BAB AL-SALAMEH, Syria – Walking from Turkey into Syria at the Bab al-Salameh gate takes you down a long, desolate road flanked by high walls and barbed wire. Just beyond the barbed wire sits the Kilis refugee camp, holding thousands of desperate families who fled the bombs and shelling in towns just beyond the border.
I crossed with staff from the Syrian Support Group, a Syrian American organization working to help officers of the Free Syrian Army set up a more coherent structure. At a guesthouse on the Syrian side, I sat down with Col. Abdul-Jabbar Akidi, head of rebel forces in Aleppo and one of the most prominent rebel commanders.
Akidi has been working with other commanders to try to unify hundreds of local brigades and militias, some of which have an Islamist bent. He has brought under his wing the Tawhid Brigade, one of the most active fighting forces in Aleppo, which has been labeled Islamist by many outsiders. (More about this later.)
What Akidi had to say deserves attention from whoever is elected president Tuesday. It also should be taken to heart by Americans who care about the hideous war crimes being committed by Bashar Assad’s government – or about U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.
A few words of background: The Obama administration has focused its efforts on trying to prod Syrian civilian activists to produce unified leadership that Washington and its allies could recognize. It has had only minimal contact with the Free Syrian Army and refrained from giving it money or weapons.
Efforts to unify civilian activists have failed, but as I write, hundreds of Syrian rebels from inside and outside the country are gathering in Doha, Qatar. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says she hopes a new national council of anti-Assad civilians, mainly from inside the country, will emerge by Thursday.
But the assumption that civilian activists can turn the tide alone is dubious. Assad has shown he will destroy Syria before giving up power, and has demonstrated his resolve by repeatedly bombing civilian neighborhoods, mosques, bakeries and schools.
Assad’s thugs are deliberately trying to stir up a sectarian war that could spill over into neighboring countries, draw in foreign jihadis, and radicalize Syrian youths. Already, outside money is flowing more freely to Islamist militias than to the non-Islamist civilians and Syrian army defectors who fight under leaders such as Akidi. The failure to help the FSA almost guarantees the result that U.S. officials most fear.
Akidi told me his men fight with weapons they seize from the regular Syrian army or buy on the black market. They are short of everything, even ammunition. Qatar has promised salaries of $150 a month to the men, up to a total of $2.5 million, but Akidi only recently received the first installment.
What the FSA most needs are antiaircraft weapons to stop attacks on civilian areas. Then the rebels could halt the bombing and create de facto no-fly zones that protect civilians – without a need for U.S. intervention.
U.S. officials won’t supply those weapons because they fear they may fall into jihadi hands. “We are not united with jihadi groups,” Akidi said, though he added, “We may fight together with them, because we are both fighting Assad.”
Were the Americans to supply antiaircraft weapons in limited numbers, Akidi said, “We have special officers who would be responsible for those weapons. I would personally be responsible. I am sure we could control them.” He is also certain that Qatar would supply the weapons if U.S. officials gave it the green light.
What about the Tawhid Brigade, whose leaders wear full beards, and which has just joined forces with Akidi’s command? By chance, its commander, Abdul Qader al-Saleh, was across the border in Turkey, recuperating from a shoulder wound inflicted by a Syrian government sniper. I met Saleh in a cafe and asked him about remarks he’d made on al-Jazeera that he would fight alongside anyone who opposed the regime – even a Syrian group called the al-Nusra Front, which has al-Qaida sympathies.
“They have other ideas than us,” he said intensely, “ideas that are the opposite of ours. We are not al-Nusra; we are not Muslim Brotherhood. We are people fighting for our rights.” Like Akidi, he added, “Anyone who fights against Assad is welcome to the fight.”
Saleh told me he had been an import-export trader before the war; a comrade accompanying him had been a teacher in a state school. Both took up arms only after Assad’s troops started slaughtering Aleppo’s civilians. “If there had been a 1 percent chance that Assad would make reforms, I never would have taken a gun,” the teacher said.
Of course, I cannot vouch for Saleh’s bona fides (although he sounded sincere). What is clear is that without antiaircraft weapons, this war will continue for months, if not years. The rebels control much of the ground, but they cannot defend against planes.
The risk of green-lighting delivery of limited numbers of antiaircraft weapons must be weighed against the near-certainty that militants will ultimately get those weapons if the war continues.
Already, old Russian-made shoulder-to-air weapons are trickling in from Libya. Abdel Razzak Tlas, a commander in a prominent rebel group called the Farouk Brigades, told me they received five SAM-7s but the weapons were defective. A senior FSA commander from Homs added there were supposed to be 100 of the weapons but “we don’t know where the rest went.”
So which risk is greater: trusting Col. Akidi and pushing the war toward a conclusion, or waiting for chaos if the fighting drags on?