James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.

Syria’s uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria’s demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.

Mosques became central to Syria’s demonstrations as early as March 2011 and influenced the uprising’s trajectory, with religion becoming increasingly more important. Often activists described how they had “corrected themselves” after the uprising started. Martyrs became important to a generation that had only seen martyrs on television from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. “People got more religious,” one activist in Damascus’s Barzeh neighborhood explained, “they got closer to death, you could be a martyr so people who drank or went out at night corrected themselves.” Some Arab satellite news stations have also contributed to the dominance of Islamists by interviewing more of them and focusing on them as opposed to more secular opposition figures or intellectuals. In Daraa activists complained that satellite networks were marginalizing prominent leftists.

Clerics were influential from the beginning in much of the country, but their authority is not absolute. Sheikhs have often played a positive role in the uprising, enforcing discipline and exhorting armed and unarmed activists to act responsibly. One reason why Homs has not descended into Bosnia-like sectarian massacres is because of the strong influence of opposition sheikhs.

"Sheikhs have a role," said a cleric active in the opposition in the cities of Hama and Latakia, "in an area where people are scared a sheikh in his sermon can encourage them to go out." As a result many sheikhs have been arrested while others have fled the country. Opposition supporters are also vocal when they disapprove of a sheikh’s positions. In November, in the Tadamun area of Damascus, a sheikh at the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque condemned demonstrations and spoke about conspiracies in language resembling that of the government. A friend stood up in disgust in the middle of the sermon and walked out. Others followed him spontaneously and began demonstrating. After five minutes security forces arrived and they all ran away. "It’s forbidden to pray in front of him," my friend told me later that day, "either speak the truth or be quiet."

In the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, opposition leaders spoke sardonically of their local clerics. “The sheikhs here all belong to security and the Baath party,” one leader there told me. “The sheikhs told us not to go out and not to watch the biased channels. We went out against the sheikhs, shouting down with this sheikh or that sheikh. There were no good sheikhs with the people here, either he was afraid or he was with the regime. The sheikhs described the youth as thugs.” Revolutionaries threatened Sheikh Hassan Seyid Hassan, Arbeen’s top cleric, saying they would break his car and burn his house and office. In a sermon he apologized for condemning the uprising.

One of the main causes for the first demonstrations in Arbeen was the demand for the release of 21 local young men arrested in 2006. The young men, and some were boys, had come under the influence of Salafi jihadist clerics and were blamed by the regime for an attempted attack on the state television headquarters. “Here the main reason we came out was to demand the release of our prisoners” one local leader said. “We are religious and that’s why we are oppressed.”

Near Harasta, in Duma, I met with Abu Musab, an insurgent commander. He claimed he had been fired from his job as an imam for “speaking the truth” and talking about dignity. The strict Hanbali school of Islam dominates Duma and not a single woman can be seen on its streets without her face fully concealed by a burqa. Piety was one of the reasons why Duma was so revolutionary, he told me. “A sheikh does not have to say fight Bashar,” he said, “he can just refer to a chapter from the Quran and everybody will understand. Because they are religious they have more motivation and ethics.” But he stressed that most people in Duma did not seek an Islamic state. According to Musab, he supported an armed struggle against the regime from the first day and most others only did after Ramadan. He took me to a funeral for two martyrs of the revolution, one of them an armed fighter. As the crowd of hundreds left they chanted, “The people want a declaration of jihad!”

Many of the names chosen for Friday demonstrations are religious in connotation and many of the insurgent groups who misleadingly call themselves the Free Syrian Army, have names that are particularly Sunni Muslim in nature. The insurgent groups’ names are increasingly Islamic and even Salafi in their tone, such as the “Abu Dujana Battalion,” the “Abu Ubeida Battalion,” the ”Muhajireen wal Ansar Battalion” and even a group named after Yazid, a divisive figure in Islamic history who is hated by Shiites but respected by hardline Sunnis (who do not like Shiites).

What about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)? Syria saw MB inspired uprisings in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In the 1980s a radical group that found the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) too moderate split off and called itself the Fighting Vanguard. They were responsible for much of the violence that was blamed on the Brotherhood that traumatizes Syrian society to this day, much as the regime’s attack on Hama where the armed Muslim Brothers concentrated also left permanent scars that have been reopened in the last year. SMB members fled into exile and remained active in the opposition, which also led them to dominate the Syrian National Council (SNC). During the administration of President George W. Bush the United States reached out to the SMB in order to undermine the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Within the SNC, the SMB is behaving in a very authoritarian fashion and is facing growing criticism from both secular and Islamist opposition. The divides in the SNC are not Islamist versus secular. The secularist SNC President Burhan Ghalioun walks with the SMB. Other Islamists like the Imad al Din al Rashid’s Syrian National Movement are hostile to the SMB.

The regime has sought to conflate the opposition with the SMB of the 1980s, knowing that if it succeeds it can legitimize dealing with them with violence but if it fights them on the political front it will lose. “The ideology of the Muslim Brothers has remained quite influential in Syria, but as an organization, they completely ceased to exist inside the country in the early 1980s,” Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh, said. “A proof of that is that the Islamist cells dismantled by the authorities over the last decades were linked to the Islamic Liberation Party or to Jihadi networks, but never to the Muslim Brothers.” In reality popular mobilization does not require the orders of the SMB, but for some in the opposition the uprising is revenge for the 1980s and the SMB is indeed playing a role. Most Syrian supporters of the opposition associate the 1980s with a time of draconian regime repression and collective punishment while regime supporters and minorities associate it with sectarian violence and terrorism.

In January, I spoke with a knowledgeable official from a different national branch of the MB who was based in Beirut. “The revolution in Syria today has nothing to do with the MB of the 1980s,” he said, but he told me that the SMB was involved in the current uprising. Individual members of the SMB played a role organizing the uprising in Homs, Hama, and in the coastal areas, he said. The SMB and its Lebanese branch, the Jamaa Islamiya, were sending money and aid via Tripoli in Lebanon. They were also hosting families fleeing from Syria, providing them with food, clothing and shelter while sending aid to their relatives left behind in Syria. “The Jamaa Islamiya has a very clear loud position on Syria,” he said, “they are against the regime and supporting revolution. And the Brotherhood does not just support with words. It might be money and it might be some tools and facilitation. And if the Lebanese Brotherhood is doing it, it is with the cooperation of the Brotherhood of Syria.” The Jamaa Islamiya was playing a role via the SMB, he explained. “The Brotherhood shares the same school of thinking of Hassan al Banna,” he said, “so I hold the same ideas that a Lebanese, Jordanian, Yemeni, Libyan, Tunisian Brotherhood or even in Jakarta. Every group has the same thoughts. We share ideas and thoughts. We are an organization looking for a new era so we are organized and ready to deal with a new situation in the region. The Brotherhood has a huge responsibility on their shoulders. If they succeed they will have legitimacy to be leaders of Muslims and Arabs and if they fail they might lose their opportunity. We are preparing ourselves for 80 years. We are not dreaming we are dealing with reality.”

"The Brotherhood is not like they were in the past," said one leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council (HRC) who receives money from them among many others. "There are Muslims Brothers in groups of two or three and they are giving support to people inside Syria. They are not organized like they were before." Leaders of the SMB in Saudi Arabia do not have good communication with the SMB in other places. Abu Mohammed al Rifai, an SMB leader in Lebanon gives support to some groups in Homs and elsewhere. The SMB does not have cadres on the ground, nor does it have much ideological influence. Most people I spoke to admitted that their role was limited to sending money but they were not sending it as the SMB, only as individuals who happened to belong to the SMB. In Homs some leaders view their role as positive but they did not see it as the SMB acting as an organization, which it did not have the capacity to do anymore. Homs receives help only from members of the Syrian wing of the MB who are based in the Gulf, Lebanon, or Jordan. Most of the money has gone to aid and medical support. In late 2011, the SMB had a meeting in Saudi Arabia during which they decided against supporting the armed groups. As the SMB they did not want to be involved in this, perhaps as a result of their experience in the 1980s, but individual members of the SMB send money that is channeled to insurgent activities as well.

I met Syrian activists who met senior SMB leader Melhem al Drubi in Turkey, where he was giving money to activists. Members of the Drubi family who live in Saudi Arabia are also important financiers of the uprising. “We told him we want money for weapons when we met him in Turkey in May,” one activist told me. “He said no money for weapons this is peaceful revolution. We asked for money for hardship funds, he said we have people on the ground but we have not organized ourselves yet. He gave nobody that he met in Istanbul any money. He just wanted to know the situation on the ground. He wanted to know level of support for the Brotherhood. Now the Brotherhood controls a lot of access to money in Homs and the Damascus suburbs. But just because people take money from the Brotherhood does not mean they support it. The Brotherhood wants to improve and increase its name. They are not scary but they are trying to control. Some people are not happy about how the Brotherhood is financing on the ground. Some people who buy weapons are not ready to deal with the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood only gives certain people money for hardship or weapons.”

Abu Abdu, a field commander who deals with military and civilian elements of the opposition in the Damascus suburbs told me that he had received calls from people in Jordan, Turkey, London, and the United States who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. “People offer us money but there is a hidden agenda to it and we refuse it,” he said. “This is a popular revolution, I work for God and the nation. I come out against oppression.” He picked up his cigarette pack. “I’m not going to replace Marlboro with Gaullois.”

"The Brotherhood doesn’t scare me," said one leading activist from the Ismaili sect. "They don’t have representation on the ground that can endanger democracy." A Christian activist he worked with on delivering weapons and aid throughout the country agreed with the assessment, adding that, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." One prominent Druze activist in Damascus said, "I am not afraid of the Brotherhood. They have been outside, they became more secular. Syrian Islam is moderate and Sufi." Sufi brotherhoods are mystical groups organized around a sheikh who is believed to have a personal connection to God. Sufism is very mainstream in Syria, since most of the country’s Muslim scholars have received some Sufi training and often specialize as Sufi sheikhs.

Many other members of the opposition are less sanguine about the role of the SMB. One young activist in Barzeh told me he did not want the Brotherhood. “I don’t want women to be completely covered up,” he said. “This is not nice.” But like many people in the Arab world, he associated the word ‘ilmani, or secular, with anti-religious, and as a result was also against Ghalioun. “I want something in the middle,” he said. An older opposition supporter in the same neighborhood told me he wanted a civilian Islamic government “like in Turkey,” he said, “but not Islam by force.” The Brotherhood made a mistake in the 1980s, he continued. While the SMB in Damascus was engaged in peaceful proselytization, the Brotherhood in Aleppo and Hama took up arms. “It’s a mistake to take up arms against a brutal regime. In reaction the regime thought anybody who prayed was in the MB. This is a revolution of the youth and it was good for the Brotherhood to deny that they are behind the revolution. The Brotherhood have no presence on the ground.”

Another Damascus activist worried that many demonstrations in the Damascus suburbs had Islamic slogans. Indeed in Harasta I heard songs about Muslims and infidels. In Duma and Sanamein I heard demonstrators calling for jihad while in Zamalka in evening demonstrations people prayed in the middle of a busy commercial street. The activist told me that in Homs’s Dir Baalbeh neighborhood, the Brotherhood’s slogan of “Islam is the solution” was raised. “In the last months the Brotherhood became strong on the ground,” he said. “Communists told me they won’t go out in demonstrations that say ‘God is great’ and religious things. A lot of demonstrations in Daraa, Homs, Idlib are led by clerics and it scares secular people.” He complained that the SMB chose the names for the Friday demonstrations. “‘So National Unity’ Friday became ‘Khalid bin al Walid’ [the early Muslim leader who conquered Syria in the 7th century] Friday and ‘We won’t Kneel’ Friday became ‘We Won’t Kneel Except before God.”

Many Syrians with ties to the Brotherhood fled in the 1980s. Now, like the Attasis of Homs and the Abazeeds of Daraa, they send money back home. Throughout Syria I heard concerns from the opposition that money from SMB members was ending up in the hands of the wrong people. In Homs some funds were going to former criminals or to armed groups who acted without consulting with the local civilian political leadership of the uprising. In Hama and Idlib I heard similar complaints.

"We don’t work with anybody," said Khaled Nasrallah, a leader of an armed group operating in Hama and Idlib, "not with the Brotherhood. We are a popular revolution. They want to control you and we are nationalists. We won’t finish this oppression so somebody else will come and tell us what to do. We are worried about the future, after the revolution, worried about the Brotherhood or Salafis or other parties. We don’t want somebody to tell us what to do in the future." A senior leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council told me "there is no organization called the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria. This is the difference between Syria and other Arab countries. The sheikhs in Homs who have revolutionary role are Sufis. None of them belong to movements."

In the Jabal Azawiya town of Fleifil people still recall the three times the Syrian army raided the area by helicopter and arrested locals. “They raided every village,” according to one local leader. “From 1980 to 1988 they would constantly raid the villages.” They also point to a massacre committed by the regime in the main square of Jisr al Shughur in 1980. In Idlib’s Jabal Azawiya I met Yusuf al Hassan, a powerful former cigarette smuggler who leads an armed group and has been fighting the regime since June. Hassan, who is said by other insurgent commanders to receive some help from Turkish military intelligence, crossed the border into Turkey and met with SMB Secretary General Riad al Shaqfa. But he didn’t trust the SMB, he told me, and as a result the SMB now opposed him as well. “I asked for five representatives from the whole area to distribute aid through them,” Hassan said. “The Brotherhood was against this. This was cause of my problems with the Brotherhood in Jabal Azawiya. The Brotherhood are not accepted among us, they are racist, thieves, corrupt. We are the middle Islam. They divided the revolution, sent money to a few people. People came to me and I gave weapons and bullets to everybody without discrimination. When our revolution got weaker in the summer four or five months ago, the Brotherhood intervention appeared.” A fighter from Jisr al Shughur agreed with him. “We are Muslims, not Muslim Brothers,” he said, provoking the laughter of other insurgents with us.

In rural Hama leaders of various armed groups resented a man called Abu Rayan who received help from the Brotherhood in Turkey and Jordan to fund his armed group. I met with him and other leaders of armed groups in a mountain safe-house bordering Hama and Idlib. Abu Rayan had a gray beard. He wore a pistol under his armpit. As we talked Abu Rayan sent a group of his men from his Abu Fida brigade to help men from Hama’s Salahedin brigade who were besieged in the city’s Hamidiya area. Other commanders resented him for not cooperating with them. Bassim, a commander from Hama told me that he had asked Abu Rayan for help in the past but had not received a single bullet. He only helped Hama city, the other leaders told me, while others cooperated as needed, including across the line into Idlib. Abu Rayan said he had met with Turkish intelligence. He was a vulgar man, whose cursing made the other men uncomfortable. “We kiss one thousand asses just so they can send us money for a satellite phone,” he complained. The other men told me he was a former drug dealer in Hama city. “It made me hate the Brotherhood even more that they support a man like this,” said a Sufi sheikh from rural Hama called Sheikh Omar Rahmun who also had an armed group which operated in rural Hama and Idlib.

The city of Hama was still a reservoir for the SMB, he told me, but the resistance was taking place in the rural areas surrounding it and Abu Rayan was not helping out the rural insurgency. “Abu Rayan doesn’t fight,” said the sheikh. “He is a leader. Abu Rayan gets help from the SMB but the people in his group don’t know this. Ninety percent of Abu Rayan’s men would leave if they knew he works with the SMB. We want the revolution to win. We want the people who get help not to put it in their pocket but to give it to the people in need. People have empty ammunition clips. Abu Rayan has money, we don’t.”

"The U.S. won with an alliance with the Brotherhood in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt" he said. "America cooperates with the Brotherhood. But the alliance has to be studied. This alliance is failed. There was a long information war against the Brotherhood and it is now an expired product. It is being treated as bigger than its size on the ground. The Brotherhood does not have a presence on the ground but it gave some money and communication devices to some groups. They give you money now so they can ride on your shoulders in the future. After June or July groups and parties started to appear. ‘I am from this party or that party.’ Our disaster is the Brotherhood in particular. The Brotherhood don’t have future in Syria without coercion. In Syria one party cannot win over other parties. We refuse to work under any party. We don’t want a party that society doesn’t accept. We don’t want to people to be coerced. Syria is a Sufi society. With two beats of the of miz-har (a Sufi drum) you can get all of Syria behind you, but they won’t follow Salafis after fifty years."

The word “Salafi” haunts the Syrian uprising. The regime has turned this conservative practice of Islam into a smear of the opposition, hoping to associate them with jihadist Salafis like those of al Qaeda in Iraq. In nearly every demonstration I attended opposition songs dismissed the notion that they were Salafis. But in Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, some practices associated with Salafis have become popularized even if people do not identify themselves as such. In part this is thanks to the influence of Saudi Arabia. And it is Syrians in Saudi Arabia who play a major role in financing the uprising, giving them additional influence. In four months traveling through Syria, I found Salafis to be a minority within the uprising, but nevertheless they play a growing role.

Last November, I first met one of the most powerful men in Damascus’s urban suburb of Harasta. Tough looking activists in tracksuits who arranged our meeting were contemptuous of the local opposition coordination committee. “The Sheikh,” or Abu Omar, was not from the committee, said one, “he is from the group that fears God.” The men explained to me that it was not the coordination committee that was in charge of Harasta, it was the “shabab,” the guys like them. Abu Omar was a thick man wearing a dish dasha and leather jacket. As we spoke over dinner, he asked me if I knew what a Salafi was. I said it was somebody who followed the righteous companions of the Prophet Mohammed. “It’s somebody devoted in his religion who doesn’t stray to one side or another,” he said. “Now they use Salafi to mean al Qaeda or terrorist. The Syrian regime is trying to persuade the West that it is fighting terror like the West,” adding that “they failed.” We sat in a room full of religious books and talked about the very active armed opposition in Harasta. “Violence has bred violence,” he said. Abu Omar explained that their struggle against the regime was a jihad, but without foreign military intervention (and he did not care from where), the regime would not fall.

Abu Abdu, a military leader in Harasta confided that many people hoped there would be a declaration of jihad against the regime. “But they don’t want to be accused of being Salafis.” He did not expect such a declaration because the regime was not led by infidels and there were many Muslims in it, while the opposition also feared being accused of sectarianism.

In the Ghab area of rural Hama I spent many hours sitting with insurgents and local sheikhs. “We don’t meet in mosques because the revolution is Islamic but because mosques are the center of gathering for people,” said sheikh Amer, an imam in the town of Qalat Mudhiq. Men in the room dismissed the government’s accusations that they were Salafis. “Some of these guys drink,” one of them told me. “Our religion Islam is tolerant,” one said, “we won’t be like them,” meaning Alawites. “There will be no mercy for the Alawites who carried weapons or were shabiha,” the sheikh told me.

In March, Sheikh Amer gave a sermon about speaking right in front of an oppressive sultan. A demonstration followed the prayer. Syrian security called him in and asked why he was inciting people. Sheikh Amer is now a spiritual and moral advisor to the armed men. I was told, “he teaches the guys what is permitted and forbidden, values, don’t harm Christians and Alawites, don’t steal.”

I drove through many “liberated” villages where insurgents had their own checkpoints and patrols. I met Abu Ghazi, a self-proclaimed “moderate Salafi” and the representative of the Ghab coordination committee on the Hama Revolutionary Council. Abu Ghazi was respected by other militia commanders in the Ghab. He was in his 30s and had a short beard with no mustache. His house had just been attacked by regime security forces for the third time and destroyed. He complained that the committee was neglected. “The Brotherhood support their group, Salafis support their group, secularists support their group. I am buying a satellite phone with my own money. I have a farm, so I make money from that. People are selling fish so I can buy bullets for the guys. We have a national agenda. I don’t want the agenda of the Brotherhood or Salafis. I want a national agenda, even if I am a Salafi. I know the situation here better than somebody in Europe, Saudi, or UAE. I don’t want a sectarian war here. We would get a lot of help if we gave our area to one current. The Salafi jihadi current offered help. Salafi jihadis have a lot of money but need an oath of loyalty. The man who gives weapons doesn’t give them for free.” He feared chaos in the future if such parties gained influence. “I want law and order,” he said.

I was in the Ghab when Syrian security forces raided nearby villages. Hundreds of fighters from village militias in the area gathered on the mountains above in case they were needed. Among them were insurgents from the Saad bin Muadh brigade, led by a Salafi called Abu Talha, who had links with groups outside Syria. “Abu Talha’s group only works for themselves,” a local militia commander complained. “They don’t share and don’t cooperate much.” Abu Talha was originally from the village of Tweina in al Ghab. Like many Syrian Salafis he had spent time in the Sednaya prison. “They are all graduates of Sednaya,” he said.

A Salafi commander of an armed group called Abu Sleiman united the area against him. “When people heard he wanted to make his own emirate all the mountain turned against him,” said a local village militia leader. “We are all brothers from here to Daraa. We are revolutionaries and that’s it. No parties.”

"Salafis like Abu Suleyman in Jabal Azawiya offer to loan you weapons for specific operations," other insurgents told me. But they had refused. Abu Suleiman was a former drug dealer, they said, who became a Salafi after spending time in the Sednaya prison. "Abu Sleiman had conditions for helping others," said a fighter from Kafr Ruma village in Jabal Azawiya.  "He said ‘be under my emirate and give me back the weapons when the operation is over.’ But we won’t remove Bashar to be under somebody else. So Abu Sleiman is rejected by the mountain. We expelled him, he was extreme." He was now in Turkey, they told me.

In quiet evenings the fighters of Jabal Azawiya gathered for large meals in different houses. One night I was with them for an immense tray of knafeh as they watched the nightly talk show with the sectarian exiled opposition cleric Adnan al Arur. He was very popular in the region, they said. Al Arur, whose anti-Shiite rants were divisive long before the uprising in Syria and whose name is often chanted in demonstrations, famously warned Alawites who participate in the repression that they would be chopped and that their flesh would be fed to dogs. Arur has not often spoken about Alawites and his popularity does not stem from his sectarianism but because he has religious credentials and speaks in an angry colloquial voice when praising the demonstrators every day. But his popularity has encouraged secular Sunni and minorities to prefer the regime.

"We are grateful to the Salafi fighters," said the Sufi Sheikh Omar Rahmun who led an armed group in Hama. "But I am against canceling people, I am against canceling you and you canceling me. Of the fighters, Salafis are less than one percent." One night Sheikh Omar led a group of fighters in a Sufi style of singing called a Mulid. "Its good that Sufis raise their head a little bit so people won’t think the revolution is Salafi," one of the local fighters told me. The role of Sufi clerics in the opposition should not come as a surprise. I have seen Sufi insurgent groups in Falluja and other parts of Iraq and as well as armed Sufis in Somalia and Afghanistan.

Further north, rural Aleppo has hundreds of fighters in the insurgency. In the town of Anadan, slogans for “the Faruq revolution” are written on walls. Faruq is another name for Omar, a figure revered by Sunnis. On other walls people sent their greetings to Omar as well as Abu Bakr and Uthman, who are also revered by Sunnis. Many men from the area volunteered to fight in Iraq. While most of the activist leaders in Anadan have university degrees in subjects like chemistry, mathematics and Arabic, all of them are Islamists and some are Salafis.

