Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s armed opposition

Al Jazeera: Who were the first to take up arms?

NR: The armed phenomenon began in rural areas, known in Arabic as the reef, and in the working class urban shaabi areas. Men there were more likely to own guns and were known as qabaday – “tough” men more likely to have the courage (and potential for violence) that one needs to respond violently to security forces. They had more grievances – and less to lose – than middle or upper class activists with university degrees.

AJ: Who do the armed groups target?

NR: From an early stage of the uprising, suspected informants for the regime have been intimidated, expelled and often killed.

These are called mukhbir [“sources”], or in colloquial Syrian awayneh or fasfus. Executions of those suspected of spying for the regime take place regularly all throughout Syria, including in Damascus. By the summer there were regular ambushes of security officers on the roads, as well as attacks against shabiha [“thugs”], as the civilian paramilitary or militia forces of the security agencies are known.

AJ: What methods and weapons do the fighters use?

NR: Initially, individuals responded to the violent crackdown on demonstrations by using any weapons they had at home to take pot shots at security forces. Then groups of demonstrators used rocks, Molotov cocktails, dynamite sticks, knives, shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols and the occasional automatic rifle to defend demonstrations when security forces attacked.

This escalated into attacks on buses, or gatherings of security forces believed to be on their way to attack demonstrations, and evolved into a classic insurgency. In some places, demonstrators also responded to attacks by security forces by attacking buildings belonging to the ruling Baath Party, the police, the security forces or courthouses – and ridding these of any state presence.

The armed groups generally operate secretly and in small groups, conducting ambushes on targets of opportunity using light arms and, increasingly, improvised explosive devices. For the past few months, insurgents have been using improvised explosive devices such as those found in Iraq, Afghanistan or southern Lebanon. Unlike in Iraq, however, the explosives used in these IEDs are fertiliser-based. These have been used in Idlib, Hama and Homs. In addition, rocket-propelled grenades – such as LAW anti-tank shells – have also more recently been used as shoulder-fired anti-armour missiles. The fighters have access to some sniper rifles as well.

I have seen evidence of complex attacks, involving several IEDs followed by heavy machine-gun fire.

AJ: How do armed groups get their arms?

NR: The Syrian insurgency is not well-armed or well-funded. Fighters purchase their weapons locally on the black market, from arms dealers and smugglers who are profiting from the violence in Syria. I have been with insurgents purchasing weapons and seen how they arrange to do so via smugglers from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

They also capture weapons from security forces in attacks on regime arms depots. One armed group in Idlib captured several dozen Kornet anti-tank missiles. Sometimes they even purchase them from corrupt officers within the security apparatus.

AJ: How do the groups finance their arms purchases?

NR: Many fund their arms purchases by turning to their savings or selling what valuables they have, or the products of their shops or farms. Others borrow money from friends. Much of the financing comes from Syrian businessmen inside or outside the country. Some Syrian opposition activists and politicians in exile are sending money to people inside. In addition, diaspora Syrians tied to Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or to conservative clerics in the Gulf, also send money to certain groups.

The fighters usually belong to small cadres, such as “Abu Muhamad’s Group”, where Abu Muhamad may have access to some money with which he supports his band of fighters. Some groups give their “companies” or “brigades” names – often after “martyrs” or those with “heroic” religious connotations. This creates the false impression in much of the foreign media that there is some national leader, a chain of command, a structure or order of battle and divisions.

The fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups, not as the “Free Syrian Army”. Nor are they funded directly by any state actor or intelligence agency. Indirectly, however, some Syrian exile religious movements or opposition political figures might be channelling funding from various countries to groups inside Syria.

AJ: How much impact do army defections have?

NR: There is a steady stream of army defectors, and to a lesser extent from the security agencies. Some defect with their weapons.

The regime is in a quandary. Its security agencies alone cannot clear or hold a village or a neighbourhood or a city. They need the Syrian army to back them up. But Syrian conscripts are often from the Sunni majority – and so is most of the opposition – from all over Syria, including from hotspots of the revolution. So it is soldiers’ own brothers and cousins who are demonstrating. Moreover, when the poorly paid Syrian soldiers are deployed to an area, they fraternise with the local population. Locals feed them and let them use their mobile phones to call home. Local activists persuade them to defect and arrange for their safe haven.

Meanwhile, Sunni members of the army are coming under increasing suspicion by the security agencies, and there have been cases of security men killing soldiers for refusing to obey orders to shoot. Hundreds of soldiers and officers have also been arrested.

AJ: What is the rank of the defecting officers?

NR: I did not meet any more senior than lieutenants, but some majors and colonels have also defected.

Local opposition leaders will say that they need fighters more than officers. They are also suspicious of officers who have waited so long to defect. They will ask: “What have they been waiting for?” They are worried that some defecting officers are double agents who would inform on them, which has already happened.

Additionally, opposition leaders claim they are in touch with senior officers who have “made their allegiance to the revolution clear” and who provide them with intelligence – and are thus more valuable to their cause if they remain inside the system. Finally, defecting officers face a logistical challenge. They must arrange for a safe place to flee – and they must arrange protection for their families.

AJ: To what extent is the Syrian uprising a peaceful one?

NR: The debate over whether or not it is peaceful is not based on empirical research but on propaganda from both sides. The pro-regime media wants to portray the revolutionaries as nothing more than armed criminals and terrorist gangs. In response, opposition supporters have, until recently, denied all violence – fetishising the notion of a peaceful revolution – which has hurt not only their credibility, but the credibility of foreign media which often uncritically report their accounts.

The debate is also largely irrelevant. On the ground it was clear that by the end of Ramadan (late August), that there was a growing consensus on the part of opposition supporters that only an armed struggle could overthrow the regime. [Continue reading…]

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