Leading the fight in Sakhour on the eastern side of the embattled city of Aleppo is the Tawafuk Battalion of the Free Syrian Army. It reports to a new coordinating body known as the Military Council, according to Mustafa Shabaan, the acting commander of Tawafuk. But wait a minute: A young fighter named Thaer tells me there are six or seven other battalions fighting in Sakhour, too, in what many claim is the decisive battle for Aleppo. Who commands these disparate fighters? And what about jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda-linked group that is said to have operatives in Aleppo? Who directs them?
In this confusing scene, you can see the essence of the problem facing the Aleppo Military Council and others around the country as they try to coordinate the FSA’s insurgency against President Bashar Assad. The challenge of enforcing discipline at nearby Tariq al-Bab, the rebels’ forward headquarters in eastern Aleppo, is multiplied a hundred times around the country.
The problem begins with the fact that this is an authentic, bottom-up revolution. It arose spontaneously in different parts of Syria, and every area has spun off its own battalions, many seeking funding from wealthy Arabs in the Gulf. Unless these militia-like groups can be gathered around a single source for money and weapons, they’re unlikely to mount a unified resistance to Assad.
Given the lack of coordinated military planning, terrorist attacks are one of the best tactics the rebels have: On the road north of Aleppo, I stopped at a celebrated shop called Al-Sultan Sweets. It is famous because the shop owner poisoned his pastries, knowing they would be looted by Assad’s soldiers when they passed through town. The poison pastries are said to have cost the Syrian army 70 casualties and turned the sweetmaker into a martyr.
A new effort to help bring better organization to this chaotic rebellion has been launched by a Syrian-American organization called the Syrian Support Group. One of its founders, Yakzan Shishakly, traveled to Syria in February to meet officers of the FSA and encourage them to gather the free-wheeling battalions into the military councils. Shishakly had credibility because his grandfather was a respected Syrian president in the 1950s.
By the summer, Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi emerged as the leader of the new military council in the Aleppo area; Col. Afif Suleiman headed a new council in Idlib province; Ahmad Berri commands the council in Hama. Shishakly introduced me to these three commanders in Syria last week. They say they’d like help from the United States, but that it hasn’t materialized. Without money or weapons to distribute to the fighters, these U.S.-friendly military councils will lose their coordinating power.
The alternative power center in the revolution is the emerging Salafist jihadist network. It’s a mistake to see them all as Al-Qaeda affiliates or wannabes. Many of them are simply pious Sunnis who know they can get funds to fight Assad by playing the jihadist card.
Syrians tell me the power of these extremist groups is growing across the country. One example is a Salafist group in Idlib called Soukor al-Sham, headed by a man who calls himself Abu Issa. He is now working to form an alliance with a similar Salafist group known as Ahrar al-Sham. To gather funds, Abu Issa was said to have visited the Turkish border city of Antakya last week to meet with Saudi businessmen who might contribute to his group.
Another jihadist group bidding for power is known as the Majlis al-Shura, or Shura Council. Its former leader, Mohammad al-Absi, is said to have been killed recently after he raised the black flag of Al-Qaeda at the Syrian border crossing at Bab al-Hawa. When supporters of the FSA protested to Absi’s group about the banner, decorated with words from the Quran, the extremists answered, “What’s wrong with the name of God?” The black flag is now gone, but the confrontation between jihadists and moderates is just beginning.
Finally there is Jabhat al-Nusra, which openly boasts of its links with Al-Qaeda. Shishakly says he tried to warn a U.S. official recently: “These people are among us. If you don’t help now, there will be more and more.” From what I could see inside the country, he’s right.
The writer is a columnist the the Lebanon-based Daily Star, where this article was published on Oct. 10, 2012