The commander is thirty-six years old. A few strands of white in his dark, curly hair make him seem older, as do his words. He points to six young men, posed like football players in a team photograph on a wall of his forward command post, and says, “Two are martyrs, two are prisoners, and two are still working.” By working, he means fighting. Those recruits under his command were friends in their twenties. Of the two who died, he explains, “He was twenty-two years old when he was killed. And this one was martyred in June this year here in Tadamon.”
Tadamon is a ragged neighborhood of Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites on the southern outskirts of Damascus, bordering the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Yarmouk and perched astride the road to Jordan (see map below). The commander’s makeshift headquarters in a battered apartment building, where he fields calls on military radios and cell phones, is less then two hundred yards from other Syrians determined to bring down the regime he is defending. Although a regular army officer with a degree from the military academy in Aleppo, he commands paramilitary brigades of half-trained young men and former army conscripts of the year-old National Defense Forces (NDF). They protect their neighborhoods and, on rare occasions, take part in offensive operations. The NDF includes former members of the unpopular shabihah, mainly Alawite gangs whom the regime recruited at the beginning of the rebellion to add depth to the overstretched regular army. The commander provides his NDF troops with basic training, uniforms, weapons, ammunition, communications, and leadership.
“Most of the fighting is done by NDF fighters,” he says, “because they are the inhabitants of the region and know the region well.” On the other side are troops from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its erstwhile allies the Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and other extreme Salafist militias. Some rebels are as familiar with the terrain as the NDF, because they too come from Tadamon. The commander knows many of their names. “You cannot imagine that some of our neighbors from this street here are now fighting on the other side against us,” he says. “During some clashes on the front, they called us by name.” He tells me that the previous commander on the other side was Nabil al-Laqoud, who came from Dera’a. “He was killed last year in Abu Trabi Street.” The commander asks me not to publish his own name, because he is speaking to me without authorization.
The commander and his opponents hole up in…
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