Saudi millions and special forces expertise turn Syria’s rebels into a fighting force

The Daily Telegraph reports: Hidden under olive groves in the rolling countryside of Syria’s northern Idlib province, of which a vast swathe is now in opposition hands, more than a dozen training camps have been set up in which young men prepare for the fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s military.

In one camp seen by The Daily Telegraph this week, recruits were put through their paces on an arduous obstacle course. Timed to the shouts of Commander Abdel Kadr, a military officer who has defected, the men vaulted walls, scrambled under razor wire mesh and swung along ropes in the tree tops.

Two men looked on from the tented sleeping quarters nearby. Tall with shaven heads, fair skin, bulging pectoral muscles, and biceps covered in tattoos, they were incongruous among the scrawny young fighters. They could not speak Arabic and were extremely unhappy in the presence of The Daily Telegraph.

The men, who use the code names Radwan and Mohammed, come from Scandinavia, but have requested that the country not be disclosed.

Though they refused to speak, saying only that they were “here to help”, recruits in the Free Syrian Army told this newspaper that the men were ex-special forces working as military advisers.

“The Free Syrian Army at first didn’t exist, it was just an idea. Now we are trying to turn this into a reality,” said Louay al-Mokdad, a coordinator for the FSA in charge of channelling much of the foreign funding into Syria. Unlike most of Syria’s rebel “brigades”, who, with informal behaviour and mismatched uniforms bear little relation to a conventional army, the men in this training camp wore identical uniforms and conducted themselves with military discipline.

As Commander Kadr arrived, the men sprung to attention with a salute. Answers were given in the shouted delivery of soldiers responding to a command.

“We have 20 men training, 12 on vacation and some on missions,” said one recruit. To some questions he replied that the information was “classified” and the “strength of an army is in its secrets”.

For three weeks the men are subjected to extensive physical training, gun practice on a firing range, lessons in military discipline, and instruction in military tactics, such as how to attack a sniper or move under fire. Trainees cannot leave the camp without permission.

Failure to follow the rules leads to “hard physical punishment” or expulsion. Many of the men undergoing the extensive training are civilians.

“I was studying in Damascus and I went to the first protests,” said a 21-year-old, who would not give his name. “And then the massacres started. You see it on TV and you hate it, and then you feel it and you hate it more. Then either you die with your hate or you go to fight.”

There are 18 such training camps spread across Idlib province, as well as some in the suburbs of Damascus, FSA commanders said. Rebels denied that other camps also had foreign advisers, but one source said it was something that was under consideration.

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