Conflict & Justice

The Free Syrian Army in Lebanon

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Blackboard at the religious school in Wadi Khaled, Lebanon. (Photo: Marine Olivesi)

An old religious school stands on a hill in the Lebanese village of Wadi Khaled. Below, red-colored earth marks a smuggling road into Syria, which is now sprinkled with landmines.

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Inside the school are blackboards scrawled with slogans denouncing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Twenty-one Syrians from one family are now living in the school; they registered with the United Nations Refugee Agency when they arrived three months ago, fleeing the violence in Syria.

But two of them aren't exactly refugees.

Zein and his brother, who asked that I not use their real names, say they were officers in the Syrian Army. They deserted in August, after a raid on their village killed two of their close friends.

Now they carry out operations with the Free Syrian Army, a loose group made up of Syrian armed rebels and army deserters. Zein said he crosses back into Syria to help protect civilians during anti-government protests.

"Before the protests start, we coordinate with activists and plan for safe exits roads. During the protests, we wait and watch," Zein said. "If the army attacks or surrounds the protesters, we confront them. If they open fire at them, we reply."

Zein said he just returned from the restive city of Homs; his brother is still there. He said they keep a low profile. None of their Syrian or Lebanese neighbors knows about their activities, and they keep much of their family in the dark as well. They say it's safer that way for everyone.

Zein said he and his brother cross back and forth over the border with the help of some Syrian border patrols, most of whom do it for the money.

Many active Syrian military members are hedging their bets, according to a Free Syrian Army commander who asked to be called "Ahmed." He said some are even helping the insurgent group buy weapons.

"Sometimes we buy weapons from the Syrian Army," said Ahmed, from a safehouse in a village at the tip of Lebanon.

Ahmed heads the rebel unit "Dawn of Freedom," which operates in Homs. Ahmed said he has 350 soldiers under his command.

"Our first goal is to protect civilians. Our position is defending, not attacking," Ahmed said.

When asked if he gives orders to carry out attacks against military targets in Syria, he said, "We are completely against attacking the army. We don't want to put the country in civil war."

Ahmed said the target is armed thugs, who he said are hired by the Assad government.

Ahmed went on to say that the Free Syrian Army wants help from the international community, but not military intervention. What they need, he added, is a no-fly zone and a protected area where civilians and defectors can find refuge.

Without a rebel stronghold, defectors have to operate below the radar inside Syria. Those now in northern Lebanon say they're only here to see their families or because they've been wounded.

In the Lebanese city of Tripoli, 23-year-old Marouan told me he only goes out of his safe house for physical therapy.

In October, Marouan was in his last month of military service when his Syrian Army unit stormed a village at the border. He said he was ordered to open fire at any civilians trying to cross over to Lebanon.

He said when he was told to kill or be killed, he ran away; he was shot in the arm and shoulder as he tried to cross the border.

Marouan made it into Lebanon and underwent surgery at a local hospital. Then the Red Cross moved him to Tripoli.

Marouan said that he and his friends in the Army never talked about defecting — they were afraid to talk.

"We were being watched all the time, even at night," Marouan said.

Marouan added that kind of tight control is what prevents more soldiers from leaving the Army. He said he thinks that more would defect if they had a safe zone to go to — and he said he thinks that could make the Assad regime collapse on its own.

If it didn't, Marouan said, that would be the right time for a full-on offensive.

But for now, defectors say the Free Syrian Army has neither the manpower nor the firepower for such grand plans.
Translation of what is written on the blackboard in the image above.

God curse your soul Hafez
Hey Bashar the liar damn you and your speech
God Syria freedom only

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