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.