As world leaders debate what to do about the ongoing crisis in Syria, much of their hesitation still revolves around whether there is a credible alternative to more than 40 years of Assad rule. The Syria National Council, a grouping of mostly exiled political leaders, has emerged to become the opposition’s primary voice abroad.
Looking for answers, I anxiously waited for a Free Syrian Army commander in a dark cold safe house on the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. The nervous silence was pierced only by the sound of bullets going off in the distant hills. Time passed before headlights appeared, meandering down a pitch-black mountain road. Shortly after, commander Ahmad Al Arabi walked in, Kalashnikov (rifle) in hand.
Mr. Al Arabi is a tough built man in his fifties. No beard, just the traditional Syrian moustache and a charismatic smile. Along with his assault rifle, he is armed with a mobile phone that he uses to communicate with soldiers in the field. The phone also doubles as a camera for photos with lady journalists he smuggles across the border. He is hardly a conservative, religious man.
After some humor to ease strained nerves, the Lebanon-based commander gets down to business.
The battalion he leads is dubbed “Dawn of Freedom,” and its area of operations extends from the mountains of northern Lebanon to the outskirts of the besieged Syrian city of Homs, some 12 miles away. Its primary stated objectives are the defense of wounded army defectors and refugees who escape to north Lebanon – both securing their escape routes and defending them on Lebanese soil. It also ensures the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Homs and provides access for foreign journalists reporting on the uprising.
Orders to hundreds of Al Arabi’s soldiers who operate within Syria originate with rebel leadership in southern Turkey. And although news of military defections from Assad’s forces and subsequent attacks against them continuously stream out, the commander insists that all are operating under centralized authority. “Our units employ hit and run tactics, but there are no rouge elements,” he stresses.
Abu Mohammad and his wife are refugees the Free Syrian Army claims to be protecting. They walked hundreds of miles from Syria’s southern town of Dara’a to reach safety in Lebanon’s northern mountains. He is wanted for participating in the anti-regime protests that first sparked the uprising some 10 months ago. Failing to capture him, government troops allegedly tortured and killed his three-year-old son.
His body was returned with fingers cut off and several bullets lodged in his lifeless chest. As the grieving father shared his harrowing story, his wife nursed an anemic infant, born prematurely during their escape.
Contrary to regime allegations, foreign support for the Free Syrian Army remains scant. The growing numbers of defectors depend on whatever they can seize from government Army barracks. Those I saw carry only their Army issued automatic rifles and bullet cases to sustain them through battle.
Libyan military leaders, who recently toppled Qaddafi with NATO support, are reportedly alone in offering the rebels some assistance.
Western, Turkish, and Arab leaders have legitimate concerns about supporting the Free Syrian Army. Those include avoiding direct military confrontation with a Syrian regime that holds large stockpiles of chemical weapons, hundreds of ballistic missiles, and continues a track record of resorting to political violence.
But as Syria slides into a regime-instigated civil war, one that could spill over to neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, the price of foreign inaction is rising. Furthermore, with growing regime violence and counter violence, keeping the Syrian uprising peaceful is no longer an option.
The international community needs a clear strategy for hastening the pace of change in Syria, and the Free Syrian Army is now an undeniable and crucial part of that equation.
For commander Al Arabi, an internationally enforced no-fly zone or a humanitarian corridor along the Turkish-Syrian border are his primary demands. In his mind such a scenario will give cover to thousands of demoralized soldiers inside Syria who are still unable to defect. It would also provide civilians with a greater degree of protection and, by hastening the regime’s departure, stop Syria’s slide into civil strife.
Despite the unspeakable hardship, rebels and refugees alike are confident that the 40-plus years of Assad rule are coming to a close. “It is only a matter of time,” they optimistically insist. But the question is, at what cost?
When commander Al Arabi got up to leave, he picked up his Kalashnikov and made me a promise. “If they [the West] come to help, I will name my son Juppé,” after the outspoken French foreign minister who has led calls for a humanitarian intervention. He then disappeared into the dark cold hills from which he came. His plan was to be across the border in Homs the next morning.