Ana Maria Luca

Out-gunned and on the run

When Mahmoud, a 19-year-old from Qussayr, Syria, was called to the recruiting office of the Syrian army, he thought he was going for the normal three-month military service preceded by at least a month of training. But the Syrian army needed soldiers, so Mahmoud and five of his friends from the same town were sent to the flashpoint city of Daraa the same day, given rifles and told to fight the rebels rising up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We ran away. But we didn’t know Daraa, and we turned around in circles until the shabiha [pro-regime Alawite militiamen] caught us,” Mahmoud, whose name has been changed for his security, said from his hiding place in Lebanon. “We spent two weeks in prison. They beat us, tortured us. We kept telling them that we had left to get food. We knew that they would kill us if we admitted we wanted to run away from the army. But they released us after our families bribed the guards, and we joined the Free Syrian Army,” he told NOW.

Many rebel fighters in Syria are young men just like Mahmoud: thrown into battle against their own people overnight, and deciding to desert and fight against the regime with the Free Syria Army. They don’t have solid military training and have found themselves in an unfair fight against better-prepared and better-armed troops in order to protect their families. 

A spokesman for the FSA, Maher al-Neimi, told NOW Lebanon what the rebels are up against: heavy weapons, defender tanks, Soviet amphibious tracked infantry fighting vehicles called BMPs, 14.5 mm marine pedestal machine guns, 7.62 four-barreled rotary machine guns, helicopters, mortars, RPGs, light and medium weapons of all types, and even missiles.

“The army uses rocket launchers as well. They bomb from a distance through those rocket launchers before invading a city,” Neimi explained. “They apply the scorched earth tactic: the artillery shells the cities or villages from a three-to-four kilometer distance, then the troops enter the villages or cities where they arrest people.” 

Mahmoud and his five friends fought with the rebels against the Syrian army in two locations that were besieged the way Neimi explained.  First, in Homs’ Baba Amr neighborhood, and then in Qussayr.  “In Homs, we didn’t have weapons to fight them. The revolutionaries only had some grenades and RPGs other than rifles and Kalashnikovs. Assad’s army has much more weapons. We were overwhelmed by the shelling, and we had to leave Homs. We left to Qussayr, where we fought against the army and then, when they shelled the town, we had to cross into Lebanon,” he said.

Mahmoud says they had no medicine to treat the wounded and no food. They also couldn’t contact other brigades in other neighborhoods because the communication lines were cut.

Neimi says that after shelling the town and entering the city, Assad’s loyal militias as well as the army use civilians as human shields. “That is why we lost Baba Amr. Because they made the people walk in front of their vehicles, knowing that the FSA would never shoot at civilians,” he said.

The FSA did manage to gain control over Qussayr on February 25, but that was only because 30 soldiers defected and brought their tank with them, turning the battle in their favor. But with Homs gone to the regime’s forces and with rebel-held Rastan under shelling, Qussayr was vulnerable.

On March 4, early in the morning, the Syrian army shelled the town with artillery and moved in with the tanks. Mahmoud and his friends managed to flee into Lebanon before Assad’s forces destroyed a bridge in Qussayr used by the wounded, refugees and retreating rebels to get into Lebanon.

“We are thankful that we are safe for the moment.  But we are afraid that the Assad army might target us in Lebanon or try to bomb our safe house here. If the artillery attacks us here, we might as well pack up and leave and become refugees rather than fighters,” he said.

The opposition Syrian National Council’s spokesperson, George Sabra, announced on Monday from Istanbul that a bureau to channel arms to the Free Syrian Army was established with the help of foreign governments. He declined to say where the bureau was located or which governments were involved. "The Syrian National Council has taken concrete and practical decisions to arm the Free Syrian Army, [which was] established to protect the civilians. And we invite all colonels and other military officials in the Syrian army to take sides with the people of Syria," Sabra said.

Neimi also said that the FSA needs more weapons in order to fight properly. The deserters and rebels could wage a street war against the Syrian army, which is not trained for such combat, if the FSA had more light and medium weapons and ammunition. “We think that if we were offered enough support of weapons, which we need to fight the regime and take it down, we’d then be able to fight properly and protect sensitive military objectives,” he said.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting and translating to the article.