For three men in northern Syria, the second civil war started shortly after the first staggered into a quagmire of sectarian violence. The goals of the first war – freedom, Islam, social equality of some sort – were replaced by betrayal, defeat and anger towards rival militias, jihadis and foreign powers fighting in Syria.
Like many others, the three men are bewildered at what has become of their war. Their alliances – and their goals – are shifting. The regime is far away, the jihadis are near – and seem unstoppable. Their resources are dwindling; their families are shattered. Their villages and farm lands are lost to regime militias. Their allies are at best unreliable, and at worst actively conspiring against them.
They are a businessman, a smuggler and an army defector who became respectively the political officer, treasurer and military commander of a once-formidable battalion in northern Syria.
The businessman is the shrewdest: a tall, wide-shouldered man with a square head and thinning hair. A devout Salafi, he was once a rich man in Homs, but after two and half years of war, most of his fortune has been spent on arms and ammunition. What remains of his wealth is being slowly drained by the families of his dead, injured and missing relatives, many of them languishing in refugee camps.
On a cold autumn evening he sat in the courtyard of a newly built concrete house on the Turkish side of the Syrian border – the latest in a string of temporary homes since his house was razed by the Syrian government in the early days of the revolution.
“I need Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years,” said the businessman. “It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: we would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other – tribes, Islamists and battalions.
“Maybe if the regime lasts for a few more years we can agree on the shape of the new Syria. At least then we might end up with three states rather than 10,” he said. Meanwhile, the killings and massacres will continue, until sectarian cleansing has been carried out in all of Syria’s cities and regions, he added. “There will be either Alawites or Sunnis. Either them or us. Maybe in 10 years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist.” He paused, then added: “In 10 years maybe, not now.”
The battalion that the three men were part of was once the darling of the rebels’ foreign backers: Qatari royalty, Saudi preachers and Kuwaiti MPs all donated money and funnelled weapons to them. The businessman regularly met Turkish military intelligence officers on the border who safeguarded his arms shipments from Mediterranean ports.
But as jihadi influence grew among the opposition forces, the battalion’s position came under threat. A clash – as much about resources as it was about ideology – was inevitable. A jihadi leader was assassinated and the battalion was forced from its footholds in the oil-rich east. Further divisions within the battalion followed and some of its men left to join other factions or set up their own.
Gulf dignitaries accused the three men of sowing dissent in the Muslim community and financial backers switched their support to other battalions with a stricter Islamic outlook.
As his brother spread out blankets on the porch, the businessman stared up at the night sky, and smoked his last cigarette of the day. “This is not a revolution against a regime any more, this is a civil war,” he said.
The next day, in a sparsely furnished living room with thinly whitewashed walls and bare wires sprouting from electrical sockets, the smuggler and the businessman sat on sofas and argued about a missing shipment of rockets. The smuggler had worked the secret routes across Lebanon’s border from the age of 11; he was shot at for the first time aged 12 and ran his own network when he was barely 17. He is proud never to have owned an ID card or a passport in his life. He fidgeted and moved constantly, tapping on his smartphone, buying arms, selling rockets, importing cars and arranging schooling for his many nephews and nieces.
He opened Google Earth on his phone, zooming in closer and closer until the screen showed a small grey square: the house where his family used to live. “Before, all my family was in Syria, and I worried about them. Now, they’ve got out but I have lost my land. I have reached a point of despair,” he said.
“I feel I can’t breathe. I have 20 people to look after – to feed them and school them – and it’s not a matter of months, but years. I was in the revolution at the beginning, and I used to think that was going to be progress – but now we have lost everything. We don’t talk about military plans and hitting the regime – now the plotting is against each other.”
The third man worked as a shepherd as a child, spending long weeks trekking alone with his sheep in the arid hills of southern Syria. School was a two-mile (3km) hike; like many young Bedouins from his region, he joined the military as soon as he graduated from high school. He eventually became a lieutenant.
Soon after the revolution began in early 2011, he defected, joining other rebel officers in the north. He made his reputation when his unit attacked an army base and captured several tanks. He became the commander of one the rebel forces’ first armoured battalions.
In those days, he was lean and tense, with a wispy Che Guevara beard; his looks and his heroism inspired devotion in his men. He read history books, and drew lessons from the Russian partisans’ tactics in the second world war.
