Khaled, a young fighter with the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), keeps a tight grip on his cellphone these days. The serious-looking 20-something with slicked back dark hair and a thin trace of a beard is awaiting a call that will take him from the relative comfort of a safe house in north Lebanon across a border laced with land mines and patrolled by Syrian troops to the dangers and rigors of combat 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,” he says.
Khaled is a sniper in the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade, one of several units comprising the rebel Syrian Army. Tel Kalakh lies just north of the border with Lebanon and 26 miles west of Homs, the current focal point of the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Khaled has been recuperating in a safe house in Lebanon for two months from injuries received last year when he was tortured 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. His story highlights the regime's weakness from within, including military officers taking rebel bribes and sectarian divisions turning Syrian against Syrian.
Khaled previously served with an air defense regiment and was deployed near Damascus. He was on leave in Tel Kalakh in March last year when anti-regime protests broke out in the south, then quickly spread to the west including Tel Kalakh, a mainly Sunni-populated town of some 20,000 residents.
From soldier to protester
Khaled participated in the initial street protests in Tel Kalakh before returning to his unit near Damascus. His reason for protesting: “Although I was a soldier, the killings [of protesters] were too much for me."
On his return, Khaled was arrested and accused of stealing weapons from an armory.
“It was an excuse. They had found out I had taken part in the demonstrations,” he says.
Khaled says he was held in solitary confinement and severely beaten and tortured with electrodes placed on either side of his neck. There was no way to independently confirm his story, though he showed signs of injury.
He spent four months in prison before being released and sent to a remote hardship post in northeast Syria. Food was scarce, living conditions miserable, and he was given no duties. “It was like another prison,” Khaled says.
A well-placed bribe
After three months, he was able to bribe two officers to grant him an eight-day leave. Once home, he joined the Free Syrian Army immediately.
At the time, Tel Kalakh was under the control of the Syrian Army and intelligence services, augmented by Shabiha militiamen drawn mainly from the Alawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam which forms the backbone of the Assad regime.
Khaled became a sniper and soon found himself in action against the Syrian Army.
“We fought many fierce battles with the army,” he says. “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.”
Hiding in homes
When the regular army was in control of the town, the FSA 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 says.
Today, the FSA has taken control of part of Tel Kalakh, but skirmishes are frequent.
The Tel 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.
Adapting to the fight
The communication techniques he describes are similar to those used by Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah, underlining that although the FSA is composed of soldiers drawn from a conventional army, they have quickly adopted the configuration and tactics of a guerrilla force. Maintaining a sufficient supply of weapons and ammunition is a constant worry, Khaled says.
“Every time we fire a shot, we have to think carefully about where that bullet is going,” he says.
The escalating daily death toll in Syria and the failure of diplomacy to end the crisis is spurring greater international interest in the possibility of providing the FSA with logistical support. US Sen. John McCain of Arizona has declared his strong support for arming Syrian rebels.
“The Iranians and Russians are providing Bashar al-Assad with weapons. People that are being massacred deserve to have the ability to defend themselves,” he said on Sunday while visiting Afghanistan.
Critics of proposals to arm the FSA point to the logistical difficulties of transferring sizeable quantities of weapons across Syria’s borders and the lack of clarity over the composition of the rebel army. A recent declaration of support for the Syrian uprising by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, has triggered alarm that the anti-Assad struggle may become hijacked by jihadist militants.
However, despite the weapons shortage, Khaled says that 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 Alawites have been kidnapped by the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade for use as bargaining chips to secure the release of Sunni detainees.
“In one incident, two Sunnis from Tel Kalakh were passing through an Alawite village and were stabbed to death,” Khaled says. “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 Shabiha militiamen?
“It didn’t matter. We needed to catch Alawites to revenge the two men stabbed in their village and to win the release of our people,” Khaled says, adding that the Tel Kalakh Martyrs’ Brigade is under orders not to harm Alawites who live in the town.
Still, the tit-for-tat kidnappings echoed those of Lebanon in its 1975-1990 civil war and more recently in Iraq.
“This is a sectarian conflict,” he says. “We never wanted it to be this way, but the regime turned it into one.”