A 48-year-old man called Abu Jumaa leads the uprising there. His son spent one year in an Air Force intelligence prison, accused of belonging to the jihadist group Jund Asham and enduring severe torture. Before the revolution many of Anadan’s youths were accused of Islamic extremism and arrested. One Friday in February demonstrators shouted, “the people want a declaration of jihad!”

Abu Jumaa arranged for the armed and unarmed needs of the revolution in Anadan. In his house he has Kalashnikovs, shotgun,s and improvised explosive devices. One of the spiritual leaders of the revolution in Anadan is a sheikh called Yusuf who is not a Salafi. The Muslim Brotherhood still has influence in Anadan, which suffered in the 1980s during the Brotherhood’s uprising and many residents were banned from state employment.

Armed locals in Anadan claim that security forces have not raided the town “because if they come security will be massacred.” Non-Sunnis were removed from the military security headquarters in Anadan so that they would be less likely to be killed by insurgents. One Friday morning in December opposition activists tore down a large picture of Assad in the main square. One of the guards in the nearby security headquarters cheered them on. By February, the security forces had been expelled by the insurgents from Anadan and its men were working on helping their brethren in Aleppo city.

Another pan-Islamist movement, Hizbultahrir, or the Party of Liberation, is also reappearing. In Sanamein, the second largest town in Daraa province, I met with Abu Khalid, one of the political leaders of the uprising there who also often led demonstrations. Sanamein was a conservative town. Most people prayed. All its sheikhs were Shafii, there were no Sufis, and it seemed as though everybody loved sheikh Adnan al Arur. Abu Khalid belonged to Hizbultahrir, a utopian pan-Islamic organization committed to reestablishing the caliphate through peaceful means. Despite his affiliation with this movement Abu Khalid was against the involvement of any political party. “I am against giving religious tone to the revolution.” He added, “It’s a popular revolution.”

In January, leaders of armed groups in Homs including those from the opposition’s Faruq Brigade sent messages to the Muslim Brotherhood complaining that the Brotherhood was smuggling weapons into Homs but hiding them or burying there. “They avoid to use their weapons now to fight and we are afraid that they want us to defeat the regime and then they will use their arms when we are tired.” The Brotherhood had no people on the ground, all leaders in Homs agreed, but there were signs they were trying to recruit from other groups. The discovery that they were hiding weapons had created a crisis of trust. The utopian group Hizbultahrir has long had a presence in Homs. Many of its members were arrested over the years, but it was not a violent group and hence they spent less time in prison than others. They have recently made their presence felt in Homs once again, building a network and financing some armed groups.

In late December, some men belonging to Hizbultahrir tried to raise the black and white flag of Islam in the Inshaat neighborhood of Homs. They also distributed leaflets in Inshaat saying it is religiously prohibited to deal with the Americans or ask for support from NATO, people should only depend on God. The local political opposition committee in Inshaat told them they did not want these things in their neighborhood. Likewise HRC activists stopped the Hizbultahrir men from raising the flags, explaining that only flags approved by the HRC could be raised. The HRC leadership warned their people in Inshaat to be careful because Islamists could use this incident to say the HRC is against Islam. But others complained to the HRC about their refusal to raise the flag of Islam.

"Islamists are going so fast," a leader of the HRC told me. "They are not waiting. A few days ago Hizbultahrir put up flag of Islam, but everybody knows that this slogan is for Hizbultahrir. Hizbultahrir started recruiting, they were arrested in previous years, and now they started again building their networks. They started working with armed groups. Financing them. Other Islamists also started working, they believe the regime is about to fall and they started building their relationships."

"This generation is enlightened and was not raised in Salafi education, unlike Egypt," said one leading activist from Homs. Salafi satellite television stations like Safa and Wesal are popular in Syria because Syrians were deprived of being religious for years, he told me. "Syria was the kingdom of silence for a long time," he said. "Arur was the first to speak with this courage. People don’t like Arur because he is Salafi or Sufi. I watched him in the beginning. He was a sheikh and the words that came from him were trusted and he spoke with courage."

He spoke of Syria’s most senior cleric Said Ramadan al Buti. “If Butti spoke in one hundred degrees less than Arur he would be more popular than Arur,” he said. “Buti’s thoughts are good, if he was with the revolution and spoke then Bashar would have left a long time ago. We want a man who is enlightened and a thinker. People liked Burhan Ghalioun at first. They stopped liking him not because he was secular but because they feel like he didn’t deliver. I respect him because he is enlightened and stood with the people. The people are more simple than the parties, the want a program, to eat to live freely, not to live under oppression and security member will mess up the neighborhood, and they want something tangible and something to be proud of. This generation is not Muslim Brothers, Hizbultahrir, or Salafi. They want somebody who will serve them. But we can’t deny that this is an Islamic society so somebody could take advantage of Islam for electoral purposes.”

"Some people are disappointed," said another leader of the HRC. "And don’t expect anything from the Arab League which is a League of Arab dictators and the security council did nothing for us so some Islamists think we have to depend only on god and call on jihad. Those depressed people now blame the sheikhs because sheikhs do not call for jihad and people try to pressure sheikhs to make call for jihad." But he disagreed with this. "Why should we announce jihad? Just to give regime excuse to kill us?"

The Syrian uprising’s reliance on outside help will only increase radicalization. In January officials from the HRC complained to me that the live broadcasts of Homs demonstrations shown on networks like al Jazeera Mubashar were controlled by a Salafi, Abu Yasir, who falsely claimed he was in Homs and was causing problems for them. During a January sit-in in the Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh the HRC tried to arrange for a senior member and founder of their council to speak to protesters live from his exile in Jordan. This member was a Sufi sheikh from the Bab Assiba neighborhood who had played a key role from the first days of the uprising encouraging people to demonstrate and maintaining discipline over the armed groups. “We wanted him to talk to the crowd because the people of Homs love him and they will obey him,” an HRC official told me. “But the guy on the laptop said first I want to ask the coordinator (Abu Yasir) and the coordinator said no we don’t want him, we want Arur, so Arur spoke to the crowd.” He complained that in the HRC too many of the media coordinators were in Saudi Arabia.

Unlike places I visited in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in opposition strongholds the residents do not live in fear of Salafis and there are no armed Salafis imposing themselves on the population. But the alleged suicide bombings of December and January in Damascus and February in Aleppo do raise the possibility that the regime’s propaganda will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The more time the revolution extends the Salafis will be stronger,” one activist told me. “Each month that goes by the movement turns more Islamic and more radical Islamic. If it had succeeded in April or May of 2011 there would be more civil society.”

The Americans and Europeans assess that the regime was not behind the attacks. A western official based in Damascus said the bombings were both against “known staging grounds for mukhabarat and shabiha. Where they gather and get their assignments. Our defense attache used to see hundreds of mukhabarat in front of the branch buildings every Friday morning.” A senior western diplomat told me, “The car bombs are a murky matter. If my time in Algiers and Baghdad is any guide, we may never know the full story.” Before the December 23 attacks a senior western diplomat told me that al Qaeda was in Syria and he was very worried they might conduct attacks. Syria was a major source of jihadists and suicide bombers in Iraq, as even Syrian security officials often admit. It was a transit point for other foreign fighters going to Iraq. One senior western diplomat worried that veterans of the Anbar campaign would use their expertise in Syria.

Residents of Daraa, the suburbs of Damascus, or other opposition strongholds feel like they live under occupation. Opposition supporters talk about “occupied” or “liberated” areas. Opposition strongholds that are “occupied” are surrounded and divided by checkpoints. Security and soldiers demand identity cards from passers by, ask men to get out of their vehicles, enter bus and check the identity cards of all men on the bus, conduct armed patrols through neighborhoods, kick down doors, and arrest military age men. I was reminded of the feeling I had in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and southeast Turkey. While security and soldiers in Syria are not foreign, they are not local either and often have an Alawite accent. It is enough to create a sense of occupation. Occupation is a major cause of suicide attacks. On Fridays, which is when the suicide attacks occurred, security men gather in large groups at the same places every week so they can chase demonstrators, beat them, and shoot at them. They are a tempting target, easy and unprotected. While Syria is indeed a security state, its security apparatus has been overwhelmed lately and it is very easy to smuggle anything or anybody into and around the country.

One colonel from the political security branch complained that before their primary job was to prevent al Qaeda activity but now they allocated all their resources to repressing activists and responding to the armed opposition. Between 2005 and 2008, while I was researching my book “Aftermath" jihadi Salafis in Jordan and Lebanon from the Zarqawi network told me the final battle would be in Sham, the classical name for Syria. They hated Alawites. They are an experienced bunch who would support suicide bombings against security forces working for a regime they could describe as infidel who attacked people coming out of mosques. As the crackdown increases, as the local opposition’s sense of abandonment by the outside world increases, and the voices calling for jihad get louder, there will likely be more radicalization.

Nir Rosen, author of “Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World,” spent four months in Syria reporting on the uprising for al Jazeera.

Syria’s Alawite activists stuck in the middle

 08 Mar 2012

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera - including articles about the Alawite community.

The Syrian opposition has been stepping up efforts to get religious minorities involved in the year-old uprising. The exiled opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) recently issued a statement announcing that it “extends [a] hand to the Alawite community”, the sect which President Bashar al-Assad belongs to.

Although a minority, Alawites dominate Syria’s various security agencies, its army’s officer corps and key positions in the government. Western backers of the SNC and opponents of the regime often say the Damascus leadership will only fall when the Alawite community is persuaded to abandon it.

An older Sunni opposition intellectual who spent time in prison before and during the current uprising agreed with this analysis when I spoke to him in Damascus. “The system will fall only when Alawites believe they are headed in the wrong direction,” he said, adding that “Alawite intellectuals must realise that if they want to live in this country, they must be against the regime and with the revolution.”

Historically, Alawites have played a prominent role in the opposition. But in the ongoing uprising, there are few prominent Alawite voices. Many members of the community fear they will be marginalised if the Sunni majority gains power. Given their experiences of oppression before the Baath party took over in 1963, some statements by the opposition have only encouraged their fears.

When Maamun Homsi, a prominent exiled opposition figure, gave a rant threatening to exterminate all Alawites, he was not condemned by the SNC. Homsi urged the “despicable Alawites” to either renounce Assad, “or Syria will become your graveyard”. Shortly after his remarks, I spoke to a senior Western diplomat with influence over the SNC. He was outraged and urged SNC President Burhan Ghalioun to condemn the statement.

A recent SNC statement, urging communal tolerance, seems to be a response to pressure from American and European backers of the SNC.

"The regime has tried, since the beginning of the revolution, to fragment Syrian society and drive a wedge within mixed communities by dividing cities along military and security lines," the February 26 statement said. “The Alawites remain an important component of Syria, and will continue to enjoy the same rights as other citizens as we build one nation of Christians, Muslims, and other sects. The regime will not be successful in pitting us against one another.”

'Red carpet treatment'

Dima, an Alawite third-year architecture student who I met in Damascus, took part in demonstrations from the beginning of the uprising with Christians, Alawites and secular Sunnis, and in separate women’s demonstrations.

She also went to funerals in Sunni strongholds like Barzeh and Qabun with a delegation of about 100 Druze, Alawite and Christian activists.”We wanted to show that minorities are with the revolution,” she said. “We got a red carpet treatment.”

She said there were “a million reasons” why she was against the regime.

"From when we were small, we could see something was wrong," she said, telling me of the Baathist paramilitary training children received and the culture of corruption and nepotism. "But we couldn’t say anything about it. When things started in Egypt and Libya, we started saying that we had to do something here.

"We had hope that it would be peaceful and with reforms. I had so much hope for the president’s first speech but I felt disappointed and sad. He didn’t say anything except ‘assalam aleikum’ [peace be upon you] and conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy.”

Dima comes from a large family, where the highest degree anybody has is high school. All of them work in the public sector.

"I have 10 family members who work in the post office in the village but nobody in the office does anything," she said. "Nobody has sent a letter in 30 years. They just drink yerba mate and go home.

"The rest work in the army or security and their situation is very good."

Dima thinks most Alawites embrace Assad out of fear rather than genuine allegiance - or, like her relatives in the security apparatus, because they have an interest of the current regime staying in power.

"They don’t mix with Sunnis and they don’t know that there is anything wrong" in society, she said.

"Minorities are really afraid and you cannot deny that there is sectarianism. I know that when I deal with someone from the government I am treated differently from others because I am Alawite."

Fearing a ‘massacre’

But being an Alawite does not help if you are against the regime. By December, Dima’s status in the university was frozen because of her opposition activities and she could take no more classes.

One day, Military Security officers came to her house.

"They knew everything I did and told my family everything," she said. "The guy who came to ask about me is from our village. He felt uncomfortable asking about me because we are neighbours."


After this incident, Dima left Syria to complete her studies in Europe. Her father works in a government ministry and was worried he would lose his job because of her.

She said her father knows very well “how bad the regime is” but still supports Assad.

"He feels that if the regime falls, there will be a massacre of the Alawites, or they will be sent to their villages in the mountains," she said. "And it’s possible this will happen. There is resentment.

"It’s the role of minorities to change their positions and not be shabiha (state sponsored militias) and supporters because their stance is the reason for the resentment.”

Dima said Alawite students and staff beat demonstrators in an anti-government protest she took part in at the medical faculty of Damascus University in November. An Alawite student protester from the city of Tartous was beaten worse than anybody, she said.

Regime ‘expired’

In the city of Homs, where sectarian tensions have increased during the uprising, I met Ahmed, an Alawite political science professor. He is an open critic of the regime and has participated in many locally driven dialogue sessions between leaders of the Alawite, Christian and Sunni communities in order to prevent communal violence. His Sunni students who were opposition activists spoke highly of him. 

One night as we sat on a roof top in the Akrama neighbourhood we came under very close sniper fire and had to duck down and run into the stairwell. The fire originated in an Alawite area. He blamed pro-regime extremists who were against his calls for moderation. 

"This regime is expired," he often told me, and talked about the need for political reform. "We have to create a new mechanism to make a new Syria, free parties, free elections, but no religious parties."

But like many Alawites, he viewed the majority of the opposition as Sunni extremists. “Who leads the street? Mosque sheikhs without degrees. If the leaders were doctors and engineers, I would be very calm, but they are not.” 

He also feared extreme Assad supporters, and carried a pistol in self-defence. After speaking at a national dialogue conference he received death threats and fled to Europe. “I felt I would be killed in 24 hours by pro-regime extremists,” he said.

Ahmed feared a civil war resulting from army defections and the armed opposition. “If the army breaks in two, what should I do? Shall I be with ‘the others’?, he asked.

"I have to protect my family. I escaped because I am not sectarian. Sunnis and Christians are my brothers."

His uncle, a prominent doctor in Homs, fled with his family to the predominantly Christian town of Safita. Ahmed predicted that more Alawites would flee to the coastal areas, and that Assad would eventually return to his hometown of Qirdaha in Latakia province. “He will be president of the coast.”

Ahmed blamed the regime for early sectarian incidents in Homs in April last year, when bearded men drove into Alawite neighbourhoods, shouted for jihad, and shot into the air.

"Who can drive a car in some streets and say ‘hey Alawites, Sunnis are coming to kill you’, or go to Sunni areas and say the same thing about Alawites? They chose to take things to sectarianism to get protection from the Alawites, and they thought they could make the whole sect their army. They are so stupid, they are killing all of Syria."

Ahmed often mentioned the exiled sectarian opposition cleric Adnan al-Arur, who frightens many Alawites. Arur, whose name is often chanted in demonstrations in Syria, famously warned Alawites who participate in the repression that they would be chopped and that their flesh would be fed to dogs. Arur has not often spoken about Alawites and his popularity does not stem from his sectarianism, but his popularity has encouraged some secular Sunnis and minorities to prefer the regime.

Some privileged - but most poor 

Muhamad, an Alawite activist who is part of a movement called Youth for Justice, told me he did not fear the Sunni majority. “This state’s identity is like any other Arab country,” he told me. “It’s Islamic, it’s an Islamic state. Even a Christian here hears the call to prayer five times a day.”

He said Islam should not be suppressed, and needed an opportunity to play a role.

"Then there will be a revolution against (the prophet) Muhammad, like there was against the church," he said, referring to the Reformation, when the role of Christianity in European society was reduced.


But he said the main reason why a majority of his community has stayed loyal to the president was fears of sectarianism.

"Most Alawites are only afraid that Sunnis will come kill them," he said. "They don’t care who is president."

Muhamad told me one pro-regime Alawite thug he knew had said he hit demonstrators because he thought they wanted to send him back to his village.

The largest group of beneficiaries from the regime are Alawites, Muhamad admitted.

"Some hate the revolution for financial reasons," he said. "They worry that it will harm their interests. Others say ‘they want to take the authority from us.’"

But he stressed that most Alawites are actually poor. “If you go to my grandfather’s village you feel you are in Afghanistan, it’s so poor,” he said. “The Alawites are the people who should oppose the regime the most … They live in very poor conditions.”

Muhamad had spent one year in jail for opposition activities before the revolution. In January, he felt that the mukhabarat [intelligence] was closing in on him again and he fled to Algeria. He said he was beaten on the street there by pro-regime Syrians who had been monitoring him and knew all the details about his family and history.

'No honourable Alawite'

Ali, a young Alawite banker who was very active throughout Sunni opposition strongholds in Damascus, said his family, residing in Homs, were all opposition.

He was eager to show me that minorities take part in the uprising and that the protesters are not sectarian. But he told few people that he was an Alawite in order to avoid being mistrusted. One night he took me to meet Abu Hameed, a Sunni opposition leader in Barzeh.

Abu Hameed wore a track suit over a tall muscular body. His head was shaven and his leg was injured from a day he was trampled by a mob fleeing security gun fire. I asked him if Alawites took part in demonstrations in Barzeh. “God forbid!” he said. “There is no honourable Alawite in Syria. The Alawite sect hates every other sect.”

Abu Hameed said “there would be fear” among protesters if an Alawite demonstrator came. “They would suspect he was a spy.”

According to Abu Hameed, only Alawites have rights in Syria.

"The rule is in their hand. Alawites can step on everybody. They say the country is ours, nothing for you."

He was especially resentful of Alawites who came to Damascus.

"If the revolution wins we won’t leave one Alawite in Damascus," he said. "As a Sunni I don’t have a problem with any other sect except Alawites. Sunnis have God in their heart. Alawites made Sunnis in the regime take God out of their hearts."

On the hills above Barzeh sits the working class Alawite neighbourhood Ish al-Warwar, where many people serve in the security forces. Residents of the neighbouring areas had clashed in a rivalry that started in 1975 and required state intervention. During the current uprising, Alawites have accused Sunnis of attacking them and vice versa and a sectarian fault line has emerged between the two neighbourhoods.

"I don’t think that Ish al-Warwar will remain here after the revolution," Abu Hameed said. "I will send them a warning, ‘go back to where you came from’. There are no innocents among them."

Lacking support

Organising the uprising is expensive, and one challenge facing activists from minorities is that they do not have a community or elites they can fall back on for support. In February I spoke to a leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council who was coordinating with Ismaili and Alawite opposition figures in the towns of Salamiyah and Misyaf.

"The Ismailis told me that when they first started demonstrating in Salamiyah they suffered a lot from arrests of activists and they needed support to feed the families, but they are poor because they are Ismailis," he said, adding that individuals in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states who support the uprising only give money to the Sunni opposition.

"The activists in Salamiyah cannot afford satellite internet devices so it takes two or three days to upload their demonstrations onto the internet."

The opposition leader said the council had agreed to help the Salamiyah activists, and he had also met an Alawite opposition figure from Misyaf.

"We have a network with Alawites but they need support and the Saudis will not help us with them. Most of our money comes from Syrians in Saudi Arabia."

Despite these challenges, the pressures they face from their own communities and families, from the regime and from sectarian trends in the opposition, Alawite activists are keen to make their voices heard.

On December 31 a delegation of Alawite activists joined about 500 Sunni demonstrators in Barzeh. The leader of the rally announced to the crowd that they had special guests that evening. One man took the microphone and told the crowd he was an Alawite from Homs. They cheered and clapped. He told them there were other Alawites in the crowd and many Alawites “in the prisons of the dog called Bashar al-Assad”. The crowds cheered and clapped again, and continued doing so after he shouted: “I am from the Alawite sect - not from the Assadi sect”. He led the crowd in chanting “one, one, one, the Syrian people is one!” and “the people want the execution of Bashar!”

Q&A: Nir Rosen’s predictions for Syria

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensifvely around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the final of a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera upon his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria’s armed opposition, the country’s protest movementsectarianism and daily life in Syria.

Al Jazeera: To quote General David Petraeus in Iraq: ‘Tell me how this ends.’
 
Nir Rosen: The regime can survive for a long time, even if it steadily loses control of territory within the country. It is very unlikely that there will be any large-scale international military intervention. In Washington, there is a great deal of frustration. Zionists and advocates of the muscular use of US power, including several Republicans, are calling for Obama to arm the opposition. Even the neoconservatives are climbing out from under their rocks to call for a US military intervention. Fox News has seized on this cause too.
 
Having confirmed with US officials - and contrary to conspiracy theories - the Obama administration has not, until now, made the policy decision to aid the opposition on the ground, let alone provide it with weapons. US and European officials who would like to intervene in Syria complain that there is no “silver bullet” or easy option for them. They don’t even know who to support inside Syria. The exiled opposition, such as the Syrian National Council, are too busy fighting among themselves and too disconnected from events on the ground, so the outside powers do not even have a convenient local collaborator or proxy to deal with. They also complain that the SNC has completely failed to reach out to minorities, especially Alawites. They agree that opponents of the regime will have to pry Alawite community from the administration. The Alawite pillar must be removed, they say. I know that the United States, like the United Kingdom, has envoys among the Syrian opposition. After speaking with diplomatic and intelligence figures, it is clear to me that it is only a matter of time before the SNC is officially recognised by the US and UK as the main interlocutor, but they are pressuring the SNC to get its act together first.
 
One more factor militating against US support for a hasty collapse of the regime is the fear over Syria’s vastchemical weapons arsenal as well as its tens of thousands of portable anti-aircraft missiles and anti-armour missiles. The US will as always be sensitive to Israeli concerns on this proliferation issue as well. It’s always better to have a postal address where to retaliate if you want deterrence to work. While foreign intervention of one kind or another is probably inevitable (regardless of whether it is desirable), those countries who would be most likely to intervene are ill-prepared.

Turkey has certainly become more influential in the region, but the United States foreign service probably has more Arabists in its embassy in Cairo than in the entire Turkish foreign policy establishment. The Turks are not yet prepared for their new role in the region, lacking experts and Arabic speakers, which limits their ability to intervene. On their own, Jordan or Turkey cannot give enough support to the opposition to make a difference, and an international coalition appears difficult to cobble together without the opposition being strengthened.

 

Israeli intelligence does not deserve the reputation it has. Its academia and foreign policy establishment lack real experts, given their Zionist bias, an inability to conduct field work and a tendency to view the Arab world through Orientalist or military prisms. The days when the Israelis could field Arab Jews who were fluent in the language and could pass as locals are long over. Israeli intelligence has suffered a string of humiliations in Lebanon in recent years. Likewise, US intelligence has recently been humiliated in Lebanon - and given its poor performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, it should not intimidate the Syrian regime. So, for the various countries who will want to play a role, there is no easy entry point.
 
