Between Syria's Fronts: A Two-Year Travelogue from Hell

By Christoph Reuter

Part 3: Friends or Foes?

We also experienced the chaos of this insurgency. Its weakness -- that it is both leaderless and bubbling up everywhere -- is also its strength. No one can remove the leader of a revolt if there is no leader. Conversely, people often don't know whom they're dealing with. Such was the case near Maskanah in the northeast, where two nighttime patrols with different FSA groups got into a fire fight because each of them thought the other was the enemy.

In Khafsah, near Aleppo, we happened upon a scene in which the representative of one FSA brigade, the "Free Men of the Euphrates," was demanding the return of two cars from another FSA brigade, the "Army of the Holy Sites," which had confiscated the cars at a checkpoint.

"Ahmed said they had to seize the cars!" said one man.

Another man, wrinkling his brow, replied: "Which Ahmed?"

"Well, Ahmed…"

"We have many Ahmeds."

Our routes also created a picture of reality, because our progress followed a topography of religious detours. In Hama Province in central Syria, for example, the villages of the Alawites and those of the Sunnis, who make up the majority of the insurgents, are close together.

"In the past, we were just neighbors," said a driver who normally worked as a shepherd. He took wide detours to keep away from every Alawite village "because that's where the Shabiha have their guards posted." The "Shabiha," or "ghosts," are the militias that have been armed by the regime since the beginning of the uprising. Most are Alawites, and they are repeatedly told that the rebels intend to kill them all.

In all of our months of travel, we happened upon only two Alawite villages that had remained neutral. We had to drive around the rest, near Hama, Homs and Idlib.

Staged Bombings?

But the erosion of the old power continues, especially now that those who served as the nucleus of the government machine for decades -- party officials, officers and bureaucrats -- are also changing sides. In the town of Tulul al-Humr, in the grasslands southeast of Hama, the entire pro-regime leadership has defected. We happened upon a group consisting of the former mayor, an intelligence agent, a few officials and the local leader of the Baath Party, which has served as a tool for the Assads to cultivate their family dictatorship.

"Every week a fax arrived from headquarters telling us about the next party meeting," said the former party official, describing the beginning of the rebellion. "It stated what I was to tell the others about the universal Zionist conspiracy, and about Saudis and al-Qaida paying foreign terrorists to fight in Syria." Taking a deep breath, he added: "You know, my sons went out into the streets. I couldn't do it anymore." He broke along with the system. "I don't even know if they're looking for me now," he said. He kept all the faxes, but the thermal paper doesn't do well in the Syrian heat, and the language about "universal conspiracies" was fading as the paper darkened.

The claims of a "Zionist conspiracy" once invoked in much of the Arab world have slowly faded, even in Syria. But things are more complicated when it comes to al-Qaida and the jihadists.

There has been a series of bombings of the offices of Syrian intelligence in Damascus and Aleppo since the end of 2011. Curiously, the bombers managed to make it through all security checkpoints to reach the main buildings of the heavily guarded complexes, but usually at times when they were almost empty. In elaborately produced videos, which soon surfaced on jihadist web forums, a previously unknown group named "Jabhat al-Nusra," or "Al-Nusra Front," a group led by "Emir" Abu Mohammed al-Julani, assumed responsibility for the bombings. The group looked like a new arm of al-Qaida.

But in early 2012, no one in the opposition was familiar with Jabhat al-Nusra or its ominous leader. The rebels accuse the regime of inventing the Islamist group and assigning the blame for the entire rebellion on al-Qaida.

There are signs that the regime was involved. As it turned out, the alleged victims of the attacks were in fact already dead, while others who were supposedly dead suddenly walked across the screen when they thought the cameras had been turned off.

After attacks on the local intelligence headquarters in Aleppo, a doctor at the military hospital there told us: "We were responsible for military intelligence. After the explosion in February, a dozen bodies and about 100 wounded were brought to us. The strange thing about it was that the detonation happened at 8:30 a.m. People get up late in Aleppo, and none of the officers is in the office before 11. The victims were security guards."

The doctor says that he happened to be nearby, on his way to the doctors' union, when there was an attack on the "political security force" on March 18. "I heard the powerful detonation and, thinking that there must have been many dead, I ran over there immediately. All I saw was a man with a scratch on his arm, but no one else."

Islamist Connections

In September, two captured Shabiha leaders from Aleppo stated, independently of one another, that they had received explosives from air force intelligence several times and had been told to detonate them in various parts of the city-- under orders from the intelligence commander in Aleppo, Adib Salame.

But while Jabhat al-Nusra members were nowhere to be found in the spring in the otherwise rather open rebel community, groups calling themselves "al-Nusra" did in fact surface all over the country in August. We encountered them in Aleppo, Maskanah, Dayr Hafir and Habul, Deir el-Zour in the east and in Idlib Province.

While the groups have little knowledge of one another, they all dispute having anything to do with the major attacks in Damascus and Aleppo. "But everyone recognizes the name," the group's leader in Maskanah said apologetically. "Okay, it comes from the regime, but now we've just made it our own." We heard the same thing in other places, namely that anyone could establish an al-Nusra cell.

