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Witness
The foot soldiers in Syria's war
In the Turkish city of Antakya, a community of Syrian exiles personify an uprising that is languishing into uncertainty.
Last Modified: 30 Jul 2012 08:12

The food is piled high. Steaming pots of seasoned tomatoes and potatoes, yogurt and cucumber, cheese and piles of tortilla-like khubz, dipped in oil. A dozen or so young Syrian men crowd around, chattering excitedly about the day's events.

These men are foot soldiers in the public relations wing of the Syrian revolution - activists whose self-appointed role is to disseminate information through online platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Skype. They have gravitated from across Syria and the wider Middle East to this small apartment in the city of Antakya. The southern-most major city in Turkey, Antakya lies 24km west of the Syrian border, astride the Orontes River.

Teacher, electrician, lawyer

Ahmed was an Arabic teacher in Aleppo, Amr an electrician in Saudi Arabia. Several are defectors from the Syrian army. Huddled together, they personify an uprising whose promising beginnings have languished into uncertainty.

Their leader, in fact if not in name, is 32-year-old Mohammed Issa, a former lawyer. One night he receives notification that he has been expelled from the Syrian Bar Association as a result of his anti-regime activities.

"There is a disconnect between those inside [Syria] and the expatriates."

- Mohammed Issa

"This does not bother me," he says. "In fact, I am proud of it. The Bar in Syria is not a civic organisation. Like everything else, it is co-opted by the regime .... [It is] just a tool to keep lawyers in check."

Mohammed spends most of his time meeting other Syrians in Antakya, arranging transportation for refugees fleeing the violence and speaking to Western journalists on Skype. Like everyone else in the apartment, he obsessively watches Al Jazeera and YouTube for the latest news from inside Syria.

He is realistic about the opposition's progress. "Everyone hates Assad," he says. "But the regime has been in power for 40 years. The Mukhabarat [Syrian intelligence] pervades the society. People did not trust each other. It is difficult to organise. Many of those attempting to organise have not lived in Syria for years. There is a disconnect between those inside and the expatriates."

The men eagerly respond to questions about their faith. Some of them pray five times a day, clearing away the clutter of laptops, teacups and ashtrays to make space on the floor. Those who do not pray maintain a respectful silence. But they are far from being extremists, and speak disparagingly of the Taliban and Saudi Wahabis.

"Extremism is not the Syrian way," Mohammed says pointedly.

When prayers are finished, it is right back to joking and horseplay. They have adopted a rambunctious calico kitten whose tail-chasing antics keep the house entertained.

'If the regime wants you to say something, you will say it'

Few seem eager to return to Syria to fight. They all have friends who have been killed and many have already experienced imprisonment - something they regard as a source of pride.

"I was imprisoned for 36 days," Mohammed mentions. "I was in prison for 47," Ahmed replies. Another pipes up: "That's nothing. I was inside for more than six months."

Ahmed says that he was arrested following a demonstration at Aleppo University and describes his initial interrogation.

"They wanted to know if I had killed any soldiers, and the names of the revolution leaders. I told them I did not know anything. They beat me."

He leans in and smiles, relishing the re-telling. "They connected wires to my toes, one on my right foot and one on my left, and put electricity through me." Suddenly he turns serious. "Then they put the wires …" He hesitates, visibly embarrassed. "You know. Down there. Under my clothes. You understand me?"

A long moment passes.

"I will tell you something. When you are interrogated, if the regime wants you to say something, you will say it."

'Muslim, Christian, Kurd - all together'

 

Watch Witness - Syria: Smugglers with a cause, a film that follows Syrian exiles who risk their lives to smuggle essential supplies into the country

One of the men who does intend to rejoin the armed fight is electrician Amr. A physically imposing 29-year-old, he likes country music and is delighted to be introduced to Taylor Swift's YouTube channel.

He is slow to speak, but one morning over breakfast in a nearby cafe Amr tells his story in broken English.

He left Syria in 2004, after the Mukhabarat caught him writing an anti-regime blog. He wrote under a pseudonym and published from an internet cafe, but his precautions were insufficient. He was imprisoned and beaten so severely that he was unable to walk for two months. The experience left him with a crooked nose and an abiding sense of caution.

After his imprisonment he moved to Saudi Arabia. But when the revolution began, Amr returned to Syria and joined a small cell of sappers focused on attacking regime forces with improvised explosive devices.

He was recently elected leader of a band of nearly 120 fighters. Less than half of them have rifles. He says that due to massive inflation, equipping a single fighter with a Kalashnikov and ammunition costs more than $2,000. No logistical system exists to channel supplies from Free Syrian Army (FSA) headquarters to his unit.