Like most Bedouins, he spoke rarely, and when he did open his mouth, he was frank to the point of rudeness. But amid the chaos of civil war, he was keen to impose discipline: every morning he would drive around his base, inspecting his men’s uniforms and weapons. “How do you impose discipline?” he would muse. “There is nothing that can make your fighters do things if they don’t want to. There is no military order; I don’t pay them money and I can’t put them in jail. The bond between you and your men comes from battle: if they respect you as a fighter, they will follow you.”
After travelling into Syria, the businessman and the smuggler arrived where the lieutenant was staying with some of his men. They found him sitting on the floor, absorbed with his iPad, which was emitting a stream of battle sounds and explosive sound effects. Briefly, he raised his head to greet the other two, then returned to his computer game.
Dressed in a dirty white vest and combat trousers, he seemed much older.
The businessman and the smuggler sat down beside him, and a lunch of boiled potatoes in watery soup and rice was served. The lieutenant ate in silence and turned back to his iPad before finally addressing his two friends.
“I am now in an impossible situation. The army is ahead of me and they are surrounding from behind.”
“They” were the al-Qaida-linked group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis), which is directly linked to the main al-Qaida group in Iraq.
Recognised as a ferocious fighting force, it has also won a reputation for efficiency and governance in the areas it runs – a fact reflected in a name locals use for the faction: Dawla – the Arabic word for “the state”.
“I can’t defeat them and the army. I am about to collapse. I can hold out for a month or two at most. Isis are expanding in a fearful way.”
He described how Isis gained territory by co-opting local rebel battalions, then replacing them with more loyal jihadi units. “I tell other commanders: ‘Let’s make a deal, let’s unite against the jihadis. If we take over the northern border strip we can strangle them.” He flashed a bitter smile before continuing: “But we can’t even decide to unite against Bashar – how can we unite against Islamists?”
The three men drove down to the battalion base. The lieutenant pointed at a town of low-rise buildings. This was al-Dana, the jihadi capital of the region.
“They control cities: once you control a town you control the surrounding villages,” the lieutenant said. “Within a month they will control this area and you won’t be able to move without passing through their checkpoints. And then they will try to control the region from here to the Turkish border.”
When they reached the base, the lieutenant sank down in a corner. He seemed weary. “I have been fighting for two years and a half. Tell me: what have I achieved? All I think about is attacking this checkpoint, getting that tank – maybe using the tank to attack another checkpoint.
“In all this time did I ever think of establishing governance? Did I consider working with the civilians in the areas under my control to get electricity or provide anything? The jihadis are better: they provide governance. In two and a half years, I have built nothing. Kill me, and my battalion collapses. Kill the jihadis, and the institutions they have founded will survive.”
He sighed. “I feel bogged down in gossip. I want to get away from here and forget the absurdity of war. The liberated areas are in chaos: there is more purity on the frontlines.”
The businessman was heading out to arrange a truce with a local jihadi commander. “The collision with them is already happening, but I need time to get support. You can’t stop their project but you can reduce the harm: instead of fighting all the jihadis, we’ll fight just a couple of factions,” he said.
As a young man, he had spent years watching his father and other clan elders solving problems by building up local alliances. Now he tries the same methods in the midst of a war.
“I don’t fear the military factions – they are just gunmen: you buy their weapons or kill their commanders. I fear the tribes and the Islamists: the tribal fighters are only loyal to their tribe, and the Islamists are only loyal to their dogmas.”
“For example, we have problem with Dawla Isis but they won’t come and attack us directly – that would be too costly for them and they don’t have an excuse. What they do is attack the weaker units on the pretext that their commander is a bandit or a looter – they only fight one force at a time.”
“I don’t want to give them a pretext to kill me, because I can’t stand against them on my own.”The lieutenant’s men had been attacking a government outpost in a farmhouse on Hama’s eastern plains with tanks and a few heavy artillery pieces. The rebel unit had moved down to Hama province in an attempt to open a new front – partly to break the stalemate at the front and partly in an attempt to capture fresh supplies from government outposts. Some of the loot would be sold to feed the men – the rest would be added to the unit’s armoury.
After three days, the house was reduced to rubble but the troops inside were still holding out. The lieutenant was getting agitated that the operation was taking so long, and on the third day, he ordered his most prized weapon – a Russian T-72 tank – into battle.
For five hours the tank ground along a narrow road through pine forests and scattered villages of small houses and ancient Roman ruins. The straight lines of the Roman remains stood in contrast to meek and ugly village houses. Sometimes the two architectures mixed: a Roman archway became part of a cowshed, a delicate column supported a crude balcony of breeze blocks and metal sheets.
