BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s rebels may have been driven back from Damascus by President’s Bashar al-Assad’s army, yet they have taken heart from seizing territory and some even hope it might tempt foreign troops in to help.
In interviews with Reuters this week over shaky phone and Internet connections from covert frontline bases, the mood among rebel forces sounded upbeat, despite what they called a “tactical retreat” from the threshold of Damascus and a serious pounding by Assad’s artillery against fighters in the north.
The Free Syrian Army is a loose network of local units, made up of deserters from government ranks joined by armed volunteers and commanded, at least in principle, by defecting senior officers who have fled to Turkey.
Ten months after the street demonstrations of the Arab Spring first challenged 42 years of Assad family rule, the FSA’s resources are still limited.
Few of its own leaders - let alone international experts - give it much chance of quick victory without a dramatic change on the ground, such as a collapse of support among Assad’s still-loyal generals. Foreign intervention still seems remote.
Yet the capture this month of a strategic mountain enclave by the Lebanese border, followed by heady days of defiance in the suburbs of the capital itself, has prompted heady talk among some FSA commanders of “liberating” territory, as the opponents of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi did in the east of their country.
“We need to make our own Benghazi,” one FSA officer, a former lieutenant-colonel in Assad’s army who uses the cover name Abu Thaer, told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, referring to the Libyan rebel capital during the ultimately successful uprising there.
“If there were a buffer- or no-fly-zone, there would be a string of army defections,” he said. “The picture would change 180 degrees.”
For some observers, the FSA’s encroachment on the capital has given it new credibility.
“It’s getting stronger and becoming a stronger part of the opposition and a real force on the ground,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. “That doesn’t mean it can overturn the state, but it certainly is challenging it.”
Rebels are impatient with pledges of moral support from NATO powers, including Turkey, which seem unlikely to transform into more concrete assistance any time soon.
“God willing, we will liberate more territory, because the international community has only offered delayed action and empty threats,” said one fighter, aged in his 20s, who spoke from Zabadani, a chilly mountain redoubt on the old smuggling routes into Lebanon where FSA commanders forced government troops to accept a ceasefire and pull back last week.
“We need to be ready to do this on our own,” said another FSA officer, a lieutenant-colonel, who shuttles between the northern town of Idlib and the safety of Turkey. “Despite our weaker resources, we believe the force of justice will prevail.”
The spokesman of the Turkey-based high command of the Free Syrian Army, Maher Ismail al-Naimy, was anxious to dampen any runaway enthusiasm.
The prime goal of the FSA, Naimy said, remained disrupting the government forces’ ability to harass civilians, rather than a head-on fight to the end with Assad’s army which, on paper at least, may outnumber the FSA by more than 10 to one.
Talk of Zabadani or other areas as “liberated territory” was a “misunderstanding,” he stressed.
“This is not full military control of an area. What they had been able to maintain is an ability to repel the regime forces. The FSA is unable to control a whole territory and consider it completely sealed off,” he said.
“We lack munitions. They have tanks and heavy cannon and planes. We have light weapons and we don’t have a steady supply line outside of the area.”
The FSA’s goal for now was to loosen government control over areas, rather than to impose firm control of its own, he said.
The rebels are still outnumbered and outgunned. The coalition of opposition movements grouped in the Syrian National Council (SNC), which initially had an arm’s length relationship with the FSA but now aims to coordinate more closely, puts its strength on the ground at between 20,000 and 30,000. The government has some 300,000 troops, although the loyalties of many may be strained.
For arms, the rebels count on defecting troops, raids on arms stores and smuggling from supporters abroad.
On the outskirts of Damascus, the arrival of government tanks and artillery left little option for the rebel forces but to beat a retreat, or melt back into civilian cover.
In the climate of fear and bloodshed some rebels worry that government forces may have been allowing them minor victories as part of a feint to draw them out into the open.
“There are a few areas nearly liberated,” the rebel fighter from Zabadani said. “But we won’t challenge the regime for no reason: It is like a dog, if you pull its tail it will come after you howling.”
Abu Thaer, the FSA logistics specialist, said the rebels were keeping close to Syria’s borders to avoid being encircled.
“We need our back protected,” he said. “If we chose Deraa there wouldn’t be any Syrian forces behind us from Jordan,” he said of the southern city where the uprising began last March.
Despite their success in Zabadani, he thought widening the stronghold along Lebanon’s border was unlikely due to Syria’s close ties with Lebanon’s powerful militant group Hezbollah.
“We could choose Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib province, with Turkey behind us,” he said. “We would probably not be attacked from there.”
The FSA lieutenant-colonel active in Idlib told Reuters he had 700 men under his command inside the city, but they lacked the arms to challenge the security forces.
“The Idlib forces are the strongest in manpower,” he said, comparing his force to other rebel groups. “But ... they are the weakest in weapons because Turkey has not let in many arms and we’re buying most of them from soldiers inside Syria.”
Rebels told Reuters they were bringing in more funds and weapons through Lebanon from financiers they declined to name.
A smuggler working out of Lebanon for the FSA estimated his team sent about $100,000 in cash into the rebellious city of Homs each month. He was unsure whether or not other funding was reaching the rebel forces there by other routes.
A spokeswoman for the SNC, Basma Kodmani, said the political group, which has won some recognition as an alternative to Assad and which wants a peaceful resolution, would not arm the FSA but would consider financing it.
“They need communications equipment, bullet-proof vests and non-offensive equipment to make sure they are integrated with each other,” Kodmani said.
The West is clearly still hesitant to intervene directly on the rebel side as it did in Libya, yet Tabler said “the debate is shifting because diplomacy is not coming up with results.”
“I think a lot of people are at that point (of considering intervention) but the question is still how would you do it?”
Describing talk on the ground of a Benghazi-style “free zone” as “not realistic,” Tabler said the rebels would still need anti-tank and other heavy weapons: “Then you could have pockets adjacent to neighbouring countries break away.”
Still, the rebels have made a bold point by advancing towards Damascus, even if they were quickly pushed back. Omar, a pro-democracy activist from the Damascus suburb of Saqba, said the taste of his neighbourhood’s short-lived “liberation” this month would increase support for insurgency.
“They raised our hopes and faith in the rebels” he said. “We believe in God - and the Free Syrian Army.”
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Alastair Macdonald, Peter Graff and Jon Boyle