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Syria rebels say they're preparing for war

The opposition fighters have lost faith in Kofi Annan's peace plan and are using the time to rearm for a bigger conflict when the cease-fire is declared dead.

May 31, 2012|By Los Angeles Times Staff
  • 1st Lt. Nazir Jabir, in blue shirt, a rebel who defected from the Syrian army, helps a student assemble a rocket-propelled grenade launcher in a training class for young recruits in Qusair, Homs province.
1st Lt. Nazir Jabir, in blue shirt, a rebel who defected from the Syrian army,… (Los Angeles Times )

QUSAIR, Syria — Sitting on a tennis court at a summer villa in the Syrian countryside, 22 would-be rebel fighters watched as a young man took apart and reassembled a machine gun he had picked from a small spread of arms on a plastic lawn table.

"OK, Saeed," said the instructor, 1st Lt. Nazir Jabir, 25, calling on a student in the back row. "What's the name of this machine gun? Stand up."

Saeed stood up, hands clasped behind his back as if in a proper classroom. "PKC," he said, and then a little louder, "PKC."

In the distance, beyond the sparkling pool and the red, pink and orange roses growing unchecked, shelling and gunfire could be heard.

"Is it Russian-made?" asked Jabir, a defector from President Bashar Assad's army, not in uniform but in jeans and an old volleyball camp T-shirt that declared on the back, "Steppin' it up."

"It is Russian," Saeed affirmed.

"Now the grenade launcher," Jabir said, moving on to the next weapon.

Syria's rebels are girding for more war.

The country is technically under a cease-fire and ostensibly in the process of implementing a U.N.-backed peace plan that is to end a 14-month conflict in which at least 10,000 people have died. But fighters, activists and civilians here in the hotbed province of Homs, as in much of Syria, have lost faith in the diplomatic effort led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Instead, rebels see this moment as an opportunity to rearm, regroup and prepare for what they regard as the inevitable escalation of fighting once the cease-fire, violated by both sides, is declared dead.

In the wake of Friday's massacre of more than 100 civilians, many of them children, in Houla, some rebels are asking whether that time has come. In a video posted online Saturday, Free Syrian Army spokesman Col. Qassim Saad Eddine said it was no longer possible to comply with the peace plan.

"The battle is coming, and it will be bigger and will take longer," said one defector, former army Sgt. Basil Idriss, who now heads a militia in Qusair. Many rebels escaping the battered Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs fled to Qusair, less than 20 miles away. "Annan's plan will fall apart. It may fall apart tomorrow or next week, or it may take longer."

Massive bombings in the capital and elsewhere have raised the specter of Al Qaeda involvement either in the rebel ranks or in independent cells in the country. But in the gardens and fields surrounding Qusair, the rebels insist they are on their own, making bombs, gathering weapons and scoping out army checkpoints and tank positions.

Occasionally people still ask, "Where is America?" or "Where is NATO?" but increasingly it comes off as rhetorical. "We only have God" has become a common refrain.

"We grew sick of the political solutions a long time ago," said Maj. Ibrahim "Abu Al-Noor" Mutawi, another defector, who heads the Al Mughawir militia, one of several in Qusair. "We didn't see anything to hold on to in this political path."


On a recent Monday, a woman threw rice and flower petals, as if welcoming a bridegroom, as the bodies of two men wrapped in white shrouds were carried through the streets of Qusair.

The two had been abducted five days earlier, allegedly by soldiers, and tortured to death. Their nails had been pulled out, bruises covered their bodies, there were signs of strangulation and one man's head was partially smashed in.

"We present our martyrs as proof to Kofi Annan and to the world!" a man yelled into a megaphone. "Isn't torture not allowed? Isn't killing by tanks not allowed, oh Kofi Annan?"

Nearby, the mother of one of the men, Mohammad Adnan Slebah, a teacher in his early 30s who had been working with the rebels, nearly collapsed.

The next day at her house, in the center of a dim room, a bag of tissues sat almost empty.

Women sat along the walls in silence. In one woman's arms was a sleeping month-old baby: Slebah's daughter. Nearby, his widow sat with her head against the wall, tears streaming down her face.

"I'm his mother, and when I went in I didn't recognize him," his mother said.

She reached inside her navy abaya and pulled out a tissue with blotches of dried blood. Before he was buried, she had held the tissue to her son's disfigured face and now, a day later, put it up to her nose and inhaled deeply.

"This is the smell of Mohammad," she said and began to cry.

Around her, the women began to weep again.

"If only the outside would help us. Where are they? I wish they would come and help us," she said as she switched briefly from grief to anger. "We don't have anyone but God."


As the rebels drive out to Qusair's suburbs, where militias have set up camp in abandoned villas and farmhouses among apricot orchards and fields where poppies grow wild, newly recorded revolution songs play on a loop, the soundtrack for the lives they now lead.

"We don't need NATO, we will be his end," goes a song titled "Bashar's Fall."

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