Only a “Hama" could change the equation. Nobody can say exactly what that would entail, because "Hama" has become an epithet, a symbol, it just means for something terrible to happen. So, until now there is no Hama-type event that the opposition or international media could use to give leaders in Turkey or the West a pretext for humanitarian intervention or to delegitimise the country’s leadership. Such an incident would have to be so grave that international opponents would use it to obliterate the Russian and Chinese veto in the United Nations, and to criminalise those two countries for their backing of the Syrian regime.

In past interventions there has been such an incident or picture. Think of the 1999 Racak massacre in Kosovo, or the emaciated Bosnian Muslim man photographed through a barbed-wire fence. A satellite image of a neighborhood before and after it has been destroyed could also galvanize popular support for an intervention. Until now, the regime response seems calibrated to avoid this. But in a situation where the Syrian army has difficulty manoeuvring in opposition strongholds because of the insurgency’s IEDs, snipers and ambushes, it is conceivable that a frustrated military or political leader might turn increasingly to ordering indirect fire that could flatten a neighbourhood - or that an out of control security unit or group of shabiha [“thugs”] could punish an entire village after suffering losses. Likewise there will be some elements of the uprising who could provoke such a harsh response, perhaps with a suicide bomb, an attack against an Alawite village or a significant humiliation inflicted on a security unit.
 
The opposition cannot articulate a clear narrative for how the regime is to fall. Instead of leading, the Syrian National Council has been following the increasingly radical demands of the uprising on the street. Its demands preclude a transition and make civil war more likely. The “international community” still prefers a negotiated transition, what one senior western diplomat in Syria called “a soft landing”, but there is little sign that the regime is interested or able to make the concessions that would lead to a ceasefire - especially while the regime does not feel like it is losing. The country’s leadership is confident, so it sees no reason to negotiate. It seems to believe that, as long as it has the backing of Russia, China and Iran - as well as some others - it can proceed with its nominal reforms and contain the demonstrations, while punishing recalcitrant towns such as Homs.

"Early on, the administration hesitated at the crucial moment and didn’t kill enough people to crush the uprising in a single blow. Now there is no turning back.

- Nir Rosen

Security officials I have spoken to do not seem particularly distressed by the fact that half the country has risen up against them.
 
Early on, the administration hesitated at the crucial moment and didn’t kill enough people to crush the uprising in a single blow. Now there is no turning back. And the opposition on the ground has moved past the point of having any willingness to negotiate, anyway. Like the US in Iraq before the “surge”, the Syrian regime can focus its security and loyal army units on one area and regain it temporarily - but this just allows another area greater autonomy. And it encourages the popular embrace of insurgents and radicalisation, because village residents under threat know what’s in store.
 
If the struggle drags on, the local civilian “political” leadership of the revolution will lose influence, and the more moderate Sufi sheikhs who exercise an influence over armed groups will also lose control. The insurgency and its supporters will become increasingly radicalised. They will condemn those leaders who looked to the outside world for support, and those who called for restraint. Those voices who say Islam is the only solution will become loudest; those voices calling for a declaration of jihad will be raised, and they will, in my opinion, target Sunni rivals as well as Alawites and other minorities. This scenario is also possible if the regime kills or captures enough senior leaders of the revolution.

On the other hand, even if Assad and his family wanted to leave power - or even leave Syria - how would they explain this sudden about face to their supporters? The regime’s fans, especially its base among the Alawites, may also be radicalised, embracing maximalist violence out of fear. And what happens to the cronies who benefit from the system as it is, and to the security forces who have nowhere to go? Do they just go home - or do they fight to the death out of fear of extermination, and then hang on as some kind of insurgency against any new regime installed with the help of the West, Turkey and the Arab League?
 
If we assume there will be no such “Hama” incident, then this struggle can drag on for years. The regime knows that Russia, Iran and Iraq will back it to the end. The regime will have to tighten its belt, but Alawites and Christians will back it no matter how bad things get, because of their fear of Islamists. Some businessmen will be co-opted and will benefit from the increased smuggling. Those businessmen who think of leaving will find their assets confiscated by the regime. The country is reorienting its economy towards Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in Asia. It will increasingly rely on smugglers, just as Yugoslavia did under Milosevic.

As long as the regime can continue to pay its security forces, it can survive. It has hundreds of thousands of armed men under its control - so even if it loses a few tens of thousands, so what? And if it loses Daraa or Idlib, who needs them anyway? The regime will also eventually lose Aleppo, and increasingly the country’s population will feel like the administration cannot fix the situation, and the business class will be running out of resources. Once the regime loses its grip on Aleppo, some of the large clans there will start fighting each other, while its surrounding countryside will be in the hands of Islamists.

The insurgency will gradually carve out autonomous zones, from Idlib to Hama to Homs and approaching the suburbs of Damascus. Foreign intelligence agencies will eventually provide covert assistance to the insurgency. But Iranian - and possibly Russian - advisers will likely provide advice to the regime in counter-insurgency. So parts of the country will fall into opposition hands, and parts will remain in the hands of the regime. Alawites in Homs may flee to the villages they originally came from. Christians will flee to their former villages or to Damascus. Both of these trends have already started. Sunni remaining in Latakia will be vulnerable, and in the event of Alawites returning to Latakia’s mountain villages, fleeing from other parts of the country, the region’s Sunni may also be forcibly displaced.

In this scenario, some villages in rural Hama and Homs governorates will fight between each other. Damascus will see further assassinations and bombings. Working class Alawite neighborhoods of Damascus, where members of the security forces live - such as Ish al Warwar, Mazze 86 and Sumeria - will be besieged, or face reprisals from angry Sunni. In Aleppo, powerful rival Sunni clans - who hate each other and have access to arms - will turn on each other and feud as soon as the state weakens. The elites of Aleppo might once have preferred for the Assads to stay in power, but increasingly they are giving up hope that he can pull them back from the abyss.

The divide in Syria is not merely between Sunnis and Alawites. In Daraa and Suweida, Druze and Bedouins may clash once again. So too with other sects further north in Misyaf.
 
If this civil war comes to pass, it will lead to a humanitarian crisis. Already, there is a diesel shortage in much of Syria. And in much of the country, electricity is shut down at least some of the time - even if this is often done for punitive or offensive security reasons. In opposition strongholds, normal government services have ceased. Garbage is piled high; children do not go to school. Eventually, if this continues, infrastructure will start to collapse. Electricity will cease to be available. People will turn to generators if they have access to them. Fuel for cooking and heating will be even harder to come by. Already medicines for children and chronic conditions is hard to obtain in opposition strongholds. Neighbourhoods will be besieged, and tens thousands of families will flee for safety to other parts of the country.

Syria is crumbling before our eyes, and a thoroughly modern nation is likely to be set back many decades.

Look out for more features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Q&A: Nir Rosen on daily life in Syria

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the fourth in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria’s armed opposition , the country’s protest movement, and sectarianism in Syria.

Al Jazeera: State media continues to air footage from Damascus and Aleppo showing calm residential areas and busy downtown districts. Are the country’s two main cities unaffected by the unrest?
 
Nir Rosen: Superficially, life appears to go on relatively normally in the central districts of the two main cities - as well as in Latakia, and other smaller cities where the opposition is weak. Restaurants are often full, even if less so than before. Government ministries function normally, even if they are not planning for many new projects. Public works continue and you can still see construction taking place.

 

Even public transportation functions normally, with buses accessing all parts of the country. I travelled throughout Syria by bus. Buses will sometimes circumvent a “hot zone” or stop at its perimeter, rather than enter it.
 
But in reality, people are privately concerned. Demonstrations sometimes take place even in central Damascus and the sound of gunfire can occasionally be heard. Almost everybody knows someone who was arrested for protesting or carrying out any other anti-government activities.
 
Some of the elite residents might assist the uprising in a clandestine fashion. Their children might take part in demonstrations in universities, or they might beat up demonstrators in universities. Nobody can live in denial anymore about the crisis they face.
 
In the streets, there is a much more visible presence of armed men in civilian attire, often a leather jacket and blue jeans with a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder.
 
There are frequent displays of support for the regime, whether rallies or convoys of cars blasting pro-regime music and waving flags.
 
Even within Damascus and Aleppo there are checkpoints around opposition strongholds. There are checkpoints as you leave Damascus proper and begin to enter the vast urban working class areas surrounding it. There has been an increase in a security presence with some roads closed and trucks full of soldiers or mukhabarat [“secret police”] driving on main highways. Before the evening prayers or Friday noon prayers, thousands of soldiers and mukhabaratare posted in front of mosques in anticipation of demonstrations - and sentries are posted on bridges and roundabouts.
 
AJ: What is the situation in the Damascus suburbs and how does this affect residents in Damascus city?
 
NR: Once you leave the relative normality of central Damascus you are very much in a different world. Military and security checkpoints demand identification and search vehicles and passengers, including those on buses. Often they have notebooks full of names of those wanted by the authorities. They sit behind piles of sandbags, or stand in the entrance to neighbourhoods, or on bridges leaving or entering Damascus. Some are dressed in full military uniform and some in random civilian clothes and with beards - which is banned in the army - but with ammunition pouches, giving them the appearance of militia members.
 
These areas can often feel occupied, with patrols of soldiers or security officers, frequent raids, people hurriedly walking home, or to shops, without looking at each other or talking. 
 
The rich in Damascus and Aleppo continue their lives, going to parties and clubs and cafes, but their servants who live in the suburbs face daily challenges coming in to the city. They might be demonstrating, or living in fear of demonstrators, or they might get arrested and ask their wealthy employers to contact security to release them. Recently, well-to-do residents of Damascus’ Mazzeh area have also witnessed security operations, especially after a funeral for a slain protester turned into a large anti-Assad rally.
 
The elite might face challenges going to the airport, or to the suburbs to visit relatives. Many are afraid of leaving their safe zones. Even in Damascus there are now power cuts in many neighborhoods. The suburbs experience “random” blackouts - which often coincide with demonstrations or with security raids. 
 
In opposition strongholds, the cycle of demonstrations and funerals governs much of daily life. There are now more frequent gun-battles there.
 
AJ: What is the most dangerous place in Syria?

NR: It is difficult to say. It depends on the posture of security forces on any given day, and whether some opposition provocation may have led them to pursue some form of collective punishment.
 
But the opposition strongholds of Homs are probably the most dangerous parts of the country.
 
AJ: What is the situation in opposition strongholds?
 
NR: In opposition strongholds - such as in Homs - there are mountains of putrid garbage, because public services have stopped. Only bakeries or grocery shops are occasionally open.

Electricity is off for most of the day or even for most of the past few months. Children have not been to school for months in opposition strongholds. In such places, entire communities are engaged in rebellion and survival. 
 
Thousands of families have had to flee - either temporarily or permanently - to safer areas, because they are on the front lines. Their homes or apartment buildings may have been damaged or destroyed in the fighting. There is a process of separation of the sects taking place as well, with suspicion and intimidation of the “other” who can no longer be trusted.
 
In much of Homs, Deraa and other towns or villages there are many neighbourhoods that appear deserted. One can walk past hundreds of shops that are closed, where every wall is marked with bullet holes and the streets have a post-apocalyptic feeling. In these areas, the few people on the street will run when they cross streets or lines of fire to avoid the many snipers whose shots can regularly be heard.

"The sound of gunfire has become so routine in much of Syria that locals do not even react unless it appears dangerously close."

- Nir Rosen

The sound of gunfire has become so routine in much of Syria that locals do not even react unless it appears dangerously close. I was walking through Homs’ Bab Dreib district, past armed opposition checkpoints, when the sound of sniper fire not far away made me jump in terror. A man and his children who were standing outside their house laughed at me for reacting. “Why don’t you jump on the ground too?” laughed the man. In commercial areas of opposition strongholds, at the first sign of trouble, shopkeepers hastily put down their shutters and people on the street hide inside the shops until the streets are clear again.
 
Convoys of trucks carrying security officers and soldiers can be seen throughout Syria’s highways. Some cities or towns are surrounded and have multiple checkpoints leading to them. Others are divided into sectors and are also full of checkpoints. Even there, opposition activists know how to circumvent these roadblocks. In these areas life comes to a standstill in the afternoon and streets empty. 
 
The opposition has its own sentries and checkpoints in its strongholds, sometimes with weapons in plain sight. They easily identify vehicles or people who don’t belong and stop them to find out if they pose a threat.
 
AJ: Have the violence and sanctions imposed on Bashar al-Assad’s government affected the country’s economy?
 
NR: The sanctions are having some effect. Credit cards no longer work. The price of the dollar has nearly doubled. Fuel for cooking and heating is harder to come by.
 
Many factories have closed or have fired workers. You do not see tourists or foreigners anymore, and this has, of course, greatly damaged Syria’s tourist industry.
 
But the regime is not without options. Broad sanctions will not bring down the regime. They have looked to Asia and are successfully compensating for some of their losses in Asian markets. 
 
Moreover, both Iran and Iraq have pledged billions of dollars to Syria just for this year and have opened their borders for Syrian goods. The only limit to Syrian exports to Iraq now is the capacity of Syrian factories in Aleppo. Iran exempted Syrian goods from 60 per cent of import duties. In effect, they are creating a hastily drawn common market. Still, many businessmen in Aleppo complain that they can only survive a few more months before they have to fire their workers. It is costing the regime support because they are losing faith that Assad can get them out of this mess.


AJ: How has the uprising divided or unified people?
 
NR: One interesting social aspect of the uprising is the new-found solidarity between different parts of the country, with urban dwellers in Homs or Damascus rising up - in part out of support for Syrians in villages in other parts of the country - and with wealthy Syrians organising aid for Syrians in slums they have probably never visited. A visitor from Deraa is received with great respect by people in Hama, or Idlib, just as someone from Idlib is accorded respect by hosts in the suburbs of Damascus, simply because it is assumed they are opposition supporters whose areas have paid a high price.

This is made clear in every demonstration around the country when protestors sing “we are with you to death” in solidarity with various other opposition strongholds in the country. The wealthy help organise delivery of food, medicine - or even weapons and ammunition - to stricken areas.
 
Of course, the uprising has also divided people from common backgrounds along political lines, splitting them intoshabiha [a slang term for “pro-regime thugs”], or minhibakjiyeh [those who chant: “We love you Bashar”] as regime supporters are known, and mundaseen [agents provocateur] as opponents are known. Friendships have been severed because of differences over the uprising. It has also strengthened the solidarity between Alawites and Christians.
 

Look out for more interviews and features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

 

Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syrian sectarianism

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the third in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Catch up by reading his comments on Syria’s armed opposition and the country’s protest movement.


Al Jazeera: Was Syria divided along sectarian lines before protests began?

Nir Rosen: Syrians, like most people in the Middle East, are influenced by sectarianism. These forms of prejudice, however, are not unique to the Arab world. Across the region, sectarian tensions have increased since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the conflict it set off between the Sunni and Shia there.

In my journeys in Syria, members of Sunni communities have told me they came to resent Alawites - a heterodox sect which practices elements of Shia Islam - after the rise of the Alawite Assad dynasty. Some of this was due to prejudice against Alawites and some due to urban prejudice against those from rural backgrounds.

Many among the Sunni in Syria also believe that Alawites are disproportionately represented in the security forces, as well as in various government positions, especially the most sensitive ones.

Likewise, many Alawites fear being marginalised - or worse - by the country’s Sunni majority.

AJ: Has this changed during the uprising?

NR: Since the crisis started, sectarian fears have grown. The security crackdown and the loyalty most Alawites have to the regime have also increased anti-Alawite sentiment. The security forces, those shooting, arresting, abusing and killing citizens - opposition activists or even random Sunni citizens - speak with Alawite accents, say the opposition.

 

In parts of Homs, Damascus and Latakia, there is a feeling among Sunni communities that pro-regime militia, theshabiha [“thugs”], have been recruited from among the general Alawite population. Anger has increased and it is common to hear anti-government Sunnis condemning all Alawites.

Many Christians also now fear a rise of the Sunni majority. But I have never heard any resentment towards Christians or the Druze or Ismaili minorities from Sunni opposition I have spoken with.

The rhetoric of the ultra conservative anti-regime cleric Adnan al-Arur, who is based in Saudi Arabia, has terrified many Alawites and other minorities.

Many people in Syria now try to figure out where somebody is from and to which sect they belong in order to assess whether somebody is a friend of foe. Sometimes people change their accent to try to hide or protect their identity.

Interestingly, anti-Shia feelings among the opposition are more predominant than anywhere I have ever been, even though there are few Shia in Syria. This is mostly a response to the support, whether material or rhetorical, that the regime receives from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and from Iran - and the betrayal many Sunni opposition supporters feel over Hezbollah’s siding with Assad.

AJ: Is the opposition making efforts to prevent sectarian strife?

NR: In every anti-government demonstration there are anti-sectarian slogans and speeches. The opposition is very sensitive to the regime’s charges that it is a sectarian Sunni-Islamist movement.

AJ: Do religious minorities participate in protests?

NR: In Damascus, and sometimes in Homs, there are delegations of Alawite, Christian, Druze and Ismaili activists who may join Sunni demonstrators to show their solidarity. They are met with great fanfare and cheers.

Patriarchs in Damascus have held vigils in support 
of Assad and in memory of those killed [EPA]

I met a group of Alawite activists who were doing their best to show the opposition that many Alawites support them. But minorities, especially Alawites, do not have the benefit of a community that supports and protects those who show their opposition, and they are often not fully trusted by the Sunni.

I have been to many demonstrations in Damascus where groups of Ismaili youth from Salamiyah, Druze from Suweida and others took part. On December 31, a delegation of Alawite activists joined about 500 Sunni demonstrators in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh.

The leader of the demonstration announced to the crowd that they had special guests that evening. One man took the microphone and told the crowd he was an Alawite from Homs. The demonstrators cheered and clapped. He told them there were other Alawites in the crowd and many Alawites “in the prisons of the dog called Bashar al-Assad”. The crowds cheered and clapped again, and continued doing so after he shouted: “I am from the Alawite sect - not from the Assadi sect.” He led the crowd in chanting: “One, one, one, the Syrian people is one!” and “the people want the execution of Bashar!”

AJ: Does Islam play a role in the uprising?

NR: Undeniably, Islam is playing a role in the revolution. The majority of Syria’s population is Sunni Muslim - and so are most of the opposition.

In some parts of Syria there were Islamist-inspired revolts from the 1960s until 1982, when the late President Hafez al-Assad crushed a rebellion in the so-called Hama massacre. Some taking part in the current uprising are children or relatives of Muslim Brotherhood members from the 1980s.

But very few in the opposition are struggling for an “Islamic state”. They say Islam is not “the goal”. It does, however, provide a creed or inspiration and it colours the discourse for many protesters and fighters. In part this is natural. People will refer to their local culture and history and values when struggling for political goals. This is especially true if they are devout and their struggle involves great risks.

I have been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified.

The demonstrators who have been going out every day since March know they are risking their lives. It helps them to believe in paradise and martyrdom.

Many youth who didn’t pray before the revolution, who may have smoked hashish or drank alcohol - both banned in Islam - have become more devout and have forsaken their liberal or secular ways, inspired by the cycle of demonstrations emerging from mosques, of funerals and “martyrs” and the new cause they have discovered. It is very common for demonstrations to include the recitation of the fatiha (opening) verses from the Quran - but I have also met many secular activists.

AJ: Are Islamist movements influential in Syria?

Protests often start outside mosques after prayers [LCC]

NR: The regime and its supporters describe the opposition, especially the armed opposition, as Salafis, Jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, al-Qaeda and terrorists. This is not true. The Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies are not important in Syria and do not play a significant role in the revolution.

There is some sense of Sunni communal identity, inspiring many of the demonstrators. I believe that the longer this drags on, the more important the role of Islamists will be. Already in several areas you can hear demonstrators chanting for a declaration of jihad, chanting about Muslims and infidels, referring to the Quran more and more. Sometimes they sing the praises of the sectarian firebrand cleric Adnan al-Arur.

AJ: What role do mosques and religious sheikhs play?

NR: Initially, demonstrators tried to gather in public squares but they were denied any place to gather except for mosques. This naturally gave the mosques a greater role than they would otherwise have had. During Ramadan after the tarawih prayers, or on Fridays after the noon prayer, the thunderous chants of “God is great” begin in the mosque, building one’s courage, like an army preparing to charge out of the mosque into danger.

Some sheikhs did play a role in encouraging youth to go out, leading them, inspiring them, maintaining their discipline - and in some cases even leading armed insurgent groups.

AJ: Do you predict a deepening sectarian divide?

NR: The longer the conflict drags on, the more likely it is to devolve into a battle of Sunni militia fighting Alawite militia. Both sides will become further radicalised as fear of extermination will likely lead to pre-emptive attacks and then revenge attacks.

The opposition has failed to reassure Alawites that they have a safe future in a post-Assad Syria. Most Alawite homes have somebody working in the security forces and they are also disproportionately represented in other government jobs. They fear collective punishment and losing their jobs. If the regime collapses, many will flee back to the mountain or coastal villages they came from.

At the same time, Sunni residents who are a minority in parts of Latakia, especially in the mountain villages, may also face displacement. I believe a civil war is inevitable.

The insurgents will carve out more autonomous zones and those pockets of pro-regime supporters, especially if they are Alawite, will fight or flee. I already know of many Christians and Alawites who have fled from Homs. Alawite neighbourhoods in Homs or Damascus associated with the security forces may be subject to revenge attacks.

Members of the security forces might choose to stay in their villages or neighbourhoods out of self-defence and parts of Syria will be caught up in sectarian conflict.

Look out for more interviews and features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

 

Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s protest movement

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera. This is the second in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return. Read the first part here.

Al Jazeera: What is the social background of the protesters?


Nir Rosen: In much of the country, entire communities are involved in the uprising. It is difficult to generalise about their socio-economic backgrounds. The revolution is strongest in rural areas, the smaller cities and the working class,shaabi, areas of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo. But there are also many wealthy and educated activists in the revolution. 

In many opposition strongholds people are socially conservative. In part this is a function of economic class since working class areas have been most active in the uprising. Residents in such areas generally have more grievances motivating them to rise up and they are more likely to take part in the armed struggle. 

AJ: What are the demographics of protesters and opposition leaders?

NR: Most protesters are in their late teens to mid 20s, but in many areas one can see middle-aged and even elderly men taking part. Leaders tend to be older, usually in their 30s to their 50s.

AJ: To what extent are different religious communities participating?

Many demonstrations across Syria have been 
held after Muslim evening prayers

NR: While the revolution is strongest among the Sunni population, I have met many activists from Druze, Christian and even Alawite backgrounds. Unlike Sunnis however, minority activists cannot rely on the support of their broader communities.

AJ: Does religion play an important role?

NR: I have met many secular activists, who for example drink alcohol or date the opposite sex. There are female activists who dress in western fashions.

But undeniably, Islam is playing a role in the revolution. The majority of Syria’s population in Sunni Muslim - and so is most of the opposition on the ground. But very few in the opposition are struggling for an Islamic state. Islam is not the goal. But it does provide a creed or inspiration and it colours the discourse for many protesters and fighters. In part this is natural. People will refer to their local culture and history and values when struggling for political goals. This is especially true if they are devout and their struggle involves great risks. I have been to about 100 demonstrations in Syria. In many of them I had to run for my life from live gunfire. I was terrified. The demonstrators who go out every day since March know they are risking their lives. It helps them to believe in paradise and martyrdom.