In a car following the tank, the lieutenant considered his options. “Wherever you turn, your choices are difficult,” he said. “Do I sell my tanks and artillery and give the money to my men? Do I lose my weapons to the Islamists in the coming war? Do I destroy them?
“We have reached the end of the line: if we don’t get support, we will lose. Soon it will be: either you give allegiance to the Islamists or are killed.”
We drove down from the hills on to the Hama plains. Passing through a small market town, the massive tank negotiated a narrow lane between pick-ups piled high with red peppers and aubergines. The car radio was tuned to a government station playing the Lebanese singer Fairouz, who sang about love and loss, before a news bulletin came on and the presenter described how all “terrorists” had been cleared from Hama province. “Oh you terrorists, you will be defeated, defeated, defeated!” the presenter declaimed. Silence fell in the car.
Ancient Russian tanks – rebel and loyalist – were lobbing shells at each other across a pistachio grove like street children throwing stones in an alleyway. The explosions sent orange columns of dust into the haze of the setting sun. Near the outpost, a government tank was smouldering, and a young girl lay dead, hit by shrapnel. A group of rebels crawled through the fields for a mile until they reached the edge of the outpost.
But before they managed to scale the fortifications they were spotted – a shell landed nearby, and machine gun fire broke out, pinning them down. Two fighters kicked the dirt with their heels trying to make a shallow trench. Bullets whistled through the trees shredding leaves and tree trunks. Rebel mortars landed nearby; some of the fighters dropped their guns and withdrew. On the other side of the dyke, government troops fired at the rebels from hatches in the ruined outpost.
“If they all fight like this, this army won’t give up until Bashar is dead,” said the commander of the rebel attackers.
But by early evening the regime troops abandoned their position, falling back under cover of heavy shelling. The rebels packed the ruined outpost with explosives and blew it up. The attack had killed one rebel and wounded 11. The unit had used ammunition worth £43,000, and the only salvageable government weapon was a machine gun.
“For three days I’ve been attacking this checkpoint,” said the lieutenant “I ask myself why, but I don’t know. Maybe because I can. Maybe because I need to keep my men busy. But honestly, I don’t know the purpose of all this. In Syria, everyone has lost. No one is winning.”
As we drove back to the rebel base, the road was lit by a full moon, and Fairouz was on the radio again – this time singing a tune from an old musical set in a Lebanese mountain village transformed into a battlefield by two feuding families.
The lieutenant listened for a while and then said: “After almost three years of war, we’ve discovered that we are good fighters but bad politicians. We know how to carry a rifle, but we don’t know who is benefitting from this.”
The next day, the lieutenant decided he needed a break from war. A few days later, the smuggler, the lieutenant and another rebel officer were walking in an Istanbul shopping centre packed with Arab tourists. After two and a half years, the two men said they had finally decided to leave Syria and the war for good.
They stopped at a Starbucks, where they sat laughing at each other’s jokes. They had Nike shopping bags and new jeans, and the smuggler was – as usual – fidgeting with his phone. “I don’t know what are we doing here,” he laughed. “Back home, the world is collapsing.”
Later, in the food court upstairs, the smuggler and the lieutenant ate lunch with another man, a people-smuggler, who told them how they could be spirited across the border into Greece and from there into Italy, where they could start a new life with their families.
By the end of the meal, they had agreed on a plan. The man told them to be ready to leave the next day – $2,000 (£1,250) would be deposited with a colleague, to be handed over when they reached Italy.
After their contact had left, the smuggler turned to the lieutenant, and asked him: “Do you trust him?”
“I don’t trust anyone.” They went downstairs to Zara, where they could buy clothes for the trip.
The businessman came to Istanbul the next day and drove to a large hotel for a conference of centre-right Islamists who had gathered to express support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The lobby was filled with preachers and religious dignitaries from around the Arab world, Syrian rebel commanders, and a group of Kuwaiti politicians. On one side, a Sudanese man in extravagant headgear held court. Further on, an Emirati sheikh chatted amiably with an Iraqi MP wanted on charges of terrorism. The mix felt like the crowd in the Star Wars bar.
In the midst of this, in walked the businessman. He was wearing the same cheap trainers he had been wearing in Syria, khaki trousers and a T-shirt, and struggled to keep a straight face as he walked between the small circles of men speaking in grandiose terms about the glory of Islam, western conspiracies and the Syrian tragedy.
