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Who are Syria’s Rebel Forces?

June 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Tracy Shelton of GlobalPost reports from behind the front line in Syria, where she has been embedded with Syria's opposition fighters. Then Ray Suarez speaks with Randa Slim of the New America Foundation on the strength and strategies of the opposition forces in Syria. Slim is in regular contact with Syrian fighters.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: And we turn to Syria.

A Turkish air force jet went down off the Syrian coast today. The office of Turkey’s prime minister said Syria shot it down. And late this evening, the Syrian government admitted it did bring down the plane over its own territorial waters.

In a separate development, Syria’s government accused rebels of killing more than 25 men. A gruesome video — we’re just showing one still frame — captured corpses, some in military uniforms, dumped on a road near the northern city of Aleppo. The state-run news agency said the victims were pro-regime gunmen.

Government troops have launched an offensive in recent weeks to take back ground captured by the opposition.

Tracey Shelton of our partner GlobalPost was embedded with a group of rebels recently and filed this report.

TRACEY SHELTON, GlobalPost: Snipers take aim at a Syrian army checkpoint on the outskirts of the northern city of Benin. Government forces have shelled the city continuously for the past week.

And this is a Free Syrian Army mission to take out one of the regime’s positions. After exchanging gunfire for about an hour, the fighters retreat, saying they hit three soldiers. Missions like this one have become an almost daily routine.

MAN (through translator): How many have you killed?

MAN (through translator): Many.

TRACEY SHELTON: Khalid is a father of four who was trained as a sniper in Homs by the Assad regime, but then defected nine months ago. Jamal studied political science at a university in Aleppo before joining the uprising mid-last year.

They serve in the Al Muhajireen wal Ansar Battalion in the mountains of Jabal al-Zawiya, a Syrian rebel stronghold.

Assad al-Ibrahim has led the unit since the beginning of the uprising in March last year.

ASSAD AL-IBRAHIM, rebel commander (through translator): Of course I am proud. The braver I see my men become, the closer I see our victory.

TRACEY SHELTON: Al-Ibrahim commands 80 men on a base not far from the home shared by his parents, wife and three children. Like some two-thirds of his men, he had no military experience before picking up arms against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

ASSAD AL-IBRAHIM (through translator): We must demand our rights and fight for them as others have done. There is no doubt about this war. It is our right. Everyone has seen the injustice with their own eyes.

TRACEY SHELTON: Eight battalions based in these mountains work together under one central command. They form part of a network of rebel groups dotted throughout the country, but essentially they answer only to their regional leader.

They’re waging a guerrilla war with whatever weapons they can get. Many are brought from the enemy. This new batch of arms was purchased from a corrupt government official the previous night. The fighters check them for booby traps.

MAN (through translator): This is a good bullet. These are Bashar’s bullets to explode our guns. Two of our guns have exploded so far, and two men were injured. This is gunpowder.

MAN: Good. It’s good.

MAN (through translator): This is TNT.

TRACEY SHELTON: The men also manufacture their own explosives, from bombs the size of a grenade to those big enough to take out a T-62 tank.

Here, a team stands watch over a buried anti-tank bomb. When Assad’s forces approach, they will detonate the explosion with a garage door remote. During the long wait, former music and sports teacher Ahmed Harmeen says he sees his job within the battalion as not only a fighter, but also an entertainer.

MAN: If the Assad army comes, I and the battalion, we go. But if there is no army, I sit in the battalion and sing for the revolution.

(SINGING)

TRACEY SHELTON: The men say moments like this help raise morale in a deadly fight.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on just who these armed revolutionaries are, we turn to Randa Slim of the New America Foundation. She’s in regular contact with the Syrian fighters.

Randa, welcome.

How does what you just heard from Tracey Shelton match up with what you know of these irregulars in the field?

RANDA SLIM, New America Foundation: The video provides a snapshot of the different groups that make up the Syrian armed opposition.

There are the military soldiers, the military defectors. And they are now in the range of 40,000 to 100,000, depending on who you speak with on the ground. There is increasingly the formation of local armed militias consisting of civilians who have taken up arms to defend their neighborhoods and their families.

And these sometimes operate in collaboration with the Free Syrian Army and sometimes they are independent. And then, finally, there the jihadis. It’s not clear yet how much do they represent of the Syrian armed opposition.

What we know to date is that the majority of them are Syrians. There is not the foreign element that we have seen in the past in Iraq, for example. The majority of them do not espouse al-Qaida ideology of a global jihad against the West.

And for the jihadis, this is a real fight pitting Sunnis against the Alawites.

RAY SUAREZ: So are we seeing now a common cause among these disparate groups, that is, until some day in the future they might win, and then we will see the disagreements start to emerge?

RANDA SLIM: I mean, there are disagreements among them in terms of the leadership and — but the common cause right now is the common enemy, which is the Assad regime.

And as long as they are fighting the Assad regime, and as long as they are in this struggle against the Assad regime, they will keep the ranks as united as possible. In the future, as we have seen in Libya, there is a possibility that a divergence of opinions, that fights over leadership will emerge, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: We caught just a glimpse of this GlobalPost report and only a small bit of actual operations in the field. But as the Syrian conflict drags on, is this force getting better at fighting?

RANDA SLIM: It is getting better organized.

The Free Syrian Army still lacks the command-and-control structure to make it more effective. It’s getting better. We are seeing now the emergence in different provinces in Syria of military councils. These military councils are trying to bring the different armed factions in a particular province under their leadership.

They are becoming better at it. It all depends on how the flow of weapons inside the rebel ranks is getting organized, because who will control the weapons will be able to be — will be in a position to impose order.

RAY SUAREZ: It seems that in the 21st century, having a media operation is part of running a guerrilla army. How would you say the press relations have come along? Is this rebel army effective at speaking to the outside world?

RANDA SLIM: Not only the rebel army, but all of the opposition factions that are operating inside Syria have grown increasingly sophisticated.

They have become increasingly sophisticated at the use of social media technology to shape the narrative at home and abroad about the opposition, about their force. They look at what — at how this media helped in Egypt, how it helped in Libya, how it helped in Yemen. And they are applying these lessons learned from those uprisings.

And the more — and recently, based on conversations I have had with activists on the ground, there is an increasing awareness in their ranks that public relations is — and the battle for public opinion is an integral component of the struggle against the Assad regime.

RAY SUAREZ: One narrative that the outside world has pressed on to the Syrian opposition is that it really can’t unify, it can’t get its act together, whether it’s the deeply factionalized political opposition which is outside the country or, indeed, the armed forces that are inside Syria.

RANDA SLIM: That is correct.

And there still are divisions inside both the political opposition, as well as, you know, the different groups inside Syria. However, the common cause which is uniting them — I mean, they all agree that — they all agree on regime change. They all now agree, except a few opposition, political opposition group that still operate inside Syria, on the need for military intervention. They all agree that — that they need to unite.

However, they are lacking the skills and the platforms to really get their act together. There is right now an effort being undertaken by the Arab League to bring the political opposition united around a common platform, around a common vision for a post-Assad Syria.

RAY SUAREZ: Randa Slim, thanks for joining us.

RANDA SLIM: Thank you.