On the Ground With the Syrian Opposition

by Brian Slocums on July 22, 2012

I posted a link to this French-language documentary a week ago in the Libya and Syria: When Anti-Imperialism Goes Wrong comment thread, but it probably got lost in the flow of discussion there, so I am reposting it here along with a brief review of  some of the contents of the film.


The documentary was made by a two-person team from the French TV station Canal Plus who entered Syria from Turkey with the cooperation of Syrian oppositionists last December. They spent 10 days with a group of Syrian Free Army (FSA) fighters in a small village in the northwest of the country, near the key opposition center of Idlib. Apart from following this group, they managed to briefly enter Idlib, and also to be present at a major gathering of opposition forces (military and civilian) somewhere in a “liberated zone” in the  Jebel Az-Zawiya mountains nearby.

Like most good documentaries, this is most valuable in providing a sense of the human dimension of the conflict and those involved in it. But it also provides some factual details about the struggle that are relevant to the issues that we have been discussing here.

Obviously the program provides only a microcosmic picture of what is going on in one small locality and over one short space of time. Remarks by the people encountered suggest that the events and views recorded were fairly typical of a large swathe of the Syrian opposition, but there will be places where things are very different (especially in the large cities).

Those who can’t follow the French commentary may not find it worthwhile to watch the whole film but I think that the final 10 minutes, which shows the large gathering in the mountains, is worth watching just for the visual images, which give a sense of the popular enthusiasm that the revolt has mobilized (at least in some places) and of the relationship between the fighters and the civilian population.

Key Points of the Film:

FSA fighter holds up his Syrian military I.D. card.

The FSA, at least in this part of the country, operates in small groups of fighters based in local villages. The group that the filmmakers were attached to were described as a mixture of Syrian army deserters and local peasants, but most appeared to be deserters who had joined the opposition because of the repressive actions they were being ordered to carry out.  Their command structure is located across the border in Turkey, and their weaponry fairly basic: small arms and one or two machine guns.  Their operations center around providing protection to civilian opposition forces in the villages, particularly for demonstrations, but they clearly undertake some offensive actions against the Syrian army. Their basic structures are the small groups, but they regroup into larger units as necessary.One fighter expressed the view that in the village where they were based, political opinions were divided, with 60% being anti-Assad and 40% pro-government, the divide largely on generational lines (the younger generation being more solidly pro-opposition). There is interesting footage of a demonstration in a small local village where such gatherings apparently take place every evening. (@15:52) One of the slogans of the demonstration offers some insight into the strong nationalist (and quite sophisticated) politics of the grassroots movement even in rural areas like this: “Your father sold the Golan, you suffocate our souls” (meaning Bashar al-Assad’s father Afez).

The filmmakers entered the city of Idlib in agreement with the local opposition. Interestingly, the opposition leader who they deal with tells them that the FSA is only allowed to operate in the villages – they are forbidden from entering Idlib itself, because the local opposition believes that their presence increases the risk of armed exchanges with Assad’s military. In their view the most important thing is the continued mobilization of the mass movement. This indicates that there are tactical differences within the opposition, but suggests that the deciding voice is that of the civilian movement not the armed wing.

Discussions with fighters about external  assistance again show divergences: some plead for international support (but are unclear about what form it should take), but one FSA officer when asked about this simply says that Western government should at least expel Syrian ambassadors.

I’ve suggested that those interested might watch the last 10 minutes on the gathering in the mountain “liberated zone” so I won’t say much about that, except to note that the civilian demonstration seems large for such a remote area, and that there is heavier weaponry on display here (but only rocket-propelled grenades). This may be a result of different units being present or of recent changes in supply sources or both.

To clarify the background for these comments I’ve done a bit of research into  the Syrian opposition, and I must admit to being embarrassed at my own ignorance – I was really not aware of the extent and depth of the popular grassroots organizsation, only a hint of which is provided by this film. I don’t want to overburden this post, so I’ll close it here, but might feed some of my further findings either into the discussion or in another post looking more at the civilian opposition.

