“Britain pushed for the EU to lift its embargo on providing arms to the rebels in a bid to end the conflict, which has claimed 80,000 lives” © James Harkin
Bedding down at a Syrian rebel barracks just behind the frontline in Aleppo city was never going to be easy, but it is the screaming which keeps me awake. Long choruses of anguished howls come from the other end of a narrow corridor, where the rebels I’ve eaten dinner with are setting on four unfortunates they had just detained in the street outside. Unable to sleep, I join some of the other men on the balcony outside, drinking endless pots of Arabic coffee and watching the hypnotic glow of mortar shells rising and then gently falling in the night sky.
The commander supervising the interrogation of the four men, accused of a scheme of looting and perhaps murder, tells me they’re being punched, but from the rhythm of the wailing it sounds as if they’re being pinned down and flayed. “Thieves, killers,” says one rebel. “They were pretending to be with our revolution,” sniffs another.
This is a battalion of the Free Syrian Army—the loose lattice of hundreds of tiny battalions and a few larger militias, which include the forces that Britain has decided to back in a bid to drive out the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They are constantly changing names and personnel and, in the main, answer to no one but themselves. That this group routinely resorts to such brutal treatment of others is not surprising; almost everyone with access to a weapon in the city seems to do so, often in response to popular demand, if those people are accused of looting or working for the other side.
But western governments should think hard about whether they really understand their chosen allies before they send arms to opposition fighters, as they may do this summer. Many European countries and the United States have recognised the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, the fractious and ineffectual body which claims to act as the political arm of the opposition in exile, as the “sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people.” But only Britain and France have argued that arming the rebels on the ground might now be a good idea. Britain, with France, successfully pushed for the European Union to lift its embargo on providing arms to the rebels from 31st May, in a bid to bring an end to the two-year conflict, which has claimed more than 80,000 lives, according to a UN estimate in May.
Their calculation is that arming these rebels—or even just threatening to do so—will pile pressure on the Assad regime. They also hope that it will freeze out other opposition fighters—above all, the Islamist militants of Jabhat al-Nusra, who recently pledged their allegiance to al Qaeda. Foreign Secretary William Hague has said: “Our priority is to get the regime in Damascus and the opposition to the negotiating table… a decision to deliver lethal weapons will depend on the course of these [talks].” Less cautiously, Laurent Fabius, his French counterpart, has talked of “a weapons imbalance because Mr Bashar al-Assad has planes, etcetera, and the resistance fighters don’t have the same means.” He added: “As much as we are working for a political solution, on the ground things have to be rebalanced.”
Adding urgency to this pitch, in the past few weeks France has said that it has evidence of the use of sarin nerve gas by the regime. To rebut one of the fiercest objections to arming the rebels from other European governments, Fabius has claimed that anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, if supplied, might be rendered useless by remote control if they fell into the “wrong hands.”
Yet any extensive encounter with rebel brigades themselves suggests these calculations are dangerously wrong. For a start, there is often little to divide the rebels Britain has chosen to back from their Islamic counterparts—and none of them have any fondness for the west. British ministers and officials have clearly spent much time in Istanbul talking to the National Coalition. The British and French notion is that they might give arms to this body, which would hand them out to the Free Syrian Army. But it is not clear they have answers to the elementary questions about whether they can control the outcome if they do indeed funnel more weapons into the Syrian warzone.
The armed rebellion—in northern and eastern Syria, particularly—is bound up with family and tribe. In July last year, in a town near the Turkish border, on the same day that the armed rebels moved their rebellion from the surrounding towns and villages into Aleppo city, a 52-year-old electrical engineer called Abdul Kareem brought me his two oldest sons to talk to. Both had started out by demonstrating against the regime, but had tired of the brutal response and thrown in their lot with a battalion of the Free Syrian Army.
They were just back from fighting to eject regime forces from Zitan, the family village just south of Aleppo. Ayham, the capable-looking battalion commander, was 25 years old; Molham was a reflective 24 year old who’d left behind an architecture degree at Aleppo University and couldn’t wait to put down his Kalashnikov and get back to his studies. Three weeks later, however, Ayham was shot dead in a regime counter-offensive in the heavily contested southern district of Salaheddine. Since the fighting broke out in Aleppo last year—(Syria’s largest city had previously seemed immune to the uprising convulsing many others)—eight members of Abdul Kareem’s extended family have been killed. All were fighting with the rebels except one—a five-year-old cousin called Khalil who’d gone missing and been found, a week later, with his throat cut.