AJ: What is the role of women?

NR: Women take part in demonstrations, but the majority are men. 

Women are playing a rather limited role in the uprising. This is in part because the uprising is strongest in socially conservative areas. However, even in the most conservative areas such as the Damascus suburb of Douma - where almost all residents belong to the conservative Hanbali school of Sunni Islam and where almost every woman on the street is covering her entire face - there are women’s demonstrations or a crowd of women in the back of protests chanting along. 

Even in less conservative places men will argue that they don’t want to risk “their” women, lest they get shot or captured. There is a great fear of rape should women be captured.

My sons are not more valuable than other people. If every mother is afraid, then nobody will come out and our revolution will fail.

- Resident of Barzeh, Damascus

In Damascus and in private universities I have met many female activists and organisers, including Alawites and Druze. Some have been arrested or threatened. Some female activists wear the hijab (headscarves). Some are very socially liberal. The liberals are always welcomed when they visit more conservative opposition strongholds.

Many women in demonstrations cover their faces, not out of tradition but to protect their identities.

Women are sometimes used for smuggling supplies unnoticed.

Many men have told me that their mothers or wives urge them to go out and demonstrate. Most striking was a woman I met in Damascus’ Barzeh neighbourhood. Her husband, a local opposition activist, was shot at a funeral on November 9. Her three sons were all very active locally, including with the armed opposition. I asked her if she was not worried about her sons going out to demonstrate. “My sons are not more valuable than other people,” she said. “If every mother is afraid, then nobody will come out and our revolution will fail. My neighbour has two sons. I have three. Our revolution will fail if we tell them not to go out.”

AJ: Are there different types of protests being organised?

NR: There are so-called flying demonstrations which last for only a few minutes and are secretly planned in new and random locations to avoid being ambushed by security forces. These often take place in areas that are not opposition strongholds but where activists want to spark greater support and defy the regime. 

In some areas, there are demonstrations every evening, on Fridays and on random occasions as well. In addition there are occasional attempts at sit-ins. 

The nature of the demonstration is determined by the security situation. If it is in a “liberated” area it may last for well over an hour and number in the thousands. It may be “protected” by the armed opposition. Additionally there are neighbourhoods in Damascus, Homs and recently even Aleppo where armed opposition fighters guard the roads leading to the demonstration to hold off security forces. These demonstrations may be roving, marching throughout the neighbourhood, or remain in one location. 

AJ: What happens at a ‘typical’ protest?

NR: Typically there are lights, banners, flags, and loudspeakers. Each demonstration is led by a hateef who sings songs and is cheered if the lyrics are clever or humorous. Some, like former football player Abdelbaset Sarut in Homs, have become celebrities. The same core of songs are sung throughout the country though there are always local inventions too.

 

Often there are visitors from other areas. They may be delegations of activists from the Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili, or Kurdish minorities. These are welcomed and they often give speeches. 

There is a carnival-like atmosphere for most demonstrations, a celebration of life and dignity. Political speeches are given, educating participants in the values of the revolution, and announcements are made. Poems are also recited.

Demonstrators frequently sing praises of satellite channels they view as sympathetic to the revolution while condemning the pro-regime channels of Syria as well as its allies in Lebanon.

Funerals have also become opportunities for demonstrations. 

The goal for most urban demonstrators is to reach a main square to stage a sit-in. Until now most such attempts have been met with gunfire.

AJ: What preparations are made for protests?

NR: Demonstrations are more than just people meeting and shouting slogans. 

Organisers meet activists to plan the time and location. They design banners, decide on the slogans, produce signs - all in a safe house. They arrange lighting, loud speakers or sound systems.

They coordinate the slogans so that the political message is unified and also consistent with other areas.

In many places they coordinate with the opposition’s security teams who block the streets to prevent regime security from entering. These teams collect rocks or Molotov cocktails to delay security forces so demonstrators can flee. They post lookouts to warn of approaching security forces. And in much of Syria, since the summer, protest organisers coordinate with local armed groups to protect them and post armed sentries around demonstrations. They also need medical teams to deal with wounded demonstrators, and underground medical clinics to treat them. And they need media teams to document the demonstration and the security crackdown and send the information to outside media and activists. They need anonymous mobile phones to communicate, or they need to use email or Skype. 

This and more requires leadership, coordination and crucially, money. They need to raise money. And if the regime punishes a restive neighbourhood or town by besieging it or conducting an arrest campaign, the opposition needs to organise aid to the stricken families. 

AJ: Have protests been peaceful?

NR: While most demonstrations are non-violent, by April demonstrators clashed with security forces, throwing stones or Molotov cocktails. In some towns or neighbourhoods they would attack security headquarters and other government buildings they associated with repression, such as Baath party offices or ministry of interior or justice branches.

Defected soldiers and civilians have increasingly taken 
up arms against the state since April [AFP]

During Ramadan (August) there were daily demonstrations, daily funerals and daily clashes with security forces. This led to another dynamic. 

In November I returned to Homs after a two month absence. “The days of rocks are over,” said a friend of mine who used to throw rocks at security forces in demonstrations. “A new phase has begun of the Free Syrian Army defending demonstrations, and there are less demonstrations because security forces shoot more.”

I last visited the city in January. Armed men surrounded Khaldiyeh neighbourhood to protect its nightly demonstration. When I attended a rally in Bab Dreib area, snipers positioned in a neighbouring Alawite area shot in our direction just to scare the protesters.

Despite the growing armed insurgency in Homs, its revolutionary leaders maintain that demonstrations must continue. “Demonstrations are the main base for this revolution,” said one opposition leader. “An area that is inflamed in demonstrations supports the revolution and also supports armed groups so you can have armed groups there. When I carried wounded and martyrs in my hands I wished there would be people defending me.” 

Another senior opposition leader echoed these remarks, saying: ”People like the one who is protecting them.” Demonstrations were not important to him as demonstrations anymore, he said. They were important because they lead to the birth of an armed struggle.

AJ: How do the opposition treat their injured?

NR: Hospitals are off-limits to the opposition. To avoid arrest, they have created an increasingly sophisticated network of underground field hospitals. Many doctors and hospital directors have been arrested since the uprising began. Doctors and patients are smuggled to the makeshift hospitals. Some are protected by armed men. Doctors have trained nurses and first responders in treating wounded demonstrators and fighters. They have also trained them in documenting causes of death and signs of torture. Medicine and surgical equipment are smuggled from outside Syria and into besieged areas. Some areas are without doctors and this is leading to deaths. I have seen victims of gunshots lying for hours in cars or homes waiting to be smuggled out for medical treatment.

AJ: Who leads the opposition?

NR: The foreign media has focused on exiled Syrian opposition activists and politicians as if they are leading the uprising. It often seems that both media and the external opposition treat the opposition inside Syria as though they were merely youthful demonstrators. But in fact there is a mature and sophisticated leadership on the ground and they are the ones in charge of the uprising. They often lead double lives or live in hiding and by necessity, they are not known outside their communities.

They are organised on a very local basis although in some provinces or towns, they have united to create larger structures. The most impressive of these is the Homs Revolutionary Council, a virtual state-within-a-state. 

AJ: How has the leadership matured during the uprising?

Activists are meeting in safe houses to decide on slogans and produce banners for demonstrations [AFP]

NR: As the uprising gathered momentum during Ramadan, more capable organisers emerged. Activists throughout Syria established larger, more formal structures, to coordinate the various activities of the opposition. Often the leaders of these organisations were better educated and older than the activists on the streets. The Homs Revolutionary Council was formed in September. It has committees dealing with security and armed operations, media, demonstrations, medical, humanitarian, and legal needs. As of January, it was feeding 16,000 families throughout the province. Its leadership is elected and lives clandestine double lives. 

Activist in other provinces see Homs as a role model and have attempted to organise themselves on a similar model. Local leaders communicate and cooperate with each other on a national basis. They are not public figures or known outside Syria, but they are the ones running the revolution.  

AJ: How can the opposition communicate without being detected?

NR: Communication is difficult for them. The regime can monitor phone calls so they have to use mobile phones not registered in their names - often the phones of slain “martyrs” of the uprising. Skype is also essential and one of the main methods of communication because it is believed to be hardest to monitor. Often land lines, mobile phones and internet are cut off, presenting a challenge to those without rare access to satellite internet or phones.

Protesters communicate by code about demonstrations, calling each other to ask if there is a “dinner” or a “game” and if there are any “dogs” or if it is ”dirty”.

AJ: What are the concerns of the activists?

NR: They recognise the importance of maintaining civilian political control over the armed revolution and preventing the emergence of militias out of control. They worry about the emergence of sectarianism, vendettas, and criminality. They think of how to provide services and security to their population in areas where there are no longer government services. They worry about how to secure government institutions in the event of a sudden collapse of the regime. Nobody wants to be Libya or Iraq.

The Syrian National Council, based in Turkey, 
has emerged as the main opposition bloc [AFP]

AJ: Is the opposition unified in their political demands?

NR: There is a remarkable unanimity and consensus in their views on the struggle, the future and what is needed. This is in part because of their communication with each other but mostly because of the unique role played by Arabic language satellite networks. Activists also access the internet, especially Facebook and opposition sites. This allows them to be keenly aware of international developments and importantly, to observe the revolutions taking place throughout the Arab world, listen to the debates of politicians and intellectuals, and familiarise themselves with exiled Syrian opposition figures. This has led to a sophisticated local leadership, capable of thinking strategically and also thinking of what to do on the day the revolution is successful. 

AJ: Who represents the demonstrators politically?

NR: Arabic satellite channels as well as Facebook allow exiled Syrian opposition figures to observe the slogans of demonstrators on the ground so that they can in effect be led by the opposition on the street and reflect their views to the rest of the world. As a result it is safe to say that of the opposition activists and organisers on the ground (those who demonstrate, fight or provide aid to activists), nearly all back the Syrian National Council (SNC) as their representative to the outside world. At this point the SNC has been virtually recognised by outside countries as their main interlocutor with the Syrian opposition - despite the fact that the SNC is torn by divisions, jealousies and suspicion and is under the influence of many different countries. In my view, it is not sufficiently connected to local leaders inside Syria. It has not done enough to assuage the fears of minorities, to offer a plausible post-regime future or to come up with a strategy for removing the regime. But its position more or less reflects the views on the “street”.

AJ: How is the opposition financed?

NR: Until now there is no direct foreign state assistance to the opposition inside Syria or the Syrian insurgency commonly called the Free Syrian Army. Insurgents purchase their weapons locally from arms dealers and smugglers.

However, there is foreign assistance to the Syrian National Council, which is based in Turkey.

A lot of money to the opposition inside Syria is coming in from Syrians living outside. Some of those are in the SNC and some of those may receive financial assistance from some countries, but most of the money comes from Syrians.

Foreign NGOs and some states are supporting the opposition on the ground with medical aid as well as some audio visual technology like cameras, smart phones, and devices to broadcast their demonstrations. Jordanian security and Turkish military provide minimal help to some people crossing the borders, to Syrian activists and even to some humanitarian NGOs.

Increasingly, parts of the opposition are financing themselves by kidnapping wealthy regime supporters for ransom.

AJ: Do Syrians want foreign intervention?

Many protesters have been calling for the imposition 
of a no-fly zone to protect civilians [EPA]

NR: On the issue of intervention, as on most issues, it is impossible to generalise about ordinary people in Syria. Both sides like to talk about the “Syrian people” but there is no such thing. They are deeply divided. Naturally those who support the regime are opposed to any foreign intervention though they are happy to receive assistance from Iran and Russia.

Most opposition activists, fighters and supporters on the ground in Syria are in favour of some form of foreign military intervention. The older intellectual opposition figures who are well-known but not significant in this uprising are opposed to foreign intervention. 

Surprisingly, the mainstream Syrian opposition on the ground looks to the West for help. This is despite decades of anti-Western attitudes and anger over issues such as Palestine and the American invasion of Iraq. And despite evidence of how disastrous the American intervention in Iraq was and the mixed reviews the NATO intervention in Libya has received. 

Even Islamist leaders of the revolution look to Europe and the US more than they do to Arab or Muslim countries (with the exception of Turkey). Anti-imperialist and Arab nationalist causes have ceased mattering to the opposition on the ground. It is the death of ideology, in a way. It strikes me as the opposite of many Egyptian protesters who reacted to decades of a pro-American and pro-Israeli dictatorship by expressing anti-imperialist slogans. But the Syrian opposition associates notions of resistance and anti-imperialism with the Assad regime and therefore the causes themselves have been discredited and their enemy has been reduced to the regime and the daily struggle for survival. 

Even Islamist leaders of the revolution I met who had supported the Iraqi insurgency against the American occupation now look to the US and the West for assistance. One example is an opposition military commander in Douma who is an Islamist and a former sheikh. “You and your friends supported jihad against America in Iraq, didn’t you?” I asked him. “Of course,” he said. “And now you want American help in your struggle against the regime?,” I asked. “Of course,” he answered, “There is a difference between an aggression and occupation and helping an oppressed country.”

AJ: How did Syrians view the Arab League observer mission?

NR: Few opposition supporters had high expectations of the Arab League because it is a toothless body with no enforcement capability. At most they were hoping for moral support or for the Arab League to transfer responsibility for “doing something” about Syria to the United Nations or the West. Many opposition supporters were suspicious of the Arab League, knowing that it consists of many despotic regimes who have little interest in freedom, human rights or democracy. Others interpreted Arab League dithering as evidence that its member states wanted to give the regime a chance to crush the revolution.

The Arab League mission was heavily criticised as violence continued unabated despite its presence [REUTERS]

Regime supporters despise the Arab League and view it as an agent of the West or of Saudi Arabia. They mock the royal families who lead it and even dismiss it as the “Hebrew League”. But when the Arab League monitors arrived in Syria, many in the opposition hoped they would somehow stop the violence even though this was not in their mandate and their only task was to observe and report.

AJ: Is the uprising inspired by the ‘Arab Spring’?

NR: The Syrian opposition activists undeniably feel as though they are part of the Arab uprisings. They only began demonstrating thanks to the inspiration of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Some of their songs and chants were inspired by what they saw in other Arab countries. After Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi fell they shouted “your turn is coming oh Dr!” referring to President Bashar al-Assad. They have learned from the tactics of activists throughout the Arab world and they have also learned from their mistakes and challenges, such as the limits of the Egyptian revolution which preserved the regime intact and the post-revolution chaos of Libyan militias. 

Syrian activists are part of the culture of revolution that the Al Jazeera network has been instrumental in creating. 

It was the fall of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, that convinced most Syrian activists that they too wanted an armed struggle with foreign support. And it was the continued struggle of Egyptians in Tahrir Square against their military council that also inspired Syrian opposition figures to persist. Additionally, the regime and its supporters also believe that the uprising in Syria is part of an alleged American and Qatari (and maybe Mossad) conspiracy which also aimed to topple other regimes in the region.

AJ: Are foreign intelligence agencies involved in the uprising?

NR: There is little available evidence that foreign intelligence agencies are directly involved in Syria. I strongly believe the uprising began locally and is locally led. 

In my meetings with foreign diplomats and others dealing with Syria I have been struck by how little they know about Syria. The outside world is looking at Syria and feeling an urge to “do something”, but they lack the information to know how to interfere or who to support. 

New local leaders have emerged and they have little connections to the outside world. I have met leaders of the revolution all throughout Syria and I know how many of them get their funding and weapons - and it is not from foreign organisations. The leaders of the revolution are all Syrians and they are inside Syria. That said, I think there will inevitably be more direct if covert foreign support for the revolution in a matter of months.

AJ: Are Assad’s claim of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ anchored in reality?

NR: I don’t believe in conspiracies. Of course the Baathist regime in Syria has had enemies hoping to see it fall or radically shift its policies for decades. During the 1980s Iraq, Jordan and other countries did indeed help the Muslim Brotherhood. Countries pursue their interests and many countries have hoped the Assad regime would fall. But the uprising in Syria is the result of internal problems that the regime could have addressed. Instead its violent response unleashed a deeply suppressed anger and the speeches and statements made by Assad and his associates have alienated many of his former supporters. 

This is largely a struggle of Syrians against each other. Of course black market arms dealers and smugglers are making a killing from the increased demand for weapons, but these weapons are not supplied by a state. And of course many countries will be happy for Assad to be replaced by a regime more cooperative with interests of imperialist Western powers or counter-revolutionary and reactionary powers such as Saudi Arabia. But that issue is separate from the struggle of those on the ground. The regime and its supporters falsely claim there are foreign fighters or agents on the ground. Likewise the opposition falsely claims there are fighters from Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, or the Iraqi Mahdi Army on the ground.

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


Q&A: Nir Rosen on Syria’s armed opposition

Journalist Nir Rosen recently spent two months in Syria with unique access. As well as meeting members of various communities across the country - supporters of the country’s rulers and of the opposition alike - he spent time with armed resistance groups in Homs, Idlib, Deraa, and Damascus suburbs. He also travelled extensively around the country last year, documenting his experiences for Al Jazeera.

This is the first in a series of interviews he gave to Al Jazeera since his return.

Al Jazeera: Who are the armed opposition?

Nir Rosen: The formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was declared publicly in the summer of 2011, and has been endorsed by the Syrian National Council, the main opposition bloc. While many in the media trying to cover Syria from outside refer to it as an entity with a leader based in Turkey, there is no central or unified leadership for the armed revolution.

The FSA is a name endorsed and signed on to by diverse armed opposition actors throughout the country, who each operate in a similar manner and towards a similar goal, but each with local leadership. Local armed groups have only limited communication with those in neighbouring towns or provinces - and, moreover, they were operating long before the summer.

AJ: Who are the fighters - army defectors, armed civilians or “armed gangs”?

NR: The issue of defectors is a distraction. Armed resistance began long before defections started. While fighters are often portrayed in the media as defectors from the Syrian military, the majority are civilians who have taken up arms. The opposition believes it will have more legitimacy if fighters are dubbed “defectors”, and described collectively as the Free Syrian Army.

They are also not armed gangs, as the regime and its supporters describe them. They are much more akin to a popular armed struggle or an insurgency. In fact, many Syrian revolutionaries use the term muqawama, [“resistance”] to describe themselves. This I find particularly ironic, as the Syrian regime and its supporters champion “resistance” (to Israel and the West) as the reason for their legitimacy, and the reason why they are being targeted by an alleged “foreign conspiracy” in the form of this uprising.

As the armed groups gain experience, they are adopting classic insurgent techniques of providing services to the population, while also blending in with them. In my encounters with armed opposition groups throughout Syria, I was reminded of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in south Lebanon, Iraqi Sunni and Shia insurgents and resistance groups as well as the Taliban in Afghan villages - not in the religious sense, but in how they were an organic part of the community. 

Armed men are often deployed to protect protesters

AJ: When did the armed struggle begin?

NR: The first acts of armed self-defence or opposition in Syria took place by late April, especially after April 22 when Friday demonstrations throughout the country were met with live fire, causing many deaths.

By the end of April, individuals in Homs’ Bab Amr and Bab Sbaa neighbourhoods took up arms to defend themselves. At first they used shotguns and hunting rifles, along with rocks and improvised weapons. In Homs, the first armed group was established in Bab Sbaa in May. Likewise, the first accounts of armed resistance in Idlib, Deraa, Damascus and its suburbs date from late April. 

AJ: Who were the first to take up arms?

NR: The armed phenomenon began in rural areas, known in Arabic as the reef, and in the working class urban shaabiareas. Men there were more likely to own guns and were known as qabaday - “tough” men more likely to have the courage (and potential for violence) that one needs to respond violently to security forces. They had more grievances - and less to lose - than middle or upper class activists with university degrees.

AJ: Who do the armed groups target?

NR: From an early stage of the uprising, suspected informants for the regime have been intimidated, expelled and often killed.

These are called mukhbir [“sources”], or in colloquial Syrian awayneh or fasfus. Executions of those suspected of spying for the regime take place regularly all throughout Syria, including in Damascus. By the summer there were regular ambushes of security officers on the roads, as well as attacks against shabiha [“thugs”], as the civilian paramilitary or militia forces of the security agencies are known.

AJ: What methods and weapons do the fighters use?

NR: Initially, individuals responded to the violent crackdown on demonstrations by using any weapons they had at home to take pot shots at security forces. Then groups of demonstrators used rocks, Molotov cocktails, dynamite sticks, knives, shotguns, hunting rifles, pistols and the occasional automatic rifle to defend demonstrations when security forces attacked.

 

This escalated into attacks on buses, or gatherings of security forces believed to be on their way to attack demonstrations, and evolved into a classic insurgency. In some places, demonstrators also responded to attacks by security forces by attacking buildings belonging to the ruling Baath Party, the police, the security forces or courthouses - and ridding these of any state presence.

The armed groups generally operate secretly and in small groups, conducting ambushes on targets of opportunity using light arms and, increasingly, improvised explosive devices. For the past few months, insurgents have been using improvised explosive devices such as those found in Iraq, Afghanistan or southern Lebanon. Unlike in Iraq, however, the explosives used in these IEDs are fertiliser-based. These have been used in Idlib, Hama and Homs. In addition, rocket-propelled grenades - such as LAW anti-tank shells - have also more recently been used as shoulder-fired anti-armour missiles. The fighters have access to some sniper rifles as well.

I have seen evidence of complex attacks, involving several IEDs followed by heavy machine-gun fire.

AJ: How do armed groups get their arms?

NR: The Syrian insurgency is not well-armed or well-funded. Fighters purchase their weapons locally on the black market, from arms dealers and smugglers who are profiting from the violence in Syria. I have been with insurgents purchasing weapons and seen how they arrange to do so via smugglers from Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.

They also capture weapons from security forces in attacks on regime arms depots. One armed group in Idlib captured several dozen Kornet anti-tank missiles. Sometimes they even purchase them from corrupt officers within the security apparatus.

AJ: How do the groups finance their arms purchases?

NR: Many fund their arms purchases by turning to their savings or selling what valuables they have, or the products of their shops or farms. Others borrow money from friends. Much of the financing comes from Syrian businessmen inside or outside the country. Some Syrian opposition activists and politicians in exile are sending money to people inside. In addition, diaspora Syrians tied to Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or to conservative clerics in the Gulf, also send money to certain groups.

The fighters usually belong to small cadres, such as “Abu Muhamad’s Group”, where Abu Muhamad may have access to some money with which he supports his band of fighters. Some groups give their “companies” or “brigades” names - often after “martyrs” or those with “heroic” religious connotations. This creates the false impression in much of the foreign media that there is some national leader, a chain of command, a structure or order of battle and divisions.

The fighters arm themselves and fund themselves as individuals or small groups, not as the “Free Syrian Army”. Nor are they funded directly by any state actor or intelligence agency. Indirectly, however, some Syrian exile religious movements or opposition political figures might be channelling funding from various countries to groups inside Syria. 

AJ: How much impact do army defections have?

Videos have been posted online of men saying they have defected from the army with their guns  [YouTube]

NR: There is a steady stream of army defectors, and to a lesser extent from the security agencies. Some defect with their weapons.