It gradually became apparent that the attacks and videos claiming responsibility were not just making an impression on Western terrorism experts, who promptly began using the phrase "al-Qaida in Syria," but also on Sunni financiers, mostly in Saudi Arabia -- financiers with a penchant for funding jihad.

In this way, al-Nusra -- rebel brigades with Islamist connections -- indeed began to take shape. They remained small compared with the FSA, but they attracted foreign jihadists from the Persian Gulf, Jordan and North Africa. "They have different religious ideas, but they fight with us for the same goal," says Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, one of the leaders of the rebel military council in Aleppo.

When the US government finally declared al-Nusra a terrorist group, it had the unintended effect of providing the various groups using the same name with a level of popularity they had previously lacked. "First the Americans didn't help us for so long, and now they want to tell us who is allowed to fight with us here?" says a commander, echoing the sentiments of many in the country.

A Country Destroying Itself

The face of the war changed in late summer 2012, when the regime stopped using tanks. Instead, like a horrible downburst, death came from the air. It followed us from town to town in September, when we were traveling in the north. In Maskanah, we started running when we saw everyone else running, and we dove headlong into a basement in the nick of time, when the entire building was already shaking from the blast of a shell that had struck two buildings away, creating an enormous cloud of dust. The next shell struck two minutes later, designed to hit the crowd of rescuers and curious onlookers. "They always do it that way," said a bystander, brushing the dust from his shirt.

The next morning in Deir Hafir, half an hour's drive from Maskanah, a plane flew directly above us before bombing its target, the largest animal feed warehouse in the district.

By noon the next day, we were back in Maraa visiting Yassir al-Hajja, the owner of the small café, who had been trying for months to assemble something resembling a rebel town administration. We almost didn't see the plane that attacked a nearby local refrigerated warehouse, knocking it over like a bird of prey. Six people died when two shells struck near the loading dock. An FSA fighter and relative of the dead snapped when we tried to photograph the site, turning his weapon on Yassir and shouting at us to get lost. The owner of the warehouse tried to calm him down, explaining that it was right to document what was happening.

"It won't stop," the old man in the village near Homs had said in the winter of 2011. I thought to myself that this must be what it feels like during a rampage, when someone suddenly turns up and only wants to kill people. The difference is that this rampage isn't over after an hour, but just keeps on going.

We spent the night on the outskirts of the town, and the next morning we saw an approaching L-39, normally a training aircraft. Then we saw the plane dive and drop two bombs, which looked tiny in the distance. We saw clouds of smoke shoot up into the air and heard the booming noise of the explosions. The bombs had struck the last remaining local garbage truck and two men selling fuel from a barrel. Two days later, in the early morning hours, a bomb destroyed the registration office in Maraa.

"Assad, or we'll burn the country down!" This slogan, scrawled on bullet-riddled walls, is the government's entire program, its only claim to power. Now the jets were appearing every day, in town after town, evidence of a country destroying itself.

No One to Help

Yassir, sitting at his small plywood desk that is riddled with bullet holes, says that he can't watch any more funerals. At the beginning, we were still able to convince him to go with us.

But since the last funeral we attended, we too are losing our ability to stomach them anymore. The remains of five young rebels from Maraa were being buried, or what was left of them after their homemade rocket exploded before it was launched. "That wasn't the plan," Yassir mumbled. His words could have applied to many things.

It wasn't the plan that a pastry chef would be mixing explosives and a plumber would be building rockets. It wasn't the plan that neighboring villages would become mortal enemies, and that the attempt to build a different Syria would be destroyed in a hail of bombs. Yassir would still like to become a member of parliament one day, "if I survive this," he says.

In the fog of Idlib, on our eighth journey, we search for three Adjini cousins, university lecturer Aziz, who believed in sarcasm and reason, and the two others. What happened to them, we wonder?

We don't find them in Kurin, which has become a ghost town. We finally catch up with Aziz in front of a hut in the hills, unshaven and wearing tracksuit pants. He is thinner.

Aziz wanted to overcome fear, and he didn't want to shoot. That was in April, but now he's a different person. Today he wants to booby-trap washing machines, microwaves and TV sets, turning them into hidden bombs. He came up with the idea when he heard the rumor that the army was returning to Kurin once again. "And when they start looting here again," he says, "boom!"

His cousin Mahmoud, the officer who had defected, has indeed captured three tanks with his group. And Mohammed, the formerly conformist school director, now complains about the rockets that have broken all the windows in his house. "But he doesn't ask where they're coming from," says Aziz.

The army never returned, but now the planes have come instead. Just days ago, they dropped a cluster bomb on an oil mill in the neighborhood, where farmers were waiting with their olive harvest. Nine were killed. "These people waited the entire year so that they could press their olives," says Aziz.

He has become hardened and bitter. He says that he can understand those who shout "Allahu akbar" and place their faith in God. "Who else has helped us?" he asks. "No one."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Reporter Christoph Reuter's journeys through wartorn Syria. Click to enlarge. Zoom
DER SPIEGEL

Reporter Christoph Reuter's journeys through wartorn Syria. Click to enlarge.

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