Earlier this week we reported that the Free Syrian Army would soon be launching an initiative to unite the range of insurgent groups across Syria. Yesterday we featured Rania Abouzeid's profile of FSA fighters in Jabal al-Zawiya in Idlib Province.
Now we post a different perspective, from the same area, by Sarah Burke and Katie Paul for the New Republic:
The unglamorous municipal building, on which black daubs evince graffiti wars between the regime (“Bashar Assad or the country burns!”) and the opposition (“Leave, oh Bashar!”) did not look fit for a king. But it was immediately obvious when the man in the pressed green khakis strode in that we were in the presence of a leader. Men who had been sitting around in the room chatting fell silent. The leather chair behind the desk was seamlessly vacated. A bulky companion, who appeared to be a bodyguard, took the chair nearest the door; the American-made weapon laid across his knees stood out against the Kalashnikovs we had seen slung over shoulders for the last few days.
We had sat waiting for two hours in Serjeh, a village perched on a ridge in the mountainous Jebel Zawiya region of Syria’s northwestern Idleb province, and were about to give up hope when Ahmed Abu Issa, the head of Saqour al-Sham (the “Sham Falcons”; Sham refers both to Damascus and Greater Syria) appeared. The 40-year-old cut a striking figure, with his bushel of thick hair and grey eyes that betrayed no emotion; a holster was strapped across broad shoulders and he trailed a waft of cologne. The enormous turquoise rock adorning his right ring finger was conspicuously displayed as he clamped his hands on the table.
As head of a group of some 4,000 or so fighters that operates out of Serjeh, Abu Issa is one of the most influential men in the province — and he knows it. Within two minutes of our arrival, intelligence networks had clicked into action, as a gun-toting teenager rode up to inquire as to the nature of our visit. Elsewhere around his territory, he runs three field hospitals, a court based on sharia law, and a prison. (He refused to show us the prison, though YouTube footage later revealed a less savory side of his outfit: some captives have been sent off in booby-trapped cars to be blown apart at army checkpoints.) His immediate motivations are the same, he tells us, as that of other rebel groups: the ouster of Assad. But in the longer-term he wants an Islamist state: “Not as the West understands it: one not too far to the left, and not too far to the right.”
The source of his authority derives neither from military prowess nor local prominence, but rather from a peculiar collection of personal attributes. Abu Issa has charisma by the bucketload: a spellbinding way of orating in flawless formal Arabic and, when addressing issues he deems unpleasant, one side of his upper lip momentarily curls up into a snarl. Rebel fighters have flocked to his side, he says, because of the “rectitude” of his vision and because “Syrians need someone to lead them.” Like many men in his brigade, he is also driven by personal scores to settle with the Assad family. His father was killed in the notorious Tadmor jail in the 1980s; he too spent time in prison in 2003 because the regime didn’t much like his sharia studies nor his “voluntary work” mediating disputes between local families. Sixteen relatives have perished in the current conflict, including two brothers and his sixteen-year-old son (after which he donned a more overtly religious tone.)
Money and weapons help draw followers as much as personal authority, of course. Asked how a small-town religious scholar is able to amass the military might to challenge the army, he is coy. “Need,” he says, with a sly smile, “is the mother of invention.” In fact, swashbuckling performances in videos have made Saquor al-Sham a name on forums outside the country and with it income from private Gulfi backers. Serjeh was something of this year’s Ramadan rebel financier hotspot.
This support leaves him better placed than most rebel groups. It also allows him to dismiss with the flap of a hand the floundering myriad opposition institutions—the Free Syrian Army, Syrian National Council, Muslim Brotherhood—who might want to have a say over his plans. Despite this independence, Abu Issa says he will not fight to impose his vision on Syria: “The political field is a market: you offer your goods and I offer mine,” he told us. “People will come to me because mine are clean.” But the spirit of cooperation many only extend so far: should there be any attempt to “force me to close my store,” he says, then “the sword will be the judgment.”
For better or worse, Abu Issa's rise to unchallenged leader of a burgeoning mini-state is a motif being repeated across the country. As the authority of Assad’s regime recedes, power is passing not into one unified opposition, but into the hands of many local rebel leaders. In Jebel Zawiya alone, a region of only about 300,000 inhabitants, there are two major rebel groups, a third emerging, and a smattering of smaller ones tucked under other umbrellas. Several national opposition groups, often more brands than organizations, may have become well known on the international stage, but they have trifling clout on the ground.