“We kept telling them: if you keep supporting the jihadis you will destroy the revolution. That Kuwaiti MP who now talks of moderation was the same one who sent the money to the jihadis.”
In his room, he lit a cigarette and gestured at his surroundings. The room’s luxury stood in contrast to his simple clothes and filthy shoes.
“This room costs €200 [£170] a night. This whole conference could have armed a battalion for months of fighting. [But] I have to find money otherwise we might lose the lieutenant: I know he wants to leave – not because he’s scared, but because he is running from his debts.”
One afternoon a few days later the lieutenant, the smuggler and the other commander went out for a walk in the warm sunshine. Children chased pigeons; tourists posed for pictures. Overhead, a plane was coming into land. The commander pulled the collar of his shirt, speaking into an imaginary microphone: “Air defence! Air defence!”
“Airplane approaching! You could bring it down with a heavy machine gun,” retorted the lieutenant. The commander made a finger pistol and took aim – but the two men stopped their macabre game when they realised they were enjoying it too much.
By now, the excitement of being in Istanbul had waned: the three men walked the streets aimlessly and sat for hours in cafes. The lieutenant was adamant that he wanted to leave the war but every time the people-smuggler called, he postponed the trip a few more days. One evening, he admitted that he had tried to leave once before: he had stayed away for 25 days, but found he could not live in the world of peace: he missed the excitement, the combat, the camaraderie.
“While I’m here, I’m laughing and smiling, but I choke with tears every time I remember the men I have left behind – men who fought with me, men who were injured for me.”
“I could sell my tanks and artillery for $4m and go live in Canada – but people died for these tanks.”
He was sitting in a cafe perched on a hill, with the lights of oil tankers and ferries blinking from the Bosphorus below.
“If I go, they will accuse me of treason – but I am fed up with this life. I cannot attack the regime while I’m being attacked by jihadis from behind.”
The lieutenant left the cafe, and there was no news of him for weeks. Nobody knew if he was still in Turkey, or if he had gone with the people-smuggler and made his way to Italy.
When he finally called, he sounded relieved and almost cheerful. “I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t leave, I went back to Syria, to fight.”
Monday 18 November 2013
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: Summarized death toll for Monday 18/11/2013; 134 were killed in Syria. The dead include: 38 civilians, 15 rebel fighters, 35 regular soldiers, 10 unidentified rebel fighters, 12 combatants from the NDF and popular committees and at least 20 non-Syrian fighters from the ISIS, al-Nusra and rebel factions.
- In Aleppo 10 civilians and 3 rebel fighters were killed.
- In Homs 11 civilians and 1 rebel fighter were killed. 8 civilians, including 2 nurses (1 female), 1 woman, 1 unidentified man and 3 men and 1 woman from one family were killed by a rocket, thought to be surface-to-surface, that fell on the Qarra city.
- In Damascus 6 civilians and 1 rebel fighter were killed. 3 civilians (1 man, 1 school supervisor and a female school teacher) were killed by shells that fell on the neighbourhoods of Bab Touma, al-Qassa’ and Bab Sharqi in central Damascus. 1 man was shot by unknown gunmen on the road to the Damascus international airport.
- In Dera’a 2 civilians and 3 rebel fighters were killed.
- In Idlib 3 civilians and 2 rebel fighters were killed.
- In Reef Dimashq 3 civilians and 1 rebel fighter were killed.
- In Hama 3 civilians and 1 rebel fighter were killed. 3 civilians were killed by an explosion that targeted a regime checkpoint near the Industrial School in al-Salamiya city.
- In Deir Izzor 3 rebel fighters were killed.
- Reports that 2 civilians from the al-Qaboun neighbourhood of Damascus were killed, activists accused regular forces of killing them.
- At least 4 civilians were found dead, one of which’s head was chopped off, in a building in the al-Tadamon neighbourhood of Damascus, Activists accused regular forces of killing them.
- At least 19 non-Syrian fighters from the ISIS, al-Nusra and rebel factions were killed by aerial and rocket bombardment on several provinces.
- 7 rebel fighters were documented as killed earlier.
- A western fighter was killed by clashes with regular forces in the Naqarin area of Aleppo 5 days earlier.
- 10 unidentified rebel fighters were killed by clashes and bombardment in several areas.
