Members of a Free Syrian Army brigade take a break from fighting to pose for a group photo.
lindfolded, I fidgeted nervously in the back of an unmarked car, squished between a gunrunner and a young Free Syrian Army soldier. It had been at least an hour since we left the border town of Kilis, Turkey, and we were now off-roading across the Syria-Turkey border. One of the top colonels of the FSA was up front and the trunk was packed with ammunition and small arms. The men sang anti-Assad jingles and joked with me that I was their “hostage”. When we finally arrived at our destination, they removed my blindfold. The Colonel (who, of course, asked that his real name be withheld), a kindly older gentleman, smiled and welcomed me to “Free Syria”. We had arrived in the liberated border town of Azaz, just opposite Kilis. Azaz’s liberation, however, looked as though it had come at a high cost – homes, schools, mosques and hospitals all lay in ruins, the highway cratered from regular shelling. Children played among the rubble, using the abandoned tanks as jungle gyms.
In the past few months, Assad’s forces had launched a devastating aerial campaign on FSA-occupied towns in an attempt to stamp out the democratic experiments they had built – schools, postal services and new public-works projects had all been targeted. In recent weeks, the FSA’s supply of munitions had been bottoming out. Opposition leaders had gone to Turkey and to Sunni financiers in the Gulf in hopes of securing anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Assad’s jets, but turned up empty-handed. Rumours that heavy-arms shipments were coming in by boat from Libya and France turned out to be bogus. Meanwhile, the US reprimanded Gulf countries for sending arms to support the rebels, citing fears of a growing jihadi presence within the FSA. Saudi Arabia shrugged its shoulders along with Qatar, officially stating that private donors were funnelling money and guns to Salafists and foreign fighters. They warned that the absence of meaningful intervention could result in a “popular jihad”, one that would run along dangerous sectarian lines.
Since the uprising began last year, the Turkish town of Kilis has been transformed into a Casablanca of sorts – a dusty border limbo for hustlers, spies and arms dealers. At a backroom bar in Kilis, I had met Hassan, a used-car salesman turned FSA gunrunner, who offered to take me with him into Syria. “I’d rather sell cars than run guns, but the regime shelled my garage,” he said. “What am I supposed to do?” The regime had devastated his wife’s village the year before, so Hassan, a father of eight, had decided to organise a local militia.
Many of Hassan’s neighbours sold their land to buy weapons from sympathetic army officials stationed at a nearby regime airbase. As fighting in Aleppo intensified, more weapons and funding began to flow in from Sunnis in the Gulf. As a secular Syrian, Hassan wanted to maintain the distinctly Syrian character of his militia; he refused to work with foreign jihadists. “They aren’t like us,” he told me. “They find complete fulfillment in death for jihad. I don’t understand it and have never seen anything like it. My friend tried to light a cigarette in their presence and they told him that it was haram (forbidden). They’ve got to be joking. This is a war.”
Hassan feared that deep pockets in the Gulf were allowing foreign fighters to wield disproportionate influence. Among some members of the FSA, the possibility of jihadists in their ranks elicits fear mixed with profound respect. The jihadists are known as fierce, untiring diehards, often upstaging the FSA boys on the front lines. Hassan despises these religious extremists but also acknowledges their combat expertise. Many of the FSA members I interviewed said they’d prefer Western support to the help of jihadists, but have to take what they can get at this point. Yet reports of tensions have begun seeping out – one young Salafist was allegedly executed for failing to obey an FSA colonel. As he sipped on his haram beer, Hassan said, “I’m afraid we’ll need two revolutions in Syria. The first against Assad, the second against the jihadis.”
We dropped off Hassan and the fighters in the small town of al-Bab and the Colonel and I went on to Aleppo, where he had to deliver weapons and inspect brigades. Like so many FSA officials, the Colonel had defected from Assad’s army. A middle-aged man with a worn expression, he had come from a military family. His father had been al-Bab’s colonel under the Assad regime. Life had been good for them before the war broke out – officers in the north had been able to operate with relative autonomy from Damascus, providing them with a comfortable, respectable life outside the state-security apparatus. But following the uprising, the officers were ordered to move on Aleppo, their own community. “That’s when everything changed. Not just for me, but for many colonels,” he said.
The Colonel followed his orders while clandestinely supporting the rebels, selling them arms from the al-Mashaab Air Force base. “My family was furious with me that I didn’t defect, but I couldn’t tell them the truth,” he sighed. When the time was right, he worked with FSA contacts to move his family to a new home while he vanished among the armed opposition. “My defection went smoothly, but others – many others – were not so lucky.”
Boys stand on a Syrian Army tank next to a destroyed mosque in Azaz.
When the Colonel found out that I was accompanying Hassan on one of his weekly smuggling trips, he insisted on joining us. He gave me the nickname “Ayoosh” and said that within 24 hours he’d have me on the front lines in a hijab, yelling “Allahu Akhbar!” after witnessing the regime’s brutality.
Jets circled overhead as the Colonel and I cruised down the wrecked highway leading to Aleppo. The hum of their engines grew louder until a single plane appeared directly above us, trailing us down the road. Our driver slammed on the gas and then abruptly hit the brakes, skidding the car into the shadow of an abandoned farmhouse. I clutched my flak jacket and pulled my helmet to my head, shaking. “Are you scared?” the Colonel asked calmly. He wasn’t wearing any armour – just a prayer card around his neck that had been passed down to him by his father. These prayer cards, which are sometimes bought and sold for hundreds or thousands of Syrian pounds, supposedly protect their bearers from physical harm. The Colonel called it his “special flak jacket” and insisted that I shoot at him to test it, while a cameraman we had met earlier filmed the exchange for CNN.
