11 Sep 2012

Battle for Syria: on the ground with the Farouk brigade

Channel 4 News gains rare access to one of Syria’s most elite rebel fighting groups – the Farouk Brigade. French photojournalist Mani writes about his experiences with them on the front line.

I have spent time with several brigades from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) over the past year – Farouk, Khalid Ibn Walid, Ahrar Sham, Rijal Allah and the Military council of Rastan – and from early on it was apparent there were many sources of tension between the different brigades – and within them.

Ammunition was, and is, the biggest issue.

It is expensive and hard to find, and I noticed commanders all sourced their own Some would buy ammunition on the black market, others from sympathisers within the Syrian Army. And once they got hold of it, they would not share it but keep it for their own men.

Control over media appearances and PR was another flashpoint. Some officers were criticised for putting more energy into TV appearances than into military operations.

These tensions led to divisions – and the view inside and outside of Syria was of a fractured and disparate opposition.

The Free Syrian Army knew it had to address these issues – to not only achieve better military success but also secure cash and backing from neighbouring and western states.

The joint command was created in May 2012 and is based in Rastan. Its aim: to impose authority and control the different armed groups. It has split Syria into 10 military regions and put 10 commanders in place. They put a spokesman in Rastan charged with handling the media.

There’s a strong will to unify, and this new found co-ordination works to a certain degree. Much of the FSA funding is funnelled through joint command, and there is now more control over the armed groups. But brigades still operate independently – and there’s still feuding and in-fighting.

The Farouk Brigade

I have just come back from spending time with the Farouk Brigade, the largest and most elite force under the FSA umbrella.

It’s made up of civilian volunteers and defectors from the Syrian army. Many of them are Salafis – men who practice a strict and puritanical brand of Islam. They are portrayed by many as extremists who want to impose strict Sharia law in Syria – an accusation they deny.

Farouk has refused to join the joint command. This is partly out of pride – it was not asked or consulted when it was established – but also for political reasons.

Farouk leaders told me they are unhappy that the joint command is run by former Syrian military officers. They would rather civilian leaders were put in charge because when President Assad is toppled (there’s no “if” in their minds) they fear a military regime will replace it.

Farouk say they are representing the wishes of the Syrian people. They want a civil state to replace the military regime that has run the country for decades.

“In democracies,” one of Farouk’s political leader told me, “the minister of defence is a politician not an army officer. That’s what we want here in Syria.”

Photo gallery: Syrian civil war - from the front line

In many ways the Farouk brigade do not need joint command. They have their own sources of funding – from Syrians, from donors in Gulf states and from western sources. They send couriers abroad to collect money from these donors, they told me. When I was with them bundles of cash arrived – $100,000 for ammunition and $10,000 to feed the men.

Farouk’s critics say they are funded by Islamist groups. They do not deny it, but say these groups are not their main source of cash.

I saw no foreign fighters during my time with them. These men are Syrian, although some are already battle hardened from tours of duty in Iraq fighting US forces or in Lebanon with the Salafi-jihadists of Fath al-Islam. Still, most of the fighters I met were local people who took up arms and joined Farouk.

“We look religious, we look Salafi. It’s a problem. But don’t they want us to be free? Isn’t this the freedom they want – my freedom to be what I want to be?”

Farouk are careful to manage their image – and try to counter the extremist label that is thrust upon them. They have their own PR wing who film their successes on the battlefield and upload them to YouTube and Facebook with the Farouk logo.

One fighter told me that their image as hardcore Salafis has hindered their fundraising abilities in the west. “We look religious, we look Salafi. It’s a problem. But don’t they want us to be free? Isn’t this the freedom they want – my freedom to be what I want to be?”

During one trip to the frontline, I saw a fight erupt when a member of a different brigade was spotted filming the action that Farouk brigade was launching. The Farouk PR responsible was there and accused him of trying to steal their thunder – ‘You are always filming us and claiming our successes as your own,” he screamed at him and ordered him to stop. This is not just about pride – these clips are valuable fundraising tools.

So what comes next?

Farouk are taking heavy losses, although they are well organised and fairly well funded. Although the fall of Assad appears not to be imminent, these men are thinking of the Syria they want to build.

One fighter told me he dreams of a state where “I will have my rights, as a Muslim man. I can worship my God. If you are a Christian you must have your rights. This is the country we will eventually have.”

What comes next remains to be seen.

Mani is a French photo journalist reporting from inside Syria