Walking into Syria after an inconspicuous crossing, I met a smiling Abu Tamim waiting past the border. On the way back to his village, we travel through a landscape of destruction and deserted streets in the hinterlands of Aleppo. Then, Abu Tamim receives news on his walkie-talkie that one of his fighters has been killed in the battle for Syria’s largest city. “There’s no god but God,” he mumbles, briefly interrupting his steady conviviality. The brigade commander, in his mid-forties, has become accustomed to dealing with the loss of life.
We arrive at his village, where a big sign on the gate reads: “Welcome to Marea, the city of love and sacrifice.” Like others in the village, Abu Tamim insists that Marea was the first to rise up against Bashar al-Assad, even before Deraa, which is commonly believed to be the birthplace of the 2011 protest movement. As the story goes, one day a group of children started writing anti-Assad slogans on the walls of several local schools. When the news spread, students in Deraa followed suit. The police immediately launched a crackdown that spurred mass rallies. The revolution was born. As dozens of tanks moved into Marea, pastry shops deliberately poisoned their sweets to confront their oncoming enemy. Assad’s soldiers ended up hospitalized and soon left the village, deeming it cursed.
Like many Syrians, Abu Tamim joined the revolution in its earliest phase when it was largely peaceful. He was arrested in July 2011, and accused of receiving money from Qatar to pay young Syrians to join demonstrations. In prison for 36 days, he endured hours of torture on a daily basis. “They used to ask me who is your God, and before I could answer, they would beat me and scream: ‘Bashar,’” he recalls. “Blasphemous.”
Abu Tamim contemplates how the Syrian uprising has transformed. In the old Syria, he was a man of many trades: a cook, a carpenter, and a farmer. Today he leads a small battalion called Liwaa al-Haq, which is represented in the military council established months ago to unite different factions in the Free Syrian Army. Its 100 fighters are engaged in the battle to free Aleppo from the Syrian regime, and to strengthen the opposition’s control over the mostly liberated north of the country. Like many at the forefront of the struggle to bring down the Assad regime, Abu Tamim spends most of his time thinking about how to win a fierce and protracted war. But he also deliberates over the massive task ahead of rebuilding a tattered nation. What it will take to move from war to post-war still remains out of sight.
Abu Tamim has secured a space in Marea where fighters can retreat from the frontlines to tend their injuries, rest and rearm. The two-story villa houses countless memories of the war. Its walls are ornamented with an assortment of weapons. In the evenings, fighters meet there and exchange stories about the day’s battles, and in the mornings they bid each other farewell, not knowing which ones will return. The social character of the safe house embodies many of the features that have come to define the Syrian revolution in its present configuration: it is mostly young, male, persistent and spiritual, and filled with passion, pain and injuries. Here, death is glorified yet mocked, normalized yet feared.
In the safe house, explanations abound for why Assad stubbornly insists on fighting until the last breath.
“At this point, Bashar thinks this is a sacred war,” says Abu Ali, a young coordinator of humanitarian assistance to the fighters in Aleppo, referring to the branch of Shia Islam that Assad follows. He visited the villa briefly to map out safe corridors in the countryside through which to disburse supplies to different brigades. “Bashar is in denial. He doesn’t realize these people don’t want him anymore. You know when you lie over and over until you believe your lie?”
According to many rebels, victory in the battle for Aleppo is obstructed by at least two factors: snipers and air strikes.
Abu Ali laughs with other fighters about how snipers stationed in different parts of the city can sense any moving creature with blood in its veins. The exception, they say mockingly, is Assad, “because he’s a bloodless ruler.”
As for the airstrikes, Mohamed Najjar, a fighter and small arms manufacturer in Liwaa al-Haq, refers to them as the “wake-up call.” Stationed in the villa, Najjar relies on the 6 am air strike to awaken his co-fighters for breakfast, typically a delightful feast that draws on Aleppo’s rich culinary tradition despite the fighting.
Though the fighters have become desensitized to the sounds of warplanes above head, the nonchalance is unsettled when shells are dropped. One morning, a nearby school is bombed to rubble and the casualties are initially hard to count. In the villa, the initial relief of being spared the attack quickly turns to fear and anxiety once fighters learn about the victims of the bombing.
Najjar, an ex-soldier, explains that a plane will usually fly at a low altitude to drop a bomb, then rise again, then wait for people to congregate before dropping another. “People gather out of curiosity even though they know it’s dangerous,” he says. He tells chilling stories about how the regime maintains unity within the air force. “Pilots who return with planes that are still loaded with their shells can be hung,” he says. Many fighters in the villa also spoke of pilots’ families being taken hostage in airports by Asaad’s men to ensure they don’t defect.
