Special Report: Rebels promise 'fireworks' for Assad, using Afghan methods

Kim Sengupta reports from Qurqanya, where Syria's insurgents believe that using improvised explosive devices can turn the tide in their favour

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 25 July 2012 07:45 BST

The packages were in a farmhouse, laid out in neat rows on the floor of beaten earth, wrapped in bits of tattered clothing and old newspapers; many of them had been tagged with numbers.

"Presents for Bashar al-Assad, we are holding a party for him here and in Aleppo," Emed Ali Akhdar said. "It will be like the party in Damascus, lots of fireworks."

The homemade Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) will not have the devastating impact of last week's bombing in the Syrian capital, which killed four of the most senior members of the security apparatus. But they are having a significant say as opposition fighters take over more of Idlib province and prepare to launch an assault on Aleppo, until recently considered a loyalist stronghold of the regime.

What is also significant is that they are being put together in an area which was until a few weeks ago under the control of the Syrian military and the Shabiha, the militia of the Alawite community from which the country's elite are drawn.

The Independent had visited these parts four months ago in the company of rebels who were apprehensive of venturing down from the hills and wooded pathways into the villages and towns. Conversations with local people were hurried affairs, which had to be abruptly terminated at the approach of the military.

"We had to run very fast, remember, we could not face them, there was no choice. But now we are more comfortable. If they try to come back we are prepared. These are very good," Issa Mohammed Saif said.

"They can even stop tanks; they will be no good against chemical weapons, but Assad has promised he will not use that against us," he added, chuckling.

Mr Akhdar was one of those who has recently become a proficient supplier of IEDs. "Some people have had courses on it, but I learned to make them on Google," the 22-year-old student said with some pride. "It is easy and cheap. We use nitrate fertilizer, metal, blasting caps. We used to make them in Turkey and bring them here, but now we are making more here. We learned a lot from the internet, but we also have our own special method of making them that is a secret."

In reality, the bombs were rudimentary versions of the "pressure plate" and "command wire" types used in Afghanistan, where, as in other guerrilla wars, they have been something of a game changer.

As we spoke, there was a series of loud explosions to the south. "Our bombs," Mr Akhdar said happily. Evidence that the IEDs had indeed been effective came in the disabled and damaged shapes of trucks and armoured personnel carriers on the road to Salaqin, a town that had changed hands several times and where another round of fighting was taking place.

Yet it is not just IEDs that the rebels have added to their armoury. Back in March, the revolutionaries The Independent was with, part of a wider group of around 50, were armed with old hunting rifles and shotguns.

A Kalashnikov AK-47 they had acquired was regime issue – not captured, but purchased from a member of the Shabiha for $2,500 (£1,600), around six times the going rate in Libya, the arena of the last civil war of the Arab Spring.

The prices have not gone down much, but now there were many more Kalashnikovs, as well as rocket-propelled grenade launchers and even some mortars. Mr Saif, an engineer who is now a revolutionary, acknowledged that he and his comrades were much better armed than before, but stressed that they suffered in comparison to the fighters with the real money, the Islamists, who were getting the lion's share of their funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"The rest of us are raising our own money, getting donations from supporters who may have good jobs. Where is the help we were promised by the SNC [Syrian National Council], the funds they are getting from all over the world?" he asked.

"I know some of my friends pretend to be very religious so that they can get some of the weapons. They grow their beards long and some of them wear short trousers like the Salafists. But we are going to have a struggle with the Salafists when the regime falls.

"They have got their ideas and we have got ours. We want the Alawites, despite all they are doing now, and the Christians to be part of the new Syria. The Islamists want to drive them all out."

The real Salafists we met a little later near Qurqanya, a band of around 15, were taciturn and suspicious. Two were said to be from Turkmenistan; they declined, politely, to talk.

The leader, who said his name was Abu Obeid, said in response to questions: "We are here to fight for Syria, we are prepared to sacrifice ourselves. Where do we get our money from? That is our business, but it is not money stolen from the people like Assad's.

"We have our views about the Americans and what they have done but now we are concentrating on defeating the regime. We are prepared to help all our fellow fighters because we have a common goal, after that we all have views about what Syria will be like, but of course we are Muslims and most people would want Sharia."

Residents of this part of the country, who have known little else but unrelenting violence for the last 16 months, want peace more than anything. Mana Um Khalif, who lost her 19-year-old son Burhan eight months ago to a stray shell, wiped her eyes and said: "There is not a day when I don't think of him. He was a sweet boy and he was going to look after me. I don't want any more mothers to suffer like we are doing. We just want to be free, but we also need more food, medicine, education. I hope all this will come when there is peace; we need peace."

As we left, there was more shelling near the border with Turkey, rebel fighters were withdrawing from some of the positions they had taken in the last few days. The regime still had fight left in it and peace, it seemed, was some distance away.

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