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Ambushed and outgunned, Syrian rebels plead for arms

March 23, 2012 4:12 P.M. (Updated: March 24, 2012 10:41 A.M.)
By: Jonathon Burch
YAYLADAGI, Turkey (Reuters) -- Puffing hard on a cigarette, the Syrian rebel relived the moment earlier this week when his band of fighters was caught in Syrian army crossfire as they tried to smuggle a wounded comrade over the hilly border to Turkey.

"They fired from all directions, from above and from below. Then more soldiers appeared right in front of us," said Musa, a scrawny 28-year-old, told Reuters back in the safety of Turkey's southeastern province of Hatay, which once belonged to Syria.

"We were caught off-guard and didn't know what to do. So we fled," he said, retelling the battle and often flitting between events in a way that reflected the confusion of war.

One fighter was killed on the spot, some were wounded, he said. Three rebels surrendered, three were caught as they tried to flee. Musa and the rest of his comrades managed to escape.

The gunfight, Musa said, was typical of border encounters between Syrian troops and the Free Syrian Army, a loose grouping of army deserters and civilians who have taken up arms against President Bashar Assad.

"Sometimes we surprise them and kill or wound some of their soldiers and they are the ones who retreat," he said.

Like most of the Syrians in Turkey, Musa would only give one name for fear of reprisals against his relatives at home.

In civilian life, Musa is a painter and decorator. In his scruffy jeans and leather moccasins, he doesn't look like a hardened guerrilla fighter. But there are many like him in a growing and dogged network of fighters, smugglers and activists operating on the Syria-Turkey border, each with his own role.

Like many, Musa lives with his family - a wife and one son - in one of several refugee camps in Hatay. He fled his border village soon after the anti-Assad revolt began a year ago.

Conventional structure

Musa joined the FSA when it was formed months later. He talks of it as a quasi-conventional force with units and ranks, commanded by officers who have defected from the Syrian army, although some rebels contest who is really in charge.

"We are two groups of about 70 men in total. Each of our groups has a station in Syria near the border. Everyone knows which group they belong to. We know who our individual commander is. We have discipline," Musa said.

FSA commanders based on both sides of the border may control the fighters in this vicinity, but the chain of command is far more tenuous for locally organized rebel groups operating deeper inside Syria, even if many of them proclaim loyalty to the FSA.

Because Musa knows the area, he guides refugees or wounded soldiers into Turkey without being spotted by Assad's troops. His commander, a lieutenant, operates in Syria, he said.

In Reyhanli, another border town further to the north, Abdul, who heads a group that ferries supplies to rebels, said the Syrian army was expanding its presence along the frontier.

"They now have soldiers at lookout posts every 100 meters with heavy machine-guns and snipers. We pass at night. The FSA knows some routes to avoid being seen," said Abdul.

"The Syrian soldiers don't like to come out at night because they do not know the area. They start patrolling around 4 or 5 in the morning. We cut tunnels through the thick thorn bushes but it is still very difficult to move through," he said.

Abdul and his men smuggle medicine, food, blankets and, when he can get hold of them, weapons to the rebels in Syria.

"I am the best smuggler in Turkey. Before the revolution I could smuggle you a tank into Syria," Abdul boasts with a smile.

But weapons have become scarce and prohibitively expensive.

"A Kalashnikov used to cost between $100 to $200 without ammunition. Now it costs $1,500 dollars. A bullet for a Kalashnikov used to cost 25 Kurus ($0.15), we now offer 7 liras ($3.8) for one bullet and we can't get any," he said.

Visiting a Reyhanli hospital, Abdul said a wounded fighter had vented his anger at the logistical shortcomings, saying: "Where are our supplies? You were supposed to send us weapons, blankets and food. You haven't sent us anything."

Give us weapons

Tension exists over who commands the FSA. Most fighters pledge allegiance to Riad Asaad, a former Syrian army colonel who founded it and who lives under Turkish protection in Hatay.

But some said his position was only nominal and the real command lay with officers who had stayed to fight inside Syria.

"There are two armies: first, the one that fights and second, the one that sits in Turkey and drinks tea and coffee," said Abdul, showing mobile phone pictures of rebels posing with assault rifles that he said were taken in Syria this week.

"These are the real Free Syrian Army," he said.

Colonel Asaad, along with some former generals and other officers stays in a refugee camp at Apaydin, some 20 km from Antakya, Hatay's main city, near the Syrian border.

Turkey closely monitors his movements and he cannot receive visitors without Turkish government permission. Unlike the other refugee camps, people are rarely seen entering or leaving the Apaydin camp and traffic is not allowed to stop nearby.

Whatever their internal disputes, all the fighters interviewed agreed on one point.

"We need weapons, we need ammunition, we need a no-fly zone. If they (the international community) give us this, we don't want anyone to come and fight for us," said Musa.

"They are firing on us with tanks. My bullets are nothing against these tanks. We started this and we will not give up. Until Assad has gone, we will not stop."
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