Nearly a year later, Aleppo is caught in the same stalemate as the strategic city of Homs before it. The poor districts of the south and east are controlled by various rebel factions while regime forces are in charge of the rest; Salaheddine remains a battleground. Molham, I discovered when I met him again this year, has replaced his older brother as battalion commander. His 100 or so men occupy five different frontline positions; in between shifts they repair to impromptu barracks. One is a former school, which they have been using since September, although it is only several hundred metres away from regime forces. Shortly after I arrive, I emerge from a trip to the outside toilet to find that a sniper, seeing signs of movement, has just taken a lump out of the front door. The culprit, says Adbul Kareem, pointing in the direction from which the bullet came, is probably a fighter from Iran or the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militias, which have played a big role in supporting regime forces.
For two years, the violence in Syria has advanced through these cycles of attack followed by revenge massacres and creeping foreign involvement. In a way that threatens to ignite the tensions in Iraq and the region more widely, much of the killing is justified with sectarian rhetoric: Sunni against Shia. Syria has a Sunni majority, but has been ruled by the Shia Alawite sect. The rebels I talk to are Sunni—most are from the same Al-Akidi clan as Abdul Kareem, from Zitan. All, with the exception of one 50 year old who acts as a spiritual guide, and his teenage son who runs errands, are between 20 and 24 years old. Quite a few, like Molham, were university students when the conflict broke out; others, like the men who originally gave rise to the idea of a Free Syrian Army, are defectors from the regular army.
They have been taking terrible losses. A few days before I arrive, another cousin from this barracks, a 22-year-old former student at Aleppo University, was ambushed by regime forces in Al-Izaa. Molham looks weary and haunted, still trying to come to terms with everything that he’s seen. He’s forgotten all about architecture, he says: it now seems like a different world. With his men I rib him about a Swedish female journalist we met last summer and whom he obviously liked. He enjoys the joke, but has no time for women: shortly after, he apologises and leaves to go and pray. Last year, when I’d asked Abdul Kareem about the threat from Islamic extremism and al Qaeda, he’d taken offence. “My sons don’t even pray,” he’d barked, both proud and mortified. But with death a daily event, everyone prays now.
In the evening we lie around on cushions in the large schoolroom where everyone sleeps. The generator keeps failing; as we talk, we are plunged for long spells into perfect darkness. The chatter ripples with mentions of the Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusra, with whom the men have a friendly although uneasy relationship—but not the antagonistic one that you might conclude from the British and French decision to back the Free Syrian Army and oppose the supposed “extremists” of Nusra.
I’d seen many Nusra fighters on the drive into Aleppo, sometimes manning joint checkpoints with battalions working within the Free Syrian Army. At one point Abdul Kareem, who’d driven me in, asked me to stop taking pictures; Nusra, he said, might not appreciate it. The hundreds of ramshackle battalions affiliated with the Free Syrian Army still vastly outnumber Nusra, but numbers are not the issue. Stepping into the vacuum of rebel expertise and organisation, Nusra has set itself up as the special forces of the Syrian rebellion, every bit as ruthless as the pro-regime, paramilitary Shabiha (Assad supporters) on the other side.
“Everyone wants to fight, and they don’t much care who they fight with as long as they’re good,” shrugs Molham. He does offer that “if the world gave us weapons we wouldn’t need any help from these people”—the argument that seems to underpin the British and French conclusion. But as it is, he talks to Nusra regularly. Like all the other rebels I meet, he respects their religiosity and their fighting prowess and has no wish to do battle with them. Most are Syrian and good people, he says, even if many of their leaders are fanatical and Iraqi; they’ve discussed working together on operations, but nothing has come of it yet. “Our battalion,” he says with some pride, “is the only one in this city that Nusra say they respect.”
But while the Free Syrian Army rebels might want western arms, that doesn’t mean they like the west. He blames the west for everything. If they’d helped with weaponry and communication devices as they kept promising, his forces wouldn’t have needed help from Nusra or anyone else. He’s come to the conclusion that the west is playing a double game. “They hate Bashar and they hate Nusra, and they just want both their enemies to fight each other.”
