Siria, come pensano e operano i disertori

Uomini dell'Esl in azione (The Daily Star, febbraio 2012)Nicholas Blanford, veterano dei giornalisti stranieri appassionati del confine siro-libanese e conoscitore più di altri delle terre di nessuno che da nord a sud punteggiano la valle orientale della Beqaa lo scorso febbraio ha raccolto la testimonianza di membri dell’Esercito libero siriano (Esl), nebulosa che riunisce i disertori attivi in varie regioni della Siria.

Blanford li ha intervistati a Wadi Khaled, a ridosso della frontiera con la regione di Homs e ha pubblicato su The Daily Star questo racconto.

In a small cold house a few hundred meters south of the border with Syria, Khaled, a young fighter with the Free Syrian Army, patiently sits, cellphone in hand, waiting for a call.

When his phone finally rings it will signal his immediate departure from the relative comfort of his safe house, across a border laced with land mines and patrolled by Syrian troops, to the dangers and rigors of combat in the area around Tal Kalakh, 2 kilometers inside Syria.

“I am just waiting for the call and then I will leave immediately. I can’t wait to get back into action again,” said the serious-looking 25-year-old with slicked back dark hair and a thin trace of a beard.

Khaled, a sniper in the Tal Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, has been recuperating in Lebanon for two months from injuries received last year when he was beaten and tortured while in prison.

His experiences over the past year are typical of thousands of other young predominantly Sunni army conscripts who have balked at the regime’s harsh crackdown against opposition protesters and deserted to join the FSA.

Khaled wore a red tracksuit top and gray pants and sat cross-legged beside a small gas heater that crackled as it struggled to defeat the damp chill in the sparsely furnished room. A pile of foam mattresses and blankets were stacked in one corner. Several other young Syrian men, two of them Khaled’s comrades in the Tal Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, were seated on mats against the wall. Their heads flicked between Khaled as he recounted his story and the small television in the corner which was broadcasting images of anti-regime protests carried by the Al-Ghad channel, a newly launched station for the Syrian opposition.

Khaled previously served with an air defense regiment and was deployed near Damascus. He was on leave in Tal Kalakh in March just as the anti-regime protests began to spread and joined the initial demonstrations in his town.

“Although I was a soldier, the killings [of protesters] were too much for me,” he said.

Upon his return to his unit, Khaled was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. He says he was severely beaten and tortured with electrodes placed either side of his neck. When he fell unconscious, his interrogators would revive him by throwing buckets of cold water over him.

“During interrogations, they would suspend me by my wrists from the ceiling so that my toes were barely touching the ground. They would keep me in that position for hours,” Khaled said.

He spent four months in prison before being released and sent to the remote Hasake region of northeast Syria as a punishment. Food was scarce, living conditions miserable and he was given no duties.

“It was like another prison,” he said. After three months, Khaled was able to bribe two officers to give him permission for an eight-day leave to visit his family in Tal Kalakh. When he arrived home, he immediately joined the FSA and served as a sniper.

“We fought many fierce battles with the army,” he said. “On one occasion we surrounded an army unit and called upon them to surrender. Some of them did and they came over to us. Then the army sent a BTR [armored personnel carrier] to rescue the remaining soldiers, but we hit it with an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] and it exploded into flames.”

When the regular army was in control of the town, the Free Syrian Army fighters disappeared into the countryside, either sleeping rough or being hosted by sympathizers.

“Wherever we go, people help us. They take us into their houses in twos or threes and in this way 200 fighters can disappear,” he said.

Today, the FSA controls of part of Tal Kalakh, but skirmishes are frequent and most residents stay at home, sheltering from intermittent shelling and avoiding the regime’s snipers.

The Tal Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade numbers between 300 to 400 fighters split into combat units of six to 10 men. Other than individual weapons, each combat unit is equipped with an RPG launcher and a light machine gun. Khaled said that they communicate by walkie-talkie and have developed a verbal coding system to overcome interception by the regular Syrian army.

“We have codes for different radio frequencies so that we can switch channels regularly and we move position after we have been talking in case the army tracks our location,” he said.

The communication techniques he describes are similar to those used by Hezbollah, underlining that although the FSA is composed of soldiers drawn from a conventional army, they have quickly adopted the form and tactics of a guerrilla force. Maintaining a sufficient supply of weapons and ammunition is a constant worry, Khaled said.

“Every time we fire a shot, we have to think carefully about where that bullet is going,” he said.

However, despite the weapons shortage, Khaled says the FSA is sometimes able to acquire advanced armaments from the regular Syrian army courtesy of sympathetic or bribable officers.

“We have some senior officers who are with us either because they believe in our cause or because we can bribe them. They are our only way of getting more advanced weapons, such as Kornets,” he says, referring to an advanced Russian anti-tank missile.

The confrontation in Syria has increasingly taken on a stronger sectarian edge, pitting a predominantly Sunni armed opposition against an entrenched Alawite elite. Khaled admitted that the Tal Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade have kidnapped Alawites for use as bargaining chips to secure the release of Sunni detainees.

“In one incident, two Sunnis from Tal Kalakh were passing through a Alawite village and were stabbed to death,” Khaled said. “We set up a checkpoint on the edge of the village. A car approached with three Alawites in it. One of them tried to run away but we shot and killed him. We held the other two and swapped them for our prisoners.”

Did they know the identity of the three Alawites beforehand? Were they army soldiers or Shabbiha militiamen?

“It didn’t matter. We needed to catch Alawites to avenge the two men stabbed in their village and to win the release of our people,” Khaled said, adding that the Tal Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade was under orders not to harm Alawites who live in the town.

Still, the tit-for-tat kidnappings echoed those of Lebanon during the Civil War and more recently those in Iraq. Did Khaled not think these were the acts of a sectarian conflict?

“This is a sectarian conflict,” he said. “We never wanted it to be this way, but the regime turned it into one.” (The Daily Star, 23 febbraio 2012).