The regime is in a quandary. Its security agencies alone cannot clear or hold a village or a neighbourhood or a city. They need the Syrian army to back them up. But Syrian conscripts are often from the Sunni majority - and so is most of the opposition - from all over Syria, including from hotspots of the revolution. So it is soldiers’ own brothers and cousins who are demonstrating. Moreover, when the poorly paid Syrian soldiers are deployed to an area, they fraternise with the local population. Locals feed them and let them use their mobile phones to call home. Local activists persuade them to defect and arrange for their safe haven.

Meanwhile, Sunni members of the army are coming under increasing suspicion by the security agencies, and there have been cases of security men killing soldiers for refusing to obey orders to shoot. Hundreds of soldiers and officers have also been arrested. 

AJ: What is the rank of the defecting officers?

NR: I did not meet any more senior than lieutenants, but some majors and colonels have also defected.

Local opposition leaders will say that they need fighters more than officers. They are also suspicious of officers who have waited so long to defect. They will ask: “What have they been waiting for?” They are worried that some defecting officers are double agents who would inform on them, which has already happened.

Additionally, opposition leaders claim they are in touch with senior officers who have “made their allegiance to the revolution clear” and who provide them with intelligence - and are thus more valuable to their cause if they remain inside the system. Finally, defecting officers face a logistical challenge. They must arrange for a safe place to flee - and they must arrange protection for their families.

AJ: To what extent is the Syrian uprising a peaceful one?

NR: The debate over whether or not it is peaceful is not based on empirical research but on propaganda from both sides. The pro-regime media wants to portray the revolutionaries as nothing more than armed criminals and terrorist gangs. In response, opposition supporters have, until recently, denied all violence - fetishising the notion of a peaceful revolution - which has hurt not only their credibility, but the credibility of foreign media which often uncritically report their accounts.

The debate is also largely irrelevant. On the ground it was clear that by the end of Ramadan (late August), that there was a growing consensus on the part of opposition supporters that only an armed struggle could overthrow the regime.

Rosen says many of those the opposition reports as killed are fighters who perished in clashes [REUTERS/YouTube]

AJ: Is the armed opposition popular with the protesters?

NR: In the anti-regime demonstrations which take place throughout Syria every day, many of the same songs are sung and same chants shouted. Among them for the past few months have been slogans supporting the “Free Syrian Army” or even: “The people want the arming of the revolutionaries.” In some areas: “The people want a declaration of jihad,” has been a popular call.

Chants in support of the FSA can now be heard in every demonstration taking place in Syria. In fact, many demonstrations take place only because the armed opposition is there to secure them.

AJ: Who is being killed?

NR: Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.

And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha [“thugs”] are also killed by anti-regime fighters.

AJ: Are there veterans of the insurgency in Iraq fighting in Syria?

NR: This is a common claim by the Syrian regime. There are Syrians who went to Iraq during the US-led invasion who are now taking part in the uprising. They are a minority of the fighters and crucially, all those I met were part of the first generation of foreign volunteers who flocked to Iraq in March 2003, before the Salafi jihadist days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Most of these men fled back to Syria after two or three weeks, when they realised Iraq was such a dangerous place.

AJ: Are the fighters inspired by any particular ideology?

NR: The regime and its supporters describe the opposition, especially the armed opposition, as Salafis, Jihadists, Muslim Brotherhood supporters, al-Qaeda and terrorists. This is not true, but it’s worth noting that all the fighters I met - in the provinces of Homs, Idlib, Hama, Deraa and the Damascus suburbs - were Sunni Muslims, and most were pious.

They fight for a multitude of reasons: for their friends, for their neighbourhoods, for their villages, for their province, for revenge, for self-defence, for dignity, for their brethren in other parts of the country who are also fighting. They do not read religious literature or listen to sermons. Their views on Islam are consistent with the general attitudes of Syrian Sunni society, which is conservative and religious.

While the resistance is becoming increasingly well-armed, some groups complain they don’t have enough weapons

Because there are many small groups in the armed opposition it is difficult to describe their ideology in general terms. The Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood ideologies are not important in Syria and do not play a significant role in the revolution. But most Syrian Sunnis taking part in the uprising are themselves devout. Many fighters were not religious before the uprising, but now pray and are inspired by Islam, which gives them a creed and a discourse. Many believe they will be martyred and go to paradise if they die. They are not fighting for Islam but they are inspired by it. Some drink alcohol, which is forbidden in Islam, and do not pray. And their brothers in arms do not force them to pray.

Of the sheikhs who are important in the revolution, many are actually Sufis. I have met Sufi sheikhs who had established their own armed groups. Some fighters are also influenced by a general sense of Sunni identity, but others do not care about this. I encountered one armed Salafi group in Idlib. I also found some groups that indirectly receive financial assistance from Islamist exile groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, though this has seemingly not yet influenced their ideology. Some fighters are the sons or nephews of people who were jailed during the 1980s for alleged membership of the Muslim Brotherhood.

AJ: Are Palestinian groups active in Syria?

NR: In Homs there is an armed Palestinian group working with the opposition Homs Revolutionary Council. They helped evacuate wounded people from the Bab Amr neighbourhood during the autumn, and transported them safely to the Homs Palestinian refugee camp, which has also seen demonstrations. Armed Palestinian factions in both Lebanon and Syria have received military training over the years. But while the factions, officially, have sedulously abstained from taking sides in the conflict, many individual members certainly have. In Latakia during the summer and autumn, Palestinians with training in explosives and other military skills assisted opposition militia in the Ramel neighborhood. Palestinians with medical training also provided assistance. In Deraa, Palestinians also provided similar assistance. Palestinians allied to either Hamas or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command have reportedly smuggled supplies into Syria on behalf of revolutionaries.

Hamas has withdrawn all its members and their families from Syria with the exception of its political office. As an organisation, Hamas is still grateful to the regime for the support it received over the years. Palestinians in Syria are integrated into society there, and they are Sunni Arabs - like the majority of Syrians.

The group has been in a difficult position. It is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood but it has been close to the Syrian regime. “We committed to the Syrian regime that we have [had] no relations with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood,” a Hamas official told me. “We committed to the regime not to be involved. If we cannot stop the fire we will not be wood upon it. We learned from Arafat’s experience in Kuwait,” he said - referring to the expulsion of Palestinians from Kuwait in 1991 in response to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s stand with Saddam Hussein.

"Hamas has a different position from Hezbollah," the official continued. "We are Sunni, we have the support of the people. We have support from Iran and Syria but it’s not the only support. If we lose the support of Iran and Syria, it will affect us deeply - but it’s not a strategic loss. This is different from Hezbollah. If Hezbollah loses the support of Syria it might be the end of Hezbollah. From the first day we declared that we were thankful for the regime - which supported the [Hamas] resistance during some very difficult periods we went through, and at the same time we admire people getting their freedom, reform and prosperity.

"Hamas’ Khaled Meshaal tried to advise Bashar al-Assad to reform after Egypt’s Mubarak fell from power, warning him that the same events might come to Syria. But Assad believed he was immune to such uprisings. Meshaal met senior Syrian officials such as Assef Shawqat, Walid al-Muallem and Bouthaina Shaaban, offering to mediate between the regime and its people. He also met Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah to ask him to take his plan to Assad. But these mediation attempts failed."

Some members of the Syrian National Council told Hamas they should not fully pull out of Syria, because the new government that would follow Assad would be under US pressure, so Hamas members may not be able to return - but if they maintain a presence there, then the new government would have to deal with them as a “fact on the ground”.

Look out for more interviews and features from Nir Rosen to be published here on Al Jazeera over the rest of this week.

Follow Nir Rosen on Twitter: @NirRosen

The views expressed in this article are those of whom to which they have been attributed and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

The battle for Homs

The Syrian city of Homs has been under attack for nearly a week, as government forces allied to President Bashar al-Assad try to regain control of opposition-held areas.

The city, in the centre of the country, has emerged as the capital of the uprising and its Revolutionary Council runs a virtual state-within-a-state, providing services and fielding its own armed groups.

This latest army offensive, which began on the night of February 3, was interpreted by leaders of Homs’ uprising as a response to their recent gains.
 
Members of the Revolutionary Council said fighters in the Homs province had taken advantage of the presence of Arab League monitors in December and January to reinforce themselves and bring supplies in from Lebanon, knowing the regime would be limited in its ability to obstruct them at that time.


On February 3, the day government forces began their offensive, opposition fighters attacked at least three army checkpoints, including one at Homs’ Qahira roundabout, where they reportedly seized a large armoured vehicle - either a personnel carrier or a tank.Fighters announced that they attacked security forces in Rastan, expelled them from Talbiseh, and took control of more territory in Homs city, launching two attacks on the State Security and Military Security headquarters.

They also captured many Syrian soldiers and released a video of interviews with the officers of the captured unit.

After the attack on the Qahira checkpoint, security forces shelled the neighbourhood of Khaldiyeh. Opposition activists say shelling started around 8:30pm and lasted until 4am, with scores of civilians killed.

Opposition leaders on the ground said up to 250 mortars landed in the area, and that most of the shells were shot from a citadel on high ground, and from the State Security headquarters located in the nearby Ghota district.

The Revolutionary Council said there had been no exchange of gunfire on the ground, just shelling from locations where government forces could operate safely. This suggests they were unable to actually attack Khaldiyeh with ground troops.

Increasing desperation

"It was a massacre," said one senior leader of the uprising in Homs. "After many failed invasions, Assad’s army stopped attempts to enter the area because of the strong resistance of the Free Syrian Army … So it started hitting it by mortars."

"Many troops from the Free Syrian Army moved from Bab Sbaa and Bab Amr to Khaldiyeh to defend the area.


"We were trying to provide blood bags and snipers were targeting us. Women and kids were crying. Doctors were dispirited. There was a catastrophe.""But they found no Assad troops or vehicles to shoot at. The cowards did not dare to face us in a fair battle. They just bombed the civilian buildings from a distance.

The opposition leader went on to say that Assad’s opponents in Homs had become increasingly desperate after the UN Security Council failed to pass a resolution condemning the violence in Syria.

"People want to announce jihad [“struggle”],” he said. He added that he worried that the political leadership on the ground would lose control of the armed men.

The Revolutionary Council later said it had documented the deaths of 105 civilians from the shelling. About 100 others were seriously wounded and 25 more missing or captured.

One opposition fighter was reported killed and five others wounded.

While the shelling focused on Khaldiyeh, there were also casualties reported by the opposition in the neighbourhoods of Qusur, Jurt Ashayah, Inshaat, Karm al-Zeiton and Bab Tadmur.

When some wounded and dead were taken to Jurt Ashayah, they were attacked by government forces in armoured vehicles, according to opposition members.

Some of the injured were reportedly captured, along with those trying to evacuate them.

'Controlling most of Homs'

After the initial assault on Khaldiyeh, more areas of Homs were hit by government forces in the following days, and opposition leaders reported that soldiers were shooting from some checkpoints.

"They are afraid to move troops into the neighbourhoods," one leader said, interpreting the indirect attacks as a sign of the regime’s weakness.

"We ordered our armed groups to remain silent for now," he said. "We don’t want them to attack or engage with the army because we don’t have much ammunition."

Homs has been under siege for months, and its opposition leaders fear they will run out of supplies within days. Internet, mobile phones and land lines are cut off in most of the city.


As shelling continued, the fighters expected an eventual ground assault. But despite the increased crackdown, leaders of the Homs Revolutionary Council insisted they had lost no ground.Hama’s Revolutionary Council offered the Homs Revolutionary Council help with food, medicine, arms and ammunition. 

The two councils co-operate closely and the team from Hama, about 30km north of Homs, was waiting for an opening to provide help.

"We control most of Homs," one member of the council’s executive council said.

Members of the Alawite community in Homs, as well as security officials, claimed that Alawites had been killed by mortars originating from Sunni areas.

Since the uprising began in March 2011, tensions between different religious communities have been rising in the city, which is home to many members of the Alawite minority to which Assad himself belongs.

In the latest report of sectarian violence, some four families were said to have been stabbed to death on Wednesday in the Wadi Iran area - renamed Wadi Arab by the opposition, which accuses Syria’s ally, Iran, of assisting in Assad’s crackdown.

Worried about causing further sectarian strife, however, one leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council was reluctant to admit that many victims of the crackdown were Sunni Muslims, and had been killed by Alawites.

'Crying and dancing'

Government troops tried to enter the Inshaat neighbourhood of Homs on Wednesday, in preparation for an attack on the adjacent opposition stronghold Bab Amr.

The council, which has a sophisticated documentation team, claimed that 559 people had been killed since the government offensive began, including 43 children and 16 women.Security forces reached Inshaat’s Hikma hospital but the Revolutionary Council said one of its armed groups halted the attack, destroying two tanks and three military vehicles.

"Today is terrible as usual but we are used to dying every day and dancing every day," one leader of the council said on Thursday.

"We go to the funeral at noon, cry for our martyrs, and then we go at night to the demonstration and dance for a few minutes of freedom.

"Homs will not surrender. They are bombing us from a distance, they don’t dare to enter the city. They think they will destroy our will and resistance.

"We are waiting for them and we will defeat them in our neighbourhoods. Finally they will enter the city. We are waiting for them."


Assad’s Alawites: An entrenched community

Nir Rosen spends time deep inside Syria’s pro-regime Alawite community.

Nir Rosen Last Modified: 12 Oct 2011 13:14

Driving near the high-altitude resort of Slonfeh in the Alawite mountains of the Latakia region, I passed a funeral tent for a Syrian soldier killed in the region the previous week, one of two military “martyrs” Slonfeh had lost to armed opposition activists. When my driver entered the village of Mazar al-Qatriyeh, he asked to be directed towards Sheikh Khalil Khatib, a respected Alawite elder. “Ask the rocks and they will tell you,” said one man. “Everybody knows him.”

The sheikh was an intense old man who lectured me while a television behind him screened the Hezbollah-affiliated al-Manar satellite channel.

"You can be called a sheikh for being old or for being educated," he explained to me. He blamed religious sheikhs for the crisis in Syria. "They aren’t sheikhs of thought," he said. "They are sheikhs of air, that’s why Syria has all these problems. I am a sheikh of logic."

To read the rest of the article visit this site 

Assad’s Alawites: The guardians of the throne

Syria’s Alawite community have a history of persecution, but dominate the ruling family’s security forces.

 Last Modified: 10 Oct 2011 17:49

As we left the central Syrian city of Homs, Abu Laith pulled a 9mm Llama pistol from under his shirt, loaded it and placed it in the gap between our seats. He was a sergeant in Syria’s State Security and drove a small Chinese-made taxi to avoid the attention of armed men looking for members of the security forces. Heading north to his village of Rabia, in Hama, we passed shops covered in gashes from gunfire.

"There was a sniper here," he said at one point on the road. "He shot six military buses." We drove by a Military Security building that had been attacked by armed opposition fighters. "Here was a statue of the late President Hafez," he pointed at a now empty pedestal. Visibly offended, he added: "They took it down and put a live donkey there instead."

Abu Laith belongs to the Alawite sect who make up about ten per cent of Syria’s population. Sunni Arabs comprise 65 per cent, while Sunni Kurds and Christians constitute ten per cent each. Druze, Shia, Ismailis and others make up the remainder. Since the Baathists seized power in Syria, sectarianism has been taboo, ever-present but unspoken of, with perpetrators of incitement harshly punished.

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A conversation with Grand Mufti Hassoun

Grand Mufti Hassoun, whose 22-year-old son was recently assassinated in Syria, is a supporter of Bashar al-Assad.
 Last Modified: 03 Oct 2011 15:13

As the Syrian uprising turns more violent, the latest victim in a spate of assassinations is Saria Hassoun, the 22-year-old son of Syria’s Grand Mufti, Shiekh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun. The shooting occurred outside Ibla University on the Idlib-Aleppo highway. Also killed with Saria Hassoun was Mohammad al-Omar, a professor of History at Aleppo University. Assassinations have become a near-daily occurrence, especially in the central province of Homs, where academics and officials are targeted in a tactic reminiscent those used by the Muslim Brotherhood in their armed uprising between 1976 and 1982.
 
According to Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in Contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh and author of a forthcoming book on the Baath party and Islam in Syria, the first cleric killed in that uprising was the son of then Grand Mufti Ahmad Kaftaru: “He was killed in 1979 in obscure circumstances, reportedly during an incident with tenants of one of his family’s land properties. Nobody ever accused the Islamists of carrying out the assassination, and the Islamists themselves didn’t claim responsibility for it (although they did it for other assassinated clerics). There is no doubt, however, that the Islamists killed Muhammad al-Shami, a prominent pro-regime cleric of Aleppo, in 1980. His son Suhayb (Hassoun’s deadly foe) was appointed as director of the city’s Religious Endowment in 1982, a position he occupied until 2005. Islamists also killed Rashid al-Khatib, the preacher of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, in 1981. And they seriously injured Salah ‘Uqla, another Damascene pro-regime sheikh.”
 
The Muslim clergy in Aleppo have a reputation for being the most corrupt in Syria, enriching themselves through embezzlement and the theft of public funds. Suhayb al-Shami was even more notorious for his corruption than Hassoun. Opposition activists in Aleppo frequently mention the expensive cars driven by the Mufti’s sons and complain that the Mufti is very wealthy while his father was from a modest village.

Mufti Hassoun, who is based in the northern city of Aleppo, is widely reviled by the Syrian opposition for his open support of the regime and hostility to the protesters. This is in contrast to many other Sunni clerics throughout the country, who have expressed opposition to the regime, including the Mufti of Daraa, Sheikh Ahmad Abdulaziz Abazid, who was arrested during the uprising and whose house in Daraa’s Karak neighbourhood is riddled with bullet-holes. In the daily demonstrations held in Syria, Mufti Hassoun is frequently mentioned in ire, as in one demonstration in Homs’ Waer district, where hundreds of protesters chanted: “Listen, listen, Hassoun, take off your turban and put on horns!”

It is his moderate pro-regime position that has led to protesters in Syria mocking Mufti Hassoun in nearly every demonstration.

Meeting the Mufti

In August I met with Mufti Hassoun in Aleppo’s Rawda mosque in the presence of three of his sons and his brother. Despite being majority Sunni, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, had not risen up like other parts of the country. I asked the Mufti why this was so. Aleppo was more educated and foreign influence was weaker in Aleppo, he said, echoing the regime’s narrative that blamed a foreign conspiracy for the then six-month-old uprising. What was happening in other cities in Syria was foreign to Aleppo, he said, a result of ideas coming in from outside of Syria. 
 
In addition to the foreign conspiracy, the Mufti also blamed “internal shortcomings in services and political pluralism” for the “foreign inflammation” of Syria. He admitted that Syria had not had political pluralism in Syria for 40 years. But he warned against the pluralism of Egypt, Tunisia and Iraq. “Iraq has more than 100 parties,” his son interrupted. The Mufti added that he was opposed to religious or ethnic parties.

I asked him about the role of Islam in the demonstrations, reminding him that demonstrations emerged from mosques. He denied this, claiming that demonstrators came from elsewhere to meet in front of mosques.

I reminded him that takbeer, or the call to shout “God is great”, was one of the main slogans of the uprising. He blamed outside influences for this, specifically “Wahhabi satellite channels”. It was a reference to Wesal, a Saudi channel that aired sermons by the exiled Syrian firebrand Sheikh Adnan al-Arur, who urged the opposition to shout the takbeer. The Mufti said takbeer should be limited for the call to prayer that echoed from mosques five times a day. It was not to be shouted at midnight, he said. “I warn America,” he said, “If there is a religious state here, it will move to Europe and the US. This happened in the former Yugoslavia.”
 
I told him that I had seen many clerics playing a role in the uprising. “There are sheikhs inciting the demonstrations,” he said. “But they are not conscious to what is happening in the Arab region. There is destruction in the name of democratic change but democratic change cannot be achieved by violence against the government or opposition.
 
"The words ‘Sunni’ or ‘Christian’ should be smaller than the word ‘citizen’," he said. I told him that the opposition accused the Syrian government of being an Alawite regime. "In Iraq, they said it was a Sunni government," he told me, "Now Shia say we miss Saddam because they lost their security. There is a Baath party here and it is 80 or 90 percent Sunni."
 
I asked him what he thought of the first dead demonstrator from Aleppo, Muhammad al-Iqta, who the opposition claims was killed by an electrical stun gun during a demonstration. The Mufti claimed al-Iqta died from a heart attack. “Demonstrators cursed and insulted those who did not come out to join them,” he said. “Is that peaceful? No it is not. Two sides opened fire, some from the demonstrators and some from the state. In the first month more soldiers died than [members of the] opposition. Many groups are armed, some want an Islamic state and some want a secular state and they are together like in Tahrir Square in Egypt.”
 
After we parted, his son, who had occasionally whispered advice to his father on answers, rushed after me. His father had not meant that takbeer was just for Wahhabis, he said. “It’s for all Muslims,” he said. “It is the word of truth, but it has its appropriate time.”

Part 3 of 3 in my Series on Syrian Demonstrations

The tides of mosques

Protesters were hoping Ramadan would prove a turning point, yet the powerful regime managed to quash most dissent.

Nir Rosen Last Modified: 02 Oct 2011 15:50

This is the final instalment of a three-part feature by Al Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen. For the previous chapters, click here: Ghosts in the mosques [part one]Syria’s symphony of scorn [part two].

Syrian protesters have been denied access to public spaces, such as the squares that have become famous in Yemen and Egypt. This has led to mosques playing an even greater role than they already would have.

With the number of dead from the uprising reaching possibly five thousand, funerals have also provided an opportunity for communities to gather and express their ire.

Funerals are a convenient place to express opposition to the regime because attendance in a funeral does not imply active opposition, and mourners are protected by the crowds. One of the few times a portrait of President Bashar was destroyed in Aleppo was during the funeral of Mufit Ibrahim al-Salqini. Often Saturday funerals have had greater crowds than the Friday demonstrations that preceded them. And while security forces have certainly shot at protesters during funerals they have been more reluctant to do so.

On August 19, a friend named Abu Salah drove me to a daytime funeral and demonstration in the eastern Homs slum of Bab Assiba.

Abu Salah was a businessman who lived in the western neighbourhood of Waer and helped the opposition. He drove a car with fake license plates and delivered aid from wealthy areas such as Ghota, Inshaat and Hamra to the poorer neighbourhoods across town - such as Bab Assiba. We stopped to pick up a friend of his, a man with a beard but no moustache, a sign of conservatism.

As we drove, he received a call letting him know that his cousin, Nawar Nawriz, had died from injuries received the previous night - when attackers had shot at the Fatima mosque while he was praying. After being wounded he was taken to a “field hospital” - a safe house used as a clinic.

Abu Salah told me that opposition supporters donated blood themselves, but they lacked the packs to hold the blood and they needed morphine and medicine to prevent infections and to meet medical needs.

We continued to driving to the Muhata area and passed the Military Security department. A white Peugeot station wagon was parked on the road leading to it, inside and outside the car sat men with rifles.

We entered the Karm Ashami district, passing the Bisman security checkpoint. Abu Salah told me it was known as a very cruel checkpoint because it was between a Sunni area and the Alawite areas of Hadara and Akrama. We entered Bab Hud and continued through Bab Turkman and on to Safsafi. The narrow and rough streets had old houses made of large stones. Many shops and buildings were damaged by automatic weapon fire, including large gashes from heavy calibre rounds.

