It was August 2012 and we were sitting in front of the TV. The Syrian state-run channel was reporting that the country’s army was fighting bravely in the streets of Maraa, and was close to defeating the terrorists there. At this very moment, the program continued, Syrian army troops were storming the cultural center where the last terrorists had holed up. The screen showed soldiers running past three-story apartment buildings.
We watched the TV, fascinated.
We had been in Maraa for days, waiting for a driver who would take us further into the interior of the country. Not a single government soldier had been seen in this small city north of Aleppo in quite a while. Not even the artillery cannons in Aleppo were capable of reaching the town. Someone called an acquaintance living near the cultural center, and learned that everything was quiet there too. And the multi-story apartment buildings? There aren’t any in Maraa.
The entire report, several minutes long and related in a breathless tone, was fiction. This time we ourselves were witnesses and knew the truth.
When the Syrian state-run television channel or the private channel al-Dunya, which is owned by the Assad family, expose a Satanic conspiracy against Syriaunder the direction of United States President Barack Obama, or reveal that the movements of FC Barcelona’s soccer players are actually secret commands directed at Syrian rebels, no one in the West pays much attention. These reports are all too clearly grotesque propaganda.
But when the events reported are ones that seem plausible at first glance — for example the flood of foreign al-Qaida fighters supposedly organizing the Syrian rebellion, the presence of a huge number of CIA agents or the expulsion of Christians from Syrian cities — these claims elicit a response in the West. It’s often difficult for us journalists to determine whether or not they are true, because the Syrian civil war is far less accessible than the war in Libya was. In Libya, the eastern part of the country around Benghazi was liberated in a week, making it possible for journalists to travel there.
There is no Benghazi in Syria. Any corner of the country’s embattled regions can be hit by an air strike at any time. At the same time, the regime’s Orwellian PR machine not only presents journalists with its official view of the situation, but also provides us with supposed eyewitnesses to atrocities and al-Qaida fighters it has allegedly captured.
And no other war has been so ubiquitously captured on video. Whether these videos are real or falsified is difficult to determine. Any cliché, any falsehood can be illustrated with a video.
During one of my first trips to Syria, I traveled by bus from Damascus to Homs and found myself at an evening protest in the Hamra district of the city. The protestors, perhaps 300 of them at that point, walked along pitch-black streets toward a large intersection. For 26 minutes, the growing crowd chanted in the street, the sound reverberating off the surrounding buildings. Here and there, the power was on and streetlights bathed the demonstrators in yellowish light. Ahead of us, about 150 to 200 meters (500 to 650 feet) away, was the T-junction where the troops would appear.
It took a great deal of courage to walk in the middle of that street. With few exceptions, only the youngest of the protestors ventured there, everyone else keeping to the semidarkness along the building walls. At the edge of the crowd, a father walked with his perhaps 11-year-old son, holding tight to the boy’s hand and talking to him in a quiet voice. Those who were even more afraid stuck to the side streets, peering out into the main street.
My own experiment with going to the middle of the street was a peculiar experience that took several minutes to accomplish. It felt as if I had glue on the soles of my shoes, and I could barely set one foot in front of the other. The shots could come at any moment, generally with about 10 or 20 seconds’ warning. The dictatorship wanted to be sure that anyone who dared to defy it would experience the consequences.
A few of the demonstrators were standing closer to the intersection, and I heard them shout, just as I later heard the shouts in Aleppo as the regime’s troops approached, and within seconds everyone had dived for cover. If the feeling wasn’t complete insanity, it was something so close to it that our feet didn’t know the difference.
That evening in Homs, no one knew what would happen from one minute to the next. Then we found out why things had remained so calm. New reports came in every minute, revealing that in the neighboring district of Bab Sabaa, state security force units had stormed the Fatima Mosque and shot into the crowd of people praying there. Other troops had opened fire on the nearby Rauda Mosque.
That particular night, we returned unharmed to the place where we were staying in Homs.
Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way
Journalists’ trips to Syria since the beginning of the revolution have generally been weeks-long expeditions into a country under extreme conditions, making our way forward the way our ancestors traveled centuries ago, when no one knew what the world looked like beyond the next hill. We make our way from village to village, district to district, traveling by car, truck, motorcycle or on foot, with a rotating cast of companions.
Just knowing the way is no longer enough, not since the army and the regime’s security forces started setting up “flying checkpoints,” which spring up suddenly and arrest or simply shoot members of the opposition, or even just those who come from a town controlled by the rebels.
Many people hardly leave their villages or neighborhoods anymore. Those who do set out, because they want to or have to transport something — journalists like us, for example — try to scout out the route beforehand. A motorcyclist might cover the route first, an unsuspicious car drives on a kilometer or two ahead, or a vegetable truck goes first to check out the situation, its driver remaining in constant telephone contact with the second vehicle, at least when there is mobile phone service.
In all of the larger towns, the people who help us and travel with us change constantly. Each local committee, each rebel group has control over its own neighborhood, but nothing beyond that. Trips that would once have taken a few hours now often require days or even weeks.
