Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Wadi Khaled: The Free Syrian Army Base in Lebanon

Part (I)

Members of the Free Syrian Army in an house in Wadi Khaled. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)
Published Monday, February 6, 2012
In this exclusive three-part series, Al-Akhbar accompanies members of the Free Syrian Army based in Wadi Khaled across the Syrian border as they plant mines, talk politics, and clandestinely treat their wounded.

Part (I): On Patrol

The freezing cold bears down heavily, deadening the footsteps of passersby and turning their breath into vapor clouds that rise into the air like chimney-smoke.

This is a typical winter morning in Wadi Khaled, the valley in Lebanon’s far northeastern corner named – depending on who you ask – after the forebear of a clan of the Aneza tribe, or the Muslim conqueror of Syria Khaled Ibn al-Waleed, who is said to have passed through here after the battle of Yarmouk in 636 A.D.

I have been directed here to meet fighters of the Free Syrian Army. The only precaution my contact advised me to take was to detour along a dirt track just before reaching the village of Chadra, to avoid a checkpoint manned jointly by the Lebanese army and internal security forces. Apparently, they have been turning back journalists and telling them to get permits from the Lebanese army command.
After a four-hour drive, I meet my contact as arranged. He turns out to be the FSA’s “liaison officer,” a well-built man in his thirties, his religiosity apparent from his flowing beard and close-cropped moustache.

We proceed to a house, where a group of about 10 men are gathered. Hours pass as we discuss the situation in Syria over endless cups of tea. Finally, the conversation is broken by the sound of the noon prayer-call. All rise to head for the mosque.

Five of us squeeze into one car for the ten-minute drive.

At the mosque, most of the worshippers are Syrians. The Syrian sheikh, Abd al-Rahman al-Akkari, begins his sermon with a religious oration which quickly turns into a diatribe against “the regime which is murdering our brothers and raping our women.”

The sheikh calls on the assembled faithful to revolt, and not to fear impending death. They are moved by his exhortations. Shouts and cries rise up from the congregation, which begins chanting Allahu Akbar and for the downfall of the regime.

One worshipper tells me that the sheikh’s wife was martyred while trying to cross covertly into Lebanon. Another says Syrian army soldiers deliberately killed her when they realised who her husband was.

After prayers, the congregation leaves the mosque to hold an anti-regime demonstration outside, and a crowd of hundreds of people gathers.

Banners are raised, some the work of calligraphers, others in amateur scrawl. Many call for the fall of “the Assad regime.” Some accuse the Arab League Observer mission of “collusion in shedding Syrian blood” while others demand international intervention to “halt the blood-letting.”

In the slogans shouted by the crowd, a good deal of the denunciation is directed at Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. A loudspeaker broadcasts excerpts from his speeches, carefully edited to make them sound as though they were directed against the Sunni sect.

Hezbollah’s TV station al-Manar also comes in for its share of name-calling, along with al-Jadeed. One banner shows the logos of both alongside those of Syrian state TV and Syrian pro-regime station Dunya TV.

The sheikh calls on the assembled faithful to revolt, and not to fear impending death.
“The media kill us twice over,” says one demonstrator, who chants: “Down with Manar! Down with Jadeed! Agents of the murderous regime!”
Flags of the “New Syria” abound, some of them home-made, as do Turkish flags. The blue banner of the Future Movement is also much in evidence.

The demonstrators include members of the FSA in civilian clothing. Three of them were interviewed by Al-Akhbar last month. They ask that their faces not be photographed. My “host” informs me that there are tens of FSA fighters here.

The demonstration lasts about one hour, but before it is over, my host pulls me aside and tells me we have to leave quickly. “The intelligence people are here.”

I am hurried away, and from a short distance he points out five young men in leather jackets. They are from Lebanese intelligence, he says. “They would have stopped you if they knew you were a journalist taking photos without a permit.”

The intelligence agents operating here seem well known to most of the inhabitants of Wadi Khaled. Another of my companions points to a red Skoda Rapid, which he says belongs to one of them. He lists the names of others, including an officer, who he says are on his payroll.
“Security agencies everywhere are corrupt,” he quips. Everyone laughs.

On to Wadi Khaled

After a drive through a succession of almost indistinguishable hamlets, my host announces that we have reached the last inhabited stretch of Wadi Khaled. A crossroads points to the villages of Kniseh in one direction and Qarha in the other. This area is called al-Waar, (the rough ground).

