Abu Abdulrahman was born and raised in Syria's Qalamoun mountain range, just a few miles from the Lebanese border, and like many Syrians, he grew up in awe of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. "I had so much respect for the way they defended their homeland," he recalls. But the Syrian civil war scrambled things. Abdulrahman once looked admiringly across the Lebanese border as Hezbollah took on Israel. Now he fights against it, to defend his own homeland from the Shiite militia group.
The 47-year old former baker never attended university, and, apart from some lessons at the mosque, he has no formal Islamic education. But he now leads the local branch of Ahrar al-Sham, perhaps the largest Islamist rebel group in the Syrian civil war. For the past six months, he and his men have been under a brutal Hezbollah siege in the Syrian city of Madaya, located about 28 miles northwest of Damascus.
"I have to see Hezbollah as my enemy now: they cut down our trees and starve our children," he says.
After weeks of back and forth negotiations, VICE News spoke at length to Abdulrahman via Skype. At first he was too busy inspecting the rebel positions around the town, and then he had to get the okay from his superiors in the rebel-controlled province of Idlib. In the end, Abdulrahman only agreed to go on the record with the condition that VICE make it clear he spoke only for himself — not on behalf of Ahrar al-Sham or its leadership.
Abdulrahman's trajectory is in many ways typical for the men who have come to lead Syria's most powerful and influential Islamic rebel groups. A small-town baker who specialized in Syria's typical sweets, he was first politicized by the American-led invasion of Iraq, and what he saw as Iraq's humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.
Though he's vague about his early years, Abdulrahman speaks with noticeable pride of his first encounter with Syrian military intelligence. They picked him up in 2005, when he tried to sneak across the Iraqi border to help "defend Iraq" against foreign invaders. He won't admit that he planned to fight the Americans, or the Shiite-backed government in Baghdad, though at the time of his aborted crossing, Iraq was descending into a bloody sectarian civil war.
Abdulrahman and a group of like-minded Syrians only got as far as the border, where Syrian military intelligence intercepted them. He was sent to Sednaya, the notorious regime prison that housed what the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad considered Islamist troublemakers. There he became friends with a man named Hassan Abboud, whom he called "a truly great sheikh," or leader. Abboud would later found Ahrar al-Sham, before being assassinated in a still-mysterious bombing in September 2014 along with much of Ahrar's leadership. (The group's name translates to "Free men of the Levant.")
As protests gripped Syria in the spring of 2011, the Assad regime began to let men like Abdulrahman and Abboud out of prison, in what many consider a ploy to quickly radicalize and thereby discredit the nascent revolutionary movement. Some, like Abboud, took up arms against the state.
'Someday I hope we will get along, and things will be as they were before.'
But Abdulrahman returned home to the Qalamoun mountains, where he said he tried to lay low, afraid that Syrian intelligence would round him up if he caused trouble. "I was tortured in prison," he says. "I didn't want to draw attention and end up back there."
It was only after the Syrian military brutally cracked down on peaceful protests in the pro-rebel towns of Madaya and Zabadani in the summer of 2012 that Abdulrahman picked up a gun and decided to fight. He got in touch with his old friends from prison who had recently formed Ahrar al-Sham. He "read their ideas," he says, and decided they were "the best group to bring justice to Syria."
Since Hezbollah crossed into Syria in 2013 to prop up Assad, its fighters have served as the regime's shock troops in the Qalamoun. In the first few years of the revolution, Abdulrahman fought alongside ragtag brigades in the mountains trying to keep Hezbollah out of Madaya and Zabadani.
At first, most men fighting in the mountains swore allegiance to the Free Syrian Army, a loose affiliation of revolutionary brigades led by defecting officers of the regular army. Gradually, the Qalamoun fighters began switching their allegiance to Ahrar al-Sham, thanks in part to a steady stream of arms from Turkey and sympathetic Gulf states.
