It is extremely rare to have a direct peephole into events on the ground in Syria. The hard-fought battle over narratives often leaves truth in the dust. But among the cache of recently leaked emails (exclusive to Al Akhbar) from Syrian National Council (SNC) President Burhan Ghalioun’s inbox, comes this gem – important information that further highlights the glaring loophole in UN Envoy Kofi Annan’s demilitarization plans for Syria: rogue fighters.
The email sent to Ghalioun on March 25 summarizes a meeting held by members of various armed opposition groups operating in Homs – chiefly to address the pressing problem of the rogue al-Farouq Battalion.
The email’s author “Abu Majd” claims that 24 different armed groups in Homs started to work together in part because of the behavior of the Farouq Battalion, some of whose members are shown in this video from a few days ago. The problem with al-Farouq, says the email, is:
“Its monopoly over decision-making in its areas, its attempts to subjugate whoever is outside its command by force, and adopting what they call a “big stick policy” in dealing with other fighters.”
Confirming occasional Arab media accounts of fighters turning on each other inside opposition-dominated neighborhoods, Abu Majd accuses the Farouq Battalion of:
Unjustified violence against their adversaries and other anti-regime groups that are not subsumed under the rubric of al-Farouq Battalion resulting in a heavy human toll. For example, al-Farouq’s mild punishment/warning to fighters in Bab al-Sibaa led to the death of five martyrs.
One wonders how these deaths were characterized in the daily “casualty counts” disseminated by Homs activists and reported widely by foreign media.
Painting a picture of a Homs opposition fraught with disputes that have “plagued the revolutionary movement there,” the email illustrates some fundamental differences in the armed groups. On one hand, you have the participants of the meeting recapped in this email, who clearly view themselves as sharing a distinct outlook, and who insist that:
Certain groups within the Syrian opposition and external/regional forces have pushed fighters in Homs to this divided state of affairs…they are aware of the difference between civilian regime loyalists and armed killers…they condemn the few armed men in Homs who have committed violence against civilians in neighborhoods loyal to the regime.
Instead, they pin these crimes on “younger men making decisions on their own in line with the language of violence popularized by al-Farouq Battalion and made possible through generous external financial support.”
On the other hand, the email acknowledges another kind of armed opposition on the ground in Homs, which it accuses of fomenting violence against civilians and other fighters, provoking the Syrian regular army, and marching to the tune of foreign donors. On regime provocations, it references the Homs neighborhood of al-Khaldiyieh – scene of some of the worst violence seen in Syria to date:
Al-Farouq’s monopoly over decision-making in Al-Khalidiyeh, which resulted in the neighborhood being targeted with strong artillery strikes due to what some saw as recklessness in attacking Al-Matahen checkpoint (which has continued for days along with shelling Al-Khalidiyeh).
This has resulted in the shelling of Al-Khalidiyeh and the displacement of hundreds of its residents because certain people, exercising exclusive control over decision-making, made an irresponsible decision.
Al-Farouq appears to have taken offensive positions against the Syrian Army well in advance of the March 25 email. This video allegedly shows the militant group claiming responsibility for destroying an army tank in Baba Amr on December 22, 2011.
Baba Amr, of course, was the Homs neighborhood that came under severe government shelling in February, lasting for several weeks and drawing global censure for the alleged massacre of civilians. While the dominant narrative in the international media assumed an unprovoked army attack on a civilian population, there remains little evidence to back this scenario, particularly after information emerged that the neighborhood was an armed opposition stronghold, most of the population had vacated the neighborhood in advance, and reports of activists exaggerating violence trickled out.
The email’s accusation that al-Farouq’s “recklessness in attacking Al-Matahen checkpoint” was responsible for the Syrian Army’s shelling of al-Khalidiyeh, is reminiscent of events leading to the shelling of Baba Amr. According to American journalist Nir Rosen, similar armed opposition provocations preceded the destructive artillery attacks on Baba Amr. On February 4, Rosen wrote:
“Yesterday opposition fighters defeated the regime checkpoint at the Qahira roundabout and they seized a tank or armored personnel carrier. This followed similar successes against the Bab Dreib checkpoint and the Bustan al Diwan checkpoint. In response to this last provocation yesterday the regime started shelling with mortars from the Qalaa on the high ground and the State Security headquarters in Ghota.”
