Syria's war is forging a skilled rebel army

Collateral damage: Civilians are bearing the brunt of the bitter conflict. (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

Collateral damage: Civilians are bearing the brunt of the bitter conflict. (Goran Tomasevic, Reuters)

Syria's opposition fighters are increasingly using Iraqi-style roadside bombs in their war against Bashar al-Assad, most recently blowing up a large tank convoy travelling to attack rebels inside the city of Aleppo.

Free Syrian Army commanders said the use of improvised explosive devices had gone up in recent months and fighters were growing increasingly adept at making bombs. Iraqi insurgents used roadside bombs extensively in their campaign against the United States military.

The commanders said that a secret network of informers in the Syrian army and other government structures passed them regular information on regime troop movements. This allowed the rebels to target the army with devastating results, they said.

Mohamad Baree, a commander in the town of Korkanaya in northern Syria, said his fighters ambushed a tank column at 5am on July 29 as it set off from the city of Idlib.
The column comprised 20 tanks and armoured vehicles that had been sent to reinforce government positions in Aleppo, partly seized by the rebels nine days earlier. "We used five or six self-made bombs. We destroyed two of the tanks. The other 18 returned back to Idlib," he said.

Baree said his fighters had laid a long cable of some 300m, setting off the explosions remotely from their positions concealed behind rocks.

Tragic consequences
Although the operation was a success, it had tragic consequences: a retreating tank fired a shell into a fifth-storey residential home on Idlib's 30th Street, killing five members of a family. "They [the regime soldiers] were afraid. They didn't know what was happening. They wanted revenge," he said.

The commander, a pharmacist who lived in Ukraine for seven years, said he personally lacked the skills to make bombs. But he said that a "professor of chemistry" was aiding the rebels and other members of his unit who had served in the Syrian military possessed bomb-making skills. "We also take bombs from army bases. They are better than ours," Baree said.

His remarks are evidence that the Free Syrian Army is becoming more professional. It began as a disparate group of volunteers, many of them civilians lacking military experience. But after 16 months of operations against the Damascus government, it now resembles a formidable military force.

Baree said each rebel stronghold in Syria had its own five-member "war council" to co-ordinate military strategy and determine targets. The units – typically comprising about 150 militia volunteers – also included dedicated activists who videoed battles, as well as medics and information officers, he said.

The commander also confirmed that the rebels were receiving arms from outside Syria – Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both allegedly supplied weapons to Syria's opposition. But Moscow is arming the Assad regime and delivering lethal attack helicopters used in the skies above Aleppo.

Poor quality
But Baree said shipments from abroad were haphazard. He complained that his unit had so far received nothing whatsoever. "We don't have enough bullets. I had to buy my own Kalashnikov for $200. It's of very poor quality."

He said "two containers" of arms sent by Sunni political groups in Lebanon had recently arrived in Idlib province, much of it now controlled by the Free Syrian Army, but were not being shared out.

Another commander, Mohamad Hadeti, said the rebels in control of Aleppo's southern and eastern suburbs were "superstrong". "They are well armed. There is a big number of fighters there. They have enough ammunition, including 14.7mm anti-aircraft guns.

"Assad will step up the war [in Aleppo]. But his soldiers won't come out of there," he said.

On Tuesday the rebels seized eight tanks and 10 armoured vehicles, mortars and other ammunition after overrunning a military base at Anadan, 10km outside the city.

Sitting in what used to be Kor­kanaya's Ba'ath party headquarters – now used by the rebels – Baree said he resented attempts to portray Syria's revolution as al-Qaeda style.

Islamist extremists
The Syrian regime insists it is not fighting a domestic insurgency, but "terrorists" and "Islamist extremists" funded and armed by the country's enemies, including the US and Israel.

But Baree said he and other fighters had only reluctantly left their civilian jobs and taken up arms when it became clear that Assad was refusing to leave power peacefully. He said the struggle against the president was broad-based, enjoyed support from all Syria's religious groups, including some Alawis – Assad's ruling sect – and was an internal rather than foreign-driven struggle.

"This is a people's revolution," he said. "It's a lie to say we are al-Qaeda. What's happening in Syria is no different from the French or the Russian revolutions. If anyone is al-Qaeda, it's Bashar.

"After the revolution, anyone with blood on their hands will face justice. But we don't want religious or civil war. I have Alawi friends. I talk to them on Facebook. They don't like what Assad is doing either."

Baree said he had broken off contact with a Sunni friend, a teacher, who supported the regime. He acknowledged there was an Islamic element to the revolution – "We are Muslims at the end of the day" – but said he wanted "decent Islam" and a democratic government once Assad was gone. "We don't want to combine religion and politics."

He also said women were contributing to the revolution. "Women give us information. They provide us with clothes. And in one or two cases they are even fighting against the regime."  – © Guardian News & Media 2012

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