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Trudy Rubin: Syrian rebels struggle for unity and weapons

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, at 12 a.m.

Walking from Turkey into Syria at the Bab al-Salameh gate takes you down a long, desolate road flanked by high walls and barbed wire. Just beyond the barbed wire sits the Kilis refugee camp, holding thousands of desperate families who fled the bombs and shelling in towns just beyond the border.

I crossed with staff from the Syrian Support Group, a Syrian-American organization working to help officers of the Free Syrian Army set up a more coherent structure. At a guesthouse on the Syrian side, I sat down with Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, head of rebel forces in Aleppo and one of the most prominent rebel commanders.

Akidi has been working with other commanders to try to unify hundreds of local brigades and militias, some of which have an Islamist bent. He has brought under his wing the Tawhid Brigade, one of the most active fighting forces in Aleppo, which has been labeled Islamist by many outsiders.

What Akidi had to say should be taken to heart by Americans who care about the hideous war crimes being committed by Bashar Assad’s government – or about U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

Akidi told me that his men fight with weapons they seize from the regular Syrian army or buy on the black market. They are short of everything, even ammunition.

What the FSA most needs are anti-aircraft weapons to stop attacks on civilian areas. Then the rebels could halt the bombing and create de facto no-fly zones that protect civilians – without a need for U.S. intervention.

U.S. officials won’t supply those weapons because they fear they may fall into jihadi hands. Were the Americans to supply anti-aircraft weapons in limited numbers, Akidi said, “We have special officers who would be responsible for those weapons. I would personally be responsible. I am sure we could control them.”

What about the Tawhid Brigade, whose leaders wear full beards, and which has just joined forces with Akidi’s command? By chance, its commander, Abdul Qader al-Saleh, was across the border in Turkey, recuperating from a shoulder wound inflicted by a Syrian government sniper. I met Saleh in a cafe and asked him about remarks he’d made on Al-Jazeera that he would fight alongside anyone who opposed the regime – even a Syrian group called the al-Nusra Front, which has al-Qaida sympathies.

“They have other ideas than us,” he said intensely, “ideas that are the opposite of ours. We are not al-Nusra; we are not Muslim Brotherhood. We are people fighting for our rights.” Like Akidi, he added, “Anyone who fights against Assad is welcome to the fight.”

Saleh told me he had been an import-export trader before the war; a comrade accompanying him had been a teacher in a state school. Both took up arms only after Assad’s troops started slaughtering Aleppo’s civilians.

Of course, I cannot vouch for Saleh’s bona fides. What is clear is that without anti-aircraft weapons, this war will continue for months, if not years. The rebels control much of the ground, but they cannot defend against planes.

The risk of green-lighting delivery of limited numbers of anti-aircraft weapons must be weighed against the near-certainty that militants will get them anyway if the war continues.

Already, old Russian-made shoulder-to-air weapons are trickling in from Libya.

So which risk is greater: Trusting Akidi and pushing the war toward a conclusion, or waiting for chaos if the fighting drags on?

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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