Liwaa al-Haq counts men from all walks of life. Some are ideologues with a deep-seated hatred for Assad and his ruling Baath party that predates the revolution. Others believe fighting is the only way to survive in war-torn Syria.
Abu Omar was a schoolteacher before taking up arms. In his class he would skip parts of the curriculum that praised the ruling party. “The Baath is responsible for the corruption of Syrian society. It’s the worst political institution history has ever known,” he says. “I don’t care if the post-Assad regime is religious or secular. What matters is that it respects everyone, regardless of who they are.”
Still, other fighters describe themselves as being on a holy quest. No one knows much about Abu Raad, a hefty and longhaired front liner who used to be a merchant in Marea. He has been injured four times during the course of the revolt, once by shrapnel that penetrated his head. Abu Raad recounts that before joining Liwaa al-Haq, he fought with other brigades, including one whose name he doesn’t even know. “The revolution broke out because Syria is ruled by infidels,” he declares. “Before the revolution, we were estranged. We weren't fulfilling our religious duties. Now this is our chance.”
Ironically, some fighters even see in Syria the chance to join a virtuous struggle untainted by political interests and maneuverings. Abu Abed, a Palestinian fighter from Gaza, joined the battle in Aleppo one month ago. He reflects critically on his experience fighting with Hamas’ Qassam Brigades, and denounces the compromises made by his Islamist leaders. “In Gaza, jihad has been monopolized by the rulers,” he laments. “I am more needed here. When the war in Syria is over and politics kick off, I’ll find somewhere else to go.”
As we pick fresh figs from the villa’s backyard garden, Abu Tamim praises the shabab for bravely standing before death, and says it takes some faith to reach this level. He is wary of the sectarianism that colors the war in Syria today and blames the regime for exacerbating religious tensions. As a corrective, Abu Tamim actively tries to recruit Kurds, Turkmens and Christians into his battalion to showcase Syria’s cultural diversity.
“Bashar has intensified his sectarian rhetoric to convince non-Sunnis, including Christians, that this revolution is against them. It is the regime that is sowing the seeds of fitna,” he says, using a term that describes the first schism in the Islamic community between Sunnis and Shia.
On the battlefield, many lower-ranking fighters exhibit less tolerant attitudes. “Shia are Satan worshippers,” says Abu Bakr, an injured fighter in Liwaa al-Haq. Yasser Najjar, a member of the Syrian National Council on his way out of Syria to fundraise for the FSA, questions the intended meaning of such anti-Shia rhetoric. “Shia, in this context, does not refer to a sect, but rather to specific groups: Iran’s revolutionary guards, Lebanon’s Hizbullah and Iraq’s Moqtada al-Sadr, all of whom are Bashar’s allies.” He also thinks that unlike Homs, where the regime’s military assault has displaced an estimated 70 percent of its Sunni population, Aleppo will not suffer as badly.
For fighters inside Syria, a range of motivations, worldly and transcendental, fuels their battle. But for outside powers, Syria embodies an intricate web of geopolitical interests, of which those inside powers are overtly skeptical.
“Foreign powers are pouring money into their brigades of choice and turning soldiers into officers,” says Abu Tamim. “They support particular groups, not the army as a whole.” He even alleges that some operations conducted by local brigades like his own are claimed by other groups that seek to attract more money from abroad. The solution, he believes, is for the FSA to integrate under a more unified command structure. “The FSA, if recognized and supported internationally, can become an organized army.”
Najjar of the SNC shares the same concerns. “When an ambassador of a western country meets with a brigade commander, this is very dangerous…This divides the divided.” But he explains the stakes of foreign meddling in the vaguest of terms, expressing fears of nefarious plans to divide the Arab World, just as the Ottoman Empire was divided nearly a century ago.
For fighters on the ground, however, the procurement of more powerful weapons, like anti-aircraft guns and sniper rifles, can go a long way in deciding the outcome of battles, and a way out of the war.
On the day we made our way out of the warzone, the 6 am air strike comes earlier than usual. We kill time by peeling pomegranates, until it is time to set off to Turkey with two injured fighters who are tagging along to get treatment beyond Syria’s borders. On our way out of the villa, their co-fighters playfully jump around them to bid farewell, with a faint hope of meeting again. On the way to the border, Abu Tamim tries to memorize an Egyptian Koshary recipe as he plans to cook for the fighters that evening. We leave Syria behind us after a tumultuous crossing. As the lights of the closest Turkish border city appear, it feels safe once again. But safety has a strange taste.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition along with Inside Aleppo: Four soldiers of the Free Syrian Army.