Planet Syria

© dona bozzi

Summer 2013. In the Aleppo countryside,  the Al-Aqsa Brigade of the Free Syrian Army  fires down below at the Hezbollah militias  who have penetrated the villages of Nubbul and Zahara.

Of all the FSA commanders we met, Yaser Sokar, head of the Al-Aqsa brigade, an unprejudiced, soft-spoken man, is the only one who dared to shake our hands, wiping his own afterwards as a joke. The villages of Nubbul and Al-Zahra have been penetrated by Hezbollah; “Can the siege be broken by the SAA?”, we asked him. “No, never, we’ll eventually rout them out!”  He gave us the green light to go to Jabbal Shewehna, a front line at the bottom of a hill a few kilometers from Hraytan.  The Al Aqsa  fighters stand on one side of the hill, and the regime troops stand on the other. “If we take this hill top, we’ll take all of Aleppo!” says one Al-Aqsa fighter, still foolishly trapped in the magical thinking of victory  over “Gaahesh”, that’s what they call Bashar here from the donkey’s genes that shape his  face.  The rebels complained about the enemy’s superiority given its use of the Shilka, a tank with a sniper capable of shooting 2400 bullets per minute.

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The FSA  fighters have received a few Concourse missiles, basically zapper guns,  but still lament the weapons of the poor.  They particularly badly need RPG-type of rocket that can better track and follow enemy targets, primarily the Russian  made T-72 tanks.

The FSA base, a huge barrack behind of a two-kilometer long wall used for sniping through the breaches in it, “is manned by about 400 men, or so the regime thinks!”, says a young fighter, laughing.
Standing out beside an antique mystery cannon and home made attempts at casting their own barrels,  is a “Dushka” machine gun, pilfered from the regime and fitted with a 14.5 mm cartridge that can release 300 bullets per minute.

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Commander Yaser Socar’s dinner invitation had an hidden agenda; it was a  cry for help. The comfortably furnished rooms of his house exuded culture and open mindedness, and moderate wealth. Too unpretentious to present us with an exclusively Syrian meal, he added a European-type of course to the dinner to make us feel more comfortable. Then he exclaimed,  painfully:

“We are the real Muslims of Syria. Do we look like terrorists to you? They killed our children, they burned our houses. Did they call them terrorists? We are the ones they called terrorists! The true terrorists were released  by the regime in 2011 from Saidnaya prison, under pressure from the international community in the first few months of the uprising, as part of a smokescreen amnesty.

Our battalion, the Al Aqsa Brigade, didn’t get all the media attention that Al-Tawheed did, and therefore didn’t get the needed military supplies from Qatar that they did. We didn’t even get enough bullets from the military council of the FSA, let alone foreign powers!”

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He said he would take us on the following day to Nubbul and Al-Zahra, two Shia villages on the outskirts of Aleppo, with a combined population of about 5000, where Hezbollah reigns and even the women carry guns. Here, the Al-Aqsa men enjoy a formidable vantage point: the terrace of yet another elegant private mansion turned into an FSA headquarters. We were actually facing Nubbul and Al-Zahra from about three kilometres away. The rebel’s elevated position above the villages definitely gave them the upper hand. Suddenly, the men ducked in a row behind the terrace wall to exchange fire. Suddenly, one of the Al-Aqsa fighters shouted “Allahu Akbar,” leaping excited  with his Kalashnikov lifted in the air. It then became still. He had just killed a man. When asked why Hezbollah woudn’t dare to retaliate the injury, they said that daylight doesn’t allow them to clash comfortably enough. All throughout the clash, our fixer and our friends held their back glued to the terrace floor. On it, lay a dozen or so empty bullet casings landed from the other side.

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Zakaria Jrab, leader of the Katiba Shams Alhak (The Sun of Righteousness), is a member of the military commitee of the Council of the Governorate of Aleppo. I asked him:

“Mr. Jrab, what is the ideological difference between Ahrar Al-Sham and the FSA?  The way Ahrar members dress, in black from head to toe and wearing black kohl around their eyes, is not exactly reassuring”.

