Who are the Syrian rebels?
By David Enders
29th June 2012 12:46 PM
David Enders of MCT-International ventures into the city of Khan Sheikhoun to spend weeks with Syrian rebels who are opposing Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They tell him about their lives, religion, family and what they plan to do after the revolution.
They are doctors, they are teachers. They are students and the unemployed. They are farmers and pharmacists. The armed rebellion that has plunged Syria into what one UN official has called a civil war that has been cast by the Syrian government as led by Islamic extremists, and the lack of a clear understanding of who the rebels are has been cited by Western governments as one reason not to arm them.
But a month of travelling with the rebels in northern and central Syria reveals that the armed opposition here is based as much on geography and ethnicity as religion. Some of the rebels are pious, but many more are not.
“They are poor people who have been harmed by the government,” said Abu Hamza, the leader of a group of fighters in this battered city of Khan Sheikhoun on the highway between the central city of Hama and the northern city of Idlib. “Most of them are not extremists.”
Syria’s strong Central Government has for decades brutally repressed dissent to its one-party rule. Since the time of Hafez Assad, the father and predecessor of Bashar al-Assad, the current president, the upper echelons of the country’s government and military have been dominated by Alawites, a Shiite Muslim sect that makes up about 10 per cent of the population in a country where 70 per cent of the people are Sunni Muslim Arabs.
The pro-democracy demonstrations that swept the country in March 2011 included a cross section of sects and ethnicities, but the armed rebels are Sunni to a man. Despite claims to the contrary, the only non-Sunni member of any rebel group, met by a reporter who’s traveled regularly inside Syria since February and spent the last four weeks with the rebels in their northern and central enclaves, was a Druze man who’d been captured during a battle near Homs and had been allowed to join the rebels.
Also untrue are widespread suggestions that the armed opposition draws its strength from the defections of soldiers dismayed at being ordered to shoot peaceful demonstrators. While defected soldiers are among the rebels, who operate under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, most fighters were civilians when they volunteered to fight the Assad government.
“We have big families, and when someone sees his brother or cousin put in jail or shot, he joins the revolution,” said Ziad, a pharmacist from Baba Amr, the neighborhood in the city of Homs that has become a symbol of the rebellion. “In Homs, we are all extended families.” Like many of the rebels, Ziad asked not to be identified because he fears reprisals against his family.
Mousab al-Hamadee is an example of the complexity of the rebel cause. A spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committee in Qaalat al-Mudiq, a rural rebel stronghold north of Hama, near the city that earned fame 30 years ago as the place where Hafez Assad killed around 20,000 in crushing a rebellion, he moves easily among the rebels, even those who are deeply religious.
Yet he is a self-described atheist. The rebels, he noted, are his friends from school, and many are his cousins. Family and place are more important than piousness, he said.
When the call to prayer was heard in a village in the Hama countryside, some rebels heeded it, but most did not.
The Sunni rebels have made overtures to other religious groups to join their struggle, with little success.
The Syrian National Council, the rebels’ nominal leadership in exile, has been criticised as being dominated by Sunnis and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Christians make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s population.
While they have participated in the demonstrations against Assad, they have preferred to flee rather than take up arms.
Abu Hamza, a Salafi, says that there are Christians among the Syrian National Council that he favours to lead the opposition, naming specifically George Sabra, an oft-quoted council spokesman who is also touted as a future head of the opposition.
“We are not takfiris,” Abu Hamza said, referring to extremist Sunnis who view Shiite Muslims as heretics. Takfiri groups helped plunge Iraq, a majority Shiite country dominated by a Sunni minority, into civil war after the US military toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. “This is not Iraq,” Abu Hamza said. But the recent bombing of Sayyed Al Zeinab, a Shiite shrine near Damascus, has frightening overtones of the violence that shook Iraq.
In 2006, the bombing of the Imam al-Askari Shrine in Samarra, a Shiite shrine in a Sunni majority area, unleashed a wave of violence in Iraq that only burned itself out when the majority Shiites essentially had cleansed Sunnis from much of Baghdad.
The rebels themselves disagree about what will happen when — not if — Assad is deposed. There are rebels who are bent on vengeance. Often, asking a question about Syria’s future or who the rebels themselves are in front of a group of them is enough to start an argument. “When Assad falls, then the revolution will really begin,” said a Syrian man who has lived in the US for years but returned to Syria to help organise the rebels.
In his 50s, the man said he had been moved by seeing a younger generation so willing to sacrifice. He asked not to be identified by name. “They are doing what we couldn’t,” he said.
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