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Homemade in Lattakia: Behind the Scenes of the FSA Brigades in Lattakia

06/03/2013 12:49 GMT | Updated 04/05/2013 10:12 BST

The mountains Jebel Akrad (Mount of the Kurds) and Jebel Turkman (Mount of the Turkmans) in Lattakia are under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The Sunni brigades in the area were born out of necessity, rather than any overarching political ideology. Zahir Baybar's brigade, for instance, has three units of 15 men aged 16 to 30. Its members were farmers, laborers and skilled craftsmen. Only one has a degree of celebrity, Abu Jihad, a professional footballer playing in Syria's premier league.

"Initially" he says, "I went out to demonstrate against the regime peacefully, but the regime forced us to defend ourselves." Abu Jihad defected from the army and was joined by his brother, an artillery officer, in his native village of Dwerkeh on Jebel Akrad. His first battle was fought with seven Kalashnikovs and hunting rifles against 150 trucks of soldiers. "We fought until we ran out of bullets and then we pegged it," said Abu Jihad. Over all, command of the brigade came from an FSA officer who was in Turkey at the time of my visit. The brigade is poor, lightly armed and posses little by way of communication. They use Skype or Turkish mobile networks for secure communication.

Abu Jihad and Mohammed, his brother, have the most military experience in the unit. The rest are from the village, and are related to each other in one way or another. The unit has its social media soldier, Salaam Abdul Kareem, whose main concern is to film battles; it has Ashraf, a shy, young seventeen-year-old who serves as quartermaster, cleaning and cooking for the unit. Both are treated as an integral part of the unit. In fact, Salaam is considered one of the most valuable member of the Zahir Baybar brigade. The brigade is not rich, and Salaam often complains of having to do his work on a borrowed iPhone.

The esprit de corps of these brigades is high because of their fatalistic outlook. As Mohammed says, pulling deeply on his cigarette, "God does what he wills. There is nothing we can do about it." I inquired as to why the morale was high despite the obvious lack of resources. He answered laconically, "martyrdom."

I met an injured soldier in Yamadiya hospital with bits of shrapnel stuck on his face who displayed this extraordinary morale, saying, "May God heal me quickly so that I can return to fight that oppressor." The doctor did not seem very optimistic about his recovery. A constant complaint of the Brigades in Lattakia is that they are less well funded than in Idleb province. I visited seven brigades and only saw one anti-tank gun and mortar. Abu Jihad showed me the weapons that his unit possessed: one pump-action shot gun, Kalashnikovs that look liked they were from the Second World War, one M16 and homemade bombs. He had learnt to concoct bombs from the Internet and YouTube. "We lost five lives trying to learn how to make these bombs," he told me. I asked him why he was so good at it. "Because I stick to the letter of the instructions--the ones that died decided to experiment." He took me to his bomb lab, a disused but well-ventilated building. "Any increase in temperature can lead to death," he said. In Salma, I met a Lattakian, Abu Lughm, a forty-year-old carpenter with a reputation for making homemade bombs. He said he had learnt how to make them from fishermen who used dynamite to catch fish. Others, like Abu Dera', a soldier who defected, learnt it from the army. He said, "Iranians and Russians helped us in making these baramils [bombs filled with TNT] but they [Alawites] didn't let us get near them."

The Lattakian brigades seem politically inexperienced and inclined towards Salafist Islam. When I asked the Imam of Dwerkeh why this was the case, he replied, "This is partly due to feeling abandoned by the world and partly due to nearness to death and because many Sufis stood by the regime."

Not a single person I spoke to admitted to having political affiliations. As Salaam explained, "We used to be busy just trying to live to have political aspirations. In Lattakia, because it is the Alawi, heartland any sort of political activity is crushed; books you find in Damascus can get you in trouble here." I heard countless stories of the regime's sectarianism. Abu Khalil, a fighter and a father of two, told me he had been forced to work for an Alawite gangster for free. Even from Jebel Akrad, one could see many Alawi villages that had electricity when the Sunni villages had none. Despite this sectarianism, most insisted that they were against the regime, not against the Alawites.

Mohsin, a fighter with sixteen mouths to feed, pointed to the politically neutral Murshidi villages and said that the brigades left them alone. The Imam of Dwerkeh said that "they [the Alawites] kill our children, but we will not. We teach our soldiers of ethical conduct in war and what the Qur'an and the Messenger--peace be upon him--says. The Alawites who have not committed a crime will have a place in the new Syria."

Some, like Abu Khaled, a father three and a veteran of fifty battles, says he prayed for a Christian president because "they have more love in their religion." Unit commander Abu'l Harith of Ansar Sham, a brigade with no affiliation to the FSA, wanted Shari'a through the ballot box. If Lattakian brigades have managed to remain relatively moderate despite the sectarian pressure, it suggests that Syria's endgame may not necessarily fragment along sectarian or religious fault lines.

This article first appeared in The Majalla