FSA Cooperation Better on the Frontline than at Headquarters

14/11/2012 RUDAW –  By JEAN CARRERE – ALEPPO, Syria — “It’s not the best way to start the day, but it has to be done,” said Ahmad, a 24-year-old fighter in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), before picking up half a skull and placing it on a sheet.

Next to him, Hyad, 21, picked up a femur. They had tried to carry the skeleton whole, until it fell into pieces and they had to scavenge for the bones. Once the entire corpse was on a sheet, front commander Sheikh Abu Mahmud helped them carry it towards a pickup truck, where it could be shipped to the morgue.

“It has been too long. This body has been on the street for months now, eaten away by rats. We wanted to wait for an ambulance to come, but they are better used helping the wounded than coming to get a skeleton,” Ahmad explained. This scene took place on the Salahaddin front, after the rebels retook a few blocks that had been held by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces for months. According to them, the army left the corpse – that of an unidentified male civilian – to rot in the streets, and never bothered to bury it. If death is too common in Aleppo, there is a definite sense of ceremony in this scene, and of brotherhood between the three men. The three soldiers carrying the sheet come from very different backgrounds. Ahmad, a Salafi, is a former store clerk from Azaz. Hyad was enrolled at university in Homs when war broke out. Sheikh Abu Mahmud, 30, managed a clothing store in Aleppo.

But the differences do not stop here. The three men were also enrolled in different divisions of the FSA. Currently operating on this segment of the Salahaddine front are various brigades from the Liwa al-Tawid division and from the Liwa Halab al-Shabaa division, in addition to Sheikh Mahmud’s independent brigade, al-Noreen.

The Syrian rebels have been criticized recently for their lack of cooperation and coordination. A sense of distance between the Syrian National Council (SNC), based in Istanbul, and the various forces operating on the ground has not improved this situation. Moreover, the rise of jihadi fighters and jihadi movements within the FSA has not only frightened outside observers, but accentuated divisions within the rebel armed force. But on the frontline, these issues seem to be nonexistent. “There is no discord on the front, and there is very good coordination between the different groups,” Sheikh Mahmud explained. The young commander was elected among the fighters of his katiba, and his authority was recognized when fighters from other divisions joined the frontline.

“Sometimes there is rivalry between the people behind the desks, but not here. We have one goal: defeat Bashar. The name of your brigade or your personal beliefs has nothing to do with that,” he said.

Indeed, the numerous small units living in abandoned apartments on this frontline coexist very well. They eat together, share coffee, tea and cigarettes, as well as ammunition. They also cooperate with civilians, who come back to the neighborhood to gather some of their belongings from the rubble. Letting civilians go back and forth is in itself a risk, due to the possible infiltration by spies and sharias. “But what can we do? We are not an occupation army. These people need their stuff back. We are not here to loot,” Hyad said. But cooperation is at its best when it comes to fighting. Communication via shortwave radios and walkie-talkies allows them to coordinate during assaults.

While Sheikh Mahmud denied ever receiving conflicting orders directly, he was critical of the coordination at a higher level. “These people, they are not like a real army yet. They argue; they want to gain more power. We just want to gain more ground on Assad and liberate more areas from the tyrant,” he said.

He added that the important decisions were made on the frontline anyway. “Sometimes a division will want to launch an assault, while another will want to wait and be more careful. But whatever they say, the decision is going to be made on the frontline. We have to weigh the risks and assess the situation, and then we reach a decision,” Sheikh Mahmud said.These crucial decisions are made using intelligence gathered by FSA scouts, or even by soldiers in the army wanting to defect.

According to the division general, who asked not to be named, this is now a common technique to gather intelligence. “They get in touch with us when they want to defect. But often, before they do, they stay in the army for a while and provide us with valuable intelligence.”

The general also acknowledged this as a means to obtain ammunition. “A soldier about to defect will pretend to have fired more rounds than he actually did, and deliver the rest to us,” he said. He also explained that this technique was employed not only by defectors, but also by opportunistic army soldiers looking to earn some extra cash, while having no intention to fully defect.

On the Salahaddine front, Sheikh Mahmud is optimistic, despite facing strong military forces. Only a few hundred meters north of their position, the army had stationed several tanks, and snipers covered the main roads leading to the neighborhood. “At the moment, we only have two RPGs and three snipers. But if we need more, we will get more. Just like if another brigade needs ammo or explosives, we will give it to them,” Sheikh Mahmud said. He recalled a recent incident where a brigade on the Saif al-Dawla front contacted him via radio to say they were fighting but running low on ammunition, and the Sheikh sent some of his men with enough ammo to push back the regime attack. “We need to be strong and united if we want to win; if we want to survive. The commanders and politicians can argue all they want, but we will not. Not here, not with what is at stake,” Sheikh Mahmud said.