“First, we will endure the violent aerial bombardment, then move to weaken Russia by all means available, such as recruiting agents in the ranks of the regime to provide us with the movements of the Russians and the regime,” Capt. Rashid al-Hourani, from the rebel Homs Liberation Movement, told The Daily Beast by telephone.
The Homs Liberation Movement—a division of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army—seems ready to use tactics associated with ISIS. “We will conduct martyrdom operations carried out by dissident officers,” al-Hourani said, using a euphemism for suicide attacks.
Though this may not be all that surprising. The Movement is an Islamist faction known to be a close military ally of the official al Qaeda franchise in Syria known as Jabhat al-Nusra. According to Genevieve Casagrande, an analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, “The relationship between Nusra and Tahrir Homs with regards to governance was thought of as ‘uneasy’ when Nusra first started to assert itself (and it’s strict version of sharia) in Homs, however, they have likely grown closer as time has gone on and probably are currently participating in joint rebel governance structures together.” Al-Nusra has already warned Russia that it will face another Afghanistan in Russia.
Also, the Movement is in a desperate situation. Its bases are in al-Rastan, Talbiseh, and other cities in the rebel enclave between Hama and Homs in western Syria, an area encircled by the Russian-backed Syrian army—and a main target of Russian bombing and cruise-missile attacks that kicked off in late September.
Russia has deployed at least 35 warplanes plus helicopters and hundreds of military advisers to Syria.
The Movement’s territory bisects a highway linking Damascus with Latakia, where the Russian military has its Syria headquarters. For the Syrian government to link up with the Russians and secure arguably its most important supply route, it must clear out the rebels north of Homs, including al-Hourani’s fighters.
The battle will involve more than planes, tanks and infantry. The media are also a weapon.
The Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies portray all rebels, including the Free Syrian Army, as terrorists. The Movement has a plan to defend itself against potentially demoralizing propaganda. “We will create a unified media outlet to carry news of our victories over both the Russians and the regime to strengthen morale and enthusiasm among the fighters,” al-Hourani said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has suggested that the FSA should join the Russian and Syrian militaries in battling ISIS, but al-Hourani said that Russian airstrikes have only succeeded in unifying Syria's squabbling rebel factions against Moscow and Damascus. In early October, 41 rebel units announced that they would begin targeting Russian forces. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi clerics have called for anti-Russian jihad.
But al-Hourani said he rejected holy war. “We are neither secular nor Islamic,” he said. “We represent Syrian society—a tolerant, moderate state.”
To be fair, even American-trained “secular” rebels have fought alongside al Qaeda, refused to oppose it, surrendered to it and armed it with American-made weapons. But the Movement says it wants to be an American ally in Syria. “There is no relationship between the Homs Liberation Movement and America,” al-Hourani told The Daily Beast, “but we would like there to be one.”
Al-Hourani said he hoped the Americans would arm his unit, as it has done for other FSA brigades. The United States had two separate programs to train and equip Syrian rebels—one run by the CIA, which targets Assad regime forces, plus another, less secretive effort that managed to deploy just a handful of fighters, tasked with only fighting ISIS, at a cost of $500 million. The White House canceled the latter program last week, after The Daily Beast showed how U.S.-provided materiel was last seen in the hands of a rebel commander who had gone rogue and denounced the Pentagon program. The White House said it would soon launch a new train-and-equip effort.
But the rebel officer said he wants different weaponry than the United States has provided other rebel brigades. “The weapons provided by the United States are defensive rather than offensive, requiring those who receive them to fight political battles according to implemented procedures,” al-Hourani said. “The factions armed by America cannot conduct any operations by themselves.”
Left to its own devices, the Homs Liberation Movement won't bother trying to fight like the Americans do, according to Al Hourani. Instead, the rebel group will borrow a page from ISIS—and infiltrate, then suicide-bomb, the Russian-regime coalition.