- 12 combatants from the NDF and pro-regime popular committees were killed by clashes and attacks on checkpoints in several areas.
- At least 35 regular soldiers, including 8 officers, were killed by the explosion that targeted the Idarat al-Markabat building 2 days earlier, clashes, rocket attacks on centres and checkpoints and IED attacks in several provinces: 21 Damascus and Reef Dimashq, 7 Aleppo, 2 Homs, 2 Dera’a, 1 Deir Izzor, 1 Hama, 1 Idlib.
Aleppo province: 15 ISIS fighters stormed the town of Tal’aran, which is controlled by regime forces, causing clashes to erupt. Definite reports that 18 regular forces and 10 ISIS fighters were killed by the clashes in the town. The fate of the 5 other fighters is still unknown. Volunteers from the Syrian Red Crescent managed to reach food into the Aleppo Central Prison yesterday, as well as take out 6 inmates who’s sentence has finished. 1 rebel was killed by clashes in the Ashrafiya neighbourhood of Aleppo.2 rebels from the same family were killed by the airforce bombardment on the Jazmati roundabout last night.
NOW! Syria: Mortar fire kills two in central Damascus
DAMASCUS – Mortar rounds fired on a central district of the Syrian capital Damascus on Monday killed two people, state news agency SANA reported.
“Two citizens were killed and others were injured by mortars fired by terrorists at Al-Mawassam Square in the Qassaa neighborhood,” the agency said.
The Syrian government and state media regularly term opposition fighters “terrorists”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, also reported mortar fire had killed two people in the capital, though it said the attack was in Bab Tuma neighborhood.
Rebel fighters regularly fire mortar rounds into central Damascus from rear bases on the outskirts of the city.
In recent weeks, the attacks have become increasingly deadly, killing several schoolchildren in one incident.
The regime last week filed a complaint with the United Nations accusing rebels of firing indiscriminately at the civilian population and urging the international community to take all measures necessary to combat “terrorism”.
Thousands of refugees are continuing to stream into the Lebanese border town of Arsal as clashes intensify in the nearby Qalamoun mountains ahead of what many observers believe will be a defining battle in the Syrian civil war.
United Nations officials in Lebanon say more than 12,000 new refugees have arrived in Arsal in the past four days, the highest influx into the Sunni Muslim town at any point in the past 32 months.
New arrivals say thousands more are making the journey from the towns and villages that dot the Qalamoun range between the Lebanese border and the Syrian capital, Damascus.
The area has been a vital supply line for insurgents and the communities supporting them throughout the war. The Syrian regime has long sought control of its rugged hills and plunging valleys so it can clear a path between Damascus and the country’s third city, Homs, about 50 miles to the north-west.
Regime control of the area would imperil opposition supply lines to districts on the outskirts of the capital that still remain under rebel control. It would also consolidate the gains made by Hezbollah in May, when the Lebanese Shia militia, supported by regime artillery, overran the Syrian town of Qusair, clearing rebels from a vital corner of Syria‘s sectarian mosaic.
Rebel groups have called for reinforcements to travel to Qalamoun, just as they have on the outskirts of Aleppo in the north, another part of the country in which Syrian government forces and their allies are inching forward after many months of stalemate.
The largest rebel group in Aleppo, Liwa al-Tawheed, confirmed on Monday that its leader, Abdulkader al-Saleh, also known as Haji Marah, died of wounds after an air strike late last week. He is the most senior opposition figure to be killed in the north and his death came as regime forces, backed by an Iraqi militia, were slowly advancing around the rebel-held east of the capital, which is defended by a mix of mainstream opposition groups and foreign jihadis linked to al-Qaida.
While not yet committing large numbers of its forces to Qalamoun,Hezbollah has made little secret of the fact that it will take a lead role in the looming battle. Its fighters are more accustomed than the Syrian army to warfare in such difficult terrain after years of training in the mountains of southern Lebanon to face a more traditional foe, Israel.
“The regime will try to isolate the rebels in the mountains now that winter is coming,” said the leader of Lebanon’s Druze sect, Walid Jumblatt. It is a strategic area that links Damascus to Homs, and in this area there are ammunition stores that are vital to the regime. Most of them are west of the Damascus-Homs road.
As well as being a key supply route for arms and humanitarian aid, the roads through Qalamoun are also likely to be used to move the chemical weapons surrendered by Bashar al-Assad to a coastal port.