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Broken and battered, the Free Syrian Army is united only in its will to oust President Assad.
BEIRUT, Lebanon — They fight to defend family or revenge the killing of a loved one. They fight for their country, for God or both. They fight for freedom and justice and, for some at least, in the hope of imposing Islamic law on a secular system.
Some are career soldiers, many are young conscripts, others simply civilians who know how to handle a gun. Some are secular liberals, a few are hardline Islamists who fought parallel, if not alongside, Al Qaeda in neighboring Iraq.
They have coalesced around the single mission of bringing down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime through armed struggle.
But as the regime escalates its assaults on the Free Syrian Army, as they are known, including a month-long bombardment that forced the poorly armed rebels to withdraw from their stronghold in Homs earlier this month, the armed opposition and their political representatives are struggling to overcome their profound differences.
“We will take the carpet slowly from under their feet because the people feel they failed them,” said one FSA unit commander, known as Abu Omar, speaking candidly about another FSA unit known as the Farouk Brigade.
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Both his unit of 150 men and the larger Farouk Brigade were among an estimated 1,200 rebel fighters controlling Homs’ Baba Amr district before Assad’s forces launched a four-week barrage of rockets and mortars on Feb. 4, which rights groups estimate killed at least 700 people and injured 2,000 more, mainly civilians.
Speaking on camera having crossed into Lebanon, Abu Omar lauded the “honorable” and “heroic” fighters who resisted the regime’s bombardment for 27 days before making a “tactical withdrawal.”
Off camera and speaking freely, he branded as “dogs” those leaders of the Farouk Brigade who “ran away” from Baba Amr three days before the regime sent ground troops in. Civilians in towns near Homs like Qseir and Bweida, said Abu Omar, were so furious with local Farouk Brigade fighters for failing to come to the aid of struggling FSA units in Homs that they spat in their faces.
Having fought hard in December and January to gain control over most of Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Inshaat, three major Sunni opposition strongholds in Homs, the withdrawal of the FSA from those neighborhoods was not only a strategic defeat but it left any remaining civilians defenseless against Assad’s militias.
In the days after Homs fell, dozens of civilians were stabbed to death or executed by the regime's Shabiha militiamen, according to rebels and activists in the city. The Shabiha are drawn from the minority Allawite community, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that makes up around 12 percent of Syria’s population (compared to 75 percent Sunni) but dominate its leadership.
A career soldier, Abu Omar described tensions between defected officers such as himself — who see themselves as natural leaders of the armed rebellion — and the opposition’s religious figures.
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Among those are some ultra-conservative Sunni Salafis with long-standing ties to patrons in Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both of whom openly support the FSA and are believed by diplomats to be sending cash to Syria’s rebels to buy arms.
“They are receiving money but we don’t know what they are doing with it,” Abu Omar said.
One of those in Homs who openly acknowledges receiving large sums of money to buy arms is an elderly Salafist leader known as Abu Annas al-Homsi, who fought with jihadi groups against US-led troops in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Though acknowledging the FSA, Homsi said its leader Col. Riad al-Asaad (no relation to the president) did not represent more than 20 percent of the fighters on the ground, which include his own militants, fighting in his words, “a jihad for God” to “liberate our country and defend our religion.”
“We want a Syria for all sects but I support implementing Islamic law because the majority are Sunni and when Syria was under an Islamic Caliphate it was a very successful time,” Homsi told GlobalPost in a recent interview.
Also supporting the armed rebels — with food, satellite phones, medicine and hospital treatments — is another political