Among Syrian rebels, a shared sense of commitment – By Austin Tice
Khan Sheikhoun, Syria — On a Sunday late last month, Syrian army forces attacked this town. By early afternoon, two children had been killed by a mortar shell, and doctors and nurses were struggling to save an elderly woman shot in the chest with a Kalashnikov. An attack helicopter circled overhead. The local rebel commander phoned his compatriots in the nearby town of Madaya for help.
When the reinforcements arrived, they focused on the chopper. One group took off with a truck-mounted Dushka heavy machine gun, racing through the streets as the helicopter swooped above. Others fired at it with Dragunov sniper rifles and Kalashnikovs.
Asked how he hoped to shoot down an armored attack helicopter circling above at 2,000 feet using only a rifle, one of the fighters grinned. “Perhaps it is possible, if it is the will of Allah,” he said.
The thousands of rebel fighters who battle daily with the superior forces of the Syrian military face long odds. Many have no military training. There’s little strategic planning. Even as international efforts to support the rebel cause begin to kick in with a flow of smuggled rifles, heavy weapons remain scarce.
And yet, a rare look inside rebel operations in Syria reveals a force that has been undeterred by the crushing tactics of President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Heavy losses in the rebel ranks and among civilians have only emboldened the fighters in their quest to topple Assad, whose government has killed thousands of Syrians while trying to suppress what began last year as a peaceful uprising but is rapidly turning into a civil war.
“I never wanted to fight. Our revolution started in peace,” said Shahm, who commands the rebel unit in Madaya.
“We asked Bashar only for our freedom. But he answered us with bullets. The first time a man hits you, maybe you do not respond. Maybe not the second time. But the third time . . .”
His voice trailed off. “I am human. I have emotions. And so now, I fight.”
That decision comes with risk. During the battle in Khan Sheikhoun last month, a sniper in a sandbagged bunker had been causing the rebels trouble. Shahm grabbed Walid, his best rocket-propelled-grenade gunner, and they headed for the bunker.
The men crept, undetected, to within 100 yards of the sniper. Walid’s first shot flew high. He calmly reloaded, and his second rocket scored a direct hit. The Syrian army responded with an ear-shattering barrage of directionless fire. Thirty feet away, a tank shell exploded against a stone wall. Shahm and Walid looked at each other and laughed.
The helicopter escaped unscathed, but Shahm reckoned the day’s fighting a success. By his count — which was difficult to verify — rebel forces destroyed a tank and three armored personnel carriers, and killed or wounded at least 15 soldiers, all without suffering any casualties.
“The children, they are a tragedy,” Shahm said, referring to the two killed by a mortar shell. “But we quickly took our revenge.”
An unlikely fighter
At first glance, Shahm, who is in his mid-20s, does not make much of an impression as a fighter. His glasses and intellectual air seem more befitting of his pre-
revolutionary alter ego — a student of civil engineering at a Russian university. He speaks beautiful English, decorated with poetic Arabic flourishes and delivered with the faintest hint of a Russian accent.