Syria’s rebels are now in a dangerous bind. Having stirred the full force of a brutal regime, they badly need the battlefield skills and valour of Jabhat al-Nusra to keep their insurgency moving and protect the many civilians who supported them in the first place. But the blind fury of the Islamists of Nusra, who regard the Syrian army as infidels and Shia (and Alawite) Muslims as apostates, is pushing many Syrians back towards a discredited regime. On the walls of the school there’s little iconography associated with the revolution or the Free Syrian Army, but a great deal of Islamist imagery. “There is no God but Allah,” read several black flags on two of the classroom walls.
During the night a helicopter buzzes overhead, setting off a rebel siren and leading to a moment of panic. After regular attacks from the air, the roof of the school has been cracked open and its upper floors are glass-spattered mess; everyone sleeps in the same room on the ground floor. The sky still belongs to the regime, and the weapons at the disposal of the rebels—Kalashnikovs, a few Browning pistols and grenades—look puny in comparison. During one of the blackouts Abdul Kareem wanders out of the darkness to show me a box-like, homemade pipe bomb the men have just assembled. He does his best to chip in and tap friends and extended family abroad but the money, he says, is fast running out. “Now, zero,” he complains. “It’s all gone.”
The following day Molham takes Abdul Kareem and me to the frontline in Salaheddine. While another group of rebels drive off in the direction of the government lines, Molham inspects a homemade grenade freshly prepared for his unit from a pharmacy which has been turned into an impromptu soldering works. “What do you think of Syrian grenades?” he smiles, staring at it for over a minute, turning it around in his hands and practising throwing it.
That the rebels badly need more and better weapons is obvious. Yet given the forces ranged against them, it is not clear that it would make much difference to their campaign. He shows me where the regime launched its first air strike on rebel positions in the city: once an Islamic school, now it is concrete and twisted metal. Much of the rest of the neighbourhood is the same; like many of the most visible symbols of Syria’s armed rebellion, from Baba Amr in Homs to the towns surrounding Damascus, Salaheddine has been reduced to rubble. As the regime has retrenched in the last six months it has resorted to hurling heavy surface-to-surface missiles at areas of the north it has little hope of winning back. The previous day I’d looked around some of the places the regime forces had hit. The effect was more like an earthquake than an explosion: whole streets reduced to tiny white bricks.
The regime has healthy stocks of ballistic missiles, both Russian and Iranian, and these ones appear to have been fired from nearly 300 kilometres away in bases close to Damascus. Some rebel activists have taken to reporting their departure when they see them launched.
For all the debate among governments internationally about whether there is firm evidence that the regime has used chemical weapons, it has more than enough conventional weaponry to kill its citizens many times over. Should it ever run out, it has access to more, through the support of Russia and Iran. By unfreezing the EU embargo on supplying the rebels Britain and France have reckoned that they can call Assad’s bluff. But they have to contend with the open unease of many EU governments—and in Britain, members of parliament, where David Cameron has offered a free vote after more than 80 Conservative backbenchers demanded an opportunity to block the supply of weapons.
And Syria’s shadowy security state works best when it’s in a corner. Dark rumours of foreign plots to destabilise the country brought its ruling clique to power half a century ago, and have done much to keep it there since. That is still the regime’s best card.
For their part, the vast majority of the rebels I have met in Syria are openly contemptuous of their putative political representation abroad, with its shifting coalitions, accusing it of being in thrall to shady foreign interests and too far removed from the real fighting on the ground. It is tolerated by the rebels because they think it might win them weapons and recognition from the international community. It is highly unlikely that equipping the latter with better weapons would bring them to the bargaining table. Instead, they would redouble their efforts to finish the job—and Molham admits that his rebellion no longer defines that task as the pursuit of freedom and democracy, but of honour and revenge. “Five or 10 years,” he says. “I won’t leave. I must stand.” When I suggest a political solution he scolds me for my naivety. “All the clever people have left Syria. And for us this is not a game of chess.”
I’d heard much the same last summer, when I asked the ostensible leader of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo (and another cousin of Abdul Kareem and Molham) about his international backers in the Gulf states and the west. “They don’t give us any support, and what support they do give us is corrupt or not worth having,” he’d growled. “And in return for this they want us to make a deal with this regime. It’s not going to happen.”