We left the car parked in the Zaafaran neighbourhood, and walked through alleys pocked with bullet holes, crossing the main road to Bab Assiba.

Every wall, from top to bottom, was ravaged with bullet holes from seemingly every angle. There had been fierce battles here between Syrian security forces and armed opposition fighters. Down the road, at its entrance, was a tank by the checkpoint we bypassed by walking in. Parts of the barrier on the road between the two neighbourhoods had been broken to make space for cars to sneak through at night. Most of the shops in Bab Assiba were closed. There were old signs on the walls calling for a general strike.

We walked to the Mreiji mosque where a large crowd was gathering, waiting. The mosque was full of mourners praying. I asked Abu Salah if people would be concerned that we were strangers. He told me not to worry; if anybody stopped him, there were code words he could use that would reassure them.

Men emerged from the mosque shouting “God is great!” over and over, led by one man, sitting on someone’s shoulders, holding a loudspeaker. The crowds carried a stretcher with a body wrapped in white cloth, with the head exposed. He had been killed the previous night in the mosque when a bullet allegedly ricocheted off a wall in the mosque, hitting the back of his head and coming out of his eye.

His body was followed by that of an eight-month-old girl. Locals told me she was the daughter of the mosque’s sheikh, Anas. The procession marched down a road taking both to the newly named “Martyrs Cemetery”.

The mosque’s walls and windows were riddled with bullet holes. Many of the young men standing outside looked hardened and tough, even thuggish. I stuck close to my local guides. Many men had beards, but shaved their moustaches - a sign that they were religiously conservative.

When it was over, we crossed the road back in to Zaafaran. Its Saad ibn Ali Waqas mosque was also full of bullet holes. As we departed, my friend said to himself: “Rise, oh Assi River, rise. Every day we have a martyr.” It was an opposition slogan that rhymes in Arabic, referring to the symbolic Assi River that runs through Homs. Three days later my friend would be arrested after a demonstration in Homs’ Clock Square.

Rent-a-thugs 

While most of the population of Homs appears to support the uprising, Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, has remained docile, frustrating many in the opposition. The morning of the following Friday, I drove north to this wealthy majority Sunni city.

The road to Aleppo was mostly empty; in anticipation of demonstrations, the city was blocked with two checkpoints staffed by security men in civilian clothes, rifles slung over their shoulders. They turned many cars away.

"Aleppo is closed today," a security officer told one driver, "Come back tomorrow." Some businessmen managed to beg their way past the checkpoint.

We approached the checkpoint, and when the guard saw my US passport, he asked me why we were “making war” on them. All I could do was smile apologetically. Between me calling a friend who had good connections and them not being able to find a legitimate reason to turn me away, they let me through, and so we continued on to Aleppo.

Once there, I met two young activists who took me to one of the poorer neighbourhoods called Sakhur. Aleppo’s first martyr from regime gunfire was killed in Sakhur a week earlier. Its people were known for being tougher, more defiant, and also more violent; they resisted the security forces, and in fact recently killed a few.

Sakhur, Salahedin and Seif Addawleh were the city’s three opposition strongholds. On the road between Shaar roundabout and the airport bridge, there were about a hundred security men in the Bab Allah park, which was just across from the Abu Bakr mosque. There were maybe ten security men standing in front of the mosque, equipped with clubs, teargas and shotguns.

Further down the hill were security men with rifles, and at the bottom of the road, next to the Gaza school, were four men wearing body armour and carrying rifles.

About five hundred men sat in the mosque listening to a somniferous sermon about Ramadan which avoided anything political. After the sermon and the prayers, there was a resounding silence. Unlike other mosques I had been to nobody, called out “God is great!” to mark the start of the demonstration. Instead the men shuffled out without a word under the gaze of the security men. One man murmured “pray for the Prophet,” and one man quietly responded “Our God prays on the prophet Muhammad”.

Several hundred youth walked up the hill to gather. They pulled out banners and flags, and began to call out the standard anti-regime refrains: “The people want the downfall of the regime!” and “Damn your soul, Hafez!”

They marched towards the mosque, performed an about face, and walked back down the hill, turning a corner. Dozens of state security forces followed them. Men from the neighbourhood stood idly by, leaning against the walls, watching. Shop owners hastily shuttered their shops.

Security forces closed off the entire neighbourhood, bringing in buses full of armed men. That day, Sakhur was the only neighbourhood in the city that had held a protest after the Friday prayers.

Demonstrators in Aleppo had hoped to establish a sit-in at the central Saadillah al Jabri Square next to a park - now full of security officers - but local regime supporters had attacked them in the past. Attempted demonstrations in the university had also been suppressed and student activists punished.

That night I went with two activists to the Qutaiba mosque in the wealthy area of Suq Mahalia. Two different groups of opposition coordinators had agreed to stage a demonstration there that night. When we drove by, we saw at least thirty thuggish men standing in front of the mosque. They wore civilian clothes, some with impressive gullets and many were bearded. They were older than most security men. Some had clubs stuffed into their shirts, behind their backs. These men were known as shabiha - civilian thugs hired by regime supporters and assisted by the security forces. Other shabiha loitered on the side streets in groups. They wore shabby dark clothes and did not belong in the neighbourhood. Not far away was the bus that had brought them there. It had a large picture of Bashar al-Assad on it.

Young demonstrators cautiously approached the street leading to the mosque. They wore trendy clothing and looked like students. They did not have the tough look I had seen in other demonstrators.

They spoke in codes about demonstrations, often referring to them as football matches - for instance, they might call their friends to ask, “Which field are you at?” When they saw security, they called their friends and said “There are lots of players from the other team here,” or “the referee is here,” or “it’s very dirty there”.

When they saw the shabiha that night, they turned away and the protest was cancelled. Somehow security men always seemed to know in advance.

"It’s busted," one of the activists with me said.

A cautious delegation

A United Nations delegation, tasked with assessing whether there was a humanitarian crisis in Syria, visited Homs on August 22. They met with the governor, and even though they were accompanied by an escort from the ministry of foreign affairs, they were granted permission to visit anywhere they wanted; the escort did not even object, much to their surprise. But the foreign ministry did insist that no filming was allowed.

Demonstrators and opposition activists were desperate to get their attention, so they staged a protest in Clock Square. The last time they did that was in April, in an attempt to replicate Egypt’s Tahrir Square.

In that sit-in, the leftist Alawite speaker Najati Tayyara was welcomed with cheers of “one, one, one, the Syrian people are one!” At about one in the morning, security forces attacked the demonstrators with live fire, killing some.

Protesters carried signs that read “SOS”. They had leaflets in English, and pleaded with members of the UN mission. “They will slaughter us after you leave,” implored one man.

The overly cautious UN security advisers warned members of the delegation that if they even opened their windows a little bit to receive a piece of paper, they would be expelled from the rest of the mission.

When they realised they could not talk to the delegation, demonstrators grew more aggressive, though not threatening. Some laid down in front of the UN vehicles.

The UN mission, without a guide, did not know where to go, and decided to call the governor’s office for assistance. Security forces arrived with clubs to disperse the protesters, who replied with stones, some of which accidentally landed on UN vehicles.

"They turned savage on us," said an opposition leader who was present, in reference to the security forces. "Clock Square is a red line for them so security came and shot at us. First they shot into the air. It hit the glass and the walls. We stayed so they stayed. Then the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade came and shot at them."

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade was a Homs-based unit of defectors from the Syrian army, who had joined the opposition and conducted operations to defend demonstrations as well as to attack security forces. Several protesters were killed by security forces, and in turn at least two of them were killed by armed opposition members. One policeman was shot, and a colonel in the army named Ali Nidal Hassan was killed, allegedly by an opposition sniper.

"Ali Hassan died because of the UN delegation," his boss said. He had been assigned to secure the area around the UN delegation because security had intercepted phone calls discussing a planned operation in the area.

That night, my friend Suheib took me to Midan in Damascus. Its status as a rebellious neighbourhood went back to the 1920s when residents rioted against the French. Through the 1960s to the 1980s, it was a hotbed of conservative opposition to the Baath party.

Since the latest uprising, security and armed thugs were posted in various parts of the neighbourhood. We drove through very dark streets looking for mosques. We heard one shot fired and saw a commotion down the street not far from the Ghazwat Badr mosque.

Men hastily told the children on the street to find somewhere safe to hide. One man, Khalil, was standing outside his building waving kids in. Security forces grabbed him, accusing him of helping protesters. He was forced into a station wagon as his young son cried and screamed desperately. Locals watched helplessly. Others restrained his son, consoling him.

Two security men with pistols stood in front of the station wagon and waved people away. Minutes later, two electricians showed up looking for Khalil. He had been waiting on the street corner for them as they had agreed so they could repair something.

I strolled by and watched from the door of a grocery store. Suddenly, a teenager no older than 15 sprinted by me shouting in terror as two security men in sloppy green uniforms holding truncheons chased after him. They were followed by at least ten other security men, who laughed as they jogged; it seemed fun for them. They were older, in their 40s, and overweight. Soon, others followed. At least one carried a rifle and another one carried a tear gas launcher.

I bought a drink from the grocery store and went back outside, continuing to observe the events as they unfolded. Moments later, dozens of security forces marched by me. A riot control policeman with a helmet, shield and a club marched towards me. I tried to force a smile and wave. He marched right past me.

The men of the neighbourhood could do nothing but watch the grim procession. Some gathered afterwards to discuss what they saw and what might happen to Khalil.

"He’s never coming back," said one man.

A tough crowd 

The next night, Suheib picked me up again. He told me that the day before, he had seen nine buses full of security entering the suburb of Kisweh. That night, we drove to Harasta.

We came upon a traffic jam, the cause of which was a checkpoint, holding up cars and searching them. Plain clothed security officers - armed with pistols - sat on a corner, drinking tea. Uniformed men strapped with rifles were stopping cars and checking IDs.

Suheib circumvented them, taking a different route through narrow side roads on the perimeter of the area. We were confronted with another checkpoint leading to Zamalka. I turned up the Western pop music on the radio. I was dressed formally to reduce suspicion. As I started to pull out my identification, the soldier just waved us by instead. We must have looked harmless enough.

The main street in Zamalka seemed normal. People were out shopping. At 10pm that night, we drove through crowded Arbeen. Its main market street was overflowing with shoppers, especially women and children, forcing us to drive slowly. As we waited for the crowds to part, I noticed how conservative the area was. All the women wore the hijab. Most only revealed their eyes. Others wore a burqa, concealing their faces entirely.

We continued on to Harasta. Some shops were closed and there were fewer people out, but there was no demonstration.

As we looked for a way out of town, the streets grew darker, unlit and emptier. The narrow street we wanted to pass through was blocked by a couple of stern young men. One, bearded with angular features, told us it was closed and waved us in a different direction. Suheib insisted we had to go through, so he let us pass.

We passed the Sheikh Musa mosque. On the other side there was another makeshift checkpoint. Informal local security blocked the street. They were older, in their 30s or 40s. Some sat on motorcycles. They were bearded and tough-looking. Suheib parked the taxi, and we walked to the mosque.

A few hundred men emerged and demonstrated for about ten minutes. We stood on the perimeter and watched. I felt uncomfortable as a stranger. The local men conducting security stared at me, recognising that I was an outsider. This prompted me to suggest leaving.

Suheib adroitly approached some of the older local toughs providing security for the protest and asked them how we could leave Harasta safely, avoiding checkpoints. One of the men, Abu Ibrahim, stopped two colleagues seated on a motorcycle and asked them for their opinion. The one seated up front was a large, thick, bearded man. The man behind him was short and wiry, also sporting a beard.

My friend introduced me to them, and had a brief conversation with them. They explained that the demonstration behind us was composed of men from several mosques who joined together. As we spoke we heard a loud bang.

"Go see," Abu Ibrahim told the man on the motorcycle, who spun around and sped away.

Abu Ibrahim showed me the shotgun pellets still embedded in his face and body from when a civilian security man shot at him from out of a car. The two men on the motorcycle led us out. Before crossing into Arbeen they told us to wait. They drove ahead to look for checkpoints.

They told me they coordinated with the guys from Arbeen and Zamalka as well to monitor the movements of security forces. They returned and said it was safe for us to go. We drove through Arbeen to Zamalka and back into central Damascus.

Not quite the Golan 

The next Friday, August 26, was of particular significance, because it was the last one of Ramadan. In occupied Palestine, Israeli security forces took extra measures against Palestinians in anticipation of demonstrations, and in Syria security forces did likewise, suspecting further gatherings.

The Syrian opposition named that day “Friday of patience and persistence”. In the Omar Mosque of Homs, Sheikh Mahmud al Dalati told his followers that victory would surely be coming. He praised the people’s unity. He said he never imagined that he would see people from Ghota, Inshaat or Hamra, wealthy areas, crying and carrying on their shoulders the body of a man from Khaldiyeh, a poor area. People had also become more religious, he said, reading the Quran for the first time, or reading it several times when they had never read it before. A demonstration followed as usual. “Israel, Assad is with you to death!” people shouted, mocking their president.

In advance of the noon prayers and the anticipated demonstration, the head of state security in the Damascus suburb of Duma, Lieutenant Colonel Samer Breidi, gathered some 300 men from state security and riot control police with shields and clubs for a briefing. Dozens of them brought their AK47s. Breidi lost his temper when he saw this.

"What do you think, you’re going to liberate the Golan?" he shouted at them, cursing at them as he angrily hit and kicked his men.

He ordered that only eight men would be allowed to carry rifles with live rounds, and they would be the guards on the buses

transporting the other men. They were ordered to remain on the buses with their rifles. Ten men were assigned to carry shotguns with rubber bullets. Three men were assigned to carry tear gas launchers. The rest could only carry truncheons.

Ali Mamluk, the Sunni head of State Security, wanted to avoid killings, said someone who worked closely with him. Other security agencies were less disciplined and more likely to lose control. Samer Breidi was known as a man less prone to violence. He would get on the phone and beg Military Security generals not to intervene, promising that he could take care of the situation.

That Friday, protesters burned two garbage dumpsters and several tyres. The fires were put out with water cannons. Security forces fired tear gas at the demonstrators. Military security was attacked with small dynamite sticks, sound bombs and Molotov cocktails. Two members of military security were shot, as were at least three protesters.

At the same time, according to State Security, Sheikh Osama Rifai of the Rifai mosque in Damascus’ Kafar Susah, asked in his Friday sermon that women not attend the night time tarawih prayers later that day. Early the next morning, clashes would take place inside and outside mosques, which would give the opposition a fillip, and provoke rage at the violation of a mosque and assault on a leading cleric known to be anti-regime.

That night I was back in Homs. I had been warned by friends in the opposition and security forces to be careful and to expect clashes. A friend in the opposition showed me how to approach the protests by the Omar mosque while avoiding places where there might be checkpoints.

A security friend told me to stay in that night because they were expecting a lot of trouble, and the regime response would be harsh. I took the back streets to the mosque, but there was no sign of security. The main street was full of teenagers preparing for the protest. They blocked off the entrance to the street as usual with bricks and garbage dumpsters.

Many teenagers stood outside the mosque waiting for the demonstration to begin. About twenty women joined the demonstration on its fringes, shouting: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

But no security forces came that night.

Turmoil at the mosques

Early the next morning in Damascus, clashes erupted outside the Rifai mosque in Kafar Susah. An opposition friend of mine was present in the demonstration but could not say exactly what happened.

He told me that at about 3:30am, after the tajahud prayer, men emerged from the mosque shouting “God is great” and other chants on the way home. They were shot at with plastic or rubber-coated rounds from close range. Other men inside the mosque, and barricaded it to protect the sheikh after a rumour spread that security officials were coming to arrest him. After some negotiation, people started to leave. But then the shouting and shooting resumed, and the sheikh was injured.

According to state security, clashes broke out in the mosque’s rear entrance after a demonstrator broke a bottle from breakfast (being served inside the mosque), and stabbed a security officer in the neck.

"Then security forces went crazy," my security source said.

State and military security shot people with rubber-coated bullets and only outside the mosque, he told me. The man who attacked the security force member fled inside the mosque. Inside, people barricaded themselves and refused to hand him over.

Demonstrators threw stones, bricks and bottles from inside the mosque at the security forces, he told me. Eventually security forces were able to capture the man. During the raid on the mosque, one angry security member hit the sheikh on the head with a club.

The man who allegedly stabbed the security officer with a broken bottle was captured. Beneath an apartment building they beat him so violently and for so long that my source in security expected he would not survive.

This was not the first time that the mosque had been besieged by security and thugs, however. Even in March, security forces would beat protesters coming out of the mosque. That said, chances are that if someone from state security was indeed killed, it was likely by protesters who were already under attack, activists told me.

That night I attended the demonstration in Homs’ Old Waer district. The location had been moved away from the fire department to the lot outside the Rawda mosque, as the fire station was now occupied by soldiers and security officers. Women and old men had joined the demonstration. “Down down with the regime and down with the Baath party!” they said. Protesters also mocked Bashar al-Assad and state Mufti Hassun, while praising the incendiary exiled Sheikh Adnan al Arur.

Two wounded protesters were brought into the nearby Birr hospital. One man was from Khaldiyeh and had been shot three times near to the Abbas mosque. The other man was shot in the side of his neck and his ear in the Jurt Ashiyah neighbourhood. A doctor treating them at the hospital was angry at the activists for not coming in to film the two wounded men.

Elsewhere in the city, a man named Bassim Khazandar was killed, while another was injured by what activists described as a nail bomb. At the hospital, we got word that a Red Crescent ambulance that had just left was stopped by security, who then took it over and drove away with it. The activists I was with hurried away.

No end in sight 

I went to Bab Omar the following night with a friend. His eight-year-old son whispered shyly in his ear, asking him if he could come with us to the protest.

The opposition had hoped Ramadan would be a turning point, but it was soon coming to an end. Contrary to their hopes, the Syrian regime had succeeded in limiting protests, and it was the Libyans who were celebrating, thanks to international military intervention. The opposition was slowly beginning to believe that, without an armed rebellion or international military support, they may never overthrow the powerful regime.

Thousands gathered in Bab Omar for the demonstration. They changed the words of a song called “Where are the millions,” by the Arab nationalist pop star Julia Boutros. “Where, where, where are the millions,” they sang, “Millions of Arabs? Where are Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Emirates? Where is the no fly zone? See what happened in Kafar Susah?”

As I watched them, I remembered how regime supporters described protesters as Islamic extremists. “Look, a terrorist!” a local guide pointed at a young demonstrator and smiled as he mocked regime propaganda. The men danced in a circle while one demonstrator played a drum. They sent salutations to Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Sheikh Adnan al Arur. They damned the Syrian media. They burned a picture of Bashar al-Assad.

"The people want the execution of the president!" they shouted. "The people want a no-fly zone!"

"It’s written on our flag - Bashar is a traitor to the nation!"

One man with a microphone pretended to be al-Assad, and offered the demonstrators whatever they wanted in order to placate them.

He then asked them what they wanted. In thunderous unison, he got his answer: “Go!”


Part 2 of 3 in my Series on Syrian Demonstrations

Syria’s symphony of scorn


Criticism of the Assad regime spreads wider, as families grieve for protesters who have been killed in the crackdown.Nir Rosen Last Modified: 30 Sep 2011 13:07

This is the second of a three-part feature by Al Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen. You can read the first part here.

On August 3, I visited the old Waer neighbourhood on the western side of the Syrian city of Homs. Most of its residents were originally Bedouin from the Egeidat tribe. Although its lower class apartment blocks certainly looked urban, the people maintained many of their older traditions and could often be found sitting on carpets on the street outside their homes at night, while children roamed freely about.

The Rawda mosque was the main place of worship for old Waer. “The West thinks we are Islamists because we come out of mosques,” a friend there told me, “but it’s the only place people can gather.”

At 9:40pm children ran down the streets, chanting anti-regime slogans. More than one thousand people gathered on the road in front of the fire department by the mosque that night. The fire department was covered in anti-regime graffiti.

About fifty women stood on the fringes of the demonstration. Most had only their hair covered with a hijab - unlike the more conservatively dressed women I had seen elsewhere - and they all sang and clapped with the rest of the crowd.

"Bedouin women are not like other women," my friend told me. "We don’t make them wear the niqab."

Many older men stood by watching. Men took turns leading the crowd on microphones, sitting on shoulders to stand above the rest. The people cheered when they heard clever lines.

"Listen, listen, oh sniper, here is the neck and here is the head!" they taunted, assuming there were hidden regime gunmen in the buildings.

To the leader of Hezbollah - who voiced his support for the Syrian regime - they called out: “Oh Nasrallah, you are not one of us, take your dogs and leave us!”

"Ignite, Aleppo, ignite!" they chanted, encouraging the people of Aleppo to rise up.

"Rise, Assi River, rise. We want to remove him before Eid, every day we mourn a martyr," they cried out, using the Assi River as a symbol of the struggle. "Syria wants freedom!"

 ”The people want the trial of the president”; “Bastard sold the Golan”; “Do you want Bashar? No by God”; “Hama we are with you till death! Der Ezor we are with you till death! Abu Kamal we are with you till death!”; “Bashar you thug, you want to ban the tarawih prayer, and the rights of Muslims and Christians! You have to go Bashar”; “Not forever! These are your last days, Bashar al Assad!”; “Birds, birds, birds, bye bye Bashar, have a good night” [this one is, granted, nonsensical - but sounds funny and rhymes well in Arabic]; “Listen, listen, oh Hassun [the pro-regime Mufti of Syria], take off the turban and put on horns!”; “How beautiful is freedom!”; “We want to throw Bashar in the nearest sewage pit! Syria wants freedom!”; “Damn your soul, Nasrallah”; “Thank you, oh Arur!” [people cheered when they heard the name of Saudi-based opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur];  “Damn you Maher - the roach! [Bashar al Assad’s brother]”; “Bashar, you are the night and we are the day”; “Peaceful!” And in one song, the protesters went as far as to make fun of the president’s lisp.

After the choir of scorn abated, a special guest was introduced.

"We have somebody from Hama here!" they announced. A young man from Hama took the loudspeaker and told the crowd of the brutality they were enduring and how six mosques were destroyed. Then he led the crowd in songs.

There were three separate demonstrations in Waer that night. At 11pm, word came of wounded demonstrators and martyrs elsewhere in the city. Our demonstration broke up in anticipation of the ambulances which would be passing on the same road we were on.

Becoming a statistic

The next day, Abu Omar, a friend of mine, smuggled me into a town named Rastan, just north of Homs. By the time we reached it, I had counted more than fifty tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

The residents made this town famous for destroying a giant statue of the late president Hafez al Assad, Bashar’s father.

As of my visit, however, they had lost 85 people to the security forces, with thousands more imprisoned, Abu Omar told me. I asked how the most recent ones had died.

"You ask a lot about the first person," he said. "You ask less for the second and third, and then you just say ‘okay’."

Thousands of people demonstrated on April 24, and 21 of them were killed. They ended up attacking the nearby military security headquarters. Rastan would become the centre of the armed opposition in Homs.

That night, after the tarawih prayers, as many as three thousand people gathered on Bareed Square, next to the Abu Amru mosque, for the demonstration. As security forces were not entering Rastan, it was once again a carnival-like atmosphere. Immense speakers were set up. Lights were hung above the protesters. On a nearby roof, activists were broadcasting the demonstration live on the internet. They sang along to trumpets and drums. There were many older men as well as children. Some women were clustered in the back.

