C J Chivers reports for The New York Times:
Abdul Hakim Yasin, the commander of a Syrian anti-government fighting group, lurched his pickup truck to a stop inside the captured residential compound he uses as his guerrilla base.
His fighters had been waiting for orders for a predawn attack on an army checkpoint at the entrance to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The men had been issued ammunition and had said their prayers. Their truck bomb was almost prepared.
Now the commander had a surprise. Minutes earlier, his father, who had been arrested by the army at the same checkpoint in July, had called to say his jailers had released him. He needed a ride out of Aleppo, fast.
“God is great!” the men shouted. They climbed onto trucks, loaded weapons and accelerated away, barreling through darkness on nearly deserted roads toward a city under siege, to reclaim one of their own.
Mr. Yasin was pensive as he drove, worried that the call was a ploy to lure him and his fighters into a trap. “Often the government does this,” he said. “Usually it is an ambush.”
He had sent an empty freight truck ahead, he said, to check the way. But he never slowed down.
During five days last week, Mr. Yasin and his group, the Lions of Tawhid, allowed two journalists from The New York Times to live and travel beside them as they fought their part in the war to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.
This group falls under the command of Al Tawhid Brigade, a relatively new structure in Aleppo Province that has unified several groups and fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of armed rebels.
While broad extrapolations are difficult to glean from one fighting group in a complex society, the activities and personal stories of these men, a mix of civilians who took up arms and dozens of army defectors who joined them, offers a fine-grained look of the uprising, and the momentum and guerrilla energy it has attained.
Mr. Yasin, 37, was a clean-shaven accountant before the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two young sons. Now thickly bearded and projecting a stoic calm under fire, he has been hardened by his war in ways he could not have foreseen.
He roams the Aleppo region with dozens of armed men in camouflage, plotting attacks with other commanders, evading airstrikes, meeting with smugglers and bombmakers to gather more weapons, and rotating through front-line duties in a gritty street-by-street urban campaign. He prefers to sleep by day, and fight by night.
His fighters are a cross section of a nation at war with itself. They include a real estate agent, several farmers, construction workers and a nurse who owned a short-order restaurant. These men fight side by side with a cadre of army defectors, who say the government they once served must fall.
The civilians started with stones and firearms bought for hunting. Their first more powerful weapon was a huge slingshot for hurling Molotov cocktails and small homemade bombs. As professional soldiers have joined them, they have gradually acquired assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled and hand grenades. They now control a captured armored vehicle and two tanks.
As they have grown in numbers and strength, they have organized into a force that mixes paramilitary discipline, civilian policing, Islamic law and the harsh demands of necessity with battlefield coldness and outright cunning. They have informants and spies, and eavesdrop on the government’s military radios while trying to form a nascent government themselves in the territory under their control.
But mostly they yearn to fight, seeking to destroy the Assad government and its better-equipped forces by most any means. Their collective confidence that they will prevail both bonds them together and informs their sense that this is their time.
From Protests to Arms
For the people of Tal Rifaat, a city of roughly 20,000 people on an agricultural plain, the uprising moved in stages from peaceful demonstrations to open war. It began with protests early in 2011, which the government tried to smash.
By midsummer last year, Abdul Hakim Yasin had formed a guerrilla cell with fewer than 10 other residents. They began with four shotguns and hunting rifles against a government with an extensive internal police and intelligence apparatus and a military with hundreds of thousands of troops.
Last September, security forces scattered a protest at the city’s rail yard with gunfire; 83 people were wounded. One man, Ahmed Mohammed Homed, 32, was killed. Mr. Yasin said he knew then that they were at war. “Everyone in Tal Rifaat formed into teams,” he said.
As the gunmen organized ambushes, the city’s machinists and mechanics also went to work, learning to concoct explosives to pack into bombs. The government’s crackdown had spawned an insurgency, in Tal Rifaat as elsewhere.
By this spring, as the army came to occupy Tal Rifaat, the now war-savvy city had all but emptied. The soldiers painted graffiti on the city’s walls. “Assad or nobody,” one scrawl read.
A revolutionary painted a reply: “We will kneel only for God.”
In a fashion as old as guerrilla war, as the ranks swelled, the original members agreed to divide, forming interconnected fighting groups that began to accept army defectors. It was then that Jamal Abu Houran, a Syrian infantry soldier who did not provide his surname, joined with Mr. Yasin.
Jamal Abu Houran’s journey from proud Syrian citizen and willing military conscript to antigovernment guerrilla followed the wrenching arc of a young patriot rediscovering his country as it erupted in violence around him.
He had been a student of Arabic literature at Al-Baath University in Homs, where he studied Mahmoud Darwish, thepoet, and was opposed to Israel’s and the West’s military activities in the Middle East. Two years ago, the army summoned him for compulsory military service. He willingly left behind his books, to be trained in tactics and infantry arms.
As the revolution spread and the government resorted to more violence to blunt it, Jamal Abu Houran’s unease with his own army set in. His military conscription was scheduled to end early this year. Then the army extended his tour without his consent and assigned him to lead an infantry squad — part of an emergency policy intended to maintain manpower to fight the growing insurgency.
It did not work. In early April, Jamal Abu Houran called a friend in Homs, who told him that soldiers had raped an 11-year-old girl. His disaffection became disgust.
“I used to think the army was to defend the country and resist and fight the Western projects in the Middle East,” he said. “My conclusion, after that, was that we were serving in an army that does not protect its own people.”
Using Skype, Jamal Abu Houran contacted an activist from Tal Rifaat who invited him to desert his post and head to a nearby village, where he would be picked up by a waiting car. Soon he was in a hidden guerrilla office. He told the activists there that he had studied weapons well, and asked to join the rebels’ fight.
An activist phoned Mr. Yasin, who quickly appeared and stood before him. Jamal recalled his new commander’s first words. “You are my brother,” he said. “And your blood is more precious than mine.”
Jamal Abu Houran’s reply set his life on its new course. “I hope God will give me the strength to defend people like you,” he said. This was his oath.
He had switched sides.
It was mid-April. Mr. Yasin, who had recently started his own armed group, had nine fighters, while the army had almost free rein of the Aleppo countryside. One of Jamal Abu Houran’s earliest tasks was to recruit. Persuasion too was a means of waging war: the more soldiers the rebels could lead to desertion, the more they would weaken the army and strengthen their own ranks.
“I started calling people I knew from the army,” he said. “I convinced 12 people to defect.”
As the fighting group grew, Jamal Abu Houran’s role and standing rose. He became one of Mr. Yasin’s trusted sergeants — leading small teams in attacks and managing the fighting group’s armory, where he issued and collected weapons with the discipline and a carefully kept ledger that resembled life in the army that had trained him.