KHAN AL-SUBUL, Syria — Under the leadership of a young, battle-hardened rebel commander, the men entrusted with the first American missiles to be delivered to the Syrian war are engaged in an ambitious effort to forge a new, professional army.
Abdullah Awda, 28, says he and his recently formed Harakat Hazm — or Movement of Steadfastness — were chosen to receive the weapons because of their moderate views and, just as important, their discipline. At the group’s base, sprawled across rocky, forested wilderness in the northern province of Idlib, soldiers wear uniforms, get medical checkups and sleep in bunk beds under matching blankets.
The scene is a far cry from the increasingly pervasive view of a chaotic, ragtag rebel movement that has fallen under the sway of Islamist extremists. Such concerns have long deterred the Obama administration from arming the Syrian opposition.
But the arrival at the base last month of U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles, the first advanced American weaponry to be dispatched to Syria since the conflict began, has reignited long-abandoned hopes among the rebels that the Obama administration is preparing to soften its resistance to the provision of significant military aid and, perhaps, help move the battlefield equation back in their favor.
The small number of BGM-71 missiles, about two decades old and hardly better than similar Russian and French models acquired by the rebels from allies and the black market over the past year, will not change the game in the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the fighters say. Three years into the war, the government has pushed opposition forces out of many of their most important strongholds, deferring their hopes of victory indefinitely.
However, the shipment “is an important first step,” Awda said during the first visit to his base by a journalist since the missiles arrived.
The weapons were not directly provided by the United States. “Friends of Syria” delivered them, he said, referring to the U.S.-backed alliance of Western powers and Persian Gulf Arab states established to support the opposition Free Syrian Army. The rebels had to promise to return the canister of each missile fired, to not resell the weapons and to protect them from theft.
Awda declined to offer further details of the provenance of the missiles. But he said the donors made clear to him that the delivery had U.S. approval, and U.S. officials have confirmed that they endorsed the supply.
“The most important thing is not the TOW missile itself, it’s the change in the policy,” he said. “It suggests a change in the U.S. attitude toward allowing Syria’s friends to support the Syrian people. It’s psychological more than physical.”
It is also something of a test for Awda, a little-known commander who in June 2011 became one of the first officers to defect from the Syrian army and has since fought in many of the biggest battles of the war, mostly under the banner of his former group, Farouq al-Shamal.
With his long hair tucked under an olive cap and his short beard, Awda comes across as a throwback to the kind of rebel who dominated the fight before foreign jihadists and al-Qaeda surged onto the battlefield. His resolutely on-message proclamations of support for democracy match the views that the United States has said it wishes more Syrian rebel fighters would embrace.
“I want a democratic state that rules over all Syria with equality and freedom for all citizens, free of fascism and dictatorship,” he said in an interview.
Other commanders say Awda has earned a reputation as a tough fighter, one who has avoided the allegations of criminality that have tarnished many non-Islamist rebels.
“I consider him one of the heroes,” said Abu Mustafa, a commander with a Free Syrian Army unit who now lives mostly in Turkey. “He’s moderate, he was one of the first to join us, and he’s a good fighter.”
The arrival of the weapons on the battlefield, revealed this month in YouTube videos, is raising Awda’s profile.
In January, Awda formed Harakat Hazm, under the auspices of the Supreme Military Council, after breaking away from a larger rebel formation that was being touted at the time as the new hope for moderation in Syria, the Syrian Revolutionary Front. It was led by a better-known commander, Jamal Maarouf.
The split has caused some tensions. Awda said he was uncomfortable with the indiscipline of Maarouf’s group, which has acquired a reputation for racketeering and thuggery. “Jamal Maarouf is a warlord, and we reject warlords,” Awda said. “He is a good man, but he is civilian and we are military.”
An adviser to Maarouf called Awda a respected fighter but accused him of pursuing “foreign agendas,” a reminder of the rivalries that can be engendered by efforts to arm the rebels.
With 5,000 fighters, Hazm is one of the smaller rebel groups, but Awda said his goal is to focus on building a quality force, emphasizing the recruitment of former soldiers with military experience. His fighters receive salaries of $100 a month, paid for by the rebels’ allies, and 150 have been given training in Qatar, he said.
Leading a journalist on a tour of his camp, Awda was at pains to emphasize the group’s discipline, structure and moderation, evidently in the hope of receiving further U.S. help. Few fighters were there, he said, because most were on the front lines 10 miles to the south or farther to the west, where rebels have been engaged in a new offensive.
There were plenty of signs of assistance in the form of funds and nonlethal aid from the rebels’ allies, including the United States. U.S. officials said the group was among six rebel units authorized this year to receive nonlethal American aid, including vehicles and medical supplies, after being vetted for its political views, its associations and its capabilities.
“They passed the test,” a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
At the headquarters, trainee soldiers wearing identical beige uniforms drilled in a tidy yard. Offices and stores distribute uniforms and food, which are carefully recorded on printed forms.
Another room serves as a recruitment center. On this day, four young men from smaller rebel groups in neighboring Hama province were waiting to be interviewed. Three said that word of the U.S. missiles had encouraged them to apply.
“Harakat Hazm are more organized than the others, and they have better weapons,” said Ibrahim Raslan, 22.
Later, driving into the nearby forest in a new pickup truck, also a gift from foreign “friends,” Awda showed further evidence of his plans to expand.
One clearing serves as a maintenance area for captured tanks and armored vehicles. Another patch of land features a training center. Half a dozen big white tents with logos indicating that they came from Saudi Arabia have been erected to house recruits. A row of concrete latrines is nearing completion. A semicircle of crouching men was receiving instruction in how to fire automatic rifles; another group was being taught how to launch rocket-propelled grenades.
There are other encampments, too, containing weapons stores and the missiles, which Awda refused to display, citing security concerns. Six missiles have been used so far, he said, to destroy six Syrian tanks.
“They are good,” said Abdul-Karim, one of the fighters pictured using the missiles in a video. “But they are older-
generation models. If we got the latest generation, we could do more.”
Awda blames the rebels’ setbacks on the United States and its allies, which he says failed to provide as much assistance as Assad’s allies Russia and Iran have provided to the Syrian government.
“The government’s friends were more faithful than our friends,” he said.
He said he is under no illusion about the shortcomings of the rebellion.
“We have a sickness of chaos,” he said. “The Syrian people are tired with the state of the war and the disorganization of the military formations. They are tired of the war, tired of the lack of a structure.”
That, however, is what Awda hopes to change.
“Tell the world we are different,” he said, before declaring the visit over and heading back to the war.