JABAL AL-AKRAD - Hussein delicately displays the treasure he's been hiding in a sock: fifteen cartridges. He checks each one of them carefully and puts them back in their provisional container. As for his weapon, he has none, but borrows a Kalashnikov from his fellow fighters when he needs one. In Hussein's unit, or "katiba," 100 rebel soldiers share 80 weapons. This includes outdated shotguns, buckshot rifles and some pistols.
Here in the Jabal al-Akrad region in the northwest of Syria, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rules over the countryside and mountains. Its ambition: to resist and eventually challenge the country's dominant military force, the Syrian Army. This requires getting organized, gaining some field experience and above all, acquiring weapons and equipment.
In wartime Syria, the price of weapons has gone through the roof. An old Kalashnikov is now worth $2,000 – much more for a recent model in good condition. Cartridges are sold five dollars a piece. Which means that during shooting practice, there's not a lot of actual shooting. Captain Ahmed displays bottles and cans on tree stumps --anything that can serve as target. Today, each fighter gets two shots. Ahmed, a deserter from the army, hits the can, true to his reputation of being the sharpest shooter in the Jabal al-Akrad. Nasser, a young volunteer, too young for the country's compulsory military service, misses. The aspiring sniper has only fired eight times in his entire life. Hurt in his pride, he blames the faulty weapon: "The scope is broken, the weapon is obsolete." The training will resume tomorrow –provided that things remain as calm as today.
Back to the group's headquarters, an isolated building in the middle of an olive plantation, Captain Ahmed's fighters divide daily chores among themselves: keeping lookout, guarding the place and cooking on a wood fire outside. They usually lead a simple life, but today Abu Ramadan, the highest-ranking officer in the Jabal al-Akrad, is visiting --which requires some additional preparation.
Abu Ramadan was a colonel in Bashar al-Assad's army. He deserted a few months ago and fled to Turkey before returning in April to his native Jebel to head five katibas.
Bad weapons, bad ammo
As soon as he arrives, the small congregation stands up as one. Things are bad: in spite of promises made by the leaders of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Qatar, there are no weapons. And although the regime's security forces have not led any major operation in the Jebel for the past three weeks, troop movements in the area are raising fears of an impending strike. "When they attacked the villages of Akko and Kabani, we were powerless against their helicopters and heavy weapons. Even our rocket launchers proved ineffective against their tanks," Abu Ramadan laments. A fighter blames his RPG7, an anti-tank rocket launcher made in Russia: "I aimed at the tank, but the rocket fizzled against the tank's armor --it didn't have an explosive charge." Abu Ramadan weighs a rocket that seems a bit light to his taste. "The last batch we purchased was worthless."
Fewer and fewer weapons come from Turkey, where the army is relentlessly fighting against arms smuggling to prevent the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey) from getting its hands on more firepower. Weapons are available in Lebanon, but prices have increased greatly and it would be almost impossible to smuggle them from the Lebanese border to the Jebel Akrad, through the Homs Governorate. So the only solution left for the FSA is to buy its weapons from corrupt officers of the regular army, says Adil, a rookie who has just witnessed a major transaction: "A truck loaded with Kalashnikovs and ammunition arrived; we had $ 100,000 in cash. We were hoping it would not be a trap. But the deal was done in no time. "
Yasin, 14, would join the ranks of the FSA in a heartbeat, and like all kids his age in the Jebel, he dreams of having his own Kalashnikov. Which drives his great uncle crazy: "He can't even hold a pen properly and he wants to fight. How ridiculous! That's nonsense! Thankfully, the rebels don't have any weapons for them, so they can't enroll these silly kids."
Abu Hani calls an emergency meeting with his men. Weapons have just been purchased from an Alawi officer posted in the Idlib region. The biggest part of the stock will go to rebels in the Jabal al-Haffeh, and Abu Hani's katiba has been asked to convey the weapons up to the town of Selma. Another group will then take over –and so on, until destination is reached. Coordination is the hardest part: Syria's communication networks are all monitored, and using them is out of the question. To get around this they have to rely on Turkish networks when possible: "One of our katibas in charge of the delivery is not answering, but the weapons are already on their way. It's risky," says Abu Hani.
Something has gone wrong in Selma. The al-Haffeh katiba has fallen into a trap. In the noisy hullabaloo that ensues, several men hop on their motorcycles and go to their rescue, together with two cars and a van. A worried crowd gathers on the central square: all the ambushed fighters were born in this village.
No doctors, no hospitals
After a while, a motorcycle comes back: There are casualties. The surviving rebels follow in a van: "Abu Mazen and Noureddine have been wounded!" The news causes much agitation and screaming. They were in a motorcycle accident --nothing serious. There are no doctors in the Jabal; a 15 year-old rebel serves as first aid attendant. He's equipped with a kit that contains drugs he's never heard of. Abu Hani sums up what happened in Selma: "Four of our men were injured in three motorcycle accidents. Unfortunately, the al-Haffeh katiba has lost two men in the fighting." It's a grim outcome for this intrepid yet amateur army.
The next day, Abu Ramadan, Ahmed and Abu Hani try to understand what can be learned from the mission: "At least the weapons were safely delivered." But the lack of appropriate means of transportation and the general lack of organization have taken their toll: "We can't afford to keep waiting for the equipment to arrive, we have to take it from the enemy," says Captain Ahmed.
The Aleppo-Latakia motorway runs along part of the Jabal Akrad. Many military convoys drive down this road, which means a lot of weapons and vehicles can be potentially stolen –a true godsend. But the army keeps a close eye on this strategic passage; military camps have been placed at regular intervals all along the way. Ambushed in the forest that overlooks the road near the Chilif village, the fighters are waiting for the signal. The rain begins to fall. Quick as a flash, the troops manage to escape with their loot before back-up forces arrive.
Although the most recent operations have been successful, Abu Hani remains taciturn and anxious: "Today, the convoy was only preceded by light tanks that fired randomly on both sides of the road. It won't be easy to do it again."
Abu Ramadan admits that the FSA still needs to get organized and to strengthen links and communication between the different katibas. "As it stands, even if we received weapons, it wouldn't be sufficient to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. The victory against the regime can only come from an outside intervention."
Read the original story in French
Photo – FreedomHouse 2