BEIRUT: Syrian rebels seized another government military facility in Aleppo over the weekend, but lost a charismatic field commander in the process.
Col. Youssef Jader, aka Abu Furat, was a defected army officer who fought with the Tawhid Brigade of the Free Syrian Army.
A native of the town of Jarablous, northeast of Aleppo, he spent most of his military career in Latakia before taking part in Tawhid’s prominent role in fighting regime forces in the north.
He was reportedly killed by a tank shell Saturday while leading the rebels’ takeover of the sprawling Infantry School base outside Aleppo following a siege of several weeks.
While his comrades, according to media reports, praised his military skills and genial personality, Abu Furat has quickly become a symbol of sectarian coexistence although, ironically, he was a leading figure in Tawhid, a brigade classified as Islamist.
An Alawite activist outside the country described him as “really a moderate, even though he was one of the main leaders of the Tawhid Brigade.”
“It is really a big loss, a loss that deeply hurt me.”
Pro-uprising Facebook pages called him a model of the “ethical” aspect of Syria’s 21-month uprising, as several YouTube videos posted prior to his death make explicitly clear.
Abu Furat appears in a video in late November, drawing a map of the Infantry School in the dirt to explain the tactical plan to take the complex. He claims his fighters could begin the assault immediately but are delaying this in order to secure the largest possible number of defections beforehand and avoid bloodshed. He urges the families of the soldiers inside to contact their loved ones and tell them that defectors will receive safe passage.
Abu Furat ends by giving out two mobile phone numbers for families of soldiers to call, to coordinate efforts.
A few days before taking control of the Infantry School, Abu Furat appears in a video to declare that the deadline for fleeing the facility ends in 24 hours. He says this while surrounded by some of the 70 soldiers and officers who have just defected with his group’s help.
In another video, Abu Furat says he is “angry” during the Infantry School’s liberation – angry at the fact that Syrian military equipment is being destroyed, and government soldiers are being killed. He is also careful to name the half-dozen battalions that, along with Tawhid, are jointly responsible for the operation.
Another video makes plain Abu Furat’s desire to avoid sectarian bloodletting. In a noisy room, he greets an Alawite defector who is off camera, presumably to protect his identity.
Abu Furat addresses Syrian President Bashar Assad, accusing him of “dragging” his Alawite sect into a war and forcing them to hate Sunnis.
“But in spite of you, we will coexist,” he says defiantly. He adds that after having lived for 22 years in the Latakia region, he knows many Alawites who are poor, and “good people,” meaning they have not benefited from the Assad regime’s grip on power.
He addresses the “Alawites living in the mountains” of the coast, as someone who has lived with them.
“And you know me,” he adds, pointing at his chest. “I’ve drunk mate with you,” he says, referring to a South American tea that is heavily consumed in parts of rural Syria, and particularly by the Alawites.
Abu Furat stresses that the uprising doesn’t mean that the Alawites are being targeted as a sect.
“We’re partners in this nation,” he says, praising the example of Sheikh Saleh al-Ali, an Alawite rebel chief from the 1920s who rejected both French colonial rule and a separate Alawite state.
Abu Furat says the regime left officers like him with two choices: “Kill, or kill.” Officers were not allowed to resign their posts in protest at being asked to violently suppress street demonstrations, and were thus forced to choose between killing for the regime, and killing in self-defense. He says he was ordered, as a tank commander, to shell the Sunni-majority town of Haffeh in rural Latakia.
Asked about the feelings of military personnel who are shooting or shelling civilians, Abu Furat mentions an acquaintance “named S. – because he hasn’t defected yet.”
He says the man would cry after firing his artillery piece, and argues that not everyone who is fighting for the regime should be blamed for his acts.
“They’re being told that [the rebels are] Afghanis, Pakistanis,” he says.
The video concludes with a light tone. Abu Furat tells the story of a friend who decided to count every time state television claimed that government troops had destroyed a Russian Dushka heavy machine gun supposedly belonging to the rebels.
It turned out the rebels had, according to the regime, the absurd figure of 32,000 such pieces of heavy equipment, causing Abu Furat to grin mischievously. “Damn you, you’re such a liar.”