Friday, October 19, 2012

Blood brothers: NOW meets a Lebanese FSA fighter

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with Nadine Elali]

In a sparsely-furnished room just off Tripoli’s central Nour Square, Abu Huraira grins as he hands us his phone. On the screen is a video of him perched on the turret of what appears to be a Syrian army tank. Cutting a menacing figure in full mujahid gear—black robe, black headband bearing the shahada, Kalashnikov on shoulder—he is loudly and inventively cursing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In a moment of elation, proudly patting the thick gun barrel, he shouts, “I’m taking this to Jabal Mohsen!”

The clip was filmed during his three-month stint with the Free Syria Army over the summer; the glory days for 26-year-old Huraira, who also eagerly shows us a clip of him and 30 others preparing to ambush a regime checkpoint. Unusually—as his allusion to the pro-Assad Tripoli neighborhood suggests—Huraira is not Syrian but Lebanese; one of an estimated 300 to have taken up arms against the regime next door. “We hadn’t planned to fight initially,” he told NOW. “But when we discovered the regime was being assisted by Hezbollah and the Iranians and the Iraqi Dawaa Party, we felt it was a duty.” Hezbollah and Iran deny sending any troops to Syria.

Thus in May Huraira joined Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi (“Banner of the Free Orontes”), a 1,500-strong brigade falling under the umbrella of the Free Syria Army, chiefly comprising Syrian army defectors. The brigade fights mainly in Homs and Qusayr, the town between Homs and the Lebanese border in which Huraira says the video of him on the tank was taken.

Militarily, Huraira claims the brigade has been quite successful. “We have taken out 30 regime checkpoints in Qusayr. We have captured seven tanks, as well as much armor and weaponry, including anti-aircraft guns. We also liberated some 300 civilians held in bunkers by the regime—many of them wives of FSA fighters kept as hostages.” Though it is impossible to verify these claims, a number of online videos appear to show Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi fighters in Qusayr next to defeated regime tanks; in one case towing one away. Another clip purports to show them repelling an attack by Hezbollah fighters.

Crucial to the brigade’s success, says Huraira, is covert assistance provided by soldiers within the regime’s ranks. “Whenever we attack a checkpoint, we time it based on a signal received from an army soldier.” One reason army defections are lower than many had anticipated, he says, is that the FSA encourages would-be defectors to stay on the inside for this reason. “They’re often much more useful to us that way.”

Ideologically, Huraira is not straightforward to define. On the one hand, he freely describes himself as a Salafist, and certainly looks the part with his thick beard and shaved moustache (although he wears Western clothing). He recalls being discharged from his mandatory Lebanese military service for refusing to shave and disobeying other regulations pertaining to religious observance. Moreover, he says the Liwa Ahrar al-Aasi brigade deals with prisoners of war “in accordance with Islamic law,” declining to answer whether or not that meant they were executed.

On the other hand, Huraira insists that he wants a non-sectarian, democratic government in Syria. “The social fabric of Syria is very much like Lebanon,” he explains. “There are many sects, and that’s why it’s better to be democratic.” He also says that of the 1,500 fighters in the brigade, around 50 are Alawites—that is, members of the same sect as Assad. “I didn’t go to Syria to fight the Alawites. My aim was to cleanse the country of shabiha [pro-Assad militiamen], whether Alawite or Sunni.”

At this point in our conversation Huraira’s friend, a muscle-bound man of around 30 with even more prominent facial hair, butts in for the first time. “You know, we’re not extremists or terrorists just because we have beards. If we were terrorists, we wouldn’t even be talking with you. We’re not forcing our beliefs on anyone. One of my good friends is a Communist. My own sisters don’t wear the veil.”

“Yeah, one of my brothers is a women’s hairdresser, God help him,” adds Huraira with a loud laugh.

“We don’t like weapons or war. We’re young men and want to live our lives like anyone else,” insists the friend, who declines to give a name. “We want job opportunities. But the security situation is so bad [in Tripoli] that instead of spending money on vacations or going out, I’m buying weapons. If I can’t have a life, then I have nothing to lose.” Both men, it transpires, took part in the recent sporadic clashes between the mostly Sunni, anti-Assad Bab al-Tabbaneh neighborhood and its chiefly Alawite, pro-Assad Jabal Mohsen rival.

The friend has not yet fought in Syria, though, and says he has no immediate plans to do so. Huraira, however, is itching to be back.

“As soon as I’m able to go, I’ll go.”

“Abu Huraira” is a pseudonym.

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