“There is no difference between the two: we are brothers, we coordinate with each other on the front line. However, Ahrar Al-Sham is more devout and more rigorous in the observance of the Sharia then the FSA, where some elements may be nonchalant or plain aloof. We can definitely say they are Islamists, but we work together because they are not radical.”

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“Does the FSA has more affinity with Ahrar Al-Sham than with Al- Golani?” Ahrar Al-Sham is easier to deal with, more open minded and doesn’t have an agenda. Mr. Golani wants to take over the country after the revolution.”  “Why can’t you get good antiaircraft from the United States, like Turkey did?   “Because the United States has a precondition: they want to give Idlib and Aleppo to their ally, Turkey.”

” What about Qatar? Why they don’t help you more?” “Because they don’t have the OK from the United States. Recently a shipment of RPG made in Austria,  from the UAE to Syria, was stopped by the United States. The regime has Shilkas with snipers capable of shooting 2400 bullets per minute. We have 45 mm “Dushka”  machine guns at 300 bullets per minute”
And a sleek, albeit quite lonely, M16 from the United States; plus, of course, MRE, “meals ready to eat”, repurposed from  Iraq and Afghanistan.  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33997408

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Journalists, ripe and ready targets

© dona bozzi

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Our contact in a Turkish city which cannot be named for his protection is Ammar Cheikh Ammar, a German/ Syrian army deserter become media darling, interviewed by the New York Times  Soldier Says Syrian Atrocities Forced Him to Defect  and by German television DW, presented here as Omar Sheikh Ammar, and showing in the comments as, what else is new, “a Jew on the whorish media’s payroll”.     He’s our liaison with Aya in Gaziantep, where the fashionable spaghetti straps of Istanbul and Antakya give way to non-sexual dark veils.  She is with Nsaeem Syria FM, (a pro Revolution radio station), meaning “Gentle wind” and claims to be a part time fixer, having helped into Syria la crème de la crème of international journalism.

In her room, a blood type silver tag with the words Al-Tawhid, and Free Syrian Army, oddly engraved together, lay on her bedside table.  In NPR Fresh Air,  May 1st, 2013, https://www.npr.org/player/embed/179855633/180037134, New York Times correspondent J.C. Chivers described indeed the most effective Aleppo brigade as an Al Nusra affiliate. Whether this is the case or not,  in Aleppo Al-Tawhid is  considered  mainstream  even by the moderate opposition itself: “The FSA and Al Tawid are actually the same thing, in that Al-Tawhid operates under the umbrella od the FSA”,  Anas Alhaj, with the Council of the Governatorate of Aleppo, will proudly explain later to us in Aleppo.

Aya never got us a fixer, however  she went on a shopping spree with the money we gave her so she could find us one.

Bab Al Salam

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The Kilis crossing is actually at Bab Al-Salam, which is almost a proper border, in that one is not required to show a passport. We easily got a lift to Azaz, safe zone mainly because it’s “no Bashar”, having been liberated by the FSA in 2012 from the regime, taken by ISIS in Oct 2013, and reliberated by the FSA in Jan 2014.  Our host is Ibrahim, a Syrian refugee at Kilis’container who occasionally goes back to Azaz to check his house: in the face of the warnings against the  Shabiha, (Shia militias), the mukhabarat (secret government police), and ISIS,  we took a cab to Azaz, no men with guns with us: that’s what ordinary people do in Bab Al Salam: the taxi drivers  wait  after the second Turkish Gomruk –  the custom – clean shirts ironed just across the border, faces also shaved in Kilis.  Ibrahim’s granite house is the color of warm curcuma,  he built it and then abandoned it to save his life.  Touching  the  warm stone, then  jabbing at the air above with his hand, he reiterated “granite, granite!”,  obviously for “money for nothing!”.  He started the generator to give some power to our computers, then said he would take us to Aleppo.