The parable of Moses

On Friday, August 5, I went to the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque in Homs’ upscale Hamra district. Its sheikh, Mahmud al Dalati, was known to be a strong supporter of the opposition. In his sermon, he called upon God to defeat and destroy “our enemies” - an indirect reference to the regime.

He told the story of the prophet Moses, who spoke to his people when they feared the pharaoh was overtaking them. “Kala”, he said, which is a stronger rejection than the standard “no” in Arabic. Moses said “Kala,” the sheikh explained, “God is with us, it is out of the question, [Pharaoh] will not overtake us.”

The sheikh then praised the youth of the uprising. “Our youth are braver than any other people!” he said. The darkest time is just before the dawn, he explained. “But dawn is coming very soon.”

He then spoke of the military attack on the restive city on Hama. “They are killing our people without discrimination, women and children,” he said, going into detail about the regime’s alleged crimes. Many men in the audience started crying.

In the dua calls to God, a man named Khaled stood up with others and shouted “oh God!” louder than the others. He looked around and waved arms so others would stand up and shout too.

As the prayer ended, Khaled was among the first to lead the chants. “Oh Bashar you Nimrod, we are Arabs not Jews!” he shouted, “Oh Bashar, you collaborator, go strike Israel! Oh Maher you coward, go liberate the Golan!” The demonstration continued down the street.

And not so far away, in Gardenia Square, there were three buses full of state security, awaiting orders.

That night though I had planned on going to the demonstration in Khaldiyeh, but local friends warned me against it, so I decided to return to Old Waer. The demonstration emerging from the Rawda mosque in front of the fire department was joined by another demonstration coming from the Omarein mosque (formerly named the president’s mosque).

Many men stood on the fringes, just observing.

"How many martyrs do you want before you join us?" the demonstrators shouted to the onlookers, who were then shamed into coming closer and taking part. Some of the chants were led by children sitting on others’ shoulders.

At 11pm, the protest dispersed as word came of injuries from other demonstrations. Hundreds of locals gathered at the nearby Birr hospital to wait for the ambulances. One of the wounded was Ahmad Fadhil, a former professional football player from the opposition stronghold of Khaldiyeh. He was shot in the side of his abdomen. The body of Hassan Muhamada, slain by security forces during the noon demonstrations earlier in the day, was in the morgue.

As we left the hospital, another body was brought in. People said the Nur mosque in Khaldiyeh had been surrounded by security forces, which opened fire on it. “It was Khaldiyeh’s turn,” a friend of mine said.

An opposition leader from the area joined us later. He had heard rumours of someone writing in a notebook in English. He was incensed at the men I was with for allowing people to see me. Sitting in one of their houses later that night, we heard shooting and shouts of “God is great!” in the distance. “Security is here,” one of them said. “We need to get Nir out of here immediately.”

Breakfast in Ramel

On August 8 I visited the coastal city of Latakia. Its seaside slum of Ramel was another opposition stronghold. It was surrounded by nine checkpoints controlling every road into and out of it.

My friend Khalil called two friends from Ramel, Abed and Muhammad, and they came to pick us up. All were in their 20s and thin. Abed and Muhammad were both activists. Abed was dark and had the hardened look of a street fighter, sporting a bullet dangling from a chain necklace.

The three young men discussed how best to get me in without having soldiers or security members stop me and check my ID. They debated whether a bus or taxi was best, and finally decided we should walk in one by one.

We approached the hilltop where the soldiers stood.

"Just walk behind me," Abed said. A few feet behind him, I tried to casually walk, holding my breath and passing the piles of sandbags and the soldiers who ignored me as they leaned forward to look inside a car.

We continued down the hill into Ramel, past a makeshift checkpoint set up by local opposition activists. They had piled sandbags into tall walls and built a gate using poles and barrels. The neighbourhood’s corners and streets were full of such checkpoints. The walls around them were pockmarked by bullets.

"This is the first line of defence," said Abed.

"Do they enter the neighbourhood?" I asked.

"They cannot," he replied proudly. "People here are steadfast, they fight back and they have killed security men, but not the army."

The neighbourhood’s buildings were short, built of concrete and cinderblocks, unpainted and unfinished, with reinforcing bars used in construction protruding every which way out of them. People sat on rooftops and in the streets.

Before the demonstration, organisers played billiards to relax. One activist who was in charge of filming the demonstration waved his arm around at a crowd of activists behind him.

"All these guys are wanted," he told me, "Those who aren’t wanted wear masks."

I met an older man with a raspy voice whose job was to produce the large banners for the demonstration. The younger men seemed impatient for the protest to begin.

"The people want the execution of the president!" chimed one youth waiting with friends.

After the conclusion of iftar - a meal during Ramadan that breaks the fast – and evening prayers, protesters emerged from several overflowing mosques and converged en masse. The processions made their way to a large intersection of five different streets that locals had named “Assi Square”, in honour of the square used by demonstrators in the city of Hama. Women on balconies and roofs ululated as they threw rice and homemade confetti down on the demonstrators.

Protesters carried banners and gathered by the thousands in the square. Large loudspeakers were set up, and a large screen was hung off of a building. On a construction platform they placed a projector, and an MC with a microphone stood atop it, leading the unruly crowd in song along, with a drummer. Children shot small firecrackers into the air. “Oh Muslims, where are you?” they sang. “Hafez al Assad is the dog of the Arab nation” (mocking the historic slogan that he was “leader of the Arab nation”).

The screen showed live footage of demonstrations in Syria broadcast by Al Jazeera. When the screen shifted from a live shot of Homs to a live shot of us in Ramel, the crowd went wild, jumping, clapping and shouting, singing loudly in unison, shooting more fireworks into the air.

Ghost towns

On August 10, I drove with another friend, Najim, to the Damascus neighbourhood of Maadamiya, where the Zeytuni mosque was known to be pro-opposition.

Even before the uprising, Sheikh Naim al Hariri of the Zeytuni mosque had been outspoken by Syrian standards and had a reputation as a hardliner. One famous sermon he gave before the uprising was entitled “al wala’ wa al bara”, elaborating on the Islamic concept of being loyal to Muslims and having nothing to do with non-Muslims. He had been arrested briefly during the summer.

So we drove in that direction.

When we arrived, we found hundreds of security men all over the otherwise dark, deserted streets.

"It’s a ghost town," said Najim.

At least a hundred soldiers, security men and thuggish looking civilians stood in the dark in another area, carrying their rifles. Najim wound his way through the alleyways to avoid checkpoints. We passed the Zeytuni mosque and saw that it was closed, its lights out, and a group of soldiers standing guard. We decided it was time to leave.

Two plain clothed security men sat in a car at an exit checkpoint. They checked the IDs of passengers in the car in front of us. At least four buses for security members were parked by them, and a large group of soldiers and armed civilians stood in the dark. We pulled up, and a security man asked to check my ID. I told him I had permission. He took it from me and showed it to the men in the car. He came back, handed me my ID, and said, “Okay, go.” I exhaled with relief as we pulled away.

As we travelled under the Zahra bridge in Midan, we passed a police van taking prisoners away. A large crowd in front of a mosque stood watching. There were at least 50 men in partial uniforms, holding clubs - and some carried electric stun guns.

As we left, I saw dozens of security men and civilian thugs standing by Midan’s Hassan mosque. I would later learn that security had ambushed men outside a mosque in Midan and violently beaten them. Midan’s history as a hotbed of rebellion goes back to the role it played in the anti-French revolt of 1925. It was also the scene of wide-scale riots in 1939 and 1943. In the 1960s it was a centre of conservative opposition to the Baath party under the leadership of Sheikh Hassan Habannaka.

Midan’s Hassan mosque, named after him, is only one of the many mosques he built with money from his merchant supporters. In the early 1980s, Midan was a stronghold of armed Islamists. The Hassan mosque’s 90-year-old sheikh, Krayyim Rajih, is the spiritual heir of Habannaka. During the summer, Rajih was silenced by the regime.

We passed by the Rifai mosque on Kafr Susah roundabout, a few hundred metres from the State Security headquarters. This mosque was also known to be an anti-regime bastion. The Rifai mosque saw violence from the regime from the outset of the uprising. On March 25, after the Friday prayers, demonstrators emerged from the Rifai mosque.

The following week it was surrounded by security forces and people inside were too scared to leave. Sheikh al-Rifai negotiated with security, who promised to let people go home safely if they refrained from demonstrating outside the mosque. But security betrayed the promise, beating people and arresting them.

The following week, security forces prevented demonstrations - though tension resumed in early Ramadan. One disciple of the sheikh was killed in a demonstration. The funeral took place at the Rifai mosque, and in the demonstration that followed people were again beaten and arrested.

On this night I counted up to one hundred members of security forces and civilian thugs - armed with clubs - sat on the roundabout or loitering nearby. Nobody was going in or out of the mosque.

Some neighbourhoods were frightening ghost towns, while the ones right next door were bustling.

Thug life

The following night, my friend Suheib picked me up and we headed to his neighbourhood of Yalda in eastern Damascus to look for a demonstration.

We drove down Daabul Street. On one side, there were four buses and a bunch of civilian thugs and security men with clubs, electric stun guns- and even a shotgun. Further down the other side, by Yalda roundabout, there were two or three buses keeping watch on the Umahat al Mu’mineen mosque.

Suheib stopped by some young bony and bearded men he knew from the neighbourhood. He explained to me that they usually went out to protest.

"Today it’s a light security presence," the men laughed. "Yesterday, there were 19 minibuses in the neighbourhood."

Numerous young men were gathered on the streets - should security forces come, they would descend on them with stones, or delay them in case they were coming to arrest somebody, giving them time to flee.

We continued to the Daf Eshaq area nearby. There were many security men and civilian thugs by its Hussein mosque.

Back in the centre of town, I saw up to one hundred security and civilian thugs under the Midan bridge, and even more inside Midan’s streets. A Red Crescent ambulance on standby was parked up.

In the Nahar Eshi area, there were more than fifty security personnel and thugs with shotguns, rifles and clubs, and several buses for them. It looked like the aftermath of a clash.

Nearby, at the Ashmar roundabout, another flock of fifty security guards and ruffians stood around, waiting. I saw the same thing at the Marji roundabout in the centre of town. Dozens of security guards and thugs sat inside a building under construction, and also perched on its second floor looking down.

In the Rukn Eddin neighbourhood, I saw a bus with a large cluster of pro-regime hoodlums and security guards on Assad Eddin street. In the same neighbourhood’s Shimdeen roundabout, I saw three buses full of security personnel, some with rifles. In the Sheikh Muhyedin area I saw more security men by Tarbiya roundabout.

Mosques close up shop

Four days later, on the night of August 15, I returned to Midan and found that its important Hassan mosque was either abandoned or closed, while two other mosques each had about twenty security members waiting in front of them.

The Rifai mosque of Kafar Susah also had its regular huge deployment of security forces, and not far off I saw security staff armed with rifles and stun guns. And there were yet more security and thugs in front of a mosque by Meisal roundabout.

The next night, I again joined up with Najim and we decided to pass by the Rifai mosque. Two teenaged thugs stood brazenly, wielding clubs right in front of the mosque’s gate, while other security forces were deployed as usual on the roundabout, and outside adjacent buildings.

The Zeytuni mosque of Maadamiya remained closed. Qadam was a ghost town. I saw several security buses outside, and inside three pickup trucks drove by me, packed with men carrying shotguns and clubs.

In Qadam, people stared suspiciously at us. We were the only car driving through its dark streets. At the entrance to the Hajar al Aswad district, regime symbols had been torn down or defaced. In the main Hajar al Aswad roundabout, another large contingent of security forces and men armed with shotguns and clubs were present. Some were sitting and drinking tea, others looked sleepy.

The main market was open, however. Women were shopping and children played with firecrackers. Soldiers at a checkpoint before Daraya checked the IDs of all passengers.

We pressed on past a checkpoint, where a soldier lazily waved us through, and arrived in Maadamiya. Baladiya square in Maadamiya had more than 50 soldiers in full kit - armed with with rifles - standing and waiting. Dozens of armed security men stood in front of the still-closed Zeytuni mosque.

Throughout the pitch black neighbourhood, I saw soldiers and security forces deployed, stopping the occasional car and checking IDs. No shops were open and there were no pedestrians on the streets of this large neighbourhood.

"Movement is paralysed," Najim said.

Movement seemed perfectly fine, however, in the Palestinian Yarmuk camp, where a pro-regime demonstration was taking place late that night.

Mourning the dead

The next day, I joined a friend in order to attend two funerals. So far, in August alone, eight young men from Homs had died in State Security detention.

We visited the family of 23 year-old Abdelkarim Siyufi, who was killed two days previously near the Fardus mosque in Inshaat after tarawih prayers. Mourners visited the family in a mosque in the Ghota neighbourhood. Abdelkarim’s father told me that his son had been shot in the head, kidney and groin.

More than a hundred men were seated in the mosque to pay their respects when I visited. They would stay for a short while and leave as new visitors came in. It seemed as if all the men of the area came to offer their condolences. There was strong solidarity with the families of martyrs.

Nearly one hundred men were also seated with Jamal Fatwa’s family. Jamal had been in his 20s. He and a friend, Khaled Mrad, were both arrested on August 5 after they were stopped and security forces found a microphone used for protests in their car. Five days later, Khaled was returned, dead, to his family. Ten days later, Jamal’s family was told to pick up his corpse. The bones in his chest were crushed. Both youths had been held by State Security.

A sheikh sat with the mourners and called upon God to destroy their enemies. He spoke of the martyrs: “We are all Jamal.” He recounted the story of Ammar bin Yasser, an early convert to Islam and close companion of the Prophet Muhammad, who was known for his deep faith.

Ammar’s father, Yasser, and mother, Samiya, were slaves to a cruel owner. When Ammar’s parents, brother and other relatives accepted Islam, they were attacked, their property destroyed. Ammar’s relatives were chained, taken to the desert, stretched under the sun and placed beneath large blocks of stone for all to hear their cries of pain so they would be discouraged from converting to Islam.

Ammar’s mother was later stabbed to death, becoming the first martyr of Islam. Then Ammar’s father and uncle were killed. Ammar himself was tortured and forced to curse the Prophet.

"Oh members of the family of Yasser!" said the Prophet, "Be patient. You have been promised paradise."

The sheikh reminded the mourners of Ammar’s family - and of how many martyrs they had lost - and of the words spoken by the Prophet Muhammad.

"Be patient, people of Homs," said the sheikh visiting Jamal’s family. "You have been promised paradise."


Part 1 of 3 in my Series on Syrian Demonstrations

Ghosts in the mosques

Opposition to the Syrian regime runs deep, as women, children, and the elderly take part in the resistance.

Nir Rosen Last Modified: 30 Sep 2011 07:26

The uprising in Syria, as in elsewhere in the Arab world, has relied mainly on peaceful demonstrations; although also like Egypt, Yemen and even Bahrain, there has been an underreported violent side to the opposition as well.


Unlike other countries, protesters have not succeeded in establishing any sit-ins in public squares. Early attempts to establish sit-ins, such as in Homs’ Clock Square in April were violently dispersed by government security forces. The regime took to posting security forces by main squares to prevent any future sit-ins.

Lately since the beginning of the school year, some protests have rekindled on campuses after a brutal crackdown on university activity over the summer, but almost all demonstrations have emerged from mosques.

Mosques remain the only public spaces that have sometimes escaped the government’s crackdown. There have even been cases of Christians, Alawites or secular Sunnis standing outside mosques waiting for prayers to finish so they could join demonstrations.

Filming these demonstrations to send to the internet and satellite news networks has been a key tool of the opposition.

Sometimes they are left unmolested long enough to demonstrate freely for an hour or more. Other times they use guerrilla tactics to avoid security forces, conducting so-called “flying demonstrations”, which occur at a pre-arranged location and are held ever-so-briefly – just long enough to film, so it can go up on the internet and be passed on to news networks.

One such flying demonstration took place on a Thursday night in early July, and residents of the wealthy Mazzeh neighbourhood in Damascus were surprised to hear opposition activists staging a demonstration, chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime!”

The activists had hoped their demonstration would encourage the locals to join in. The locals came out, and instead of joining the demonstration, attacked the participants with sticks and cudgels. Even security guards and building workers joined in the melee.

Then, after midnight, hundreds of people took part in a pro-regime demonstration in the same street – not quite what the opposition activists originally had in mind.

They shouted, “Arur you prostitute, Maher will step on your head!” They were referring to firebrand opposition cleric Sheikh Adnan al Arur – who lives in Saudi Arabia – and to Bashar al Assad’s brother Maher, also the military commander.

Unlike opposition demonstrations, this one was not interrupted by security forces. The opposition activists made a critical error: Many people in Mazzeh were, in fact, regime supporters.

Freedom’s lot

On the night of July 19, I took a taxi towards the Damascus neighbourhood of Qabun, the opposition stronghold.

The driver was nervous. “There are problems there every night,” he said.

Loitering just outside the neighbourhood were soldiers and riot control police. Inside, Qabun’s street lights were turned off and there were no security personnel. The walls were full of graffiti that had been crossed out. We nearly drove straight into a demonstration.

Men on motorcycles blocked the road to prevent cars from entering in the direction of the demonstration. Others stood as lookouts. They shooed the driver away. He dropped us off and left in a hurry, refusing to take passengers who approached him, afraid the demonstrators would vandalise his car should he linger.

All the shops were closed that night – a lesson learned after a restaurant and pharmacy were destroyed after they remained open during a previous protest.

The streets were bereft of people except for the hundreds of men marching through Qabun’s main road at 10 PM. They had started at the Abu Bakr al Sadeeq mosque, though there were few overt signs of religious devotion. Not many of the demonstrators were bearded or wore
 dishdashas (traditional robes).

I approached one young man standing guard and introduced myself so that I would not arouse suspicion as an outsider – an 18 year-old engineering student called Amir. We walked with the demonstrators to an empty lot next to a mosque and a pharmacy. A man slowly drove a three wheeled motorcycle rigged with loudspeakers, blasting chants such as “the people want the collapse of the regime”, “down with the Baath”, and “Assad is a germ in Syria” (responding to the president comparing pro-democracy demonstrators to germs). Yet there were also many takbirs – calling “God is great!” – which is one of the more popular slogans in the demonstrations.

Amir called the empty lot “Freedom Square”, like the more famous one in Cairo. He told me that for the past two months, they had been demonstrating like this every night after the evening prayers. I asked who organised it, and although it was popular, he said that it did not have any organiser. Hundreds filled the square, while a cluster of about twenty women in full black burqas – entirely covering their faces – stood a safe distance behind.

Different men took turns with the microphone, leading the crowd in chants or giving speeches. “I want to speak to the police,” one man said. “Shame on you … we’re not terrorists, we are Syrians. There is no leader for this demonstration – it’s peaceful and popular. We salute anyone who defects from any military unit and joins us.”

Another man took the microphone. “We are not against women coming,” he said. “We want a separate

demonstration for women because, in this country, women and men started mixing and this is a shame for us.”

An angry argument ensued, and the microphone was taken away as men shouted at one another. The demonstration then descended into bedlam. Most of the men were against any kind of demonstration for women at all.

"We complete our men, we want to come out just like our men," two women shouted. Tempers flared between the sexes.

As men left in still-bickering groups, some stayed to clean the bottles and trash left behind. Others marched back to the mosque in Freedom Square, cursing the soul, quite literally, of Bashar al Assad’s father – “God damn your soul, Hafez!”

Fridays in Homs

Three days later, I attended Friday prayers in the central city of Homs, at the Khalid bin al Walid mosque – named after an important military commander during the early days of Islam.

But today was not Friday. Today was ahfad Khalid – the grandsons of Khalid. The opposition gave every Friday a new name, and this time it was a reference to Homs and this mosque.

The sermon was tame, mostly avoiding politics and sticking to religion. The elderly imam condemned sectarianism and called it a Jewish plot. He asked the youth not to shout until they left the mosque. But the moment prayers were complete – whilst men were still kneeling and shaking the hands of those on either side to wish them peace and God’s blessings – the young men erupted in angry shouts of “God is great!” They ran out into the bright sun, past the courtyard and down the steps to the street to begin protesting.

They chanted “Death over humiliation!” and “Peaceful, peaceful, Muslim and Christian, Sunni and Shia!” To the tune of “Happy Birthday”, they sang “Damn your soul, Hafez!”

Groups from different mosques fused. One group carried a huge Syrian flag that covered hundreds of demonstrators.

"No country is standing with us," a local businessman I was marching with told me. "They’re going to kill a lot, until the regime falls."

Across Cairo Street, in the Bayada neighbourhood, was another protest, but security forces prevented the two demonstrations from merging.

But this demonstration continued to grow as it flowed through the streets of Khaldiyeh. Streets were blocked off by rocks, cinderblocks and sandbags. The demonstration halted in Khaldiyeh’s main square, by al Ilu Garden. Protesters shouted their salutations to Sheikh Adnan al Arur.

A woman, clad completely in black and wearing a niqab – covering all but her eyes – stood up on a small platform. As she took the loudspeaker, the crowd of a few thousand strong went wild and shouted “God is great!” repeatedly, and then “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, oh martyr!” The woman, who was related to a recent martyr, shouted back to them, above the din.

The protesters, well aware of the public relations battle being fought, stressed that they were not armed. They explained that some men had covered their faces with scarves just to avoid being identified by security operatives. Desperately they told me about the recent martyrs. The night before, 12 year-old Ahmad Arrifai was killed, as was 22 year-old Hiba al Arwani. The day before that, 30 year-old Hossam Juria and 16 year-old Rabia Juria had been shot to death. A 64 year-old woman, Dalal Kahil, had been killed. Muhammad Nuri Kahil and his cousin Muhamad Bassam Kahil were also killed.

'We (don't) love you'

Four days later and still in Homs, I visited the Omar ibn al Khatab mosque. I had heard its sheikh was an opposition supporter.

Women and children were camped out in cars outside the mosque, waiting for the final prayer of the day to finish.

As soon as it concluded, around 200 men emerged, shouting the usual refrains: “Takbir! God is great!”, “Damn your soul, Hafez!” and “The people want the downfall of the regime!” Then they sang their support for other neighbourhoods. “Deaths at Bab Assiba won’t stop us, Hamra will continue unto death!”

Undeterred, they continued: “We are the generation of freedom, we want to remove the Baath!” and “We are the nation of Muhammad!”

"You are dogs and we are lions!" they jeered. And then they mocked a pro-regime song, "We love you (Bashar)", by slightly altering the lyrics: "We don’t love you!"

It was a very young, energetic crowd, and a few of the men were wearing masks. They jumped up and down, chanting and singing as if they were attending a football match. They stood in a big circle and held up a giant Syrian flag. A few dozen people stood around watching, comprised mostly of the older crowd. One woman wearing a headscarf marched into the crowd and disapprovingly dragged her chubby son away, who looked no older than 12.

A few cars honked impatiently as some protesters impulsively blocked traffic for a few minutes. A masked youth discreetly lit a firecracker between two cars. “The army is coming!” someone shouted. The firecracker exploded with a loud bang and everybody took flight.

