Exclusive: The last days of a Syrian rebel commander
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Syrian rebel commander Basel Eissa was killed in an air strike in the northern Syrian province of Idlib on Monday. A day before the attack, FRANCE 24 accompanied him on patrol in the former Crusader fortress town.
A tall, bearded rebel commander addresses his fighters in a former administrative building in the Syrian border town of Harem, right by the Turkish frontier in Syria’s northern Idlib province.
Basel Eissa, head of the Shuhada Brigade – also called The Martyrs of Idlib Brigade – exudes the sort of charisma and authority that commands the respect of his men.
“We all love him. He always boosts our morale. Before we go to the front, he reassures us. He plans the fighting teams every morning and dispatches the most battle-hardened and willing ones to the toughest areas. This is a man who pays attention to the morale of his troops in order to get the best out of them,” says Colonel Mehmet, one of men gathered to hear Eissa’s address.
The very next day, Eissa himself would be killed in a government air strike.
His fighters would also come under scrutiny after video footage emerged earlier this week of rebel fighters in Harem gunning down an unarmed man in a dusty alley.
Eissa himself did shout at his men, but was unable to stop them, according to Reuters, whose film crew shot the video in Harem.
The unit has justified its actions, maintaining that the unarmed man was a loyalist Syrian army officer – an argument that would not likely stand up in a war crimes court, but which nevertheless underscores the violations being committed on both sides in this brutal civil war.
But when I meet Eissa in Harem, the sturdily built rebel commander is very courteous, greeting me with a firm handshake and opening the door of his four-wheel drive for me.
"I'll show you around liberated Harem,” he offers effusively.
I sit in the passenger seat beside him. The car stereo is blaring traditional Syrian songs, a surreal juxtaposition in a landscape of rubble, collapsed walls and overhead electrical wires floating in the breeze. The streets are littered with bullet casings, mortar shells, castoff shoes, blood stains, and bits of human flesh that has attracted clumps of flies.
"You see this disaster?" Eissa asks, pointing to a destroyed mosque surrounded by buildings that are still smoldering from an aerial regime bombardment the previous day, which killed 70 people.
A ghost town where rebel fighters roam
A former mechanical engineer, Eissa is considered a hero in the ranks of fighters. In Idlib province, he built his reputation with his first victory in the provincial capital city of Idlib in March. He followed it up with another successful attack in the town of Armanaz in June, where his troops defeated 400 regime soldiers.
In July, he took Salqin, another Idlib town, before launching his assault on the former Crusader fortress town of Harem the next month.
"There is still fighting in the castle but the city center is secure. Our soldiers control six out of seven access roads,” Colonel Shihab, logistics head of the brigade, told me shortly before my meeting with Eissa.
Harem right now is a ghost town: most of the roughly 20,000-strong population has fled to the surrounding villages or have crossed the border into Turkey.
Only the rebels, most of them in civilian clothes with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, are visible.
Some play cards in their spare time. Others amuse themselves by hurtling down the deserted streets of Harem on scooters packed with three men per bike. Others phone their comrades stationed in the Crusader-era castle to ensure they have enough ammunition.
Eissa, who has just got off his walkie-talkie, orders ten men to be posted in their rear base. Rebel fighters on rooftops armed with Katyusha rocket launchers fire mortars at Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s army.
"Let's get out here," he tells me firmly. "In the city, there are some armed, pro-Assad civilians who are ready to fire on us at any time. Look at this wall--a couple of days ago this was not there,” he says, pointing to a piece of graffiti in Arabic that reads, ‘Bashar, don’t worry. We will drink the the rebels' blood to the last drop’.
As the fighting in the citadel drowns out our conversation, Eissa nervously restarts his vehicle. A few minutes later, he stops before an intact house where he regularly meets his inner circle.
"On the ground, we are stronger,” he tells me when we’re inside the house. “The problem is the air strikes. We must change tactics. In three days – maximum - the citadel will be in our hands."
That's all he says. Overhead, a Syrian military helicopter flies over the city before disappearing from the horizon. Eissa is tense. The next day, he will be targeted in this very house and die in a bombing raid with 20 of his men.