Insurgents celebrate the seizure of the Bab al-Hawa border post on the Turkish-Syrian border, 19 July 2012
Rania Abouzeid writes for Time:
The checkpoint wasn’t a permanent or even makeshift structure—just a couple of armed men, some in civilian clothing, others wearing items of military apparel, standing in the middle of a main road just outside the town of Abu Ad-Duhur, some 50 kilometers south of Idlib city. Their faces were uncovered. It was 10am and there was traffic on the road when Abu Ibrahim, a well-to-do, dignified, 60-year-old engineer, duly stopped his Kia hatchback at the human barricade. “All I saw were guns pointing into the car, they told me to get out,” Abu Ibrahim says. “One of the men said ‘take his car, but don’t insult him.”
It wasn’t the first time Abu Ibrahim had been carjacked by people he says were posing as fighters in the Free Syrian Army, the motley rebel force taking on Syrian President Bashar Assad. Two weeks earlier, his family’s sedan was also stolen under similar circumstances. It would be returned to him, he was told, if he forked over 400,000 Syrian pounds ($6,225). He refused, and accepted the loss of his vehicle.
This time, however, he was not going to accept the same outcome. He told a local FSA leader in charge of some 30 men to try and get it back. “We suffer here from the fact that the thuwar [revolutionaries] have fallen between two fires — the regime and criminals who say they are thuwar,” Abu Ibrahim said.
Although there are still loyalist checkpoints along some of the main highways (which are easily avoided using backroads), the rebel flag flies in many of the towns and villages in this flat, fertile agricultural region, creating pockets that function as informal safe zones free of government troops. Still, although vast swathes of northern Syria may have fallen out of government control, they are not necessarily firmly in the FSA’s.
Criminal elements also function within these pockets; groups that kidnap people for ransom (releasing them dead or alive after payment of a ransom or purchase of weapons), and that carjack civilian vehicles. Sometimes, those criminal elements operate under the FSA’s banner, prompting other FSA units to try and neutralize them via one of two ways --- firepower, or by leaning on local leaders with influence over certain families, tribes and areas. The FSA are trying to police their own ranks, while fighting the regime and competing for suppliers, supporters and resources with each other and with other armed groups like the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigades.
As TIME has previously reported, support to the FSA is, and always has been, parceled out to select units. The sources are many and varied — from recent state-sponsored Qatari and Saudi efforts, to hefty donations by members of the Syrian diaspora as well as sheikhs in the Gulf with massive fund-raising abilities. FSA units, even those fighting in the same area, often have very different sources of funding and weapons. Some of this support comes with strings attached: pledges of allegiance to the hand that doles it out.
Some senior members of the FSA are also playing favorites — dishing out money and weapons to certain FSA units, while ignoring others. The group has long been a loose franchise organization, nominally headed by Colonel Riad al-As’aad and other senior defectors sequestered in a refugee camp in the the southern Turkish town of Apaydin in Hatay Province. (There are 10 FSA military bureaus — regional umbrella groups — inside the country.)
As’aad and General Mustafa al-Sheikh, one of the earliest generals to defect, have long been rivals, although they supposedly buried their differences by forming a joint military council in late March. Months of reporting and meeting with numerous FSA groups, mainly operating in northern Syria, has made it clear that the men are backing different groups inside Syria, and in so doing, are undermining ongoing efforts to unite the rebel army.
It’s just another of the many layers of friction between various elements of the FSA. There are real and serious rivalries between exiles and those inside Syria, sub-splits between those groups, deep schisms between the armed and political opposition, and among some armed groups in different areas. At the moment most of their guns are pointed in the same direction, but it’s easy to predict what may happen when their common enemy falls.
“Victory is made here, not in Turkey, thank you martyrs,” is sprayed on a wall in Saraqeb, although it could be almost anywhere in Syria. Abu Trad, 27, heads the Martyr Asaad Hilal Brigade in the town, one of four FSA units operating there. The former agricultural trader recoils at the thought of answering to the opposition in exile. “Where are they? In five-star hotels, drinking tea?” he says.
He claims his “differences” with both General Sheikh and Colonel As’aad mean he doesn’t get help from any faction within the FSA. “They are buying loyalties, and mine isn’t for sale” he said, seated behind a scuffed wooden desk in the office of a sweltering school that now serves as his unit’s headquarters. He keeps photos of the seven men his unit has lost under the glass top of the office desk. “We will not join the Muslim Brothers or the Salafis or anyone,” he said.
He and his 90 or so men rely on private donations from abroad (he wouldn’t say from where) to buy weapons, and have been “cooking up a few explosives,” he says. There’s an RPG missile in the glass cabinet, alongside double binder folders. An empty box of hand grenades is perched on the open window sill. “Some of us sold our wives’ jewelry to fund the fight,” Abu Trad says, as a single ceiling fan whirs overhead, while for some other FSA units, he says, getting weapons and money is “as easy as drinking a sip of water.” Several of his men, seated on chairs arranged in a semicircle around the walls of the room, nod in agreement. “We want arms. we don’t need bread, we will eat dirt, we just want to fight.”