Splintered Syrian rebels show tenacity

(Ann Barnard & Hwida Saad, The New York Times). More than a year into the Syrian uprising, protesters and fighters say, disparate opposition cells inside the country still scramble on their own for money and weapons, creating a risk that different factions will form conflicting loyalties to whoever ends up financing or arming them.

Those who have taken up arms, the fighters, acknowledge that they lack a workable chain of command to coordinate operations and channel arms supplies, even as they plead for international help.

Somehow, this decentralized patchwork of opposition fighters and activists has displayed the tenacity to withstand a withering crackdown that has left thousands dead and neighborhoods reduced to rubble. But it has still not managed to coalesce into a unified force, or identify a national leader, a clear ideology or specific goals — beyond bringing down President Bashar al-Assad. That atomization, many fear, could turn the country into “divided emirates” rather than a viable new system, Abu Omar, an activist in a Damascus suburb, said in a recent interview, complaining that some groups hoard arms and the power they bring.

“Deserving people are not being funded,” he said, “and all the money goes to people who do not deserve it.”

An eclectic mix of fighters and unarmed protesters opposes Mr. Assad. There are pious clerics and people who admit they rarely pray, experienced soldiers and barely trained former conscripts, wealthy doctors and jobless youths. Some say they want Islamic law, while others insist that civil law alone should rule. Their goals are matters of intense curiosity as the United States and others debate whether and how to directly assist the opposition inside Syria. Ask their views, and the answers can be complex.

Abu Fahad, 30, said the protesters he organizes in Saqba, a Damascus suburb, are “religious, secular, and people who drink wine and smoke opium” — though mostly from the majority Sunni Muslim sect. They are not seeking economic gain, sectarian revenge or an Islamic state, he said, just the dignity of choosing their own president, “not some idiot who took power from his father as a gift.”

Exuding confidence as he sat openly talking politics in his prosperous furniture shop, Abu Fahad, using a nickname to protect against retribution, said protesters were unlikely to choose leaders from Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect after 40 years of his family’s rule, but do not hate all Alawites. The proof he offered seemed ominous in its own way: Saqba residents, he said, have killed 30 neighbors suspected of being informants — all Sunnis.

As the exile opposition and a United Nations-sponsored peace plan fail to stem the violence, attention in Washington is increasingly focused on the opposition inside Syria, raising urgent questions about its motives, leaders and backers.

But Syria remains something of a black box. Amid violence and government restrictions on journalists, fighters and protesters operate largely on their own and out of sight of independent observers. On social media, activists portray themselves as democratic, inclusive and from the grass roots, while the government depicts its opponents as foreign-financed Sunni extremists.

The reality is more complicated, according to interviews with more than 20 activists and fighters, via phone, Skype and face-to-face interviews in Syria and neighboring countries, which offer a glimpse of the uprising’s anatomy.

The picture that emerges — partial and anecdotal — is of a highly decentralized, proudly local movement, distrustful of the expatriate opposition. Many activists said they wanted both Sunni empowerment and equal rights for all. If there was unanimity, it was in the fierce conviction that future leaders should come from their own ranks — “exclusively from this popular movement,” Abu Omar said — not from exile groups, like the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and secular movements.

The fighters and activists knew they were talking to journalists and have an interest in appearing neither sectarian nor extremist. But many spoke candidly of the uprising’s flaws and challenges, and one — a former interior decorator — volunteered that he had executed three men.

The former decorator, Abu Moayed, also a nickname, said he left his job at a Beirut architecture firm last year, which his employer confirmed, and went home to northern Syria, near the city of Idlib. He said he joined army deserters in the Baba Amr Retribution Battalion, named for the rebellious Homs neighborhood devastated by shelling.

Abu Moayed said the battalion had captured about 35 government soldiers and militiamen and executed 10 after the authorities refused a prisoner exchange. He said he shot three, two Sunnis and an Alawite, who were implicated in killing hundreds. “Don’t ask the reason,” he said. “It’s not vengeance — it’s our right.”

But he admitted he acted from anger after the government killed two of his uncles, Khalid and Jamil al-Khatib. His father is missing and his wife and children are in hiding, he said, after a defecting soldier showed him a picture of his 5-year-old with words scrawled on the back: “To be executed.”

Abu Moayad said the battalion bought weapons from the government’s own supply, stored in a dairy factory. Its owner, a government militiaman, sells Kalashnikovs and grenade launchers, eager for the money in case he needs to flee, he said.

Recently, he said, he bought weapons on the Iraqi border with $35,000 from wealthy Syrians abroad — but does not take orders from anyone outside.

“Usually, revolutions are planted by honorable people and harvested by cowards,” he said. “In Syria, we will prove the opposite.”

Without known leaders, the opposition has failed to win major help from Western countries afraid to give aid without any accountability. But paradoxically, activists say, that weakness has kept the movement alive and autonomous, hard to decapitate or co-opt. And protesters say local donations provide what little they need — amplifiers, banners, cellphones.

Sheik Ahmed, a Sunni imam in Damascus, said Muslim Brotherhood supporters tried to take credit for rallying thousands after Friday Prayer. But he said that mosques were the only places where people could routinely assemble, and that crowds there included non-Muslims and Muslims, from secularists to religious extremists.

“Syria is not Egypt or Tunisia,” Sheik Ahmed said, evoking countries where Islamist groups dominate after broad-based revolts. “I call for a democratic, civil state — then every citizen gets his or her rights.”

Amir, 25, an organizer in the Damascus suburb of Douma, expressed conflicting impulses about Islam — “I personally don’t pray, but I respect my religion” — and its role in politics. He said Islamic law should apply to Muslims — for instance, no wine shops in Muslim neighborhoods — and accused the government of “fighting Islamic morals.” But, he said as he hunched over a laptop uploading protest news, “we can’t impose Islamic law on all citizens.”

Jeffrey White, a defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has tracked hundreds of videos and announcements from 68 self-described rebel battalions.

While many invoke God, expected in a religious country, seven identify explicitly as Islamist, for instance waving black flags with Koranic script, said Mr. White, who advocates military aid to rebels. There have been separate reports of fundamentalist groups operating in the north.

One fighter from Abu Omar’s group, the Golan Liberation Gathering, said he and friends sold their cars, rented an apartment, posed as laborers and staked out a government official. When they attacked, security forces overwhelmed them, killing his friends. “We knew we would die,” he said. “I’m not religious, I’m leftist — but all Syrians became suicidal.”. (The New York Times).

An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Syria.