Monday, February 13, 2012

Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria's armed opposition

Journalist who recently spent time with fighters says there is no central leadership to the armed resistance.


"Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria with unique access. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country's rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the first in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return.

Al Jazeera: Who are the armed opposition?
AJ: Who are the fighters - army defectors, armed civilians or "armed gangs"?

NR: .....They are also not armed gangs, as the regime and its supporters describe them. They are much more akin to a popular armed struggle or an insurgency. In fact, many Syrian revolutionaries use the term muqawama, ["resistance"] to describe themselves. This I find particularly ironic, as the Syrian regime and its supporters champion "resistance" (to Israel and the West) as the reason for their legitimacy, and the reason why they are being targeted by an alleged "foreign conspiracy" in the form of this uprising.

As the armed groups gain experience, they are adopting classic insurgent techniques of providing services to the population, while also blending in with them. In my encounters with armed opposition groups throughout Syria, I was reminded of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Iraqi Sunni and Shia insurgents and resistance groups as well as the Taliban in Afghan villages - not in the religious sense, but in how they were an organic part of the community.

AJ: Who were the first to take up arms?
AJ: Who do the armed groups target?

NR: From an early stage of the uprising, suspected informants for the regime have been intimidated, expelled and often killed.

These are called mukhbir ["sources"], or in colloquial Syrian awayneh or fasfus. Executions of those suspected of spying for the regime take place regularly all throughout Syria, including in Damascus. By the summer there were regular ambushes of security officers on the roads, as well as attacks against shabiha ["thugs"], as the civilian paramilitary or militia forces of the security agencies are known.

AJ: What methods and weapons do the fighters use?

....The armed groups generally operate secretly and in small groups, conducting ambushes on targets of opportunity using light arms and, increasingly, improvised explosive devices. For the past few months, insurgents have been using improvised explosive devices such as those found in Iraq, Afghanistan or southern Lebanon. Unlike in Iraq, however, the explosives used in these IEDs are fertiliser-based. These have been used in Idlib, Hama and Homs. In addition, rocket-propelled grenades - such as LAW anti-tank shells - have also more recently been used as shoulder-fired anti-armour missiles. The fighters have access to some sniper rifles as well.....

AJ: How do armed groups get their arms?
AJ: How do the groups finance their arms purchases?
AJ: How much impact do army defections have?
AJ: Is the armed opposition popular with the protesters?
AJ: Are there veterans of the insurgency in Iraq fighting in Syria?

This is a common claim by the Syrian regime. There are Syrians who went to Iraq during the US-led invasion who are now taking part in the uprising. They are a minority of the fighters and crucially, all those I met were part of the first generation of foreign volunteers who flocked to Iraq in March 2003, before the Salafi jihadist days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Most of these men fled back to Syria after two or three weeks, when they realised Iraq was such a dangerous place.

AJ: Are the fighters inspired by any particular ideology?
AJ: Are Palestinian groups active in Syria?

NR: In Homs there is an armed Palestinian group working with the opposition Homs Revolutionary Council. They helped evacuate wounded people from the Bab Amr neighbourhood during the autumn, and transported them safely to the Homs Palestinian refugee camp, which has also seen demonstrations. Armed Palestinian factions in both Lebanon and Syria have received military training over the years. But while the factions, officially, have sedulously abstained from taking sides in the conflict, many individual members certainly have. In Latakia during the summer and autumn, Palestinians with training in explosives and other military skills assisted opposition militia in the Ramel neighborhood. Palestinians with medical training also provided assistance. In Deraa, Palestinians also provided similar assistance. Palestinians allied to either Hamas or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command have reportedly smuggled supplies into Syria on behalf of revolutionaries.

Hamas has withdrawn all its members and their families from Syria with the exception of its political office

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