Armed defenders of Syria’s revolution

AJ Editor’s note: Al Jazeera special correspondent Nir Rosen spent seven weeks travelling throughout Syria with unique access to all sides. He visited Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo to explore the uprising and growing internal conflict. In the second article of his series he meets with leaders of the armed opposition in Homs. Names of some of the indivduals quoted have been changed to protect their identities.

While outsiders debate when or if the Syrian opposition will turn to arms, on the ground it is clear that elements of the opposition have used violence against the security forces from early in the uprising in response to the regime’s harsh crackdown.

Over a period of seven weeks, from July to September, I spent time among the many factions in the strugle for Syria. It is a conflict fought on the streets and in the media. For the most part, unarmed opposition activists seeking the overthrow of the regime have used demonstrations as their guerrilla tactic. The regime has succeeded in containing or suppressing the opposition, limiting the times and places they can demonstrate. The opposition has failed to expand its constituency outside the Sunni majority or even to win over the Sunni bourgeois of Damascus and Aleppo. Sectarian hatred grows on both sides, leading to early signs of communal violence. At the same time, a more professional and organised armed opposition movement has emerged.

Spend enough time in Homs and you will be confronted with the battles between security forces and their armed opponents. On July 21 Syrian security forces clashed with opposition fighters in the city’s Bab Assiba neighbourhood.

The following day I met several members of state security. They were saddened by the loss of a captain in the Ministry of Interior’s SWAT unit – he had been shot in the neck just above his vest. I was told that the day before, opposition fighters had used a rocket propelled grenade in Ashiri on the outskirts of Homs. One State security man called Shaaban complained that Bab Assiba had become its own state. The day before, he had taken part in heavy fighting there and helped transport 35 wounded soldiers out. “It was like a wedding,” he laughed as he described the shooting.

Some attacks resemble a nascent insurgency. The next day, a train from Aleppo was derailed nearby in Qizhi. Official reports said the conductor was killed, and his assistant along with many of the 480 passengers were injured. I drove west out of the city and then along a canal to the site of the train crash. The tracks on a small bridge had clearly been removed and the train had been knocked off the tracks with some of the carriages turned over on their side, and the conductor’s carriage partially burned. It seemed real enough, though it was odd that only the conductor had been killed. Several days later, an oil-pipeline was blown up outside Homs.

See also, Syria: The revolution will be weaponised, the first article in this series.

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