Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Expecting cease-fire to fail, Syrian rebels train for urban civil war

QUSAIR, Syria — Sitting on a tennis court at a summer villa in the Syrian countryside, 22 would-be rebel fighters watched as a young man took apart and reassembled a machine gun he had picked from a small spread of arms on a plastic lawn table.

"Okay, Saeed," said the instructor, 1st Lt. Nazir Jabir, 25, calling on a student in the back row. "What's the name of this machine gun? Stand up."

Saeed stood up, hands clasped behind his back as if in a proper classroom. "PKC," he said, and then a little louder, "PKC."

In the distance, beyond the sparkling pool and the red, pink and orange roses growing unchecked, shelling and gunfire could be heard.

"Is it Russian-made?" asked Jabir, a defector from President Bashar Assad's army, not in uniform but in jeans and an old volleyball camp T-shirt that declared on the back, "Steppin' it up."

"It is Russian," Saeed affirmed.

"Now the grenade launcher," Jabir said, moving on to the next weapon.

Syria's rebels are girding for more war.

The country is technically under a cease-fire and ostensibly in the process of implementing a U.N.-backed peace plan that is to end a 14-month conflict in which at least 10,000 people have died. But fighters, activists and civilians here in the hotbed province of Homs, as in much of Syria, have lost faith in the diplomatic effort led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Instead, rebels see this moment as an opportunity to rearm, regroup and prepare for what they regard as the inevitable escalation of fighting once the cease-fire, violated by both sides, is declared dead.

In the wake of the May 25 massacre of more than 100 civilians, many of them children, in Houla, some rebels are asking whether that time has come. In a video posted online May 26, Free Syrian Army spokesman Col. Qassim Saad Eddine said it was no longer possible to comply with the peace plan.

"The battle is coming, and it will be bigger and will take longer," said one defector, former army Sgt. Basil Idriss, who now heads a militia in Qusair. Many rebels escaping the battered Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs fled to Qusair, less than 20 miles away. "Annan's plan will fall apart. It may fall apart tomorrow or next week, or it may take longer."

Where are they?

Massive bombings in the capital and elsewhere have raised the specter of al-Qaida involvement either in the rebel ranks or in independent cells in the country. But in the gardens and fields surrounding Qusair, the rebels insist they are on their own, making bombs, gathering weapons and scoping out army checkpoints and tank positions.

Occasionally people still ask, "Where is America?" or "Where is NATO?" but increasingly it comes off as rhetorical. "We only have God" has become a common refrain.

"We grew sick of the political solutions a long time ago," said Maj. Ibrahim "Abu al-Noor" Mutawi, another defector, who heads the al-Mughawir militia, one of several in Qusair. "We didn't see anything to hold on to in this political path."

On a recent Monday, a woman threw rice and flower petals, as if welcoming a bridegroom, as the bodies of two men wrapped in white shrouds were carried through the streets of Qusair.

The two had been abducted five days earlier, allegedly by soldiers, and tortured to death. Their nails had been pulled out, bruises covered their bodies, there were signs of strangulation and one man's head was partially smashed in.

"We present our martyrs as proof to Kofi Annan and to the world!" a man yelled into a megaphone. "Isn't torture not allowed? Isn't killing by tanks not allowed, oh Kofi Annan?"

Staying, fighting

As the rebels drive out to Qusair's suburbs, where militias have set up camp in abandoned villas and farmhouses among apricot orchards and fields where poppies grow wild, newly recorded revolutionary songs play on a loop, the soundtrack for the lives they now lead.

"We don't need NATO, we will be his end," goes a song titled Bashar's Fall.

"In the beginning when they came with guns, we fled, then we got used to it and then when they came with BMPs (armored vehicles), we fled, but then we got used to that, too," said Lt. Ghiath "Abu Walid" Jumaa. He defected from the army in July and, at 24, is one of the youngest militia leaders in the area. "And then they came with tanks, and we have gotten used to that too, and now we stay and fight."

Rebels say they are not taking any offensive action during the cease-fire — an assertion the government regularly counters with allegations of attacks and bombings by armed groups — but are preparing for immediate attacks once the Free Syrian Army leadership working from Turkey gives the go-ahead.

"It's going to end in war," Jumaa said.

For the soldiers and officers who defected, let alone the civilian volunteers, the type of conflict they are fighting is different from what they trained for. They run drills on raiding buildings and moving in urban areas, said Idriss, the head of a militia in Qusair.

"We never trained in a city setting before; we used to practice in open spaces," he said. "Now we are defending buildings and civilians."

They are still adjusting to fighting in a conflict in which they are outgunned. Here in Homs province, the rebels say they have not received foreign military assistance or the salaries and communications equipment promised by the Friends of Syria, a multinational anti-Assad coalition seeking a solution to the crisis. They also say they have had no help from any other outside groups. Without heavy weapons, rebels say, they have to act strategically.

Though the militias say they are refraining from offensive action, they also say they have begun sending groups of fighters to the capital to carry out small operations: attacking buses carrying members of the shabiha militia or security force vehicles, or even conducting assassinations.

"The final battle is going to be in Damascus, just like it was in Tripoli," in Libya, Jumaa said.

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