WADI KHALED, Lebanon: Ferocious battles are reported to have broken out in Rastan north of Homs this week as regular Syrian military units clash with the Free Syrian Army, a group of army deserters who are emerging as the armed wing of the opposition against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The emergence of an armed resistance, which appears to be becoming increasingly organized and holding its ground, bolsters a growing belief that the opposition is gradually, perhaps reluctantly, shifting toward a military option after six months of peaceful demonstrations have failed to dislodge the Assads’ autocratic government.
The Free Syrian Army emerged at the end of July when its leader Col. Riad al-Assad announced its existence and called on officers, noncommissioned officers and soldiers to defect from the army and join his new unit.
“The Syrian army now represents only the gangs that protect the regime,” he said in a videotaped statement uploaded to YouTube.
The FSA has claimed a strength of some 10,000 rebel soldiers, although that figure cannot be confirmed. The rebel army, split into brigades, appears to have carved out tenuous footholds in the area of Idlib in the north and between Rastan and Homs. The largest FSA unit is said to be the Khaled bin al-Walid Brigade based in the Homs area. The Syrian army and security forces launched an offensive this week on Rastan and Talbisa, reportedly using fighter jets, helicopters and tanks.
The FSA’s Facebook page has been listing its attacks and ambushes against loyalist troops and announcing the formation of new units, including one this week called the Ali bin Abi Talib Brigade based in Houla near Homs.
One recent deserter from the Syrian army who is patiently awaiting orders to return and fight with the FSA is Ali, a 23-year-old former member of Squad 15 of the Syrian special forces. Ali, originally from Homs, is presently in hiding in the Wadi Khaled area of north Lebanon having defected last month, eight months into his two-year military service. Ali said his unit was deployed initially to Deraa, where the uprising began, then to Jisr al-Shughour, Idlib and Ain Jawz in the north close to the border with Turkey.
“We were given orders to storm houses in Ain Jawz because there were gunmen hiding there. But all we saw were peaceful old people,” he said.
One Friday, he and his comrades were positioned between the security forces and a crowd of protesters.
“Our sergeant ordered us to open fire on the crowd. We had been told that they were terrorists, but we could see they were unarmed civilians,” he said.
Ali said that the sergeant warned them that snipers were positioned on nearby roofs and would shoot any soldier that refused to fire on the protesters.
“I saw the sergeant point out soldiers to the snipers who shot them. A soldier next to me was shot dead. I dropped my rifle and ran into the crowd and they protected me. If it had not been for the crowd I would have been killed as well.”
He made his way southward and slipped across the border into Lebanon where he found refuge with local sympathizers and other deserters. Claiming he had been sentenced to death in Syria and his family questioned as to his whereabouts, Ali was clearly uncomfortable talking to the press. But he said that he was in contact with the FSA via Skype and hoped to return to Syria soon to fight.
“God willing, I will be able to join the Free Army. We are waiting for orders and then we will go back to Syria. Homs is almost free. Now the Free Army is asking for a no-fly zone in the area and if it happens we will be able to take over on the ground.”
On a balmy summer’s afternoon in the remote hills that run along the border with Syria between Wadi Khaled and Akroum, it is hard to imagine that a desperate struggle is being waged just a few kilometers to the east. But the calm rural peace of daytime along the frontier is replaced by fear and gunfire at night.
“Three days ago, it was very bad here. There were bombs exploding, rockets falling and heavy shooting,” said Badr Diab, a farmer living in the tiny isolated hamlet of Nsoub.
A Syrian military encampment consisting of white tents and armored vehicles was visible to the southeast of Nsoub on the edge of the gorge. A few kilometers to the south outside Akroum, residents said that the situation was tense and that some homes close to the border had been abandoned.
“Every night there is shooting and bullets come flying across the border,” said one resident.