Marc Bastian, AFP
Last updated: 16 July, 2012

“Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed” fight Syrian army from the hills

The 15 fighters who call themselves “Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed” are not afraid of dying at the hands of the troops of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Their charismatic leader Abu Saeed says that for one month now, the army has laid siege to the rebels in the Wastani mountains overlooking the town of Jisr al-Shughur in the northwestern province of Idlib.

“If we must die, we shall by the will of Allah,” the black-bearded Saeed says with a smile.

He and his men — all young army deserters — have only light weapons to confront the troops backed by tanks that surround Jabal Wastani.

“The situation here is complicated,” said one rebel who calls himself Abu Steyf.

Since the uprising against the central government erupted in mid-March 2011, the region of Idlib where Jisr al-Shughur is located has shifted from being under army control to rebel control and then back again.

But on the ridges of Jabal Wastani the “Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed” claim to have gained the upper hand.

“We control most of the zone,” says Abu Steyf.

Five months ago he broke with army ranks after troops killed one of his brothers.

“My youngest brother was taking part in anti-regime protests. Assad’s army came to arrest him but he wasn’t home. So they rammed a bayonet into my older brother and killed him instead.”

Most of the young fighters are bearded and sport tattoos. Some are still in their teens but all have one thing in common: they pledge, like Abu Steyf, to “fight to the death.”

And the clock is ticking.

Syrian army tanks surround the area, and troops pound it more frequently and fiercely as days go by.

“The Syrian army can only shell us from a distance. The troops don’t come here any more,” says Abu Saeed.

He says his men’s light weapons can do little to confront armoured vehicles.

Abu Saeed, 36, says he joined the uprising from the start of the movement in March 2011.

Three months later he was shot and wounded by security forces while taking part in an anti-regime demonstration.

“That’s when I decided to take up arms,” he says, adding that he was hit by four bullets that almost resulted in the loss of one arms.

Last week troops ambushed him but he managed to escape unscathed.

“They riddled my car with 25 bullets but failed to get me because I am too skinny,” he says, laughing.

He carries a Kalashnikov assault rifle strapped across his white robe and a shotgun in a holster.

“We are fighting against injustice by protecting protesters against the wrath of the regime,” says Abu Saeed.

Inside the small village of Jabal Wastani, residents rush over to him to seek his help in solving a trove of problems — wounded who need to be evacuated, and food, water and power shortages.

The fighters live in a desolate cement house, sleeping on the floor and relying on handouts from villagers.

Abu Saeed says medicines come across the border from Turkey.

The weapons they carry are mostly taken from soldiers “we capture,” the rebel leader says.

Despite the name of the group — “Soldiers of the Prophet Mohammed — few of the fighters appear to take time to say their five daily prayers or to be truly religious.

Their language is certainly far from holy. The group bends over with laughter when one of them, the shaven-headed and long-bearded Amar Jaffar, launches a torrent of invective at Assad and his family.