David Ignatius
Opinion writer October 5, 2012

48 hours in Syria

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

A red-faced fighter named Faisal arrives at the forward headquarters of the Free Syrian Army, pleading for weapons. He’s just come from the front line in Sakhour, a neighborhood that has been under attack by the government’s forces for three weeks. As he shouts at his superiors, you can hear the thunder of incoming artillery about a half-mile away.

Faisal rages that his men are dying and that he needs rocket-propelled grenades to fight the tanks of President Bashar al-Assad’s army. He’s 28, just graduated from law school, and crazy with the bravery and exhilaration of the revolution. The commander listens to his plea but says he’s reluctant. The Free Syrian Army doesn’t have enough weapons, and the military council that directs the fight isn’t sure Faisal and his men can deliver.

The young fighter goes away with just one dilapidated RPG launcher from the stockpile of the forward headquarters at Tariq al-Bab, which is coordinating the fight on the eastern front of the battle for Aleppo. The percussive roar of the artillery continues as Faisal takes his treasured weapon back to the battle. Jihadist fighters based nearby are said to be preparing counterattacks, coordinated with the Free Syrian Army command.

This scene Thursday afternoon captured several basic facts about the war in Syria, which is pulverizing a city that in calmer days was one of the jewels of the Arab world. First, there aren’t enough weapons for the rebels to defeat Assad’s forces, and almost every Syrian I talked to thinks this is America’s fault; second, the commanders of the Free Syrian Army are trying to exercise better command and control over what has been a disorganized, ragtag operation; and third, in this chaotic and underresourced fight, the power of the Salafist jihadists — who ask only to be martyrs — appears to be growing.

I spent two days last week traveling inside Syria with the Free Syrian Army. They helped me sneak across the border Wednesday from the Turkish town of Reyhanli. (The cost for smuggling people across is usually $40, but for Americans they’re said to charge $100.) I arranged the trip through the Syrian Support Group, an organization in Washington that several months ago was given State Department permission to raise money and provide other assistance for the Free Syrian Army.

It happened that I was in Syria when tensions escalated sharply after Turkey retaliated for Syrian shelling that killed Turkish civilians. But whatever Turkey’s involvement, the key to this widening war remains the Free Syrian Army — and the urgent question is how it can be bolstered enough to shift the balance against the regime.

As I traveled many hours across back roads, it was clear that the rural north belongs to the Free Syrian Army. Their checkpoints are everywhere except the cities and major highways, and rebel commanders can travel safely across much of the northern third of the country.

“Welcome to Free Syria” was my greeting from Abdullah Haid when I reached the frontier outpost called Bab al-Hawa. He took me to meet Col. Abdel-Jabbar Akidi, the commander of rebel forces in the Aleppo region and perhaps the senior Free Syrian Army commander in the country. He was just finishing his afternoon prayers on the lawn with some of his officers and fighters. Dinner was served from a common platter set atop newspapers spread on the grass. Among the dinner guests was a man with an accent I was told marked him as Libyan, putting him among the jihadists who are known as “foreign fighters.”

Answering my questions after dinner, Akidi demonstrated the frustration of a commander who has been waiting for U.S. help but claims he isn’t getting anything useful. Official U.S. policy is to provide non-lethal aid, including command-and-control tools such as satellite phones.

Akidi looks like a military man, barrel-chested and confident, and he’s the sort of officer who Washington hopes might build a solid fighting force. If the United States can help him get modern antiaircraft and antitank weapons, “I will keep them away from extremist groups,” he promises. He hopes America can provide training, too — even a two-week basic course that could help create a real army.

But unless the United States provides weapons that can tip the balance, Akidi says he needs help from the jihadists who are so eager to fight and die. “I have no problem with extremists if they are fighting the regime. All we care is that the regime falls and the bloodshed stops.” What would Akidi do if the regime used chemical weapons? He laughs as he answers: “We will look for a grave.”

At a safe house in Atimah, an hour’s drive away, I meet Col. Afif Suleiman, the commander of Free Syrian Army forces in Idlib province. He’s wearing a shoulder holster with silver bullets in the bandolier and repeats the same injunction to America: Give us weapons and help us coordinate our forces, or the extremists will take control.

Well past midnight, we got back in Akidi’s shaky Mercedes and drove to his headquarters northwest of Aleppo. The trip takes about two hours, but the only tense moments came when passing through villages controlled by the Assad-backed Kurdish group known as the PKK. It was “lock and load” time for Akidi and his guards.

At Akidi’s headquarters Thursday morning, you could see the rough business of running a revolution: a fighter doling out bullets, a cigarette dangling from his lips; Akidi’s aides holding stacks of Syrian currency several inches thick to pay the bills. This army reflects the rural Sunni backbone of Syria.

We set off for Aleppo just after noon. On that long drive into the heart of Assad’s Syria, the fighters were nervous only when they heard the sound of a helicopter overhead. Assad rules the skies, and probably only U.S. missiles could change that deadly balance.

If the United States wants the rebels to coordinate better, it should lead the way by coordinating outside help. The shower of cash and weapons coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and other Arab nations is helping extremist fighters and undercutting any orderly chain of command through the Free Syrian Army.

I left Syria late Thursday night with a mad dash across 400 yards of no-man’s land, accompanied by smugglers who were remarkably tolerant every time I got caught in the barbed wire and who didn’t charge extra for picking me up when I stumbled through the hole in the border fence.

davidignatius@washpost.com