Inside the Free Syrian Army
The Free Syrian Army - or FSA - currently controls a large area between Aleppo and the Turkish border. As the conflict between the FSA and President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces wears on, the rebels’ morale is strong, despite challenges to their hold of the area and problems of supplies, namely weapons, food and medication.
The village of Tal Rifaat, just 30 kilometers from Aleppo, contains a safe house for recovering FSA soldiers who have recently defected from the Syrian Army.
The woman who founded the safe house six months ago, who wished to remain anonymous, said that despite food shortages, the regular shelling of her town only makes her more determined to continue her efforts supporting the soldiers:
“Of course this house is a target, but we’re not afraid and we don’t care.”
At any one time, the house contains between 15 and 20 FSA soldiers, recuperating in between battles in Aleppo.
Most were defectors from Syria’s north, unlike Abu Mohammed, aged 22, from the southernmost town of Dara’a, who spoke of the camaraderie he felt among the other soldiers:
“In the house we live as one family. In some ways I find the atmosphere and the friendships here better than my family back in Dara’a. It feels safer here.”
North of Tal Rifaat is the FSA stronghold close to the Azaz border crossing, acting as a base for the North Storm Brigades, the battalion of 700 FSA soldiers that controls the area.
High Commander of the Brigade Ahmad-Al Gazali explains the challenges now facing the FSA in this zone:
“Firstly, our job as part of the FSA is to retain control of this area between Aleppo and the Turkish border, and our first priority is to keep people safe within that zone. In terms of the challenges that we face, they are made somewhat easier because we have the full support of the people. Our problems come from weapons shortages, and also often shortages of food and medicine.”
Al-Gazali states that FSA weapons are obtained either by seizing them from Assad’s forces or being bought, via a broker, from corrupt officials within the Syrian government.
The High Commander is flippant regarding reports of a shipment of stolen weapons from Libya recently being cleared to enter Syria to bolster the FSA’s supplies:
“We heard about this ship through the same reports as you did. But we wondered about their origins- why are these people sending us weapons instead of trying to control Libya themselves? We hear a lot about foreign fighters providing support as a form of quiet intervention, but really, no one is helping us.”
As for the question of weapons supplies from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Commander is clear:
"We hear, as you hear, from people like US President Obama, that there are weapons from these places here. But we didn’t see any evidence of it ourselves, it’s all talk.”
The other question mark over the FSA’s control of the area concerns the treatment of those they capture. A recent Human Rights Watch reports alleges torture of detainees:
“I met with some people from Human Rights Watch recently. I asked them to give me some documents about this problem, detailing names and specifics about the FSA groups who were doing this. But I maintain that this allegation is untrue. Although I will say that we’ve seen forty years of human rights’ abuse in this country, and we didn’t see any reports on that, but now we see some reports of cases that possibly occurred.”
Al-Ghazali maintains that those captured are taken before a judicial committee, including a prosecution and a defence lawyer for the accused. He outrightly denies allegations of torture by the North Storm Brigades, but maintains he cannot speak for other FSA groups.
In Tal Rifaat, the woman running the safe house says that whatever the challenges, there is no turning back now:
“This situation was forced on us, and we should take it. We should take it until we survive.”