Our correspondent in Syria has been seeking out rebels in action in Aleppo.
This comes as current and former Western officials say their countries have lost confidence in the Syrian National Council, the largely foreign-based body initially courted as a government in waiting.
The main focus of political and diplomatic effort, they say, is now the Free Syrian Army, which, although spread out, has gained real ground.
In Aleppo, Farouk Atig said: “Arranging to meet the military commander in Aleppo is far from easy. Abdelkader el-Hadji has at least six thousand men under him, and is high on the Assad regime’s most wanted list. This former businessman has his troops’ respect and doesn’t like to take any risks.”
The 32-year-old el-Hadji leads the Tawhid brigade. Aleppo has two other rebel leaders.
Meanwhile, western countries can’t agree on whether to protect “humanitarian zones”, or to enforce a no-fly zone, in the face of Russian and Chinese opposition.
A former US Army intelligence officer said this week the Syrian opposition is terribly frustrated, feeling the West “encouraged them to rise up and then didn’t do anything to support them.”
Atig managed to meet el-Hadji in Aleppo, and asked if the rebels are having difficulties fighting on different fronts.
Abdelkader el-Hadji, chief rebel commander in Aleppo:
“No. We are not weakening. We are stronger than before. Assad’s army isn’t very big, so they can’t fight in several areas at once. We have fronts at Arkoub, Saba Bahrat, old Aleppo, and at Salah Eddine. Since there aren’t many of them, when we started the fight in Arkoub they were still in Salah Eddine. That really shows their weakness and numbers. They are underequipped to cover several fronts, so we opened up like that on purpose, to weaken them more. They don’t know what to do. They are really weak.”
“Where are the rebels getting their weapons, and have jihadist soldiers joined them?”
“The answer is in the question: we haven’t received weapons or international aid. You’ve noticed that foreign countries haven’t done anything for us. The weapons we have now we captured from Assad’s army. We now have a few tanks. Where do you think we got them? We took them from Assad. No one gave them to us, we won them. Luckily we have weapons, semi-automatic assault rifles, thank God. But we need more, more sophisticated, more modern, to defend against air attacks. But you can see: the international community watches us and does nothing to help. That is the shame of the UN Security Council. The Syrian people are getting slaughtered every day. Every day women and children are killed. Houses and mosques are destroyed every day – the shame of the Security Council. They watch and do nothing: shame! Assad’s army doesn’t come at us on the ground; they bomb us with their helicopters and their Migs. But on the ground they can’t go forward. They have to be very careful before they advance.”
“Are foreign fighters at your side, Palestinians or from Libya or Tunisia, for instance?”
“The Tawhid brigade doesn’t have any foreign fighters, only Syrian. They’re all from Aleppo and around it and from Homs, Hama and Latakia. There may be a few other Arab fighters in other brigades but not many. We’re grateful but we don’t really need fighters, we need weapons. But those who are already here, we thank them, because they are so committed to helping us, when all they can do is sacrifice themselves for Syria. We are all united as Muslims for the people of Syria. They are here to defend the Syrian people, but there aren’t many of them.”