Between the distant pop of the mortar when it’s fired, the pressure wave, and the roar of the blast five or six seconds later when it lands, the rebel fighters recited the Shahadah, the Muslim declaration of faith. ‘There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger.’
‘We do this in case one hits us,’ the group’s leader tells me, smiling. ‘So we go straight to paradise. No delays.’
The rebels and I were hiding out in the apricot orchards along Syria’s border with Lebanon. Every night, the Syrian army sent a few dozen mortars crashing down. And although the rebels had no heavy weapons of their own to return fire, they took comfort in stories about the army’s inability to aim in a straight line. When the army start firing, even their own soldiers take cover, it was said.
A lot has been written lately about the growing strength and numbers of the rebel Free Syrian Army. But in the orchards they were desperate, barely surviving. Fighters had sold their furniture to buy bullets, $7 each in Lebanon’s inflated arms market, they told me. Rocket-propelled grenades were up to $500 each. One man took down his Kalashnikov from where it was hanging on the wall and said, resignedly, that he would have to sell it to buy food for his wife and children, refugees in Lebanon.
This little group I was with were smugglers, responsible for getting casualties out and (a trickle of) weapons and ammunition in. Nothing had moved for a week. The rebels said the Syrian army had deployed 800 troops and a dozen tanks to stop all movement along that particular section of the border. In a farmhouse on the edge of the orchards, a bearded fighter lay on the floor, his stomach bandaged, too weak to lift his head. He would die unless they could get him to a Lebanese hospital soon, they said. A rebel commander declared that he was planning an offensive to punch through the government lines and open the smugglers’ routes. The offensive never came and the wounded man was sent back to the field clinic at the nearby town.
We heard the same thing, again and again. How could the outside world ignore them, especially after the ‘massacre’ at Houla last month? ‘Are our lives worth less than other people’s?’
‘Where is Nato?’
‘The Americans have a society to save the whales, but they leave us to die!’
The number of children killed made Houla worse than anything that had come before. But it was also part of a pattern: first the army uses heavy artillery to pound the village or town concerned. Then the feared paramilitary shabiha, the ‘ghosts’, go in, cutting throats.
How can the world do nothing faced with this, people asked me? Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The most popular was that the US was really a secret ally of President Assad because it backed Israel and Israel wanted Assad to stay. ‘The West still supports Bashar as far as I’m concerned,’ a Free Army officer said bitterly. ‘The US could take him out in a week but they don’t want us to have democracy. They want the country to collapse.’
The Free Army seems more a brand name for disparate local militias than a single organisation — yet it does seem to be cohering. We saw the evidence in a town called Rastan, one of the main centres of resistance to the regime. The journey was instructive if nerve-racking, as we had entered Syria illegally, slipping across the border with Free Army smugglers. Government soldiers lined the motorway, little groups stationed every couple of hundred yards. There were tanks by the side of the road, checkpoints on the bridges, troops waving cars over every now and then. Our driver turned up the Koranic recitation on the radio and gripped the steering wheel.
There had never been such a big deployment on the motorway, the main road through Homs province, they told us later. It seemed that the government had heard that a shipment of rebel anti-tank weapons had supposedly just entered Syria. A Free Army officer told us that the shipment was real. We never knew for sure, but the response on the ground showed the regime’s belief in the potential of such weapons to change the balance of power dramatically.
The entrance to Rastan was dominated by the burnt-out hulk of a government tank. However, this was not evidence of new weapons, but of a lucky shot by a Free Army fighter using a rocket-propelled grenade. Colonel Kasim Saad Eddine, the man in charge, was a former air force pilot: not only the top military officer in Homs province, he explained, but also the spokesman for the Free Army’s ‘joint command’ inside Syria. There were ten provinces with Free Army military councils and they were now unified, he said. When the Free Army declared that it would no longer abide by the UN ceasefire, it was the colonel who made the announcement.
Days earlier in Rastan, they had over-run the last government post, killing several dozen soldiers. The rebels now had the whole town, though government tanks and artillery were just outside. Why try to hold territory, making easy targets for the regime’s heavy weapons, I asked. Wasn’t a hit-and-run strategy better? I got the standard reply: defections were increasing, the regime was close to collapse and ‘we will launch an offensive to liberate one city at a time until we reach Damascus’.
I asked the colonel whether al-Qa’eda was here, supporting them. No, he said, that was a government lie. But: ‘After a year and two months of the revolution, the whole world is doing nothing to help the Syrian people. Of course extremism will emerge. Al-Qa’eda and other jihadis will appear and it will be the international community’s fault.’ He continued, getting angry: ‘I warn the UN and UN Security Council. We can’t take it any more: our children killed, our women raped, our houses ruined. If no one helps us, we will turn to the devil himself.’
The colonel checked himself. He was only too well aware that nothing is more likely to extinguish the hope of western military assistance than links between the Free Army and al-Qa’eda.
And, I have to say, in months of travelling with the Free Army in Syria I never met anyone with a good word to say about al-Qa’eda. Al-Qa’eda probably doesn’t much like the Free Army either, because there is a different and more moderate tradition of Islam in the Levant. The rebels say they are fighting for democracy, and to the jihadis democracy is a western imperialist trick, elevating man’s law over god’s.
But, as western governments contemplate the prospect — however distant — of arming the rebels, there are other worries about the Free Army. Again and again, its fighters casually told us they had kidnapped people — ‘detaining’ them for exchange — or had executed prisoners — if they were ‘found guilty of war crimes’. A fighter told me that he had just spent time in a Free Army jail for killing a prisoner without orders. He and his captain had a suspected member of the shabiha and were interrogating him — that is to say, they were beating him energetically. ‘He confessed to raping two girls and killing some of our people,’ the fighter told me. ‘My comrade couldn’t bear it and shot him in the head. But he didn’t die, so I finished him off.’ He concluded: ‘If you had heard what he was saying you would have slit his throat, not only shot him.’
The soldier was jailed for six days for this and was let out two days early for good behaviour. The short sentence reflected the fact that, having ‘confessed’, the prisoner would have been executing by firing squad anyway. Membership of the shabiha was probably enough to guarantee this, rather than
evidence of any specific crime. Not all rebel units are carrying out such killings — there is no single policy on anything because there is no single Free Syrian Army. Officers with the units involved emphasise that these are not summary executions but follow a hearing before a three-man panel of officers, advised by a Muslim cleric.
But will there be wholesale revenge if the armed uprising succeeds, every Alawite seen as a shabiha? This has not yet become a war of neighbour against neighbour, village against village; majority Sunnis against the ruling Alawite minority, their Shia and Christian allies.
The Free Army deny that this is the kind of war they want to fight. ‘Only those with blood on their hands,’ I heard many times, when asking if there would be retribution, ‘and then according to the law.’
But in the Sunni villages around Homs, you can find people who have suffered terrible loss, who have watched their children being killed in front of them. ‘God will take revenge for us,’ they say. It’s a declaration of anger and of powerlessness, desperate and bitter.
These are the people who support the Free Syrian Army, who supply its volunteers. What will happen when the balance of power in this bloody conflict changes?
Paul Wood is a BBC Middle East correspondent covering Syria.