With US missiles in hand, Syrian rebel unit thinks big

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 US-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 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 US-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 US approval, and US 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 US 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.

Rebel fighters fire an anti-aircraft toward what they said was a regime's helicopter dropping aids in parachutes to forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad stationed in a sieged area in Maaret al-Naaman village in Idlib on Monday. (Reuters/Rasem Ghareeb)

Rebel fighters fire an anti-aircraft toward what they said was a regime’s helicopter dropping aids in parachutes to forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad stationed in a sieged area in Maaret al-Naaman village in Idlib on Monday. (Reuters/Rasem Ghareeb)

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.

READ MORE HERE: http://www.arabnews.com/news/562546

1 reply

  1. Please do not delete my respond, if you love for all, none hatred, you should respect the different idea,thought, and beliefs, even against your beliefs. Right?
    If America and Russia still send weapons to Syria, means that you want them to kill more innocent people, children and women. Please do not sent more weapons to rebels.Millions innocent people have been suffering, dieing, and homeless. Very sad and heartbreaking,
    Everyone must obey state authorities, because no authority exists without God’s permission, and the existing authorities have been put there by God. Whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered .Roman 13:1-2).
    Obey Allah, obey the Prophet, and obey those in authority among you. (Surat an-Nisa, 4:59).
    HADITS; Listen and obey your authority, though he struck your back and take your wealth force .(Hr Muslim ).
    Those who plot evils (to topple the authority ), theirs will be severe torment. And the plotting of such will perish. QS 35;10.
    International communities should protect the right of religious minority in Syria. Religious Minorities of Syria has been fighting the rebels for years for their life of their children future from oppression of extremist Muslim and cause millions people suffering and died.
    Very sad, pity and heartbreaking, this nightmare is happening now in 21st Century.
    The best key of solution this RELIGIOUS conflict in Syria and Iraq is on the hand of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. If King Abdullah treats the religious Minorities in Saudi Arabia ( such as 2 million Muslim Shia, Christian and others ) FAIRLY, the permanent peace can be achieved successfully and less cost.
    King Abdullah should follows Prophet Muhammad (saw) as a role model how to govern all people different beliefs and race.
    Prophet Muhammad treated all people FAIRLY AND LOVELY.
    QS 49 ; 9.– make peace between them ( Jews,Christian,Quraish etc) with justice, and be fair.
    O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do. (QS. 4; 135.)
    Allâh does not forbid you to deal justly and kindly with those who fought not against you on account of religion nor drove you out of your homes. Verily, Allâh loves those who deal with equity. QS 60;8.
    King Abdullah will be a excellent peace maker in 21st Centuri, and his legacy will be remembered for ever.
    But if King Abdullah can not treat religious minority in Saudi Arabia, this religious war between extremist Sunni and Shia will not end, on contrary will spread to all Gulf States and Middle East. This is horrible, nightmare…
    May Allah guide King Abdullah to treat all people fairly and kindly who live in Saudi Arabia.Ameen
    With all my love.
    What ever we do, be done with love of God (Cor.16:13).
    If we love each other, we can achieve a big works for mankind
    but if hate each other, will be destroyed completely
    so let we love each other, Allah will bless us all

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