The deep, single boom announces a symphony of staccato gunfire, and the calm spring morning in Syria’s eastern mountains descends into chaos.
Two rag-tag groups of Syrian Army defectors, part of a loose umbrella group commonly known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have just detonated a gas canister full of explosives beneath a Syrian army tank which was patrolling outside their village. Having left their hilltop hideouts late the night before, the 11 rebel soldiers are now executing their hastily planned attack. Their payload delivered, the rebels fight their way home beneath airburst anti-personnel artillery and withering fire from the Syrian Army; of the three wounded that day one would later die.
Holed up in a small farm building on a cliff-top near the village of Janoudiyeh, this small group of defectors operating autonomously but in loose collaboration with similar groups in the area, is one of many such units striving to write the next page in the Syrian uprising. Saying they have learned from the mistakes of Homs, where the FSA was forced to make a “tactical withdrawal” after a month-long artillery bombardment, these fighters have taken to the hills, preferring quick surprise attacks over a protracted urban struggle.
But while they may maintain the element of surprise, supplies are scarce. This group relies on FSA comrades in a nearby village to keep them stocked up with food, but on a bad day lunch is foraged from the ground outside: cabbages, greens and spring onions.
A string of government assaults have recently driven the FSA from many of its strongholds, but the group’s fortunes may be on the rise. On Saturday, March 24, FSA chief Colonel Riad al-Asaad joined forces with a unit led by the most senior army deserter, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, to form a united military council.
The FSA needs to move beyond its fractious nature if it is to prove a substantive oppositional force. Foreign states with an interest in seeing the FSA succeed would then find it far easier to supply the weapons and support it with what it desperately needs.
“Given the weapons we have and what they have, we can’t do anything. Of course we don’t want outside interference but if things keep going the way they are then of course I hope that NATO would interfere,” said Lieutenant Mohammed el-Hajj. “Any kind of alliance…let Israel come into the country and it would be better than Bashar al-Assad… At least if they are bombing our children we would know it is not our brothers, cousins, our [own] army bombing us.”