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.”