Later that night, back in the hotel, calls of “God is great” wailing in the nearby neighbourhood crept through my window, with the unmistakable cadence of gun shots in the distance. Going out to explore, I heard more chanting and drums a ways off.

After almost an hour of walking around in the dark, I found them in an unlit street by a roundabout, beneath apartment buildings and near a mosque. They banged on drums and sang “Upright, I march” – a famous revolutionary song by Marcel Khalifa – and other classical Arab songs.

At one in the morning, the demonstration came to an end.

The counter-revolution will be televised

On July 28, Syrian television broadcast a massive pro-regime demonstration in Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people took part. They were shown carrying numerous pictures of Bashar.

There were a few Hezbollah flags here and there, and some interspersed pictures of Mary and Jesus Christ. One man held a Quran up in the air. Another carried a sign that said, “Arur you homosexual” (the regime had tried to delegitimise Sheikh Adnan al Arur by saying that when he was younger, he was dismissed from the army for engaging in homosexual sex).

At the demonstration, military men staged a show by rappelling down a tall building in the Square. An angry older woman in jeans with bleached hair and a face marked by cosmetic surgery stood on a stage and angrily shouted at the crowd in praise of Syria, urging them to be nationalistic, even leading the crowd in chanting oaths of allegiance to Syria en masse. She praised the army and celebrated its martyrs.

It was an expensive production, with powerful beams of light shining into the sky. It ended with fireworks, while different pop-singers wearing military clothing sang patriotic music and songs for the army.

At a simultaneous demonstration held in Quneitra, state television broadcast people carrying a massive Syrian flag. A demonstration in majority-Alawite Tartus on the coast was also shown.

"With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you oh Bashar!" they shouted.

"The people want Bashar forever!"

"God, Syria, Bashar and nothing else!"

They carried pictures of Bashar, and some of his father, calling out for “Abu Hafez” (Bashar’s son is also named Hafez – “father of Hafez”).

Next Friday

The next day, I took a taxi to the Bab Omar neighbourhood of Homs for Friday prayers.

The taxi passed dozens of security men, clad in loose green uniforms and sneakers, waiting under the comforting shade of some trees. They had clubs, shotguns, rifles, riot gear and shields. They were positioned between the Omar mosque of Hamra and the Fardos mosque of Inshaat in case they were ordered to disperse the protests.

I met a local contact at the Abdallah bin Zubeir mosque. Its sheikh, Abdallah Horani, looked quite young and was beardless. The mosque was densely packed, with many people lining up on mats outside on the street since there was no room inside.

Inside, prayer goers were pressed tightly against each other. There were many young boys in the crowd, along with some Bedouins in traditional garb. There must have been a thousand people crammed indoors. An array of fans and air conditioners battled the heat inside the mosque with futility; the fans shook as they squeaked and chirped like birds.

Sheikh Abdallah’s sermon was angry, and typical of one that takes place just before the Islamic holy month of Ramadan begins. He urged people to respect it and its meaning, and warned them not to watch the special Ramadan television programmes that were very popular in the Arab world. He prayed that god would make them successful and grant them victory over oppression.

At the end of the normal Friday prayer, he added an additional, special one for the martyrs of the uprising. Immediately there were calls of “God is great!” and thus began the protest, marching towards Jurt Arraees.

On Suez Street we were met by more demonstrators from the Abdul Qadir Jilani mosque. That mosque’s sheikh had been arrested earlier in the uprising for fifteen days – he was accused of turning his mosque into a field hospital for the opposition. The demonstrators from the Jilani mosque carried a giant flag from pre-Baathist Syria. When they met with our group, they shot confetti into the air.

The residents of the neighbourhood emerged to support the demonstrators. Old women with traditional tattoos on their faces grinned. They stood on corners, providing their water hoses for people to drink from, and sprayed the cold water into the air to cool us all under the bright sun beating down on us.

Women on the side and on balconies threw rice down at us. One woman splashed cups of water at people. Her husband grabbed the entire bucket of water and dumped it on the head and body of a friend he saw in the demonstration. The husband laughed and jumped back as his angry friend barked at him. Women and children looked down and smiled or sang along from balconies above the demonstrators.

It was a carnival-like atmosphere. More tunes were busted out in song:

"Damn you Hafez for producing this donkey!"

"We don’t love you!"

"We won’t bow to anyone but God!"

"Not forever, down with Assad!" (In response to the "Assad forever" slogan of regime supporters)

"The people want the downfall of the regime!"

They carried signs with the day’s slogan: “Your silence is killing us”. Other signs condemned sectarianism (although, in my opinion, whenever demonstrators condemn sectarianism in an all-Sunni demonstration, it is probably already too late, as I had witnessed in Iraq).

One man had an immense drum which he beat along with the songs and chants, whilst others clapped. The singers who led the demonstration sat on their friends’ shoulders.

We walked all the way to the beginning of Jurt Arraees. This was the intersection where armoured personnel carriers had previously shot at protesters, so the elders beseeched the youth to turn back. After a rumour that the army was approaching led to a few hundred people departing, the remaining two thousand chanted, “Why are you afraid? God is with us!”

Those remaining continued their festive incantations: “Down with the regime and the Baath party!” “Bashar, Arur is better than your mother!” “He who doesn’t give rights to the people is a germ! He who pretends to be a rejectionist and resistance is a germ!” (a reference to the president implying the opposition was a foreign conspiracy, which he compared to germs) “Hafez sold the Golan!” “Syria is for us and not for the Assad family!” “Damn your soul, Abu Hafez” “The Syrian media lies!” “Death, but no humiliation!”

They improvised humorous lyrics, always going back to the chorus “Come on, Bashar, leave!” They squatted and quietly chanted “The people want the downfall of the regime” over and over again in a murmur and then in unison they jumped up and angrily shouted it.

And then an effigy of a pig with Bashar’s face on it was held up.

Carbonated soda vs. tear gas

On the first day of Ramadan, August 1, my friend Suheib picked me up and we drove to the poorer districts on the edges of Damascus, looking for trouble.

Because of heightened security, it was often difficult to locate any protests. We passed Zamalka and a picture of Bashar that had been torn down, and entered Arbeen. There was tense electricity in the air.

As youth buzzed back and forth chaotically on motorcycles, men stood around on street corners and by walls, seemingly waiting. I knew they were not only waiting for the protests, but keeping a look-out for security. Suheib saw that I recognised it too.

"There are unnatural movements," he said. He stopped and asked people for directions, knowing they would tell him to avoid certain streets if a protest was planned there.

Around 10 PM, shopkeepers hastily pulled down the shutters of their shops in anxious anticipation.

We walked to the main roundabout, overshadowed by a construction site, in the dark of night – the street lamps were turned off.

Hundreds of men marched towards us from Arbeen’s Great Mosque, near the vegetable market. They stopped at the construction site and smashed cinderblocks on the ground to get smaller chunks to throw. Other men began erecting roadblocks made of cinder blocks, signs, garbage dumpsters, overturned tables.

"Come on guys, get rocks!" shouted older men.

Unlike other demonstrations I had been to, these were not the singing type, and the crowds appeared leaderless. They chanted for Arbeen. They chanted the usual curses at the regime. “God is great!” they chanted, “We wont bow to anybody but God!”

They marched in the direction of the security forces so they could unleash their impromptu projectiles. Teargas canisters were fired back.

"Why are you afraid God is with us!" they shouted when some men started to retreat, regaining their courage and rushing back.

After hearing gunshots, I – along with some others – retreated back and ducked for cover. A group of men raced around the corner, carrying a young man with a bullet wound in his abdomen and a growing circle of blood.

They put him on the back of a pickup truck and urged him to say the shahada, in case he should die. “There is no god but God,” he gasped as the pickup sped off, “and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Waves of men ran back to avoid the tear gas or gunfire. They coughed, spit, and choked.

"Guys, Cola!" somebody shouted, pouring a local version of 7-Up on their faces to remedy the effects of the tear gas. They collected themselves and set forth on another sally, only to be met once again by tear gas and gun shots.

A young man sporting a pony tail and trendy clothes carried an expensive looking camera, filming the unfolding events – even asking others where he could go to find a better angle.

After some time, we left Arbeen and, luckily, stumbled upon another demonstration taking place in Zamalka. On the drive home, I saw two security vehicles with armed civilians and uniformed men parked on the overpass above the Hassan mosque in the Midan district.

Bullets in the dark

Back in Homs the next night, I walked from my hotel in the Inshaat district to the nearby Hamra area and its Omar ibn al Khattab mosque. Lights in the neighbourhood had been turned off, and its empty streets were eerily dark. I passed a biker cop monitoring the area.

Shortly before 10 PM, around a hundred youngsters had gathered on the main street, anticipating another demonstration. They piled bricks at the entrance to the road to block it off, and elsewhere they smashed bricks or cinderblocks on the ground to create smaller projectiles to throw – a popular (and convenient) tactic.

One young man in a tank top and a bandana carried a tire and a brick over to a corner and tossed them ceremoniously as if claiming his territory.
 

It was a wealthy area, with expensive shops, restaurants and even a fitness club. Normally, all would have been open until late during Ramadan. In stark contrast to what would normally be a festive occasion, pictures of two martyrs from the previous day’s demonstration were hung up on the neighbourhood’s walls.

Boys gathered to look at the pictures and discuss them. “Where did he eat it?” one boy asked another, meaning where in his body was he shot. I saw two youths equipped with slingshots.

The mosque was tightly packed with men and youth praying Tarawih, the special night time prayer of Ramadan. Its courtyard was also full of hundreds of men. Outside the mosque, over fifty youth waited for prayers to end.

After the 12th
 ruqu’a – or kneeling cycle – of the prayer, Sheikh Mahmud al Dalati paused and asked the women to leave the mosque for their own safety in anticipation of a clash that night. He also urged people not to confront security forces.

After the prayer, the Sheikh did his dua’ – adding slightly political prayers to God, praying for martyrs, for victory, for the release of prisoners. After each dua’, the men, whose palms were raised, called out to God. Even the youth outside the mosque, who had not been praying, stood with their palms up and called out “oh God!” After the last one was said, waves of men poured out of the mosque shouting, “To paradise we’re going, millions of martyrs!”

They shouted that with their blood and their souls, they would sacrifice for the city of Hama, for the city of Deir Ezzor, for martyrs. The tire was set on fire.

I squeezed to the front of the crowd as the tire that was previously tossed with such pageantry was set ablaze, but could still not make out what was happening in the dark. Some youths were throwing bricks and chunks of cinderblocks. Tear gas was shot at us, and the sound of rifle shots cracked and echoed against the buildings, but in the darkness, I could not see the source.

The crowd fled, then regrouped and regained courage, shouting “why are you afraid, God is with us!” I made my way back towards the front and heavier shooting started. And then heavier gunfire commenced. A wave of fear carried us away. Shots got closer and closer behind us as we sprinted away looking for places to hide.

I was unfamiliar with the neighbourhood and panicked as I found every door closed. In my flight, I slid over a car while a more agile youth simply leapt over it, and I continued sprinting in a crouch in the darkness, feeling pain everywhere from the exertion, overcome with terror.

Finally though I heard a voice calling, “Come on boys! Come in!” and found an open gate to an apartment building, and an older man beckoning for us to enter. With about fifteen others, I collapsed on the staircase after climbing up one or two flights, gasping for air, shaking from exhaustion and fear.

Bullets in the dark – part 2

It was 10:40 PM. Older people from the upper middle class apartments came out and urged us to go up higher in the staircase, or to come into their apartments. Residents seemed well-dressed, the building was modern and clean.

Syrian regime propaganda described demonstrators as Islamic extremists, outside infiltrators, mercenaries, drug addicts, poor criminals. But here were the educated and affluent residents of Homs united in opposition.

Whispering, they offered us water, cigarettes, and a platter of tea with a kettle and glasses. Old women came out of their apartments to bless us.

Then we heard shooting outside. The residents urged us to be silent.

"Yesterday they were shooting inside buildings," somebody warned. A middle aged man and his teenage son were also on the staircase. They were panicking, making phone calls and crying. The man’s other son had called his father just as he was getting arrested. Others tried to calm them and reassure them, or beg them to be silent so the security men outside the building would not hear them.

I guiltily resented the father for crying so loudly, worrying that we would get killed because of him, as long bursts of automatic weapon fire got closer.

"If anybody wants anything, let us know," an older man said.

"Guys, don’t go out, there’s a sniper in the playground," another man warned.

I had no intention of going out. I didn’t even know where I was. One resident peered out his window and said there were strange people on the streets. The residents of the apartment building very quickly adopted the youths as their own.

"Please don’t go out," begged one middle aged resident, Abdallah. "Please come into our apartment. Does anyone want to use the phone to call their family?"

After a brief respite, the shooting outside resumed, then abated again.

"There’s 200 men in the mosque who can’t get out!" one of the youths on his mobile phone announced.

Less than half an hour later, we heard long bursts from automatic weapons.

Two of the youths on the steps were from across town in Bab Assiba, a poor opposition stronghold. They had left their bicycle by the mosque. When it seemed safe, a man offered to drive some of them home, but he was not going in my direction.

Abdallah allowed me to use his family’s land line to check on my friend Khaled, to see if he was okay, and to tell him I was safe. I got through to him but he told me his 20 year-old son was missing.

Abdallah invited me to sit in his affluent living room, where I confessed that I was an American journalist. Abdallah had lived and studied in the United States and was excited by his unexpected guest. His mother had a perfunctory lace white scarf on her hair and wore an embroidered white and brown gown. She fingered orange worry beads. Pictures of family weddings were on bookshelves. They appeared secular, the brides not wearing veils and dressed in western fashion. Abdallah’s brother and his family lived in the apartment above. Abdallah lived in Inshaat with his wife and children but he came to Hamra so he could take his father to the Omar mosque every night. Their Filipino maid served us juice and coffee.

"Every day in Ramadan is like a Friday, so they want to scare people," he told me, explaining why security had cracked down on the Ramadan demonstrations.

He drove me back to my hotel when it was finally quiet outside. Armed people from the poor neighbourhood of Bab Omar had come to defend Inshaat from the security forces, he told me. I said I was impressed by the solidarity the older people had shown with the youth.

"They are my people," he said, "This is my country."

Part 2 of my series on Syria’s Armed Opposition

Armed defenders of Syria’s revolution

Nir Rosen discusses instances of armed clashes between Syrian army defectors and State security forces.
Nir Rosen Last Modified: 27 Sep 2011 14:04

While outsiders debate when or if the Syrian opposition will turn to arms, on the ground it is clear that elements of the opposition have used violence against the security forces from early in the uprising in response to the regime’s harsh crackdown.

Over a period of seven weeks, from July to September, I spent time among the many factions in the strugle for Syria. It is a conflict fought on the streets and in the media. For the most part, unarmed opposition activists seeking the overthrow of the regime have used demonstrations as their guerrilla tactic. The regime has succeeded in containing or suppressing the opposition, limiting the times and places they can demonstrate. The opposition has failed to expand its constituency outside the Sunni majority or even to win over the Sunni bourgeois of Damascus and Aleppo. Sectarian hatred grows on both sides, leading to early signs of communal violence. At the same time, a more professional and organised armed opposition movement has emerged.

Hit and run

Spend enough time in Homs and you will be confronted with the battles between security forces and their armed opponents. On July 21 Syrian security forces clashed with opposition fighters in the city’s Bab Assiba neighbourhood.

The following day I met several members of state security. They were saddened by the loss of a captain in the Ministry of Interior’s SWAT unit - he had been shot in the neck just above his vest. I was told that the day before, opposition fighters had used a rocket propelled grenade in Ashiri on the outskirts of Homs. One State security man called Shaaban complained that Bab Assiba had become its own state. The day before, he had taken part in heavy fighting there and helped transport 35 wounded soldiers out. “It was like a wedding,” he laughed as he described the shooting. 

Some attacks resemble a nascent insurgency. The next day, a train from Aleppo was derailed nearby in Qizhi. Official reports said the conductor was killed, and his assistant along with many of the 480 passengers were injured. I drove west out of the city and then along a canal to the site of the train crash. The tracks on a small bridge had clearly been removed and the train had been knocked off the tracks with some of the carriages turned over on their side, and the conductor’s carriage partially burned. It seemed real enough, though it was odd that only the conductor had been killed. Several days later, an oil-pipeline was blown up outside Homs.

Caught in the line of fire

On August 17, pro-regime gunmen stood outside the Fatima Mosque in the Waer neighbourhood of Homs and shot into it, killing three men. They then attacked an internet cafe used by the opposition to send films of demonstrations to the outside media. Residents of Waer blamed Shias from the nearby area of Mazraa. I drove over to Waer with a friend. We were stopped by a local Sunni man with a pistol standing by a roadblock.

He recognised my friend and let us pass. When we got to the hospital, heavy automatic gunfire erupted and we raced in for safety. During a lull in the shooting we tried to leave, and saw a group of armed local men emerging. Some wore paramilitary style vests and, in the darkness, I made out what looked like an M16 rifle.

That night back in my hotel I was kept up for hours by an ongoing loud gun battle involving rifles and heavy machine guns.

Five days later, on August 22, a United Nations delegation assessing whether there was a humanitarian crisis in Syria visited Homs. Desperate opposition supporters staging a demonstration at Clock Square tried to stop them only to be met by security forces with clubs. An April attempt to stage a sit-in at Clock Square ended in a night time massacre by security forces determined to prevent a permanent opposition presence, such as existed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Sanaa’s Change Square.

On August 22, when security forces tried to disperse them, demonstrators responded by throwing stones. “They turned savage on us,” said an opposition leader who was present. “Clock Square is a red line for them, so security came and shot at us. First they shot into the air. It hit the glass and the walls. We stayed so they stayed. Then the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade came and shot at them.”

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade is a unit of several hundred Syrian army officers and soldiers who defected and now stage attacks against Syrian security forces. They are based in Homs and have the support of most local opponents of the regime, who view them as defenders of demonstrations.

The Khalid bin al Walid Brigade did not announce that it had participated in the events of August 22, but locals still credited it. Security forces killed several demonstrators, and armed opposition members killed at least two security forces. One policeman was shot and an alleged opposition sniper killed a colonel in the army called Ali Nidal Hassan. “Ali Hassan died because of the UN delegation,” lamented the general who commanded the unit he was attached to, claiming attackers from Rastan had used sniper rifles.

The general said Security forces had intercepted phone calls discussing an operation in the area of the UN mission. He claimed he placed well trained soldiers on rooftops but somehow opposition snipers knew in advance. There was an exchange of fire and the colonel was shot in the head and killed.

He claimed that leaflets signed by the Khalid bin al Walid “militia” warned the security forces they had 72 hours to leave Homs or 100 kidnapped Alawites would be killed, and Homs would be burned. The opposition was lightly armed, he said, and the most they had were RPGs - which require a skill set to operate that they did not necessarily possess. The general wondered why there had been no decision to “clean up Homs like other cities”. The deadline came and went without major events.

The ‘Fire’ Brigade

I was introduced to the Khalid bin al Walid brigade by a senior civilian opposition leader, called Abu Omar, who coordinated with them. In mid-September, members of the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade in Rastan tried to kill Hassan Tlass, a notorious spy for the regime, Abu Omar told me. They attacked Tlass’ car and then his house. During the attack, the men accidentally killed his 15 year-old-son Raed. They captured thirteen Kalashnikovs from his house, which Abu Omar described as a base for the regime’s spies in Rastan. The father fled the city and most other spies did the same. The regime released this video of Hassan Tlass.

In the past, Hassan had taken bribes to get people jobs with the government and he extorted from locals, getting them in trouble with the regime and then demanding money in return for solving the problems he created for them.

Since the uprising began, many people had been killed or arrested because of him, Abu Omar told me. The next day, the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade killed three members of the security forces in an ambush on the highway from Rastan to Homs. The slain men were Abass Adib al Yusuf, who they claimed was a shabih, or pro-regime militiaman, first lieutenant Baha’ Masir Khadur, and sergeant Osama Ali Ibrahim.

On September 14th, Syrian television aired an interview with the captured defector lieutenant colonel Hussein Harmoush, who had first announced his defection in early June. It alleged that he was captured in Turkey in an intelligence operation, but two reliable security sources confirmed that he had in fact been captured in the northern governorate of Idlib, where Harmoush commanded military defectors.

"Harmoush was not an easy going guy," Abu Omar said, and even when he was still in the service he had alienated many colleagues because of his difficult personality. Many of his fellow defectors in Idlib had left him as a result of personal disagreements. "He became almost alone and not covered, that’s what made his capture easy for this government," Abu Omar told me. "You can feel he has been forced to say most of the speech," said Abu Omar. He was sceptical of the claims that various Islamists and a long list of exile opposition leaders had tried to coordinate with Harmoush.

If the goal of airing the forced confession was to discourage further defections, it failed. On Friday September 23, a soldier in Rastan publicly defected in front of tens of thousands of demonstrators after the noon prayers. Earlier that morning, armed defectors were reported to have clashed with security forces in the town of Zabadani, on the anti-Lebanon mountain range near Damascus.

Also on that day in Tel Bissah, near Rastan, fifteen defectors clashed with security forces after two civilians were killed. One day earlier, the Khalid bin al Walid Brigade conducted a successful operation. A man in Tel Bissah, who was wanted by security forces, knew that they would be searching for him by looking for his car. He asked a friend to drive the car into Tel Bissah for him. Security forces at a checkpoint confiscated it anyway. The car was then used by a colonel and two other officers from security. Defecting officers and soldiers attacked the car with rifles and killed all three men inside at 5 PM on the highway, nine kilometres north of Homs.

The effectiveness of such small scale hit-and-run attacks is not clear. Opposition members feel they have been pushed to violence by a brutal regime that shows itself incapable of or unwilling to fulfill its promises of reform. However, this level of opposition violence cannot overthrow the regime. It does allow the regime to justify its narrative of fighting armed groups. In addition, it allows foreign backers of the regime, such as Russia, to justify their intransigent support for it. Insiders in the Russian foreign ministry maintain that Syria is in a civil war, with two sides fighting, and not just a government killing unarmed demonstrators. Instead the Russians maintain that both sides provoke each other and respond with violence.

Rastan saw the largest demonstrations in Syria on Friday September 23, with crowds in the tens of thousands. “Tel Bissah and Rastan are a headache for the government,” Abu Omar said. The regime may be trying to suppress the recalcitrant towns. As of Monday September 26, Rastan and Tel Bisah were allegedly surrounded by about two hundred armoured personnel carriers and tanks, and Tel Bisah was besieged. “They are in a big prison,” said Abu Omar. Security forces had positioned themselves in west Rastan, Kaseer, Tel Bisah, Farhaneh - just south east of Rastan - as well as Derful and Zaafaraneh. As a result, Rastan was now surrounded from every direction. I reached Abu Omar briefly on Tuesday. “Rastan is a warzone,” he said, “anyone moving is a target.”

What may have also provoked security forces was a significant victory for the defecting officers. In late September, opposition fighters from Homs captured a Syrian Army colonel. The colonel is an Alawite originally from the area of Qardaha, the town in Latakia from where the Assad family originates, and indeed is a distant relative of the president. The opposition fighters hoped to exchange him for their own captured officers, including Hussein Harmoush. The capture was also confirmed by a source in the security forces.