Aleppo

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In starving Aleppo, a fixer’s fee averages at a reasonable 75,00 dollars a day; the days of Misrata 2011, when the journalists were put up at the  Gozelteek hotel, courtesy of the local media center, and the rebels in flip flops  would pick up the freelancers hitchhiking to the Dafniya front line, seem like a fable.   At the Karaj al-Hajez crossing, the rebels carry back from the regime area the body of a fighter, on a stretcher, into FSA controlled Bustan Al Qasr.  The stretcher bearers pop up from around the separation barricade, a bullet ridden bright red bus. The man in the front has his hands taken, his arms stretched backwards, at once trying to dodge my camera by bending his shoulders, and carry the body in the back,  thus making him so unbalanced, that he had to bring himself back up, his cry unwillingly straight up to the lens. I wished I could have told  him that I hated to do that.

After a  day’s visit to Aleppo, Ibrahim had to go back to his house/container at Bab Al Salam, and since we turned out to be  “mushkela” (trouble makers),  for overtripping the shutter,  we negotiated a fee to stay for three more days at his friends’: thereafter, we had to cross the border again in order not to abuse.

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Kilis:  we are still the only journalists even on the safe side of the border; on the semi touristic main, Ahmed Abu Faraj,  – not his real name, you bet!- the unipole of power for the provocateurs this side of the border, and a decoy fixer himself in Kilis, waved at us but oddly stopped short of walking over, sending instead his promenade companion over to us, a naive looking  US student who furtively inquired about our plans in Syria in order to get help “for his humanitarian project”.

Hotel Paris,  basically a social housing for refugees;  in the morning the manager would serve us his mobile along  with chai: a voice in broken English, in the business of naming, spooking us, and framing us as personae non gratae  to the opposition, would challenge us: “you can’t go to Syria, you are on the black list!”.  They would probably claim we were in bed with the same red Shiite we ourselves were fighting, albeit by way of a  different type of machines, and a different kind of firepower.  Getting uncomfortable, we tried to move to the three stars Mertur, where  the manager flashed his palms at us  meaning  “no vacancy”,  albeit exuding sophistry, then moved on to check in the Syrian behind us. The man removed his sun glasses, he looked like Ahmed Abu Faraj.  Determined to unmask the snooper, we called  the Turkish police, forgetful of their records with foreign journalists, let alone Turkish journalists. Trying to drum up support from the Turkish cops was not a good idea, the officers didn’t care that  the man smacked of snooping on us, and that the hotel was so vehemently off limits for us.   They  wouldn’t care about the fact that the man who had just checked in, had messaged us from his  news media FB page,  his profile picture matching his ID, and that he had approached us claiming  to be a fixer.  They didn’t care that he didn’t engage with us down the street,  and he was faintly aloof while smiling.   Useless to look for help for feeling followed, we stayed unfazed, and messaged some  FB “people we may know”  in Aleppo, in order to get some badly needed ammo. They  turned out to be, as per FB timeline,  true members of the Council of the Governorate of Aleppo,  among them Anas Alhaj, who singularly  rescued us from Turkey into Syria.  We paid for the rooms for our last night, which had become unbearably hot.  The small window above the door in our own room was stuck, and we had to poke it open with a broom handle, thereby breaking it, and promptly paying the manager for the glass we owned: the same man, later on, reported to our agency that we had damaged the hotel, but we already knew there was no place to hide for us in Kilis.

In the morning, Anas and his FSA pick up easily got check point cred at the crossing, where it basically works by rolling down the window, saying who you are and who you know, and getting waved off, no particular vetting needed, let alone getting checked  against a conjectural black list.

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In the Aleppo countryside, we are Anas’s guests. He put us up on the whole top floor of his uncle’s typical northern Syrian affluent class mansion, the warm colored granite of the terrace exudes wealth, sadly I am not allowed to step out on it, not even with the veil.
I am given a second skin to wear under my ankle long black dress, long enough to stumble on it,  thus learning to live with the heat of Syria under my layers, out of respect for the Sunni of Syria.
I said to Anas that I had no clue, before coming down here, of what the Sunni of Syria would be like, other that they were among the People of the East, who crossed the sea under the Roman empire to make a glorious melting pot of our Nation: they have a way of life influenced by the Sunnah, interlaced and tinged with a European flare: under Bab Al Adeed’s rubbles, amongst human detritus, a reporter recounted  to have lifted a trembling stone to find Shakespeare’s scattered verses, wondering if  the dead  boy under the rubble nearby had been reciting  them, interrupted.  I told him that our people must have rubbed off on each other during the centuries, as my Syrian friends on FB call me “more Syrian than Syrians”, although they never met me.

