Many Syrians don’t understand UN and Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi. They don’t understand how he can say that the regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are tearing the country apart piece by piece, as if the battle were an equal one. The tiny village of Dwerkeh and its FSA brigade, Zahir Baybar, offers a good example of why Brahimi’s words don’t make sense to them. The village of Dwerkeh, nestled on Jebel Akrad (the Mount of the Kurds) is a collection of breeze-block homes whose inhabitants are farmers and fruit growers. Most are related to each other in some way or another.
Jebel Akrad is under FSA control, with Dwerkeh falling under the authority of the Zahir Baybar brigade. It is led by a native of the village, Ahmed Kabbool, a religious 23-year-old professional footballer. There is nothing strange about this 23-year-old except for the fact that he mixes his love of computer games with constant self-improvement. He reads Marx, Hegel, Sophocles, Nietzsche and Dan Brown. Dan Brown?! ‘There is much to be gleaned from The Da Vinci Code,’ he insists. Ahmed Kabbool defected from the army once the first anti-regime demonstrations began in Lattakia city. His older brother Mohammed, a former artillery officer, assists him in the brigade. The rest of the 20-odd fighters are all from the village. Most are no older than 25; all of them live off the fat of the land.
The brigade doesn’t possess any heavy guns – they have one pump action shotgun, Kalashnikovs, Russian sniper rifles and an M16 belonging to Abu Zayn. Abu Zayn says that it’s ‘a mosquito bite to a tank. To take out a tank takes self-sacrifice.’ They also have explosives concocted by Ahmed Kabbool, who learnt how to make them via the internet. ‘We lost five lives learning how to make these bombs,’ he says.
The brigade, Ahmed Kabbool says, formed when the men of the village feared an imminent army attack – most brigades I visited in the surrounding areas began this way. Their stash of weapons came about when they stormed a weapons store. For the first battle that the brigade took part in, they had to share seven Kalashnikovs and their hunting rifles. Over 150 army trucks came into Jebel Akrad. The brigade fought until they ran out of bullets; then, says Ahmed Kabbool, ‘we pegged it and the soldiers did what they did to the village’ – a subtle hint that some of the women in the village were raped.
That night there were discussions over tea and cigarettes about the best way to protect the village. Mohsin, a soldier who had fought two battles and was responsible for feeding 16 mouths, was keen to guard certain vulnerable pathways open to the enemy. Others argued that the best way to respond to the crisis was as and when it happened. The brigade will now vote on the decision. Mohsin was unhappy but says he will accept the vote.
Part of the brigade’s responsibility is to ensure that the village is safe. Whatever scant resources they have are shared out. There is an optimistic spirit amongst the soldiers. Abu Ra’if’s house was shelled while he was sleeping. I asked him why he was smiling. ‘Praise to God that my neighbour’s house was not hit, for they have a family,’ he replied.
The day we left for Salma, the sky was clear and beautiful. I was apprehensive; helicopters, planes and artillery have a clear view of the surrounding villages. In Salma, the Nabi Yunus artillery point perched on the neighbouring mountain pounded us from 7am till noon. Then the regime soldiers must have had lunch, for there was a lull in the shelling. After lunch they turned their guns on Dwerkeh. We counted 40 shells landing on the village. One shell that landed on a house brought about a round of cheers. I asked Abu Zayn why he was cheering. He replied: ‘The man [who owns that house] ran away because he worked for the Mukhabarat [secret police].’
On our way back to Dwerkeh, we met a 90-year-old man who had been struck by a tiny piece of shrapnel, causing a wound the size of a tennis ball. We rushed him to Salma hospital where he was operated on by Doctor Mustafa, who runs the whole shift with two nurses and some volunteers. Even the hospital had been hit by ‘baramils’, barrels filled with TNT explosives. With shells you can predict their range and direction, you only have to worry about the shrapnel; with a baramil you can do nothing – it is random death. Baramils can take down a six-storey building. No wonder people turn to religion: you need to believe in an afterlife when death seems so random.
As we returned to Dwerkeh we gritted our teeth, driving through bends at crazy speeds in pitch-black darkness. We used only the LED light on a lighter to guide us; anything bigger than that and the Nabi Yunus guns would fire. Only darkness stopped the shelling.
Last week, the local brigades gathered to put an end to the Nabi Yunus artillery point. They failed. The loss of life was made worse by the lack of weapons and the lack of expertise. ‘A secondary teacher had planned the attack,’ complained Abu Jihad. Only air power or heavy guns will do the trick – both of which they lack.
There are hundreds of FSA brigades like this in the countryside of Lattakia. With so few resources it is difficult to see how exactly these brigades can be ‘tearing Syria apart’ when it is the regime that kills, maims and punishes a population for not accepting its rule. Travelling through the region and spending time with several brigades I came across just one anti-tank gun. It is no wonder that the Zahir Baybar brigade in the tiny village of Dwerkeh accuse Lakhdar Brahimi of being myopic.