It is not surprising that the Syrian rebels don’t much like the west. From the beginning many of them saw al Qaeda and Nato as more or less indistinguishable; foreign interlopers who were not to be trusted but whose protection might prove handy. The first Free Syrian Army rebels I met, in a Damascus safe house in February last year, were ordinary soldiers from farming communities who had broken from the regular army as a result of the brutal military response to civilian demonstrations in their areas. Their mission was plainly defensive; they had no real strategy about how to oust the Assad regime and had come to the meeting only to ask for more weapons. Now, they feel betrayed. European countries and the US, by continually hinting that they are about get tough on the Assad regime, flirting with different opposition alliances and implying that the regime was on the point of collapse, may have given these young men false hope—encouraged them to go out and fight, even die, in the hope that governments would come to the rescue. Whatever the west does now will, in their eyes, seem too little and too late.
Meanwhile, the west is in danger of misreading the threat from Jabhat al-Nusra. That threat is certainly real and growing, but it is to Syrians and not the west. Even if many of its leaders are foreign, the bulk of its fighters seem to be Syrian and have no appetite for international terror. While there have been flashes of tension between Nusra and Sunni tribes over resources and their puritanical edicts, the Free Syrian Army rebels are not going to turn on them because the west wants them to; Nusra, after all, has done much more to help them.
And even if we did persuade one powerful brigade of rebels to clamp down on Nusra in return for weapons, the last thing Syria needs, in a powder keg of grudges and uneasy alliances, is yet another proxy militia pitting Syrian against Syrian. The likely effect would be to blow the armed rebellion apart, and it is far from clear that “our side” would win (or that they would stay on our side if they did). And what do we do if we give our chosen rebels everything they are asking for, including a no-fly zone, and the Syrian army, with one press of its ballistic button, blows them and our weapons to smithereens? There is no appetite at all in the EU or US for committing forces; rather, the opposite.
Hague and Fabius have spoken as if their own governments are convening the talks, but they are just two small players around a very big table. Unless they can win the support of America—unlikely, given President Barack Obama’s focus on getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq, and beyond that, on Iran’s nuclear programme—their rhetoric is not going to be matched by meaningful action on the ground. The real effect of any supply of arms from an EU country would be to trigger a kind of arms race, in which countries vie to pour weapons into the crucible. Turkey, Qatar and the other Gulf states might step up their own arms deliveries to their choice of opposition rebels as they jockey for regional championship of Sunni Islam. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah would very likely respond, with greater force and conviction, the Iranians determined to protect their fellow Shia. That would aggravate sectarian fault lines, pitting militant Islamist against militant Islamist in a way that, even now, few ordinary Syrians say they want.
On our way back from Aleppo to the Turkish border, Abdul Kareem and I are forced to take a different route because of heavy fighting around one of the last remaining regime holdouts, an air base called Menagh. I find out later that some rebels were ambushed by irregular fighters who came from a nearby Shia village; several were killed, including a young friend of Abdul Kareem and his sons. The situation is becoming increasingly bleak for the rebels. Not a single division of the Syrian army, not even those largely Sunni brigades the regime is allegedly keeping in reserve because of concerns about their loyalty, have left en masse to join the rebels. The minorities and many moderate Sunnis are scared of this anarchic rebellion, but are also painfully aware that this tired, brutal regime can’t protect them forever. Some have tried hard to disentangle their communities from the battles that are being fought in their name.
After Iraq, it was predictable that the implosion of the Assad regime, authoritarian and secular, like that of Saddam Hussein, would see many Syrians retreating to their religious and ethnic identities and a rogue’s gallery of opportunists arriving to set out their stalls. Those in think tanks like to float the break-up of the Syrian state as a potential solution, but I have yet to meet a Syrian who is enthusiastic about it, or who even thinks that it will happen. The borders of the Syrian state may have been drawn up in 1916 by the British-French Sykes-Picot agreement to suit the national interests of those two countries, but they have acquired a reality over the passing decades.
If Britain and other EU countries really want to help Syrians, they would be better advised to step up humanitarian aid to the millions of displaced Syrians who urgently need it. They might also grant visas to many, like the rest of Abdul Kareem’s young family, who are living in shocking conditions in refugee camps around the country’s borders and who cannot get a visa to go anywhere else.
But what Syria needs more than anything else are honest brokers inside the country who can reach out across military lines and encourage Syrians to talk to each other—as has been done recently by Syrian Kurds trying to broker peace between Shia and Sunni communities. It is much easier said than done, of course, but it remains the only way to separate the regime from its people. It is also the only course that can now bring Syria and the whole region back from the sectarian catastrophe towards which it is thundering, and squeeze out the extremists and proxies on both sides.
After so many tens of thousands of deaths, it would be even more cruel if a popular movement for self-determination should end with the country slipping beyond anyone’s control.