by DAVID AXE
Sprinting through a gap in the barbed wired at the border between Turkey and Syria as a Turkish armored vehicle pursued us and soldiers fired warning shots in the air. Waiting in a Syrian pomegranate grove for our ride: a pair of veteran Syrian rebels driving a pastel yellow Hyundai. Shaking hands. Swapping cigarettes. Wrapping my face in a checkered scarf to hide my very American-looking features.
Climbing a mountain road through Harem, a town in northern Syria where, earlier this year, a band of amateurish Islamic terrorists held three German aid workers and several Syrians captive, torturing them, starving them, holding out for ransoms that were never paid—and fleeing Harem after the three Germans broke their locks and escaped.
Stopping briefly in Bab Al Hawa, the Syrian side of a major border crossing and the nerve center for the rebel Free Syrian Army’s northern sector. Chatting up the gun-toting fighters and their swaggering commanders, always careful not to make eye contact with the more radical militant rebels from the opposition army’s fringe Islamic wing. Guys as likely to kidnap you as say hello.
Heading south from Bab Al Hawa, speeding down roads lined with rusting derelict tanks, those ubiquitous symbols of Middle East warfare. Bound for Idlib, a major northern city whose suburbs are among the most important fronts of the 31-month-old Syrian civil war. Bound for battle. Bound for danger.
On Oct. 7 my interpreter Juma and I went on one of the world’s most lethal road trips—a daylong jaunt from Reyhanli, Turkey to Areha, on the outskirts of Idlib, to see the Sham Falcons brigade of the Free Syrian Army in combat with the regime of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad.
We were shot at, bombed and passed through a couple of shady checkpoints—and nearly ran headlong into a serious, um, problem in an olive grove.
But unlike scores of foreign aid workers, activists and journalists and countless Syrians over three years of conflict, we were not abducted. We did not get killed.
Our little tour of Hell was a lot of fun. Except when it wasn’t.
As a war correspondent of nearly 10 years’ experience—freelance at first, now working for Medium—I’ve covered nine wars on three continents. Iraq. Afghanistan. Congo. Somalia. Chad. Plus a few places most people have never heard of.
I’ve been shot at, mortared, assaulted by an angry mob of Somalis and, in one nightmarish and embarrassing incident in Chad in 2008, even abducted by child soldiers with eyes like black holes. Getting blown up by roadside bombs in Afghanistan a couple times compelled me to reflect on my priorities.
So I sat out a few big conflicts. Libya two years ago. Mali early this year. And, at first, Syria—by far the bloodiest war in the world today, sparked in the spring of 2011 when Al Assad’s troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators.
What kind of war correspondent would I be if I didn’t report on the world’s worst conflict?
But at the same time I made up my mind to go to Syria, the nasty conflict took an even nastier turn.
Pushing south to the regime’s strongholds in the country’s west and around the capital of Damascus, the Free Syrian Army—some 200,000 strong, bolstered by thousands of regime defectors and armed with captured weapons—seemed to have the upper hand. And foreign governments mostly applauded … and vowed to supply weapons, food, medicine.
Rebels liberated the north, east and south, surrounding the northern cities of Idlib and Aleppo. Surging into the coastal province of Latakia—the regime’s birthplace—the rebels ran low on arms and ammunition. The FSA’s elected civilian leaders pleaded for the weapons they’d been promised.
Silence was the world’s response. For lately hundreds of battle-hardened Sunni Islamists from Europe, Iraq and the Gulf states had slipped into Syria to fight the Shi’ite regime and had even formed their own armed group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. From a distance it appeared the rebel opposition was basically turning into Al Qaeda.
The reality was more complicated than that. The main FSA rejected radical Islam. And indeed the rebels’ most militant element, the Al Nusrah brigade, gradually became less militant with the arrival of foreign fighters, as the brigade’s most hardline members steadily left the unit to join the rival ISIS. “Al Nusrah is not terrorists,” says Abu Abdallah, a senior officer in the Farouk brigade, one of the FSA’s most experienced formations.