Every morning, Anas would come to pick me up and drive me to different katiba, brigades of fighters under the same umbrella of the FSA, to visit who’s wearing the boots who are doing the work on the ground.

In a shack, in in the village of Tal Shaier, 15 km from Aleppo, we met Mr Kalid Alhaj, the chief of the katiba The Martyrs of Gaza, under the umbrella od the FSA.  Behind a long white beard and a jihadi central casting look, his nom de guerre Lion’s heart, he’s the most tolerant man one would ever expect to meet in the dominion of the jihadi. He demanded that we didn’t respect the ramadan and offered us “eariq  alssus”, a drink with a taste of liquorice.

He then introduced us to his two wives, and his katiba,  the “CIA backed rebels'”, in the full vest of gun clips, and not much else: their arsenal , the same  AK47 and rpg, as in 2012, early Libyan revolution style. A beardless young rebel,  formerly a disgruntled  student, performed for us the throw of a hand grenade  with a slingshot, sarcastically describing the device as the latest non lethal assistance being  pumped from the US, along with MRE, meals ready to eat: Arming Syrian rebels: Where the US went wrong

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”Mr Alhaj, do you believe in the conspiracy theory, widely spread among the opposition, that the US, having realized that they can’t decapitate Assad from power, a triangulator in the region who hasn’t bothered Israel for over 40 years,  has agreed with Russia to let Syria destroy itself like the proverbial slowly boiling frog? Isn’t that a little far fetched, considering that it has been confirmed for over a year now, that the CIA is shipping arms to the opposition from Jordan?”  “ Bashar Al Assad has sold  Syria to Russia, but the real charade is from the  US, because of their agreement with Russia: when the FSA has the upper hand, they reduce the help to the rebels, when the regime is gaining ground, they increase the support to the opposition”

“A few radical  groups of  the Aleppo opposition seem to feel obliged to justify atrocities by radical takfiri such as the shooting of the boy with the coffee cart who “would refuse to offer free coffee even to the Prophet”,  and the killing of Mr Kamami, a commander of the FSA, at a check point of the State of Iraq and Sham, by affirming that he was a spy of the regime”.

“ The noble verses says that those who swear at God should be whipped on the back, not killed, and that all innocent lives are sacred and equal in Islam.  There is no difference between the rich and the poor, the man and the woman, the free and the slave.  All are equal in the eyes of Allah Almighty; Allah Almighty did order all Muslims to offer and make peace with the enemy whenever it’s possible”.

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Back home: an email from our registry, advised: “We are busy updating a few systems and processes including our membership.  We have recently had some complaints about your conduct in the field.  Having revised the details, we feel that you are not meeting the Code of Conduct you had signed up to when you  joined the FFR, the reason being damaging a hotel room, and attempting to have a colleague  arrested.  As such, we think it best that we disable your membership for the time being”.  After the “time being” we recontacted the Register for reapplication, whereby  they advised that it was not a suspension, but a removal.

Sami, our real fixer at the AMC, confirmed later on  not to worry, that indeed  foreign journalists in Syria are often suspected to be spies.

Syria deeply

© dona bozzi

Kafr Hamrah

One of the front lines of Aleppo is at Kafr Hamrah, between two buildings, not even one kilometer from one another, in the northwestern countryside of the rebel held east side.