The benefit of this mode of travel, though, is that it allows us the unfiltered experience of all the facets of reality here. We travel with professors and cattle-herding nomads, with students, bus drivers and defected intelligence agents and soldiers. Sometimes we drive with rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), sometimes with a taxi driver who’s just happy to have a fare. Our impressions of reality in Syria are formed from countless small experiences, from hours-long chance encounters during these journeys and while waiting endlessly somewhere by the side of the road.
The rebels are starting to form media committees, especially near the Turkish border, where there are many foreign journalists. They too tell us their stories of the civil war, but they don’t try to keep tabs on us. It would be futile in any case, given how often the people accompanying us change. And deep in the interior of the country, by the dam on the Euphrates River in the north of the country, or on the steppes east of Hama, in the beleaguered city of Rastan, or in Houla, the town west of Homs where more than 100 people were massacred on May 25, we’re generally the first journalists to visit in months anyway — or the first to show up at all.
Often our routes themselves reveal a great deal about the situation here. Drivers in the provinces of Homs and Hama, for example, take the precaution of making wide detours around any Alawite village. “They’ve all got weapons from the regime there,” one driver explained. “They may not all support Assad, but there are militias in every village.”
Getting to Houla, the site of the massacre, from Rastan, barely 30 kilometers (20 miles) away, takes us three days and three different vehicles. Taldou, the part of the city where the massacre occurred, is located in a valley, surrounded by the higher elevation Alawite villages from which the murderers approached on the afternoon of May 25. “They keep an eye on all the roads into Taldou,” an elderly farmer explained during one of our many hours of waiting. “You have to travel in vehicles they’re familiar with. Otherwise they’ll come down, block the road, and you’re dead.”
So we waited until a milk truck came, waited until a second familiar vehicle was available, then traveled in slow motion toward Taldou. But the route we took proved to be an important clue in the question of who perpetrated the massacre, rebels or soldiers.
What we saw was that it would hardly have been possible for 700 rebels to have traveled here unnoticed from Rastan, kill people in Taldou and then disappear again without a trace. This, however, is the story that the regime is spreading in various creative ways. There’s the Jacobite nun from a convent near Homs, for example, who is traveling the world as a supposedly neutral PR spokesperson for the regime and spreading the myths that there is CIA conspiracy against Syria and that many thousands of foreign al-Qaida fighters are in the country. Then there are the two supposed eyewitnesses from Taldou that the regime presented to willing journalists in Damascus, political tourists and the United Nations employees trying to reconstruct the course of events of the massacre.
When we were in Taldou for two days in mid-July, it was under bombardment from army artillery. The houses were in the line of fire of snipers at a military post outside the town — just as they were at the time of the massacre, which also included houses near the post. The testimony of eyewitnesses and survivors suggests the same conclusion that the UN’s report reached: It was the army, not the rebels, who perpetrated the massacre.
We had to make two attempts before we got to Houla. The first time, in June, the trip was too dangerous. But detours and waiting are never useless. We were traveling most of the time through areas that were no longer under the regime’s control, and in dozens of villages, small cities and suburbs over the course of months, we asked the same questions again and again: Who is in charge here? Who are the leaders of the committees? What do those who used to hold power here do now? Who is fighting: army defectors, civilians, foreigners? What causes soldiers to desert and civilians to take up arms? What do the rebels want to do after the revolution?
It is an ocean of small stories and large decisions, and we can only publish a fraction of it. Taken together, though, the things we learn allow us to reach conclusions about events in this war and about shifts occurring in the balance of power, because every few months we revisit the same places and meet the same people. If they’re still alive, that is.
In April we were in the northern province of Idlib and followed the trail of havoc left by the regime’s “Brigade of Death” as it attacked village after village with helicopters, tanks and troops. We traveled to Bashiriya, Sarmin, Taftanaz, Kurin, Deir Sunbul, Kastan, Ain Sauda. We saw the destruction there, and at the same time pieced together a detailed picture of the FSA, which had one of its strongholds in Idlib in the spring of 2012. Around two thirds of the FSA is made up of army deserters local to the area. Outsiders from Damascus or Aleppo are rare, and we didn’t encounter any foreign jihadists.
In July, in the city of Rastan in central Syria, I met Lieutenant Faïs Abdullah again. When we first met him in December 2011, Abdullah, with a clean-shaven face and a hounded look, was one of the first officers who had deserted the Syrian army. It was the pure chance of a broken foot that had brought him home on leave to Rastan, where he saw his fellow soldiers gunning down demonstrators and storming the city.
Promises of Paradise
Rastan, a city generally perceived as loyal to the regime, seems an unlikely place for the rebellion. Mustafa Tlass, a friend of the late Hafez Assad from their military academy days and the regime’s eternal defense minister, comes from here, as do thousands of army officers. Yet Rastan unexpectedly turned against the regime. And when the peaceful demonstrations gave way to armed resistance, trained members of the army such as Abdullah were on hand to lead the movement.