Brian Slocums is a retired social scientist and was a militant in the Canadian and British Trotskyist movement over many years. He is now politically unaffiliated but retains a firm commitment to socialist values, while accepting the need to rethink the means through which they can best be realized.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

mioss July 25, 2012 at 1:06 am

The imperalist logic:
Saudi, Qatar and US financial and military support = syrian popular support
what syrians want dont matter


mioss July 25, 2012 at 1:09 am

The on-going campaign of assassination against Syrian scientists, including missiles scientists, is absolutely brutal, reminiscent of the assassination of iraqi intellectuals during the iraq war



Diana Barahona July 25, 2012 at 11:42 am

Here’s another film, of the spiritual leader of the FSA, Sheikh Adnan Alrour, a takfirist preacher, who calls for the overthrow and killing of Assad, not for political reasons but simply because Assad is of the Alawite faith. In it, he makes the following threat: “And the Alawites … who stood against us I swear by Allah, we will chop them and feed their flesh to the dogs.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGT8pZcKYL4
For a good explanation of who the armed Syrian opposition really is, read “Who is fighting in Syria” by Thierry Meyssan, reporting from Damascus.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 25, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Thierry Meyssan wrote a book called, “9/11: The Big Lie” and argued in a second book that a Boeing 757 did not hit the Pentagon. When he was in Libya, he claimed Ghadafi’s forces had driven the rebels from the city on August 22, 2011 at the exact moment the exact opposite was happening.

And yet we’re supposed to believe he knows what he’s talking about in Syria?!?

Anybody who wants to know who is fighting in Syria on the ground should read Nir Rosen:

Rosen is someone who hung out with “jihadis” in the Sunni wing of the Iraqi resistance in 2004-2005 and told Joe Biden to his face that he would never do anything to advise U.S. imperialism or help it in any way: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGEG_Ri2R38

As for Sheikh Adnan Alrour, he says in the YouTube statement you yourself posted that they will “never harm” Alawites who remained neutral in the revolution and would reward the Alawites who stood with the revolution. You either 1) did not watch the video before you posted it or 2) watched the video and decided to post misleading and false commentary about its political content.

Please refrain from posting any more misinformation and check your sources first. It will save everyone else a lot of time and energy straightening out your falsehoods.


Diana Barahona July 25, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Ah, we should read Al Jazeera for the truth. The same Al Jazeera that is owned by the Qatari royal family, which seeks access to markets for its natural gas in Western Europe. The same royal family which regularly confers with the U.S. military on Al Jazeera’s editorial content. The same royal family that has become a strategic military ally of the U.S. and has sent 40 000 to 60 000 Libyan mercenaries into Syria in a covert campaign to topple the government.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 1, 2012 at 9:23 am

Al Jazeera is a much better source than Voltairenet which was/is funded by the Syrian regime which is slaughtering its own people: http://damascustribune.wordpress.com/2012/07/09/voltaire-network-infosyrie-and-mr-tlass/

On another note, it seems the Israeli government sided with you and your comrade Ghadafi during the revolution:


Diana Barahona July 25, 2012 at 3:40 pm

I believe what Thierry Meyssan reports. He is one of the best journalists in the world, and the bravest. A few years back, he posted a small note informing people that Reporters Without Borders had a contract with Otto Reich whereby the State Department would pay the group to do black propaganda against Cuba. I called up RSF in Washington, spoke with the executive director, and she confirmed everything Meyssan had said.

Otto Reich headed Reagan’s propaganda office that in 1987 was found by the Comptroller General to be “engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” prohibited because they were directed at the U.S. public. RSF has offices in Washington and New York and its press releases go out to all the U.S. media as well as foreign media. That’s right, the U.S. government PAYS people to carry out propaganda operations, not only directed at people in foreign countries, but directed at people here in the U.S.


