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Among Syrian rebels, a shared sense of commitment

By Austin Tice,

Khan Sheikhoun, Syria — On a Sunday late last month, Syrian army forces attacked this town. By early afternoon, two children had been killed by a mortar shell, and doctors and nurses were struggling to save an elderly woman shot in the chest with a Kalash­nikov. An attack helicopter circled overhead. The local rebel commander phoned his compatriots in the nearby town of Madaya for help.

When the reinforcements arrived, they focused on the chopper. One group took off with a truck-mounted Dushka heavy machine gun, racing through the streets as the helicopter swooped above. Others fired at it with Dragunov sniper rifles and Kalashnikovs.

Asked how he hoped to shoot down an armored attack helicopter circling above at 2,000 feet using only a rifle, one of the fighters grinned. “Perhaps it is possible, if it is the will of Allah,” he said.

The thousands of rebel fighters who battle daily with the superior forces of the Syrian military face long odds. Many have no military training. There’s little strategic planning. Even as international efforts to support the rebel cause begin to kick in with a flow of smuggled rifles, heavy weapons remain scarce.

And yet, a rare look inside rebel operations in Syria reveals a force that has been undeterred by the crushing tactics of President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Heavy losses in the rebel ranks and among civilians have only emboldened the fighters in their quest to topple Assad, whose government has killed thousands of Syrians while trying to suppress what began last year as a peaceful uprising but is rapidly turning into a civil war.

“I never wanted to fight. Our revolution started in peace,” said Shahm, who commands the rebel unit in Madaya.

“We asked Bashar only for our freedom. But he answered us with bullets. The first time a man hits you, maybe you do not respond. Maybe not the second time. But the third time . . .

His voice trailed off. “I am human. I have emotions. And so now, I fight.”

That decision comes with risk. During the battle in Khan Sheikhoun last month, a sniper in a sandbagged bunker had been causing the rebels trouble. Shahm grabbed Walid, his best rocket-propelled-grenade gunner, and they headed for the bunker.

The men crept, undetected, to within 100 yards of the sniper. Walid’s first shot flew high. He calmly reloaded, and his second rocket scored a direct hit. The Syrian army responded with an ear-shattering barrage of directionless fire. Thirty feet away, a tank shell exploded against a stone wall. Shahm and Walid looked at each other and laughed.

The helicopter escaped unscathed, but Shahm reckoned the day’s fighting a success. By his count — which was difficult to verify — rebel forces destroyed a tank and three armored personnel carriers, and killed or wounded at least 15 soldiers, all without suffering any casualties.

“The children, they are a tragedy,” Shahm said, referring to the two killed by a mortar shell. “But we quickly took our revenge.”

An unlikely fighter

At first glance, Shahm, who is in his mid-20s, does not make much of an impression as a fighter. His glasses and intellectual air seem more befitting of his pre-
revolutionary alter ego — a student of civil engineering at a Russian university. He speaks beautiful English, decorated with poetic Arabic flourishes and delivered with the faintest hint of a Russian accent.

Why study abroad? His answer was simple: “Military service in Syria is compulsory. No way was I going to work for Bashar.”

Shahm, who did not want his last name published for fear that it would complicate his chances of one day obtaining a visa to travel to the United States, is the leader of a band of about 50 rebels who are with the Free Syrian Army. Madaya is under the complete control of the rebel force. The fighters carry weapons openly, and the civilians regard them as heroes.

Although Shahm has no formal military training, he said his father — who commands a rebel unit of his own and who had briefly served in Assad’s army many years ago — taught him the basics of military leadership. They regularly confer via Skype, Shahm said, planning attacks, medical evacuations and weapons shipments.

Before the uprising, the father operated a marble quarry. The business was successful, and the family is well respected in Idlib, the northwestern province that has been the scene of some of the year’s heaviest fighting.

A rebel’s evolution

The spirit of revolution runs in the family — Shahm’s great-uncle died fighting the French occupation, and his mother’s parents were killed for resisting the regime of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father.

Driving from the Turkish border through the Idlib countryside along a back road to avoid government checkpoints, Shahm gestured toward a railroad track and related the story of his initiation into guerrilla warfare.

“I told my father, ‘Today, I am going to do something big.’ He asked me what I was going to do. I told him, ‘When I do it, you will know,’ ” Shahm said.

Hours later, he said, a train came barreling down the track bearing fuel for helicopters and tanks in Aleppo. A homemade bomb detonated beneath it.

“The same dynamite we used in my father’s quarry, I used to destroy the train,” Shahm said.

He looked down ruefully. “It is all used up now.”

Shahm sped along the pitted road at a suicidal pace. His comrades in the back seat yelled at him to slow down, then shook their heads when they were ignored. The speedometer read somewhere north of 75 miles per hour when Shahm passed a truck with mere inches to spare. Suddenly, he slammed on the brakes — up ahead, a few chickens were crossing the highway.

Shahm said he is plotting a spectacular attack. The plan involves an artillery piece, but nobody knows how to use it. “There is a defected artillery officer who knows how, a first lieutenant. I am trying to bring him here,” he said. “Also, he says he needs some maps. We are trying to get them.”

Meanwhile, Shahm’s fighters had taken a suspected regime spy as prisoner. His swollen right eye attested to the beating he had endured.

Shahm responded with difficulty to questions about the prisoner’s treatment. “We are not killers. We are not like Assad,” he said. “But this man, he used to be one of us. And he was responsible for the deaths of more than 10 men. Our friends. Sometimes in war, you must set your principles and your education aside.”

He sounded like a man trying to convince himself.

Later that night, long after most of the others had gone to sleep, Shahm stayed up sitting by the phone. He finally received long-awaited word that a weapons shipment had arrived. At the urging of one of his men, he relented and lay down to sleep for a few hours.

His last words of the night were a protest. “The more you sleep, the less you fight.”

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