Escalating Violence: Face to Face with Syria's Apocalypse

By Christoph Reuter

The Syrian conflict is becoming increasingly brutal, with eyewitnesses describing horrific scenes of rape and massacres. Both sides have the sense that the end game is approaching, but no one knows how it will play out. The opposition is starting to discuss what kind of Syria they want for the future, but some are uneasy about the growing power of the Free Syrian Army.

A military helicopter has been circling high above our heads for several minutes now, like an angry insect in the midday heat. The pilot seems to be looking for something here between the fields and farm buildings. From the cover of a stand of trees, we have a clear view when the helicopter, a couple of hundred meters away, suddenly drops lower and fires four missiles. It then circles once more, tilted slightly to one side to allow the machinegun operator to fire into the tall fields of wheat, before the helicopter disappears into the milky haze of the horizon.

Thin clouds of smoke rise into the air. One field is on fire. Eleven rather dazed fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) emerge from a house, onto the street in front of the building that now contains three smoking impact craters in a neat row. The fourth missile hit a solid stone wall that surrounds the property, but none struck the house itself, or the group's vehicle, which is quite visibly parked next to the house. The group's commander requests that the vehicle itself not be described in any further detail, since "it's the only one we have." These FSA fighters have been using the same vehicle for six months.

"The pilot must have seen it," says Chal, the leader, who is an interior decorator by trade. "Why else would he have aimed here? But then, why aim to the side?"

Later this evening, some in the group will speak of God's sheltering hand, but the military pilot likely had his own reasons for choosing not to kill the men, while at the same time sending a clear message: I know you're in there. Ultimately, no one can know what went through that pilot's mind on June 10, as he flew over the village of Harbal, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. What Chal's men do know is that if the pilot had decided differently, they would now be dead. Now they drive off, veering from side to side.

Nightmare of Disintegration

It's a strange moment in the nightmare of disintegration which Syria is currently experiencing. Fifteen grueling months into the revolution against the country's dictatorship, an uprising that has become a war, it's not possible to give a single, unified description of the situation here.

On the one hand, there's an apocalypse in the form of the regime's militias, murdering their way through the villages, flanked by government troops and "security" forces issuing orders. Reports published last week by the United Nations and Amnesty International depict torture, executions and the use of children as human shields.

Several doctors and nurses, interviewed separately by SPIEGEL at two military hospitals, reported cases of injured patients being murdered. They talked of corpses of torture victims in cold storage with their ears and noses cut off.

In the north of the country, villages within range of the weapons at Aleppo's artillery school have been shelled indiscriminately since the beginning of June, as well as attacked by helicopters and fighter jets. In the days around June 10 alone, two dozen civilians died in the area north of Aleppo, and several soldiers and fighters from both sides died in combat.

But at the same time, there's a pilot who aims off the mark. There are deserting soldiers that no one is trying to stop. Discreet warnings and agreements are made behind the scenes of these battles. Business owners in Aleppo pay both the regime and the rebels, and the FSA kidnaps officers and family members of the torture squads to exchange for prisoners. The regime's terror tactics are causing its hold on power to crumble.

Looking to a Post-Assad Future

Everyone here is sure things are heading toward an end, but no one knows how it will play out. Here, in the plains around Maraa, in the villages and wheat fields between Aleppo and the Turkish border, the Syrian government ceased to exist months ago.

Occasionally, it does still send in erratic communications, as it did in late May, informing residents that buildings without construction permits would be made legal retroactively. But the rest of the time, what the government sends are bombs.

Yet even as inhabitants of the southern and western parts of the plain are fleeing out of range of the regime's weapons, and as SPIEGEL experiences first hand in the town of Azaz how helicopters fire at random at people's homes and the army's snipers terrorize half the town from the minarets of the central mosque, at the same time just a few kilometers away in a village called Dabiq, representatives from nine towns are meeting to debate, for the first time in their lives, what the Syria of the future should look like.

Thirty-two men gather in an abandoned office that once belonged to the Baath Party that still nominally rules the country. There are several teachers, an engineer, two construction workers, a photographer, a former police officer, two deserted soldiers, an unemployed man and a couple of students. "What do we want?" is the question bandied about in different forms throughout the evening: An Islamic state? A republic? Or perhaps no government at all? After all, as one man points out: "At the moment, it's easier without one than it was under the dictatorship."

These men haven't seen very much of the world themselves, but they're familiar with the horror stories related by Iraqi refugees who fled their country's civil war.

Some of the men were also guest workers in Lebanon and describe how the different religious camps there stand in each other's way. All the people present agree that their country needs a civil constitution where people are not defined by religion or ethnic background, but by being citizens of Syria. They also agree that candidates for parliament should be selected on the basis of their abilities, not their religious background, and that no president should be allowed to serve longer than eight years.

"And people who hold office must disclose their own financial circumstances," says the former police officer. "We have to make sure they stay honest."

'Too Much Blood on Their Hands'

But this delicate new beginning stalls when one person raises the question of whether the family of one Alawi teacher, who left here months ago, ought to return.

"Of course!" insist some. "She hasn't done anything to anybody!" But the faces of some of the others harden. "They have too much blood on their hands," they say.

Not the teacher herself, they say, but "the others."

The men are unable to come to an agreement on this, or on another question that's been a contentious issue for months throughout the country, from Daraa in the south to here in the north. "We're very grateful to the FSA for protecting us," one man says, attempting to put it diplomatically, "but we don't want them to take over power!" One of the FSA members in the room, a defected soldier, is offended.

There's a feeling of unease over the fighters' growing power, explains Yassir al-Hajji, facilitator of this evening's experiment, on the way back to Maraa. "We need them, absolutely, but we're afraid of them." Until the end of August last year, he explains, state security would turn up in town whenever they pleased and arrest people. Now, he says, not even the army comes to Maraa -- the last time was April 10, when the regime's forces burned down houses and shot up Hajji's café with their machineguns before retreating half a day later, their tanks loaded down with carpets, mattresses and refrigerators. They left graffiti scrawled on the town's walls, such as: "You don't need freedom, instead your mothers need to be fucked again!" It was signed "S.M.F." -- Syrian Military Forces.

The Meaning of Free

Those are a few parting words, perhaps, from a government whose functions are slowly being taken over by Commander Chal, the interior decorator, and by other local FSA leaders. The "Committee for Social Services" which controls the price of diesel, the fire department, the municipal administration -- all these are part of the new army whose name Hajji mocks: "Free Army -- but what is that supposed to mean, 'free'? Free to do whatever they like?"

It's a fine line to walk, and hardly anywhere can this be seen more clearly than in the improvised prison operating out of a former administrative building in Maraa.

In particular, those who have tortured, killed or raped are brought here. They are people who have been -- depending on your point of view -- kidnapped or arrested after being identified by witnesses.

The man in charge here is a former sergeant who defected from the army, a giant of a man whose nickname is Janbu. After extensive negotiations, we are allowed to see two prisoners. One is a spy for the notorious shabiha militia, a philosophy student who reported on his fellow students for the regime's intelligence service. The other is a soldier accused of raping female prisoners and beating male prisoners with a club.

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