Brian S. July 25, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Diane, I would have thought you’d have figured out how this works by now: you are entitled to claim whatever your fancy takes, however outrageous, but you have to back it up with some sort of evidence (and the better the evidence the more points you get). But here you go again: “spiritual leader of the FSA” – evidence of that, or anything about what he represents. Not a bean. So, I’m afraid, no points for that one.
As it happens there is some evidence on that point:
“a recently uploaded video claims to show that school in Daraa where the uprising began. As the video pans across, it shows the walls of the school now covered in anti-regime graffiti with messages reading, ‘Down with the corrupt regime;’ ‘Freedom freedom,’ ‘ …
towards the end of the short clip, as the camera pans to the left of the school gate, a short piece of graffiti can be seen reading, ‘No to Arour and no to Bashar.’
The message presumably refers to Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian sheikh and salafist, who regularly appears on a Saudi Arabian TV. … and has used his platform
to promote an Islamist agenda with regards to the Syrian uprising, which the people of Daraa appear to have been keen to reject.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I62oqAaknL8&ref=nf
Not definitive, but I think worth about 3-4 points. What do you think?


Diana Barahona July 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Thierry Meyssan has done a lot of reporting exposing intelligence officers in Syria and Libya posing as journalists.

Meyssan has direct experience with “journalist spies”: when Libya’s oil was liberated he was trapped in a hotel in Tripoli with other members of the Voltaire team. There, an American CNN “reporter” threatened Meyssan’s life. After being evacuated from the hotel and released by the ICRC, Meyssan was nearly lynched by NATO-sponsored rebels–exactly what the CNN man had threatened would happen to him.

The making of the documentary cited above is discussed by Meyssan in an article on March 7 titled “Journalist” Paul Conroy is M16 operative (http://www.voltairenet.org/Journalist-Paul-Conroy-is-MI6). In the photo, Conroy is posing with two al Qaeda terrorists (al Qaeda being a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary army). The article reports,

“In October 2011, Mahdi al-Harati organized a model village in Syria located in the mountains on the Turkish border. For two months, he hosted Western reporters singing them the praises of the Syrian “revolution.” The village is inhabited by a tribe that was paid to stage demonstrations and pose for the press. Al-Harati was visited in particular by Paul Moreira of Canal Plus and Edith Bouvier of Le Figaro.”

Here’s where it gets interesting–the same Mahdi al-Harati who staged the happy rebel village film was allegedly assigned the task of assassinating Meyssan and his colleague, Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya:

“Mahdi al-Harati led the Al Qaeda brigade who besieged the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli in August 2011. According to Khamis Gaddafi, he was overseen by French instructors. According to a high-level foreign military source, NATO had given al-Harati the assignment of capturing the Libyan leaders who sheltered in a secret facility of the hotel, and of murdering former congressman and Martin Luther King assistant, Walter Fauntroy, who was staying in the hotel. He was also to eliminate two Voltaire Network collaborators, Thierry Meyssan and Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya, who were based at the Radisson Hotel, whence al-Harati operated his torture center. This decision had been made at a meeting restricted to the NATO command in Naples a few days earlier. The meeting minutes mentioned the presence of [French foreign minister] Alain Juppé. It would be nice if The North Star republished a few articles by Meyssan instead of simply posting propaganda.


Brian S. July 25, 2012 at 9:22 pm

“You shall know them by the company they keep” Thierry Meyssan was the person who claimed that Al-Jazeera built a giant mock up of Tripoli’s GreenSquare in its Doha studios so that it could fake the entry of the rebels into the city three days before it actually happened. (The point of that really escapes me.)
The story you link to is typical of his disgusting methods: the photo in it misidentifies Mehhdi al-Harati (so he doesn’t even know what the guy he accuses of trying to kill him looks like), and makes a series of inaccurate statements and wild accusations without even pretending to have evidence. The person who actually puts a journalist’s life in jeapordy is Meyssan, with his inflamatory and unsubstantiated claim that Paul Conroy (BBC photographer who was severely wounded in Syria last February) is an MI6 agent. Imagine the consequences if anyone takes that seriously during Conroy’s next assignment to a conflict zone. And this is the man you call “one of the best journalists in the world”!


