Syrian Rebel Commands Tank Battalion From Hospital Bed
Running a civil war by cell phone
Yahya Mhebeldin was a tailor in Al Qusayr, a city in western Syria near Homs. Then in the spring of 2011, mass demonstrations demanding the end of Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s dictatorial rule sparked a civil war. Mhebeldin, 29, became an opposition fighter, commanding a growing force of local men fighting to defend their neighborhood from government troops and their allies.
Badly wounded at the height of the fighting five months ago, today Mhebeldin is in a hospital in northern Lebanon, where he continues to lead his men—and an arsenal of captured tanks—relaying commands via a battery of cell phones resting on his pillow.
Mhebeldin’s band of volunteer fighters began modestly. The tailor and his friends sold their cattle and drained their bank accounts to buy weapons—mostly AK-47s and Rocket-Propelled Grenades. With two and a half years of army experience, Mhebeldin took charge. Soon he had 80 men under his command.
He’s the boss, but he’s also the youngest man in his battalion. All the other fighters are at least 35 years old—and a few men in their 60s and 70s volunteered to cook, stand guard and run supplies. Mhebeldin instituted a strict regimen of training, overseen by an active-duty Syrian army officer who defected to the unit. Mondays are for religious instruction and weapons practice. Thursdays, more weapons.
When the battalion captured government tanks, they too were added to the training schedule. The instruction continued even as the Al Kahf Battalion, as it became known, engaged in nearly constant combat with Syrian troops and, later in the 30-month war, militants from Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group that has come to the Syrian regime’s aid.
Order of battle
Mhebeldin set up a headquarters unit with radios, satellite phones and even an Internet connection. He formed a media detachment to shoot videos and post them on Youtube. Early on the tailor hosted reporters from all over the world but stopped after an Iranian reporter published a negative story.
He divided his fighters into four frontline companies each of 20 men. The companies are each assigned to a different geographical sector of Al Qusayr. The sectors change in order to rotate companies through the heaviest fighting, giving each a chance to rest between combat.
The tailor commander is adamant that the companies must not mingle; only their officers interact. Command and control is by radio, as the Syrian government has knocked out cellular service—not to mention water and power—in rebel-held areas. To direct his soldiers from the hospital, Mhebeldin calls his deputy commander on his cell phone, and the deputy—much closer to the battlefield—passes along the orders by radio.
Once a month the officers assess their units’ supply needs and report to Mhebeldin. Excess supply items in one company are spread among the neighboring units.
Companies expecting the heaviest combat get extra consignments of ammunition and weapons.
Independent at first, today the Al Kahf battalion has joined the Abu Shaker Brigade—one of four brigades in Al Qusayr that belong to the Farouk Division, arguably the Free Syrian Army’s most professional combat formation. The brigade shares the 20 captured tanks, moving them between sectors as needed.
In the beginning Mhebeldin and his men paid for their own weapons and supplies or stole them from the Syrian army. Now they are financed by foreigners that the tailor declines to name because, he explains, “I want it to continue.” The Farouk Division is known to receive non-lethal supplies from an organization of Syrian expats funded in great part by the U.S. State Department.
Ammo has run out in the middle of battle. Once the Al Kahf fighters even resorted to hurling rocks at attacking Hezbollah militants. But the battalion’s biggest need is medicine and medical training. When Mhebeldin was wounded, it was the Red Cross that evacuated him across the border into Lebanon and to a rudimentary hospital sympathetic to the rebel cause.
The Al Kahf battalion defends its home. “This is very important,” Mhebeldin explains. The fighters know the terrain and can maneuver more effectively. Hezbollah, by contrast, is a stranger to Syria. Its troops frequently get lost in battle.
Fighting for their hometown imparts another huge advantage to the tailor’s men. They know if they don’t fight, the enemy could take their homes and kill their wives and children. It’s a powerful motivation. “They maintain their own morale,” Mhebeldin says.
But their disadvantages are greater. The battalion has no anti-aircraft weapons and is all but defenseless against the Syrian government’s jets and helicopters. The unit has dug underground bunkers but can’t stay beneath the surface forever.
Al Kahf has been in combat non-stop for more than two years. The fighting spiked in April when Hezbollah launched three attacks on Al Qusayr in quick succession. The Syrian air force dropped as many as 300 bombs. “How can you survive in these circumstances?” Mhebeldin asks. All of his men were wounded; 17 died include three of four brothers who had volunteered together.
In all, the brigade lost 80 men in the April fighting, with 270 hurt. Shrapnel punctured the tailor’s side, slicing his intestines. A medic patched him up and installed a catheter. The Red Cross carried him into Lebanon. The hospital staff keeps him medicated to battle excruciating pain, but does not have the expertise to operate on his internal wound.
So the tailor commander waits, hopes and issues orders by cell phone.