After three years of fighting, neither side was able to gain complete control of the mountains. Rebels hunkered down in Madaya and Zabadani, and Hezbollah was unable to fully dislodge them.
Last summer, the UN began to mediate a truce that would bind Madaya and Zabadani's fate to a separate pair of besieged villages more than 200 miles to the north. Deep in the Idlib province, two Shiite villages, Kua and Kefraya, are also under siege — by Jaysh al-Fatah, a rebel alliance that includes Abdulrahman's Ahrar al-Sham.
Announced in September, the UN agreement got both sides to agree to a complicated deal: rebel sympathizers in the Qalamoun area would eventually be allowed to relocate to rebel territory up north, in exchange for safe passage given to Shiite villagers to escape Idlib. Any humanitarian missions to Madaya or Zabadani going forward would have to be coordinated to occur simultaneously with a tandem shipment of aid to those two pro-regime towns.
For the past six months, the deal has been implemented in fits and starts. Some wounded fighters and civilians have been evacuated, but sieges in both areas remain intact. One component of the agreement, a no-fly-zone over parts of the Idlib province, has been repeatedly violated by the Russian air force.
In the meantime, Madaya is fully surrounded, and the 40,000 civilians who live there have become pawns in a much larger geopolitical struggle that pits Hezbollah, its patron Iran, and its allies Assad and Russia against Ahrar al-Sham, and its foreign beneficiaries in Turkey and the Gulf.
On the ground in Madaya, Abdulrahman is grateful for the partial truce. But he's skeptical of any deal that sees massive population transfers in or out of his hometown. "These proposed evacuations would really change the demographics here," he says. "That's something we are afraid of."
'When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry.'
While the higher-ups in Ahrar continue to negotiate, Abdulrahman's men are encircled by mines and checkpoints, trapped in a village full of starving civilians. The UN, the Red Cross, Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders are all clamoring for the siege to end. But it's not clear to Abdulrahman that it will happen anytime soon. "Sure, if you solve the situation in Fua and Kefraya, we could solve the situation in Madaya," he said. "But I don't feel sure about the future."
Abdulrahman says he and his men have tried to surrender multiple times, but Hezbollah won't accept their terms. First, Abdulrahman suggested he and his men leave the town with their guns, in exchange for safe-passage to rebel-held territories. Then, he asked to be escorted unarmed out of town by UN officials. Finally they offered to stay in the town, armed, and serve as "a police force" for the local community.
He has even tried to circumvent the UN-brokered peace deal, and arrange a sit-down with the Syrian army general in charge of the Qalamoun region. Each time he's tried to talk with the Assad regime directly, he says, Hezbollah has blocked him from leaving the village. A Hezbollah commander outside of Madaya countered that the militia isn't involved in the high level political negotiations that determine the fate of the town. "Sure, Hezbollah does sometimes call the shots in the military field," he said. "But Hezbollah would never interfere in a political negotiation… we still have a government in Syria."
It's hard to precisely apportion blame for the humanitarian crisis in Madaya, which is home to about one-tenth of the estimated 400,000 Syrians the UN says are living under siege. If you believe Hezbollah, Abdulrahman is holding the population of Madaya hostage. If you believe the rebels, Hezbollah is starving the town to exact concessions from other rebel fighters on the other side of Syria.
It's also not clear how many armed men remain in Madaya, but Abdulrahman says that he commands hundreds, and that they are armed with Kalashnikovs and "heavier weapons." He'd gladly give up everything "but my Kalashnikov," if it would mean an end to the siege, he says.
The siege has only grown tighter month by month. By December, food prices in Madaya had soared to the point that rice sold for as much as $100 per pound. The occasional aid shipment has not spared Madaya from starvation. Twenty-three people died from starvation in Madaya in December before such an aid shipment could be arranged. Another 16 people have starved to death since UN aid convoys reached the town earlier this month, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Though aid workers agree that the humanitarian situation in Madaya is perhaps the most dire in Syria — with children forced to eat leaves and grass to survive — civilians in Fua and Kefraya are also under duress.
