Interview with an FSA Battalion Leader
By Karen Leigh from Syria Deeply
Abu Adnan and I meet on a cold dark night, a few days before the end of the year. He’s lean and grizzled in jeans and a dark overcoat. He holds a flashlight, standing at the precipice of an incline in the mountains along the Turkey-Syria border. He’s about to walk me down and looks wary, but determined, at the thought of yet another cross through this well-used smuggling route.
Abu Adnan is not his real name; many of the FSA leaders in the mountains around Latakia City use the nickname “Abu” – “Abu Adnan” means the father of Adnan. A gentle-eyed 55-year-old, with floppy black hair he looks the part of the father of the pride. His own children, and wife, are not here.
When we are safely through the mud, he becomes chatty. At our safe house, with its mismatched carpets and a small generator-power TV blaring Al Arabiya’s news of a regime massacre in Damascus, Adnan talks candidly about the states of his battle, his mind, and Latakia’s sectarian tension.
“There is no problem between [everyday] Alawites and Sunnis. But we have tension with the regime, and those who support the regime are Alawite,” Adnan tells me. That said “the regime is mixed between Alawites, Christians, and Sunnis. We don’t have a problem with the people, we have a problem with the regime. We [in the FSA] are liberal people, we like everyone.
“If the regime falls, we will start a new fight with the shabiha [pro-government militia], and they have 100 leaders. There are three big groups of shabiha that have famous leaders, like Rami Makhlouf [Assad’s wealthy cousin], who has 2,000 shabiha followers. Our problem isn’t Assad—everyone wants him to leave now. Our problem is with these 100 names. A lot of them escaped from Damascus to Latakia, and now they’re preparing to fight.”
He lights another cigarette. He has been chain-smoking since we left the Turkish border. “Assad is from Latakia. Muammar Qaddafi, he went to Sirte at the end of his revolution. Assad, he will come back. I am sure he will come back to his village. Maybe he’s already here. Maybe he’s escaped already from Damascus. He won’t be in office more than two months. In the last two to three weeks, I feel that things have changed here [in our favor]. We have heard from the Alawites in Latakia City that they do not support him. The Alawites are scared [for their own safety, should Assad fall].”
According to Adnan,the Turkman Mountain is one hundred percent Sunni. He says there’s a Christian village in Jebel Akrad that’s now under FSA control, but “there’s tension there.”
The battalion leaders in Turkman check in with Alawites on the ground; they monitor their allegiance, which has so far remained with the FSA. “There are two types of Alawites,” Adnan says. “There’s the shabiha, and we will fight them. There are families, and we will not fight them. This has nothing to do with them.
“Sometimes we call them and they say, ‘we are not with the regime.’ There’s one Alawite FSA fighter here, he’s in Jebel Akrad. There’s an Alawite nurse in the hospital. The Alawite people know it’s almost finished. It’s 50 kilometers from the border to this house, and it’s all under FSA control.”
In reality, the picture is a bit more complicated. Though the FSA does control much of the area, pockets are still under regime control. The front in these mountains, like in all guerilla warfare, shifts almost daily. But Adnan sees the situation developing in the FSA’s favor.
“There are 80 men in the Hateen Battalion now. There were 35 four months ago. Men here want to support it. The Hateen is getting support,” Adnan says. But, he adds, they still need people to take care of logistics, like managing the supply lines for weapons and food. “We lost two members—they died—about three months ago.”
He sips at a child-sized box of milk. What was meant for a school lunchbox now feeds the FSA.
“If Latakia falls, it will be under us, free. In the next week, we’ll take anti-aircraft weapons. We will control the sky.”
This is wishful thinking. When I ask who will provide the crucial anti-aircraft tools, Adnan is cagey. “Someone here promised me them,” he says.
“A lot of people want to defect. We have a lot of [supporters and would-be defectors] inside the regime now. The Syrian Army, they don’t like to kill Syrians. It’s the shabiha.” In the regime strongholds in these mountains, the force is comprised of seventy-five percent shabiha, according to Adnan.
Adnan’s personal story, like so many FSA leaders’, is a roller coaster. And like so many, there are holes he won’t fill in for a reporter.
“I escaped Syria 30 years ago. I left during the Muslim Brotherhood revolution. I was inIraqfor the next 26. Five years ago, Assad wrote me a letter saying ‘come back.’ My brother was kidnapped 32 years ago. I know the names of the men who have my brother. They are Alawite, with the regime.
“When they fall, I will…I will wait for the new government, go to the police station, get the [whereabouts] of the kidnappers. I will catch them and send them to the police.”
Still, despite what Adnan envisions for the coming months, the war has taken its toll on his psyche. “I still don’t know in my head when this war will be over,” he says. “Ask me in a month.” When it’s concluded and the rebuilding stage has begun, “we [in the FSA] don’t want to go work for the new government. But we want rights, for everyone. They have to give us that.”