Everyone disembarks, and a telephone call is made. A few minutes later, a four-wheel drive vehicle appears accompanied by three motorcycles. I am ushered in, and we are driven on through the rocky terrain. “We’re in Lebanon,” explains my host. “The pathway alongside is in Syria.” He gestures with his head in the direction of the Syrian army’s positions.

The driver slows down and comes to a halt. The motorbikes’ engines are switched off. Darkness is beginning to a fall, and we are shown into a house.

While weapons have flooded into Syria from Lebanon and Turkey, the flow of arms has been reduced of late.

Inside is a scene of traditional Arab hospitality. About 30 men are gathered around a wood-burning stove, and they welcome the 20 or so of us joining them. Tea is served, followed by coffee. My companion makes the introductions. These are FSA officers, he says, pointing out their commander, a major.

As we converse, it becomes obvious that they are not all Syrians. Some are Lebanese, among them smugglers. They say that the FSA’s commander in the Bab Amr neighborhood of Homs – just a few kilometers across the border – was here in Lebanon just a couple of days ago. He was feted in traditional fashion, with sheep slaughtered in his honor.

Some of the men tell us their defection stories. They voice dismay that the outside world has let them down, providing no more than hollow words in their support.

A man in his 50s and dressed in Bedouin garb takes charge of the conversation. “The situation is bad,” he declares. “We have struck hard, but the regime has not yet been shaken. It will be a very long battle.”

Nevertheless, he maintains that the FSA is in control of 80 percent of Homs, and speaks of splits in the ranks of the army, though he concedes that the army as a whole “is still holding together.”

His great hope is that a “no-fly zone” will change all that. The moment one is imposed, he insists, a major split will result in the military.

Another man present says that while weapons have flooded into Syria form Lebanon and Turkey, the flow of arms has been reduced of late.

The conversation turns to three young Lebanese men – Maher Abu-Zaid, Ahmad Hussein Zaid, and his brother Kaser – who were recently killed in the area by Syrian forces. One man says members of Syrian air force intelligence sprung an ambush for them inside Lebanese territory. There is talk of “treachery,” and of the trio having been led into a trap by a member of al-Aswad family from the village of Msheirfeh.

All concur that the youths used to procure weapons for the “revolutionaries” in Syria.” One says they refused to surrender when they realized they were surrounded, but “faced bullets with bullets” and died fighting.

Another vows vengeance against the “agent” who betrayed them. He had been wounded in the incident, and has since been visited by family members in hospital. The man in his fifties declares that someone should be sent to kill him there.

In an adjoining room, I am introduced to the man who will be my guide, a first lieutenant, in his 30s and bearded. He briefs me on the “operation” to come, which will begin with reconnaissance of the border. I am told how I should move, and asked to follow his instructions strictly.

The patrol gathers, more than 20 men, all armed. Some carry Kalashnikov machine guns, others Vals. One of them claims to be wearing an explosive belt. The commander throws him a dirty look, and he quickly explains that he was only joking.

They shoulder their weapons, and don their balaclavas to conceal their identities, before posing for photographs.

There are about 200 FSA fighters in North Lebanon, though the number at any one time varies as groups of them move into and out of Syrian territory to conduct operations. Based mainly in the Wadi Khaled villages and at Arsal in the northern Bekaa Valley, they are not obviously soldiers, and their civilian dress makes them appear ordinary refugees. They operate out of houses located close to the border, and are sometimes hard to distinguish from the smugglers who have long been active in the area.

Heading Out on Patrol

Nightfall provides the cover for the FSA to move about freely.

I set out with a squad of nine men, seated on the back seat of a motorbike which speeds along the rocky path. I cannot feel my ears, nose, or hands from the cold.

The riders arrive at an arranged meeting-point and dismount. It is on foot from here.
I ask about the minefields laid by the Syrian army. “We’ve cleared them,” one man replies. Another explains that they have found and lifted almost 200 land-mines in the area.

I do not find this too reassuring. With a prayer, I follow in my companions’ footsteps – literally – to avoid treading on a mine they may have overlooked. After ten minutes of this, someone says: “We are in Syrian territory.”

The commander points out a Syrian army position just a few tens of meters away. “We monitor them closely,” he says. “We know the times when they change guard, and when and where they go out on patrol.”

But this is not the only purpose of our foray. The commander announces that the FSA has a surprise in store that I should tell readers about.
Someone produces an anti-tank mine. Four of us advance to a point which they say lies on a route frequented by armored-personnel carriers.

One man starts digging, while the other two stand guard. The ground seems too hard at first, but he manages to make a hole, place the mine in the middle, and cover it with soil.
They pull back, hoping it will explode in the face of one of “Assad’s Brigades.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Part 2
River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
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