In July 2012, Rastan is liberated but a ghost town, half destroyed and surrounded by armored divisions, artillery emplacements and army troops that shell the city daily. The rebels are the only people still here, aside from a few city residents. Faïs Abdullah, clean-shaven seven months ago, now sports a thick beard and is commander of the “Ali ibn Abi Talib Brigade,” named after the fourth Caliph.
Anyone who wants to fight alongside him must be religious, says Abdullah, a Muslim, but it doesn’t matter which religion specifically. He doesn’t care if his fighters are Druze or Christian.
We rarely see Abdullah’s 70 men pray, though. Far more of their time is spent trying to open their Facebook pages over the satellite telephone network, which is constantly crashing. Nor is their practical role model the life of the Prophet, with his dates and swordfights. Instead they like “Murat,” a James Bond type who fights bad guys with high-speed chases and explosives as the hero of a Turkish television series popular in Syria.
Later Abdullah explains how we should understand this matter of religion, beards and promises of Paradise: “What can I offer someone who is supposed to confront the tanks of Assad’s army with not much more than a Kalashnikov?”
Something new has come into being in Syria that didn’t exist here before. In their videos, these bearded field commanders and fighters with their constant cries of “Allahu akbar” look the way the West imagines radical jihadists look. And that’s certainly how journalists portray it, writing from their computers with disarming candor. The al-Qaida followers are easy to recognize, author Amir Madani wrote in the well-regarded American Huffington Post, because they are heavily bearded and fearless fighters.
By late this autumn, tens of thousands of rebels were fighting against the Assad regime, but they didn’t match the clichéd image of the fearless super-terrorist, heavily bearded and always ready for action. Likewise, the 200 to 300 Libyans who were in northern Syria in September came not to establish an Islamic state, but to topple their next dictator. There are also dozens of Iraqi Sunnis fighting on the rebels’ side, for example around the city of Deir el-Zour near the Iraqi border, and they are the ones most likely to have connections to al-Qaida’s former Iraqi presence.
Two groups identifying themselves as fundamentalists have also cropped up in Aleppo: “Ahrar al-Sham,” which translates as “Free Men of Syria,” and “Al-Nusra Front.” Both groups work together with the FSA, but operate outside its command structure.
According to both the organizations’ own assertions and the concordant reports of eyewitnesses, the two groups each include around 50 foreigners in their ranks — Dagestanis, Tajiks, one British man, Pakistanis, a couple of Tunisians, Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Saudis, Turks — most of whom met in Egypt at a year-long program for Islamic preachers, where non-Arabs can learn Arabic to a passable level. About 30 Chechens also came to Syria for a while, but left again when they ran out of ammunition.
What these foreigners in Aleppo have in common, says one member of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, is less a hatred of Assad than a conviction that they must fight against all Shiites, whom they consider traitors to Sunni Islam. “When this is over,” the man says, “they want to continue on and fight against the Hezbollah.”
These men with beards and Kalashnikovs, constantly shouting “Allahu akbar,” do fit with a certain framework, but that framework doesn’t exist anymore. Nor does the image of the ultra-warrior apply to all who adorn themselves with the al-Qaida logo. A group of jihad tourists kidnapped a British and a Dutch photographer in late July, and the British photographer, John Cantlie, later said their camp seemed “like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds.”
In the village of Atmeh, directly on the border with Turkey, we too met radicals with warlike garb, headbands and al-Qaida flags, their black garments and new SUV spotless. “They drive back and forth here all day,” said one perplexed FSA member. “They seem to like it.” And in Antakya, the sleepy provincial capital in Turkey where journalists, aid organizations and Syrian refugees meet, the jihad tourists can be found every evening on the patios of the nicer hotels, enjoying a Coca Cola and a water pipe.
That doesn’t stop Syria’s state-run media from spreading the story that the majority of those fighting on the rebels’ side are foreign al-Qaida terrorists. Ironically, that story finds willing ears in the West, including with Islam alarmists who think they detect al-Qaida behind every bearded man they see, and with left-wing conspiracy theorists who see the US as synonymous with interventionist imperialism.
The true danger, the one we sense growing with each trip we make to Syria, is the increasing brutality and barbarism on both sides. The question is no longer simply how this conflict will end, but also at what price. In any case, the fall of the house of Assad is inevitable.
Tens of thousands of people have died. They are civilians, soldiers and rebels. Gangs massacre their way through suburbs and villages. Half a million people have fled abroad, and far more are desperately on the move within their own country, afraid to stay where they are, but fearing death around every next corner.
A year ago, Homs, Aleppo, Rastan, Talbiseh, Douma, Zabadani, Deir el-Zour, Idlib and hundreds of other cities and villages did not yet look like small Mediterranean Stalingrads. The irresistible pull of revenge increases with each wave of killing, for both the Alawites and the Sunnis.
“If someone has lost a son, it’s still possible to stop him,” said a pharmacist in the village of Martin. “If he’s lost two, it’s very difficult. With three, it’s impossible. I’ve read about what Mahatma Gandhi achieved in India and I admire it. But what would have become of him here? In a week he would have been lying dead in a field.”