Testimonials from the pro-regime villages are harder to come by, perhaps because electricity there is intermittent. Still, conditions seem to be quite harsh "Jaysh al-Fatah executed two men because they were caught smuggling food to the villages," a resident of Fua named Mazen told Amnesty International earlier this month. "Their mosques in the nearby villages announced the execution, and warned that the same fate awaited anyone who tried to smuggle even a single loaf of bread."
Abdulrahman, surprisingly, condemns the siege his brothers in arms are imposing on Fua and Kefraya. "I am against any civilians being put under siege," he said. "Let me be clear, speaking for myself: I am against the Jaysh al-Fatah siege in in Fua and Kefraya." He does, however, blame the harshness of that siege on local tensions between the mostly Shiite villages and the Sunnis who surround them.
Indeed, the Jaysh al-Fatah movement is home to some vicious sectarian ideologues, and it includes al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. Many of its leaders preach hate against Syria's minority Shiite, Alawite, and Christian populations.
'I am the commander, and even my child is starving.'
Shaykh Abdullah al-Muhaysini, a leading Jaysh al-Fatah jurist in Idlib, even called for the extermination of Shiite villages if the siege of Madaya is not lifted. Abdulrahman refers to these rebels in Idlib as "his brothers," and expresses particular respect for the leader of the Nusra Front, Abdul Mohammad Al-Jolani. But he's careful not to embrace the harshest sectarian rhetoric of most hardline jihadists. "After the war, I hope we can live together: Alawites, Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites, in a state of law," he said. "Someday I hope we will get along, and things will be as they were before."
Abdulrahman has also found himself in the midst of a major international propaganda war. Hezbollah media outlets are accusing him and his men of confiscating food in Madaya, holding the population hostage, and profiteering during the crisis. In early January, a video surfaced of a woman from Madaya condemning rebels for hoarding food among themselves. The rebels are "only traders in people's blood," she told a scrum of reporters who gathered at the barricades outside Madaya. "They only care about securing food supplies for their families."
That video was aired around the world by Reuters and Al Jazeera. The accusations enraged Abdulrahman. "When Madaya goes hungry, we go hungry," he says. "These are vicious lies." VICE News spoke with another woman who claimed to be at the barricades that day. Although it was impossible to verify her claims, she said that Hezbollah fighters — who can be seen in the video frame — told women to condemn the rebels and praise Assad in exchange for food and safe passage from the town.
In a press release from early January, Hezbollah also accused Abdulrahman of profiteering. "Armed groups in Madaya control food supplies within the town and sell to whoever can afford it," the statement read, "Thus, starvation is widespread among poor civilians." VICE News spoke to a Hezbollah commander stationed outside Madaya who repeated these claims, and said that Hezbollah has been sending food inside the town. The rebels, he said, are keeping it for themselves. He also strongly denied that Hezbollah was trading food for propaganda.
VICE News also spoke with aid workers at the Doctors Without Borders-affiliated field hospital in Madaya, who reported no interference from Abdulrahman's men in the dispensation of aid. But Pawel Krzysiek, the spokesman for the International Red Cross in Damascus, would not comment on whether rebels hoarded the food supply, and couldn't vouch for the fair dispersal of aid after its arrival in the town since the Red Cross cannot regularly access besieged areas.
For his part, Abdulrahman says his men are there to protect Madaya, and have no role in doling out food.
"We are the sons of Madaya," he said. "This is a liberation movement, and we are of the people."
The siege, he said, has taken a toll on his family as well. He's a father of five children — his youngest son is afraid to leave the house and go to school, and has taken to crying for hours on end when food runs scarce.
"Can you imagine that?" he asks. "I am the commander, and even my child is starving."
Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro
Sulome Anderson contributed reporting from Beirut
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a clarification from the Red Cross about the dispersal of aid in Madaya.