One of these buildings is under the Free Syrian Army, the opposite is regime held. The katiba (battalion) defending the FSA’s building is named “The revolutionaries of Manbij”, one of the most respected and effective  in Aleppo. Within the FSA, this katiba operates under the banner of Al-Tawhid.  Every katiba has a Mullah, who’s also a combatant,  teaching the fighters not to steal from, and not to hurt the people in captured territories. This katiba also has a doctor,  a teacher of primary school, and a mechanic. The headquarters are in a previously magnificent Scarface-style of villa, complete with dried out swimming pool,  that the revolutionaries have taken over from whom was wealthy enough to escape the remains of murder. We met the fighters over a breakfast of dried out dates, stale bread, and the only available safe drink, those ubiquitous goddam  mini bottles of saccharine orange juice which made us thirsty.  In not yet beard peaked Aleppo, some boys had grown enough hair to look, at worst, rogue renegades on the margin: the home grown Aleppo mujahid  were not going to carry out jihad, just practicing the business of amateurish  insurgence.

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Anas Alhaj, our fixer, with the Relief Committee of the Council of the Aleppo Governorate, said it’s a good thing that Hezbollah, the party of Satan, and Iran , came to fight on Bashar’s side and unveiled their true colors to the Sunni of  Syria, who now knew who the militia really stood with. In fact, before the revolution, the Sunni  used to root for Hezbollah, because they also were Israel’s enemy. ” Back then, even Iran was not an enemy”. In his fervor, Anas disregarded that Hezbollah did remain Israel’s enemy, even if, in the topsy turvy politics of the Middle East, having a common enemy doesn’t necessarily make an alliance.

At the helm of the oddly luxurious command post, Commander Abu Farouk, one of the most respected leaders of the FSA in Aleppo, candidly declared a nom de guerre: who would give his real name to a journalist in Kafr Hamrah, anyway?

Before taking us to the front line, he coached us word-by-word to recite the Shahada, the Islamic creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance  of Muhammad as God’s prophet.  That would make us, just in case, die Muslim: “Ashhado ana La Eelaha eLa Alah, wa ana Mohamad rasool Allah”, “There is no God like Allah, Mohammed is the prophet of Allah”.

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The “front line” is about a five-kilometer drive from the villa. We climbed to the top of the building. A rebel showed us the blood, on the stairs, of the last body that was dragged out, “about a week ago”, they said. On the top, two awfully young boys kept on guard, seated by the open wall, their back stuck  to the back of their chairs, staring at a broken mirror reflecting the enemy’s position.We asked Abu if he could tell, from the shouts from the other building, who was on the other side. ” Mostly Farsi, from the Basij, (the militia established in 1979 by Ayatollah Kohmeini) and the pasdaran (the Iranian Revolutionary Guard)”, he replied. “Lebanese, Iraqi and Yemeni Shia accents. Turkish spoken by Turkish Alawites, and some Russian, probably spoken by Kazakistani, whose country is eighty per cent shia”.

“When we shout Allah uakbar, we hear scared voices from the other side invoking: “Oh Hussien, oh Fatima”. (Hussien was the son of Ali Bin Abu Talep, the cousin and son- in- law of the prophet Mohammah. Fatima was the daughter of Mohammad)”. They can hear the Rafidah, (the infidel shia), by ingeniously tweaking the wavelengths of their sort of old fashioned walkie-talkies.

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“These gadgets are part of the “non lethal aid” recently supplied by the US”, together   he added ironically with a grin, a subtle smile, The “Friends of Free Syria” did not open the gates yet to flood Free Syria with the MIM – 104 Patriot anticraft!  Commander Abu Faruk was kind enough to take us back after a few camera shots, besides those aiming at us from the opposite building.  However, before we left, we had one last question for him: – Wasn’t it wicked of Al Zawahri (head of Al Qaeda) to urge the merging of the  Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham with the Syrian affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Nusra? Trying to deter arm shipments to the moderates by further contaminating the opposition resulted in augmented hesitation by the west to support the revolution all together. In fact, Al-Zawahiri himself had to retract the invitation,  in the aftermath of the atrocities committed by the network of death. Commander Abu Faruk, a military man and not a think tank strategist, didn’t have an opinion on that: he was a Muslim revolutionary from the FSA, and didn’t give a damn about the Islamic State.

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