Syria revolt hampered by disunity, supply failures

ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) — Syrian activist Mahmoud Ali walked for two days across rugged hills to Turkey to collect a satellite phone and video equipment promised by dissidents in exile, only to draw a blank.

The soft-spoken teacher, wanted by the Syrian authorities for membership of the grassroots Local Coordination Committees, had dodged landmines, helicopters, army shelling and roadblocks in his home province of Idlib to reach the border.

“It has been all in vain,” he said. “Communications in most of Idlib have been cut for three months and we cannot get a Thuraya (satellite) phone because of the incompetence, or corruption, of the opposition on the outside.”

Ali’s story encapsulates the logistical shortcomings of a year-long popular uprising that has morphedn in places, into an insurgency against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who derides his divided opponents as foreign-backed Islamist “terrorists”.

The 27-year-old says he wants to show the world peaceful anti-Assad protests as well as tank and artillery bombardment of dozens of towns and villages in Idlib province which are still under fire despite plans for a UN-backed ceasefire next week.

Assad has agreed to UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s plan for Syrian troops to pull back from restive towns and cities by April 10 before a truce with rebels and a political dialogue, but the Syrian leader’s critics mistrust his intentions.

Militarily, the outgunned insurgents are in disarray, but a year of bloodshed which the United Nations says has cost more than 9,000 lives has failed to quell the anti-Assad rising.

It is the haphazard effort to aid the struggle in Syria that angers Ali and others exposed to Assad’s wrath – 40 out of 45 of his LCC comrades in central Idlib have been arrested or killed.

Ali was told that the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) had sent $17,000 to an operative in the Turkish city of Antakya to buy him cameras, satellite phones and internet video broadcasting equipment, but when he contacted the operative he was given a run-around and returned empty-handed to Syria.

Internal squabbling

“The SNC are squabbling and drafting plans for a post-Assad Syria while not getting simple logistical requirements right,” Ali fumed. “The regime cannot annihilate the revolt, but the revolt will not be able to topple it without outside support.”

Prodded by Western and Arab powers alarmed by opposition disunity, the SNC said last week it would close ranks with its critics and help the revolt in Syria, where activists rage at woeful shortages of medical supplies and communications kit.

SNC head Burhan Ghalioun promised efforts to arm and finance the rebel Syrian Free Army, but said it was paramount to support those organising peaceful protests at the heart of the revolt.

“The opposition’s performance has been below expectations,” Ghalioun, a secular Paris-based academic, said of the fractious council in which the Muslim Brotherhood has a strong presence.

Human rights lawyer Catherine al-Talli, who spent time in jail after leading a protest in a Damascus suburb, said the SNC must loosen the Brotherhood’s grip on aid distribution, accusing the Islamists of channelling supplies only to their supporters.

“Activists like Ali with no political affiliation have no one to help them,” said Talli, who quit the SNC two months ago.

“Outside the SNC, you have individuals giving aid to their own regions, instead of thinking of the homeland as a whole, which weakens the revolt and costs more lives,” she complained.

Brotherhood sympathisers disagree with this portrayal of their role.

“A Brotherhood official heads the SNCs relief committee but they do not monopolise it, and money is equally distributed to activists’ groups on the inside,” said Islamist SNC member Abdelrahman al Haj. “We must not forget though that the Brotherhood has its own relief and aid organisation.”

None of this has eroded Ali’s adhesion to a cause he joined early in the revolt against 42 years of Assad family rule.

“I shouted for freedom and it felt so good, although I was afraid,” he said, acknowledging that once-daily protests were now limited to Fridays after prayers and funerals of “martyrs”.

Ali recalled the humiliation he had felt as a conscript in 2007 when military intelligence had forced all those in his battalion to “pierce our fingers and write yes with our blood to Bashar on ballot papers” in a presidential referendum.

‘Corruption and blackmail

“Everything became riddled with corruption and blackmail. The lowest security official could throw me out of my job and control my destiny,” he said of his $200 a month teaching post in Idlib before he went on the run seven months ago.

Ali, who used to supplement his income with bee-keeping, would bribe officials not to transfer him away from Idlib.

Idlib, along with the neighbouring province of Hama, bore the brunt of repression when Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad crushed an armed Islamist uprising in the 1980s.

Syrians were quiescent for decades after those bloody events, in which the military destroyed Hama’s Old City, but activists say they will no longer stay silent.

Abdelbasset Othman, 17, a high school student who helped guide Ali across territory riddled with Syrian tanks and snipers, said 15 tanks and armoured vehicles had occupied his home village of Izmarin on the border with Turkey this week.

“The mayor went around neighbourhoods reading a statement by their commander that they will paint over (anti-Assad) graffiti and will shell any building where it re-appears. We have nothing to resist with, but we will not be subdued,” he said.

Nevertheless, hundreds of civilians are fleeing military assaults. Turkish officials say more than 1,600 have crossed the border in the past two days. More than 3,000 Syrian refugees now occupy the white tents of a new camp erected in farmland southwest of Antakya against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks.

Two veteran dissidents who fled Syria to escape a wave of killings of human rights campaigners and protest leaders said the revolution would triumph despite the lack of supplies.

“This is a popular revolution where three-quarters of the population is against the regime. The army is having to storm cities and towns several times over and every time the revolt picks up,” said Fawaz Tello, a leader of the 2001 “Damascus Spring” movement who spent five years as a political prisoner.

Mortal struggle

“The two sides are locked in a struggle to death and in the end one side will triumph. It will not be Bashar.”

Tello said activists in Syria had to “hold on for a couple more months as the international position turns against Bashar and the supply problem, civilian and otherwise, is solved”.

Fellow-dissident Mazen Adi said poorly-armed rebels were focusing on guerrilla tactics and broadening the popular support base, rather than mistaken attempts to hold urban strongholds which were then subjected to withering army bombardments.

“The rebels tried to fight open battles with the army and hold on to cities in the hope of encouraging more army defectors but the regime simply shelled these areas mercilessly and the civilian population suffered greatly,” Adi said.

( / 05.04.2012)

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