Firas al-Omar. Photo: Rudaw
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Ever since they took up arms against the Damascus regime in 2011, the villagers of Jabal Akrad near Latakia in northwestern Syria have been fighting for survival.
But that is getting harder, now that Russian planes and helicopters have joined the war on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, said Firas al-Omar, a Syrian Kurd who leads 200 rebels on Jabal Akrad – or the Mountain of Kurds.
“The Russians drop cluster bombs that destroy an entire village or area,” Omar said this week in Erbil, where he came to talk to the media and convey his people’s cry for help against the relentless Russian air raids.
“We know the difference between Syrian and Russian bombing patterns,” he claimed, moving his hands in the air like an airplane.
“The Syrian planes fly low and often drop barrel bombs. But the Russian jets fly very high and are invisible, and their helicopters fly almost at ground level.”
This Kurdish fighter said that the people of 64 villages have taken up arms against the Syrian regime since the start of the war, which is now in its fifth year. But they are isolated on a range of mountains and under constant attack from government forces, Russian jets and the Shiite Hezbollah militia.
The villagers revolted against the regime in 2011, when security forces came to the village of Zawiya and detained around 20 teenagers, Omar recounted.
“The next day the families started buying weapons like hunting rifles and whatever they could, and warned security authorities to stay away from the area. But when a military force of 500 armed soldiers returned, Omar claimed the villagers killed close to 200 of them in clashes.
Omar, who did his military service in the Syrian army 10 years before the outbreak of war, now leads the Hamza Battalion, named after an historical Islamic warrior. He justified picking that name “because the Syrian rebellion has had a religious nature from the very beginning.”
Omar’s men have appeared in YouTube videos fighting the Syrian army. This former farmer and truck driver said that 80,000 villagers were able to keep the army and its militia backers out of the area.
But since the Russian bombardments began in October, he said the lives of the villagers had turned from bad to worse.
A few days before he set out on his long trip from his mountain hideout through Turkey and on to Erbil, Omar’s uncle and aunt and some of his cousins were killed by a Russian bomb. While in Erbil, he also received a call that several more relatives had been killed.
“Once 60 members of a family named Zamu were killed in a Russian bombing raid,” he said. “People gather and hide in one place for safety and many get killed that way.”
Omar’s area is a mix of Kurds and Turkmen. He said that everyone has joined the fight -- but not all against the regime: some people saw it in their interests to stay loyal to the regime, Omar said.
Apart from Russian and Syrian jets, the villagers are haunted by other forces as well, like the Lebanese, Iranian and Iraqi militias, he said, claiming that by listening in on the enemy’s radio communications his men can even tell the nationalities of those they kill.
The people of this mountainous area once lived on producing olives, peaches and apples. But since the war their groves and orchards have been abandoned and the trees are now used by the rebels for cover against bombardment.
Although Omar painted a grim picture of an abandoned people fighting alone, he gave away that they are not as alone as he made it out to be.
“We are supported by several countries but we cannot reveal them,” he said.
The arms they receive are light weapons and mostly go to another battalion near the coast. Al-Omar didn’t mind that. He was confident that they could defend themselves with what they have got, but not against the Russians.
“The only thing we want is an end to the vicious Russian bombing,” he said. “We want a voice to speak for us. Jabal Akrad is being wiped off the face of the earth.”