"In my band," he says with unrestrained pride, "Muslim, Christian, Kurd." He interlocks his massive fingers for emphasis. "All together."

Amr explains his unit's fighting philosophy. "Many battalions, they want fight tanks. Make videos in the YouTube of the fighting, make boast. Shoot many bullets, hit little. This way, many free fighters killed, or after, Mukhabarat they catch them. This stupid."

In Amr's unit the rules are different. "Nothing in the YouTube. Working only in the dark. Working in secret. One bomb, kill three, four, five enemy. They become scared. They become afraid sleep at night. This good."

Amr came to Antakya to seek further training but the FSA was unable to offer him any. "Soon, I go back," he says.

'We need a military structure with civilian leadership'

Far from their homes and uncertain of the future, these men have banded together and built a tiny community.

Across town, on the other side of the Orontes River, Mahmoud, a spry, wiry man of 52 who is given to quoting Oscar Wilde, is working to build a different kind of community.

While serving in the Syrian army as an air traffic controller, he witnessed the destruction wrought on his hometown of Hama after the suppression of the uprising there in 1982. He later became the leader of a smuggling gang, moving multi-million dollar loads of contraband under the eyes of corrupt regime bureaucrats. Eventually he made his way to France and Switzerland, where he was imprisoned for running guns to the Balkans.

"When I was younger, I was not a very good person," he says. "I caused a lot of trouble."

Mahmoud later went to the US, where he gained refugee status and a green card. Until a few months ago he operated a profitable heavy equipment leasing franchise in Atlanta. Then he decided to come to Antakya to participate in the revolution. His resume suits him well here.

Mahmoud expected to join the FSA, but says: "When I got here, I quickly realised, there is no such thing as the FSA .... There is no structure, no way to distribute supplies, no way to coordinate actions. Nobody knows what anyone else is doing."

Working from a small hotel room, Mahmoud is trying to change that. He obsesses over organisational structure, drawing diagrams and building polished presentations on his laptop.

"We need a military structure with civilian leadership .... We need a Human Resources department. We need Public Relations. We need logistics. We need our own intelligence agency," he says.

'All these weapons will do is spread chaos'

Two hours from Antakya by bus sits the refugee camp at Islahya. The camp is now temporary home to an estimated 10,000 refugees, living in row upon crowded row of white canvas tents.

Mahmoud has come here to meet with a group of young men who wish to leave the camp and join the fighters inside Syria.

The Turkish soldiers guarding the perimeter look the other way as our group clambers over a low wall and through a hole in the chain-link fence.

"What do you think we want, Syria to turn into Afghanistan? That's not what anyone is fighting for .... [Assad] wants people to believe that supporting the revolution is somehow like supporting al-Qaeda. It isn't."

- Mahmoud

Sitting on the ground on blankets stamped with UNHCR logos, Mahmoud listens to their stories. Some have defected from the army but most are civilians. Mahmoud tells them that he may be able to help them, but that the real shortage right now is not of fighters but of weapons. They listen intently and agree to wait for his instructions.

"We have some weapons coming from Libya, if they are not intercepted at sea," he later confides in private. But even if they arrive safely, he seems pessimistic about their ultimate effectiveness. "We need better trained fighters. We need competent leadership. Without that, all these weapons will do is spread chaos."

Mahmoud vetoed distribution to one battalion after a colleague reported that they were radical religious extremists. "He went there, they all had beards, talking about a Caliphate, they wouldn't even let my guy smoke. No way would I give them weapons. What do you think we want, Syria to turn into Afghanistan? That's not what anyone is fighting for. That fits right into Assad's narrative. He wants people to believe that supporting the revolution is somehow like supporting al-Qaeda. It isn't."

Unlike many others, Mahmoud does not express frustration at the international community's perceived lack of involvement in the revolutionary cause. "Look at all of Syria's neighbours. What the West wants in Syria is stability. With the lack of organisation among us, we cannot guarantee that. We can't promise that if they help us, it won't just turn into a civil war. So until we are better organised, how can you blame other countries for not wanting to get involved?"

Back in the hotel, Mahmoud receives a steady stream of calls - a battalion leader in Antakya, a producer in San Diego looking to make a documentary, a Syrian American on his way here with designs of becoming the chief of staff of the inchoate military structure.

Mahmoud says he just came here because he wants to see Syria freed.

"I don't know if we will succeed," he says. "But I'm not giving up. I'm not moving back to America. Either I am going to settle again in my hometown, in Hama, with my family around me, or I am going to die trying."

Post Script: Mahmoud gave up trying to organise the FSA in Turkey and went to Syria to fight.

Austin Tice is a former US Marine infantry captain. Follow him on Twitter: @Austin_Tice

2009

Source:
Al Jazeera
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