But that nuance is lost on world observers, in particular the U.S. Congress. Republicans have accused Pres. Barack Obama of wanting to arm terrorists. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, a Minnesota Republican, called it a sign of the apocalypse. “As of today the United States is willingly, knowingly, intentionally sending arms to terrorists,” she said.
The failure of the world to provide weapons during the Latakia battle in August significantly altered the war’s course. When regime tanks counter-attacked, the rebels had nothing with which to shoot back. They fled, suffering heavy casualties. And their commanders blamed the leaders of the U.S. and Europe for the defeat. “These governments are participating in the killing of the Syrian people,” Abu Abdallah says.
The rebels were weaker in the wake of their defeat in Latakia. ISIS took advantage of the FSA’s setbacks to firmly entrench itself in some northern towns. On Sept. 12, ISIS and Al Nusrah declared war on the FSA. Six days later Islamist fighters attacked secular rebels in the town of Azaz near Syria’s border with Turkey, forcing the FSA to divert troops to this new front.
Al Nusrah’s involvement in this internal rift was fleeting. Within weeks the brigade’s fighters would be back under FSA control. But ISIS was now a declared enemy of the regime and the main rebel group. Growing in strength and confidence, the Islamists stepped up a campaign of abduction, targeting journalists—especially Western journalists—plus Syrians sympathetic to the West and to the FSA.
In 2012, 28 reporters died covering the civil war. Now abduction is arguably a bigger threat. The New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists estimates at least 14 reporters are being held in Syria by the regime, ISIS or criminals. But the real number is far higher. When journalists go missing, their news organizations frequently ask that other publications not report on the kidnappings.
One hundred missing foreign journalists and humanitarians. That’s the number that aid workers and reporters on the front lines of the Syria war usually tell each other. “Syria has never been more dangerous for local and international journalists,” CPJ’s Robert Mahoney said.
And then there are the regime gas attacks, which are more widespread than is being reported.
‘I know you don’t want to hear this … ’
The U.S. government and its closest allies—France, the U.K.—officially recognize only one major chemical weapons attack by Al Assad’s troops against civilians and rebels: an assault on the suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that killed more than 1,400 people.
But the regime had used chemical agents before on a smaller scale. Moustafa Abo Zyed from the FSA’s Qadesyya brigade was knocked out and nearly suffocated by gas during a rebel assault on the regime’s Abu Al Duhur airfield in northern Syria. I spoke to two others—a rebel and an activist—who also either witnessed or were injured in chemical attacks besides the one in August.
Nevertheless, the gassing of Damascus was an escalation and, it seemed at the time, a turning point. The U.S. positioned warships to strike regime targets. The French planned a parallel air campaign and the FSA, believing it would finally get strong U.S. support, mobilized troops for a major attack to take place while American bombs fell.
But on Aug. 31 Obama unexpectedly called off the strikes, saying he would first seek the consent of the same U.S. Congress that was trying to thwart the administration’s efforts to arm the rebels. Congress waffled. And in the meantime Russia, Al Assad’s strongest ally, offered to take charge Syria’s chemical arsenal pending destruction—an unverifiable arrangement that Al Assad eagerly accepted.
The French and the rebels were flabbergasted at the whiplash reversals of U.S. policy. Again denied the help it needed to win the war, the FSA was fed up. “Obama’s backing down was harder for the Syrian people than the use of chemical weapons,” says Mohamed Moustafa, who handles logistics for the FSA.
And that disappointment translated into a new unwillingness to work with Americans. Any Americans, whether aid workers, journalists like me or official representatives of the federal government. “We are tired of repeating ourselves,” says one Farouk brigade officer.