Diana Barahona July 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Wrong. That’s Mehhdi al-Harati all right. As for putting Conroy in danger, if he’s not afraid to have pictures taken of himself embracing al-Qaeda terrorists (unusual behavior for a journalist), then I don’t imagine he’s afraid of anything.


Brian S. July 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

The guy in the picture doesn’t look like the photos of al-Harati; I’ve seen: his build and age look quite wrong (Al-Harati would be in his late 30s). In the article where the photo originally appeared Conroy mentiosa al-Harati’s but doesn’trefer to the photo. My guess is that Meyssan read this, put 2+2 together and came up with 17, as usual. But neither of us were there, so I guess this has to stay “unproven”.
However lets look at the rest of the claims in this article. Conroy’s companions in the photo are described as “al Qaeda” leaders”. Abdulhakim Belhadj (who is correctly identified) was certainly nothing to do with al Qaeda when the photo was taken, but its true he did have a jihadist past 10 years ago, so that’s a half-truth (a good score for Meyssan). The guy who I think is mis-identified as al-Harati,probably had a similar past. But the real al-Harati has neither any al Qaeda connnection nor a jihadist past: he was living quietly in Dublin from his teenage years until the outbreak of the Libyan revolution in 2011. The article claims “According to former Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Mahdi al-Harati is still wanted in Spain for his involvement in the Madrid bombings “. This piece of Meyssan arithmetic is a slander within a slander: the accusation that Aznar made was directed against Belhadj , not al-Harati, and that had no foundation in fact – no named persons are “wanted in Spain” for the Madrid bombings.
You find it strange for a photojournalist who has just spent several weeks closeted with a group of fighters to have developed some sense of comradeship with them. OK – that’s your emotional call. But try asking yourself – why would an “MI6” agent on a secret assignment not only go out of his way to be photographed in close company with his “assets” but ensure that the picture was plastered across the media so that people like Meyssan could prey on it? For anyone to justify this nonsense despite the serious threat it could pose to a working journalist’s life is beneath contempt.


Louis Proyect July 25, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thierry Meyssan’s 911 Trutherism goes hand in hand with his analysis of Syria. For people like him, Michel Chossudovsky, and Jared Israel when he was still active on the Internet, there is this vast CIA conspiracy that is moving Jihadists around like pawns on a chessboard. This, of course, has nothing to do with Marxism. It is a “Great Man” version of history in which powerful players control the destiny of the rest of us. So the goal is to line up with strongmen who can act as a counterweight to the CIA spooks, like al-Assad and Qaddafi even when they are happily working with the CIA to torture and kill as part of the extraordinary rendition program.


Arthur July 28, 2012 at 12:36 am

Is there some reason you are treating Diana Barhana as a different sort of phenomena from Thierry Maysan, 911 truthers et al?

Genuine question. I’m new here and don’t know the personalities but keep seeing nutty “truther” style posts from Diana Barhana and patient responses as though they were merely wrong rather than distinctively nutty.


Brian S. July 28, 2012 at 8:39 am

Hi Arthur. A valid point. For better or for worse ,I’ve sort of made it my mission/hobby to try and counter some of the nonsense that infests mass circulation sites (like the UK dailies) first over Libya, now over Syria. Its amazing how often you encounter people there who invoke Voltaire.net and its ilk as a serious news source, and of course RT (and on occasion Counterpunch) has given many of these people a spurious credibility, which even extends into some left sites. So I don’t think you can take it for granted that their intellectual bankruptcy is self-evident to all.