Narratives about these battles in Syria almost always assume that armed groups are taking defensive positions, chiefly to protect civilian populations. So why then, these repeated provocations of the Syrian regular army, other fighters, and civilian populations?
The March 25 email suggests that the Farouq Battalion’s behaviors are led by its financial backers – specifically, the Saudis:
The basis of the crisis in the city today is groups receiving uneven amounts of money from direct sources in Saudi Arabia some of whom are urging the targeting of loyalist neighborhoods and sectarian escalation while others are inciting against the SNC.
They are not national, unifying sources of support. On the contrary, mature field leaders have noted that receiving aid from them [Saudi Arabia] entails implicit conditions like working in ways other than the desired direction.
While the email provides valuable first-hand accounts of events on the ground inside one of Syria’s most embattled cities, it raises the important question of how to tackle armed groups – increasingly of the Islamic militant variety – who operate outside local or national opposition frameworks.
For one, these groups and individuals make the task of achieving compliance on any demilitarization plan difficult, if not impossible. If these groups continue violent attacks against security forces and civilians, it is unlikely that the Syrian government would pull back its troops from these areas.
For the Annan Plan to move forward and the UN observers to achieve demilitarization, two things must happen: 1) there must be specific, agreed-upon, detailed provisions for the Syrian army to deal with provocations from groups outside of the UN’s reach, and 2) the UN Protocol must hold external groups and nations who fund these rogue militants responsible for their material support of violence inside Syria.
It is worth mentioning that the Saudis have refused to meet Annan, and along with Qatar, have continued to offer financial assistance to armed Syrian opposition groups – officially, in the form of salaries. Ironically, both nations have been among the quickest to accuse the Syrian government of violating its commitment to the Annan Plan.
Little is known about the Farouq Battalion, but one of the few journalists – who must remain unnamed – to have dealt with them directly tells me that they are the largest armed opposition group operating inside Homs today with around 4,000 to 5,000 militia men. The group’s roots are militantly Islamist – the moniker Al Farouq is a reference to the Caliph Umar bin al-Khattab, the second successor to the Prophet Muhammad. Some reports claim that the group plans to declare an Islamic Caliphate in Syria, but holds off on any rhetoric that will strengthen the Syrian government’s hand.
Al-Farouq’s stronghold today is in the Khalidiyeh neighborhood of Homs, but its center is in al-Qusayr from which its leader Abu Ali Hardi, a former Syrian intelligence officer in Homs, hails. The militia’s public frontman is Abdul Razak Tlass, a symbolic figure because his uncle is a general in the Syrian Army. From their base in Homs near the Lebanese border, al-Farouq is well positioned to receive heavy weapons from al Qaa and Irsal via Salafist centers in the north of Lebanon. The group is currently trying to organize their fast-growing ranks into a central command structure – to date, fighters under the al-Farouq banner have mostly been running themselves independently in Homs’ various neighborhoods.
While the March 25 email sheds much-needed light on one small part of the Syrian armed opposition, it also illustrates just how egregiously misleading existing narratives are on the situation inside the country.
I reference, by example, possibly the only report on opposition group violence assembled by a major international human rights organization. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) press release from March 20 – five days before the email was sent to Burhan Ghalioun – details opposition “abuses” inside Syria, including kidnappings, torture and executions.
Not only does HRW repeat many of the dominant narratives that have falsely defined the Syrian crisis from its inception, but it does so quoting liberally from – wait for it – the Farouq Battalion. The “media coordinator” from al-Farouq tells HRW:
We are not kidnapping soldiers. During an armed confrontation, soldiers surrounded by the FSA are surrendering themselves to the Al-Farouq battalion so we are capturing and not kidnapping the soldiers. After capturing the soldiers, the FSA calls the government to negotiate the terms of their release, but they refuse to negotiate simply because they don’t care about the captured soldiers. The captives are placed in a room, not a prison. The room has one door with a lock but no windows. Al-Farouq battalion is treating them very well.
We know better now.
This article was first published on Al Akhbar English on May 13, 2012