We sat in the shadow of the farmhouse until the roar of the jet faded away. Then we rerouted, taking a detour down back roads and into the sprawling ancient city of Aleppo – one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and Syria’s economic hub before it was decimated by the regime earlier this year.
The Colonel took us to Tariq al-Bab, a neighbourhood near the center of Aleppo, to meet his son Ahmad, who was the leader of a local militia. Ahmad was an excitable young man who immediately began to brag about his latest brush with death courtesy of pro-regime snipers. As he talked, the Colonel looked into the distance, concerned. That night, over a dinner of mezze and hummus, Ahmad’s men grilled the Colonel about his trip to Turkey, asking about family members in refugee camps and for the latest news from Istanbul. The conversation inevitably turned to the status of the coveted anti-aircraft missiles. “I wish the reports of foreign weapons were true,” the Colonel sighed. “We’re still using Russian-made weapons here.”
One of Ahmad’s fellow soldiers leaned in and said to me: “You heard we took an airbase last week, though, right?” I had heard about it, but that the particular victory had been secured by Jabhat al-Nusra, a fundamentalist sect with reported ties to terrorist organisations who have fought alongside the FSA. The jihadist paramilitary group, whose name translates to Front for the Protection of Greater Syria, has taken responsibility for all the major bombings of regime officials and generals in Damascus, al-Miden and Aleppo, as well as an attack this summer on a pro-regime television station in the town of Drousha. Recent reports indicate that fighters from al-Qaeda factions in Iraq and Hamas have been sneaking into Syria to join the group. Although many FSA fighters consider themselves to be conservative Muslims, they typically seek to distance themselves from Jabhat al-Nusra’s blood-soaked dream of restoring the Sunni Islamic caliphate. When I brought the group up at dinner, one fighter said, “Jabhat al-Nusra is very good at what they do, and they have arms and experience that our men don’t have.” Another fighter also spoke up: “We’ll need at least three years of fighting experience before we can keep up with them.”
A FSA soldier bares his tattoo, which says: “Why is love disastrous?”
Most FSA soldiers are fighting for a pluralistic Syria that would ensure the protection of political and religious freedoms. The fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra are struggling for Islamic dignity and greater, Sunni-focused rule. The Colonel explained that a lack of support from the West had undermined the original, pluralist FSA commanders. “We just can’t deliver the same way Jabhat al-Nusra can until we have some meaningful support,” he said.
With each empty promise and failed arms transfer, the Colonel and other FSA commanders were put in a more vulnerable position. “Jabhat al-Nusra is small, but when men want to join the fight and we can’t give them arms, more are drawn to that group,” he said. “I’m afraid it will get to a point where, if they ask me for a favour, I won’t be able to say no.”
The next morning, Hassan and I drove out of Aleppo to the countryside to deliver ammo to rural FSA fighters. He was glued to his phone the entire drive, organising distribution. “I have a good job because everyone’s always happy to see me,” he joked.
Out in the country, Hassan drove us out to places he called “candy factories” – hidden arms workshops where Syrian rebels manufactured makeshift explosives and rudimentary weapons. Hassan relaxed and joked with blacksmiths, farmers and engineers as he dropped off strings of ammo and tools.
Later, after a short hike, we went to a candy factory that had been set up inside a small cave. As we walked inside and my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw four men crowded around a generator, diligently working with power tools. We took a break for tea in the cave, which seemed to put Hassan in a bad mood. “You see what we’ve been reduced to?” he complained. “We’re building bombs in caves to fight Assad’s Hind D helicopters. What is this? Afghanistan?” He went on to describe the disorganisation of the FSA leadership. “The generals were inside Turkey for days and all they got was ammo! Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra is hijacking our revolution. Tell Obama thanks a lot for leaving us to these religious fanatics!”
That evening, we set off back to al-Bab, which had been one of the original enclaves of the Free Syria movement – a liberated town with a fledgling civilian council that rebels hoped could serve as a model for the future of the country. This also made it a prime target for Assad’s air force; the town’s landscape had been forever changed by seemingly endless shelling. The plan was for Hassan’s brother to smuggle me back through the border and into Turkey. But just as we were about to leave, we spotted jets overhead, gliding into position for a bombardment.
After the explosions abated, neighbours peeked out of their windows to survey the damage. I scanned the streets and saw a white Islamic flag – the symbol for the revival of the caliphate – waving in the wind. When I pointed it out to Hassan’s brother, he raised an eyebrow. “That’s new,” he said, but wouldn’t offer any further explanation.
After another day of waiting, Hassan’s brother blindfolded me again and drove us over the cratered back roads that led to Turkey. Apparently forgetting I was blindfolded, he yelled things like “We’ll be having chai in Kilis in no time!” and “You promise to find me an American wife, all right, Ayoosh?”
When we reached Kilis, he removed the blindfold and dropped me off at my hotel. “We’ll miss you in Free Syria, Ayoosh,” he smiled. As he waved me off, he said, “Give my regards to the American people. But make sure they know that the American government is not a friend of Free Syria.”
Photos by Andrew Stanbridge
For an overview of the issues that have fuelled the conflict in Syria, we recommend reading "Road to Ruin", our condensed timeline of Syrian history, and "The VICE Guide to Syria", a crash course on the country's geopolitical, cultural and religious complexities.