Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sunni farmers turning plowshares to swords in Syria

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A year ago, when Syrian government troops first tried to enter Jebel Zawiya, a region southwest of Aleppo where rugged hills enfold 33 villages, a handyman called Jamal Marouf gathered seven men and set off to fight.

Now he claims to command 7,000, with his reach stretching across much of the rural Idleb province from the Turkish border to Hama in the south.

Perhaps to match their growing ambition, Marouf's "Martyrs of Jebel Zawiya" recently changed their brigade's name to "Martyrs of Syria."

The Sunni farmers who grow olives, figs and cherries have long resented the rule of the Assads and their Alawite co-religionists. Since the uprising took off a year ago, the Syrian army has wreaked havoc in Jebel Zawiya, as elsewhere in Sunni-populated regions.

Nonetheless, the growing cost of fighting the tenacious rebels, combined with the need to reinforce strained government troops in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and now locked in a furious battle, has pushed the army out of the area. Last month it quit, leaving only a few isolated outposts from which it lobs shells into rebellious villages.

Unlike other parts of the country, where civilian committees work alongside rebel groups, here it is the men with the guns who plainly run the show.

About 20 minutes' drive down the road, Ali Bakran is the up-and-coming leader of another rebel unit called the Qisas (Retaliation) Brigade. His is a much smaller outfit. His skinnier young men hang out in a graffiti-covered town hall, where bookcases serve as shelves for improvised bombs. Bakran runs a tight ship. He displays sheets with details of every man in his unit, including the number of each kind of weapon and a thumb print.

"When Assad goes, I want to be first to put down my gun," says Ibrahim.

Other rebel groups sound less pacific. In Serjeh, a village perched on a hill overlooking olive trees rooted in earth the colour of terra cotta, the bulky, uniformed men of Suqur al-Sham (Falcons of Syria) strike a sterner tone. The jihadists' black standard hangs in the office of Abu Issa, the group's burly leader, whose piercing blue eyes match a large blue stone set in his ring.

"People want to join us because we have enough weapons, good fighters and are on the right path," he says. "We want an Islamic state."

None of these groups gives its allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, the rebels' would-be umbrella that has its headquarters in Turkey. They are working together for the moment. Jebel Zawiya's main commanders meet every 10 days or so, and talk to their comrades in other regions. Concerted attacks on army checkpoints have been working well, and the groups are cooperating in laying mines on roads used by the army to reach their villages.

On Aug. 7, the rebels from various groups rushed off together to blow up tanks and fire at troops moving along the road from the coast to join the battle for Aleppo.

Rebel harmony may not last, however. Ideologies differ. Many of Issa's Islamists are the sons of men killed or imprisoned during the uprising against Hafez Assad, father of the current president, in the 1980s. They are well organized and well funded. Rich traders give them cash, whereas groups such as Bakran's are short of ammunition, relying on booty they from attacks on army checkpoints.

Most locals seem genuinely to back the rebels, but the fighters' tactics worry some people. At a disused school that serves as a makeshift prison, detainees under Marouf's control look in fair shape. Even so, a frightened 24-year-old student was picked up at a checkpoint in the nearby town of Marat Numan because his father is a general in the army. When asked his crime, a prison guard rubs his fingers together to signify cash.

Marouf concedes that prisoners are often hostages that can be swapped for his men held by the regime. In the end, the strongest man's word is the law.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2012 A11

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