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Syria Feature: Who are the Free Syrian Army? (Rosen)

Defecting Syrian troops in Saraqeb, Idlib Province, 12 February 2012

Al Jazeera English interviews its correspondent, Nir Rosen, who recently returned from a trip to Syria:

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.

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.

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