Arthur July 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm

Fair enough. Thanks for reassuring explanation ;-)


Brian S. July 25, 2012 at 9:32 pm

There is a very good story in yesterday’s UK Guardian by the knowledgeable and reliable Ghaith Abdul Ahad, along with a set of photographs, which largely confirm the picture of the FSA presented here.



Brian S. July 31, 2012 at 9:14 am

There is a second excellent story by Ghaith Abdul Ahad in today’s UK Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/30/al-qaida-rebels-battle-syria
The conspiracy theorists will latch on to this because it confirms the presence of jihadist forces (“al Qaeda”) in Syria. This of course has never really been in dispute – the question was what role do they play? Ahad’s article now gives us a reasonably credible picture: they are a small and for the most part recently arrived element in the Syrian rebel forces; but they are acquiring some military weight, and there is the beginning of some cross over between these groups and existing FSA insurgents. Nevertheless the wider Syrian opposition (including other groups in the FSA ) are anxious about their influence and do not share their political views. What the dynamic of this will be in the future will depend very much on how the struggle unfolds . I am going to write up a more extended comment and submit it to Admin to see if they would like to start a clean thread, so that we can have some discussion around these issues.


Arthur July 31, 2012 at 10:53 am

The longer the US continues to use the Russian veto at the UN as an excuse for its failure to act the more support Al Qaeda will have.

Its time to cut through the crap from “anti-imperialist” defenders of the US governments inaction.

The current situation demands immediate destruction of the regime’s air force and grounding of its helicopter gunships by US air power.

Helping to speedup such a response is the most effective solidarity that we in the West can extend.

Don’t let inhibitions about the obvious contradiction with past attitudes towards the UN and US military prolong dancing around the issue. Sort out whether you were wrong before AFTER taking a stand that actually means something now.

A “debate” with the pseudos about Al Qaeda’s role isn’t what’s needed to help. It’s what THEY need for their posturing.


Aaron Aarons September 26, 2012 at 4:14 am

Coming from a totally fake ‘leftist’ who advocated for and supported two U.S. wars against Iraq, the most recent of which resulted in about one million excess Iraqi deaths, such advocacy of imperialist aggression is hardly surprising.

Al Qaeda, at least, opposes U.S. imperialism half the time, which makes them only half as reactionary as ‘arthur’.


Tony July 29, 2012 at 6:49 pm

‘Prince Bandar is not as constrained as the US. His colleague, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Foreign Minister, has proclaimed the arming of the Syrian rebels an “excellent idea”. A fundraising campaign in Saudi Arabia last week raised more than $US30 million ($28.6m) in two days “for the support of the brothers in Syria”. The funds were boosted by the royal family, but it is clear support for the Syrian rebels, by civilian or military means, is a passionate cause in the kingdom. That is why Prince Bandar is perhaps the least secretive of the Arab secret intelligence chiefs.’

…taken from ‘Saudi spy chief aids Syrian rebel war’…

BY: ROGER BOYES, RIYADH From: The Times July 30, 2012

‘HE loves throwing parties, cheering on the Dallas Cowboys and flying aerial acrobatics.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the new spy chief of Saudi Arabia, is not exactly a man of the shadows – but he is at the heart of the US-Saudi intelligence axis that is helping the Syrian rebels to dig in and arm up.’…. @ http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/world/saudi-spy-chief-aids-syrian-rebel-war/story-fnb64oi6-1226438061792


Diana Barahona July 30, 2012 at 1:02 am

Like writing more stories for Not My Tribe, which I have bookmarked.


Diana Barahona July 29, 2012 at 8:39 pm

And Bandar Bush is dead now. One point for Damascus. http://www.voltairenet.org/Syria-reportedly-eliminated-Bandar
Tony, it is clear that you are a very intelligent and dedicated activist, but it is also clear that the editor has recruited a bunch of like-minded trolls to back him up in his drumming for war. Don’t you think your time would be better spent doing something else?


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