Riven with conflict, prowled by kidnappers, seemingly awash in lethal gasses, half-occupied by America’s unhappiest “allies,” for journalists Syria is a difficult place to cover. And many journalists aren’t even willing to try. “I would suggest that anyone thinking of independently covering the conflict in northern Syria, to seriously consider re-evaluating their plans and avoid the area entirely,” said Javier Manzano, a freelance photographer.
The naysayers tried to stop me from going, too. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” one Beirut-based writer told me before detailing some of the terrible things that could happen to me “on the inside”—reporters’ in-vogue euphemism for Syria.
I went anyway.
Destination: Mountain 40
I went inside twice, actually. Once in late September with three colleagues: writer Mitch Swenson, photographer Thomas Hammond and our interpreter Juma. We ran across a muddy field stinking of animal dung and leaped through a gap in the barbed wire running the length of the Syrian-Turkish border near the Turkish town of Reyhanli.
A pair of AK-47-toting rebels in a compact car picked us up and drove us east a few miles past crumbling Roman ruins to Bab Al Hawa, the FSA border crossing. We spoke to some rebel officers and refugees, photographed the twisted wreckage from repeated car bombings and returned to Reyhanli the same way we’d come, trying out different gaps in the barbed wire until we found one without a Turkish army soldier standing guard.
That seven-hour trip was a trial run. Increasingly comfortable with the logistics of cross-border forays, I planned a more ambitious enterprise for Oct. 7. Just me and Juma this time, with two rebels as escorts. We’d hit Bab Al Hawa and keep going south, all the way to Idlib, one of the war’s major northern battlegrounds.
Our target was a town called Areha on the slope of a hill named, somewhat oddly, Mountain 40. The plan was to meet up with members of the Sham Falcons brigade on the Areha’s front lines and try to understand, as best we could, who was winning the war now that the rebels were essentially on their own against the regime and its allies from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group.
Areha is important. It overlooks the main road connecting the regime-controlled western Syria to Idlib and Aleppo, where pockets of Syrian army soldiers hold out against a rebel siege, giving Al Assad small twin footholds in the otherwise opposition-controlled north. Control Areha and you control the road—and by extension Idlib and Aleppo.
Fighting in Areha spiked this summer, as government and rebel forces battled back and forth across the boulder-strewn slopes, narrow earthen alleys and low olive groves. In early October the rebels held the mountain’s southern slope; the regime held the other side.
On the night of Oct. 6 the Sham Falcons tried to skirt regime defenses. Fighting flared and six Falcons died. The following morning, as Juma and I were still en route, regime helicopters struck back, dropping barrel-shaped improvised bombs onto the Falcons’ positions from thousands of feet in the air.
We sped south on a smooth, two-lane road and the war, for a while, seemed to recede. Our driver Abu Khaled tuned the radio to revolutionary pop music. Earlier, in the Turkish city of Antakya, we’d actually met one of these opposition singers—a soft-spoken 20-year-old named Mohamed Ibrahim. Standing on his balcony, gazing at the distant hills of Syria, Ibrahim had crooned a plaintive song of war, victory and peace—in that order.
Nestled in the Hyundai’s back seat, staring at the Biblical countryside whipping past, I could be forgiven for feeling the peace a little prematurely. Gone were the bomb-blasted cars and scowling fighters of Bab Al Hawa. Sure, there were the derelict tanks slowly disintegrating on the shoulder. But other than that we might as well have been in Ohio, for all the immediate evidence of three years of brutal warfare.
It didn’t occur to me until later that the relative dearth of soldiers was not, in itself, a good thing. The Free Syrian Army claims to have liberated northern Syria—and that’s true, inasmuch as the regime no longer rules the region.
But neither does the FSA, really. There’s no street-level security. No armed patrols by FSA paramilitaries. No police. No traffic cops. No local administration to speak of to replace the functions of Al Assad’s state.
