Amid the turn of the Syrian conflict from peaceful protest against the Assad regime to a fragmented war, with headlines of “foreign jihadists”, there is a risk that the stories of the conflict may be lost.
One of those stories is how and why protesters chose to take up arms. In many instances, they first did so to protect the demonstrations being attacked by Syrian forces, but soon they were on the front-line fighting the Assad military and its militia.
Syrian dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh interviews Abu Qusay, a tailor and carpenter who became a fighter and unit commander:
Video: Protest in Homs, November 2011, “The Free Syrian Army Protects Me”
When the revolution erupted in Tunisia, I was hoping it would come here. We want to change the government, the regime, and everything that we have to put up with for the better. The state is corrupt and so are its components; its employees, its officers, and its judges. Bashar sits on top of the pyramid of authority and therefore holds full responsibility for the situation and for his regime’s transgressions.
I had a dream once – before the revolution — that I was in Damascus, chanting against the regime.
Then, when the revolution started here, I actually took part in the first demonstration to come out from the Umayyad Mosque [in Damascus]. We chanted “Freedom! Freedom!”, but we failed. They beat us with their batons and they made us bleed.
We demonstrated again a week later. This time the demonstration was big; there was about 800 or a thousand of us. State-security officers were scattered in small groups, so they were unable to break up our protest. We reached as far as Marjeh Square. There was a young protestor among us who held up a Qur’an with one hand, and a cross with the other. We then chanted “Freedom! Freedom! Muslims and Christians”.
After that we started to take part in the demonstrations in Douma. We were a group of young men who came from the neighbouring areas; al-Ghizlaniya, Zamalka, and Ghouta. None of us had ever been politically active before. We reprimanded those in the demonstrations who threw a rock or carried a knife, and we warned them that this is exactly what the regime wants us to do!
We tried again to organise demonstrations in Damascus. We focused on the suburb of al-Midan. We congregated daily in the suburb’s mosques and started our demonstrations from there; there was al-Hasan mosque, al-Mansour mosque, al-Majed mosque, al-Daqqaq mosque….We came out of the mosques because it was difficult to assemble in the streets, and so this became the norm.
Following Ramadan and the massive protests in Hama (the regime had killed many people by then), we established the “Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jarrah Battalion” in total secrecy. The members of this battalion came from all over the Ghouta agricultural belt; Douma, Saqba, Jisrin, Hammurya, Rankus, al-Ghizlaniya….The battalion’s leader was Abu Muhammad, a Kurd and a retired colonel from Rukn al-Din.
Our missions were quite light-weight. Fundamentally, our role was to protect demonstrators. We know that people would come out in bigger numbers if they knew that they were protected. We used to maintain our distance from the demonstrations, and would only strike the state-security forces if they tried to attack the demonstrators.
In November 2011, on the first day of Eid al-Adha, we attacked a border-security battalion in Rankus and secured a decent amount of materiel; rocket launchers, carbines, assault rifles, ammunition… we then returned to Douma and carried out an attack on a Shabiha headquarters. We did the same in Saqba and Hammurya.
At this point, our battalion grew and there was more than 200 of us, so Abu Khalid al-Ghizlany and I decided to form an independent company in Deir al-‘Asafir. We separated from our original battalion, but only to relieve them administratively. There was no conflict between us, on the contrary, we are still in co-operation; it was just that we needed to expand.
We began to strike state-security convoys and police stations, and kidnapped security officers on the airport road. We also targeted regime battalions and checkpoints; for example, we struck the checkpoint in Jisrin on a number of occasions. We would hit-and-run; resist for a short while but then retreat. Back then, we had no anti-tank missiles or enough ammunition, and were unable to seize control of territory.
We received financial aid from Syrians living in Syria and spent this on guns.
We struck ‘Ain al-Tineh Battalion in Deir al-‘Asafir and were able to seize hand grenades and an anti-aircraft cannon. We also attacked a battalion in Nawla and seized its weapons.
We had no other choice than to do this. We did not expect that any of this would happen. However, this is a war that was imposed on us and we have to finish what we started. What concerns us today is to end the conflict and minimise loss of human life and historic buildings. After all, this is our country. Oh how I wish we could end all of this today!
But we do not trust the regime; neither its proposals nor its promises, and we will never accept them.