'Every Syrian has lost someone. Now we are ready to fight back'

In the hills near Ain al-Baida, the rebels tell Justin Vela why they are prepared to die to liberate their country

The sharp pop of gunfire draws little reaction. The soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) point to a multi-storey house just across the wide valley from their base above the village of Ain al-Baida, about a mile from the Turkish border. "That is where the military is," says commander Abo Mohammad, who wears a camouflage jacket over civilian clothes and cradles an AK-47.

Unlike many of the 150 fighters he claims are positioned in Ain al-Baida, Mr Mohammad has not defected from the Syrian army. Originally from a village not far from this complex of abandoned buildings that houses the FSA fighters, Mr Mohammad says he spent April and May organising peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

In June, when the Syrian military's infamous 4th Brigade came north, leaving a path of destruction in its wake, Mr Mohammad fled to Turkey, spending two months in a refugee camp near the border. But he grew tired of waiting, and returned to Syria to fight.

"People are dying in Syria," he said. "No one came to help us. I did not accept what is happening. I can't be patient, I prefer to die here."

He is one of a growing number of civilians leaving their homes and joining the military defectors who make up the bulk of the FSA, a symbol of both the powerful hatred many ordinary Syrians feel towards the Assad regime and of how far the country has slid towards civil war.

The FSA – commanded by Riad al-As'aad, a defected colonel who is based in a Turkish refugee camp – has claimed responsibility for several attacks against Syrian security forces. In late November, the group agreed to co-ordinate with the Syrian National Council (SNC), an umbrella organisation of opposition groups based largely in Turkey.

While Turkey and Western countries have insisted that they are not supplying arms to the FSA, Mehmet Ali Ediboglu, an MP from Turkey's opposition People's Republican Party, claimed this week that arms were entering Syria from his country. "I don't know how they got into the country – smuggling is the first answer comes to mind," he told The National Turk.

Syria's state news agency reported on Tuesday that the country's border guards had stopped 35 armed men from entering from Turkey, further stoking tensions between the neighbours, which have heightened since the unrest began in March. Turkish leaders have repeatedly calling on President Assad to halt his crackdown, which the UN estimates has left 4,000 people dead.

Last month, the French magazine Le Canard enchaîné reported that French intelligence officers had contacted the FSA and were preparing for a "limited" intervention. Mr Mohammad, however, denied the reports and said the army defectors were using their state-issued weapons, with the opposition also looting arms from Syrian security forces. "Up to now we have seen no support from Turkey or other countries," he said.

Reports of weapons crossing the border are difficult to verify, but the FSA has an expansive network of smugglers who travel from Turkey to provide medical equipment, winter clothing, food, satellite phones and sensitive messages.

One such courier, 26-year-old Udai Sayeed, was a political science student at Damascus University when the protests began earlier this year. At first, pro-Assad students tried to coerce him into working for them, giving him an electric cattle prod and, later, a pistol. But after a month of seeing regime violence, he went into hiding in Turkey. In a small flat in Antakya, a Turkish city close to the border, he and a small group of other Syrians organised the transport of bags for blood and serum into their beleaguered homeland.

"In many cities, people can't go to hospitals because they kill a lot of the people there. So the wounded go to the houses. The bags are for those houses," he said.

Another courier, named Nazir, said he would prefer to fight. "If I had a chance and its OK with the Free Syrian Army ... everyone here would fight," he said. "Everyone in Syria lost someone – a brother, a sister. A lot of people in Turkey are waiting for [the FSA commander] al-As'aad to call them."

That sentiment was echoed by refugees in the Turkish camps. "We want to fight to protect our people from what Bashar's regime is doing," said Abo Hasan, a 32-year-old refugee in the Reyhanli camp.

But this army-in-waiting may need to be patient. While the FSA claims an increasing presence across Syria – especially in Homs, Idlib, and Deraa – in Ain al-Baida they say they control only about 500 metres down the hill from their complex of cinder block houses and sandbagged positions.

Calls for the international community to establish a buffer zone inside Syria might not yet have substantial international support, but the FSA's numbers are growing. On average, two to three army defectors a week arrived in Ain al-Baida, Mr Mohammad said.

Because of the restrictions on reporting from Syria, it is impossible to confirm any of the wilder opposition claims of how much influence they have. There are also fears – which the Assad regime has been keen to stoke – that there is a sectarian element, with the largely-Sunni opposition facing off against the largely-Allawite regime supporters.

One new defector, Mejdi Hadu, 21, arrived two days ago. He decided to defect after his military unit was ordered to fire on protesters in Damascus. "Officers said to fire because they worked against us, they worked against Syria, they were bad people," he said.

Asked why he had decided to stay and fight after defecting instead of fleeing to Turkey, he said: "It's better here. I didn't want to hide. I am trying to encourage my friends to come to the free army."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

£35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Developer

£50k - 60k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Front End Developer

£50k - 70k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We have an exciting Seni...

Opilio Recruitment: Senior Digital Designer

£50k - 55k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An exciting opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game