It was unclear how many of Farouq’s fighters were army defectors and how many were civilians who’d volunteered. Idris declined to give a number, though it appeared to a visiting reporter that the force was split equally among those with military training and those without.
No foreigners were seen among Farouq’s fighters during the week a reporter spent with them, though more than a half-dozen fighters, when a reporter told them he had spent time reporting in Iraq, offered that they also had fought there during the U.S. invasion and occupation. Often, their first question was whether the reporter had visited Fallujah, the city that became synonymous with Iraq’s Sunni Muslim resistance after anti-American fighters took it over in 2003 and held U.S. forces largely at bay before a full-scale assault by U.S. forces in late 2004 recaptured it, destroying more than 80 percent of the city in the effort.
Many of the Farouq fighters compared Homs to Fallujah and Syrian tactics to those employed by the United States in Iraq. They noted that the Syrian military is building walls around Baba Amr, with the intent of preventing fighters from re-infiltrating the neighborhood.
Farouq is keen to manage its image in the media; it has its own media department.
“We are not terrorists,” was a common refrain from the fighters in Qusayr. Though many of the men were pious Muslims, they seemed less motivated by religion than by the repression and abuse they said they had experienced at the hands of Assad’s government.
Even greater than their concern for how the insurgency was being portrayed to a Western audience was their difficulty in acquiring weapons, which come from defectors and corrupt Syrian army officers as often as they come from smugglers in neighboring countries.
In past months, the Syrian military, with the help of Lebanese security forces, has succeeded in tightening control of the border, greatly slowing the rebels’ ability to smuggle in weapons. The most common question directed at an American reporter was why the United States or NATO had failed to support the Free Syrian Army in the manner it had supported Libya’s revolutionary militias against Moammar Gadhafi last year.
Last week, Farouq’s commanders were making preparations to expand their reach into the suburbs of Damascus, which are presently the domain of other rebel groups.
It was clear, in Qusayr and in the villages around it, that what civilians had chosen to stay were largely dependent on the Free Syrian Army. As a reporter exited to Lebanon, the FSA was continuing to help refugees cross into Lebanon illegally.
“We wouldn’t want to kill civilians,” said Abu Jandal, an auto mechanic turned fighter from Baba Amr who’s now in Qusayr. “They are our families.”
But not everyone left in Qusayr appeared entirely supportive of the rebels’ presence. When rebels asked if a journalist could take pictures of army positions from his building, one man asked them to go away.
“They’ve already shelled (the building) twice,” the man said.
The group had taken over security responsibilities in northern Qusayr, even bringing at least one former police officer back to work, but Idris said the group’s main focus was on continuing attacks against the Syrian military and protecting civilians from the army’s attacks.
Human rights groups have accused Farouq of abuses, and leaders of the Baba Amr group acknowledged they continue to hold five Iranian citizens they captured in Homs, who they claim are Iranian agents working with the Syrian government.
The group also has been accused of targeting Christians in Homs. But interviews with Syrian Christian refugees who’d fled to Lebanon from Homs and Qusayr uncovered no evidence that Christians were targeted because of their religion. Rather, Christian refugees from Qusayr said that a Christian man and 16 others working with government security forces in Qusayr had been captured by Farouq fighters in March, prompting some Christians to flee. Members of Farouq confirmed the story, as well as the arrests.
Idris’ deputy also admitted unapologetically that Farouq fighters had carried out at least one summary execution, of a man it says was a captured member of air force intelligence, one of the most feared branches of Assad’s security services.
But the fighters defended their human rights record, accusing government forces of taking hostages, including rebels’ family members, and of using citizens of Qusayr and Homs as human shields.
"Bashar Assad destroyed Baba Amr over the heads of its citizens," said Idris’ deputy, Ammar al Bukiyah, a one-time house painter who said he joined the rebels only after the peaceful demonstrations he’d participated in came under repeated attack by armed security forces.