking head and a stooge of the Turks, and the FSA not much more than a label. Another problem emerged when higher-ranking officers started defecting from the army. Who leads the FSA? The officers who defected first? Or the men who outrank them? Parallel organisations of defecting officers started to pop up, but few had any real influence where it mattered.

So how do you form a battalion in Syria? First, you need men, most likely young men from the countryside, where the surplus of the underemployed over the centuries has provided for any number of different armies and insurgencies. Weapons will come from smugglers, preferably via Iraq or Turkey. You will also need someone who knows how to operate a laptop and/or a camcorder and can post videos on the internet – essential in applying for funds from the diaspora or Gulf financiers. A little bit of ideology won’t hurt, probably with a hint of Islamism of some variety. You’ll also need money, but three or four thousand dollars should be enough to start you off. . . .

Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. Under its aegis a new military command structure was supposed to include all fighting groups, commanders inside and outside the country. But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments. Only weapons bought from Iraqi and sometimes Turkish smugglers were still getting through. . . .

This camp, right on the Turkish border, was for foreign jihadis – the only people, as Abu Abdullah complained, who were getting money and equipment these days. Hakim al-Mutairi, a Kuwaiti Salafi preacher, was sending them millions of dollars. ‘I confronted him at a meeting a few weeks ago,’ Abu Abdullah said. ‘I told him you are hijacking our revolution. The jihadis are buying weapons and ammunition from the other units. They have no problem with money.’

At the end of January, I met a friend of Abu Abdullah; he’d once been a wealthy man, a merchant, but he’d seen his wealth dwindle as all his businesses came to a halt. His lips were quivering with anger and he kept thumping the table with his fist.

‘Why are the Americans doing this to us? They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse? They say it’s because of the jihadis but it’s the jihadis who are gaining ground. Abu Abdullah is $400,000 in debt and no one is sending him money anymore. It’s all going to the jihadis. They have just bought a former military camp from a battalion that was fighting the government. They went to them, gave them I don’t know how many millions and bought the camp. Maybe we should all become jihadis. Maybe then we’ll get money and support.’  (photo: AFP)

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