The Syrian men who sat radially around the beige couch in the Turkish hotel were keen to get their hands on some of that batch of weapons. But first, the Libyans wanted to know who the Syrians were exactly and which rebel group each represented. There was a representative from Jund-Allah (Soldiers of God), which operates in and around the capital Damascus; a commander from Ansar al-din (Supporters of the Faith) in Lattakia province; and most significantly a man who is one of the seven members of the political office of Jabhat Syria il-Islamiya (the Syrian Islamic Front), one of the country’s largest, most cohesive and strongest Islamist militant coalitions, led by the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham Brigades. (The extremist al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is not part of this alliance.)
Coffee was ordered — Turkish coffee for the Syrians and cappuccinos for the Libyans. The Libyan from Zintan, wearing faded black jeans, a cream-colored shirt stretched taut across his waist and a gray sports jacket, did most of the talking. He fingered black worry beads, while his colleague from Benghazi listened. His first question was about whether the men around him recognized the FSA and its 14 provincial military councils. All said they did not. “Their commanders are failures, they are corrupt,” the Syrian from Ansar al-Din said.
“There is not even one battalion, in all honesty, that they can control,” the Islamic Front representative said. “These people [senior defectors in the FSA like the one the Libyans had met the night before] were placed as facades, in the beginning, as media personalities, but as real commanders on the ground? Not at all.”
The Libyan’s next question was one he would repeat or refer to 16 times over the next two and a half hours: “Why aren’t you united?” And every time, the Syrians would politely respond that their Islamist battalions were better organized and disciplined and had a clearer chain of command than their more-secular FSA counterparts, but that asking for greater unity than that was a difficult proposition.