Beyond the border and short of the front line, northern Syria is mostly a vacuum. And into that vacuum have stepped a bewildering assortment of criminals, thugs and terrorists. Diesel smugglers. Human traffickers. Kidnappers. Radical Islamists. Militias with debatable allegiance to the mainline FSA. You don’t always see them, but they’re there.
Returning from Bab Al Hawa during our September trip into Syria, we’d been turned back at our preferred gap in the Turkish border fence by a skinny teenage soldier who grinned and pointed his assault rifle at my heart. So we hiked back into Syria and down a road traveled by rumbling tractors until we found what we believed was a rebel outpost where we might get some help.
Men sipped bright green tea by the door. They beckoned us inside to wash our hands and faces and drink from the tap. Inside were heaps of parcels, young men sleeping on mats, one scrawny guy showering in a concrete cell. But nothing military. We realized the men weren’t rebels—they were smugglers.
But friendly enough for career criminals. We slipped them 50 Turkish lira—$25—and they pointed out an unguarded hole in the border fence. That sector of northern Syria belongs to the smugglers more than it does to the FSA.
Back in Syria a week later, I was reminded of liberated Syria’s new free-for-all status quo by a black Tawhid flag—the kind made most famous by Al Qaeda—fluttering over a barrier erected across the highway.
It was a checkpoint, apparently belonging to one of the rebellion’s more Islamic militias. Whether the checkpoint had been approved by the FSA was unclear. The core rebel army rejects radical Islam, but that doesn’t mean militants aren’t on FSA territory doing pretty much whatever they please in the absence of stricter law and order.
The idyllic leg of our journey was over. In Syria checkpoints can be fatal for foreigners and especially for journalists. Get stopped at the wrong checkpoint by the wrong armed group and say the wrong thing, and you might get grabbed.
That’s apparently what happened to Didier Francois and Edouard Elias on June 6. The two French journalists were traveling to Aleppo when gunmen at a checkpoint forced them to stop. Not much has been heard of the men since then, although French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said in October there were indications the two were still alive.
We went into Syria acutely aware of the checkpoint problem. That’s why I told everyone, even the Sham Falcons, that I was Canadian—a less offensive nationality than American to Syria’s pissed-off rebels. And that was why I was paying Juma, our interpreter, an upper-class wage by Syrian standards. Himself a former Falcons fighter, Juma had left the front earlier this year after, he says, seeing too much suffering.
His father is in a regime prison. His younger brother was held and tortured by the regime and later briefly abducted by Islamists. His cousin died in an air strike that narrowly missed also killing Juma. Sleepless and exhausted, he’s a full-time media fixer now. But he still maintains all his old militia relationships. They and his command of English make him among the best in his specialized business.
I was with Juma. Juma was with Abu Khaled. Abu Khaled was a Falcon. The Falcons were a core FSA brigade. Inside that ugly Hyundai, we were all on the same team—the winning team, we hoped. The FSA hadn’t managed to fully police its own territory, but maybe it could police our car.
I took off my glasses because they’re too stylish to be Syrian. Juma hid his camera. We both tried to look bored—like we truly belonged there, so much so that even checkpoints were ho-hum. Abu Khaled slowed the Hyundai, rolled down his window and uttered a few words in Arabic to a young man with a rifle. “Suqur Asham,” Abu Khaled said. Sham Falcons.
And the weirdo in the back? “Canada,” Abu Khaled said.
The young gunman nodded and waved us through.
Nowhere to hide
The night before our Oct. 7 trip into Syria, I’d sat up all night with some Syrian friends also staying at my hotel. Time was, I could sleep soundly before some mad foray into a war zone. But I’m superannuated now by the abbreviated standards of war correspondents. And at 35 years old, I have more to live for than I did as a 26-year-old freelancer chasing firefights in Iraq.
I own a home now. I have a beautiful girlfriend I love and three cats I’m overly fond of. My brothers have kids and they could benefit from having at least one crazy uncle.
Plus the miles are starting to show, especially after years of reporting in Afghanistan. There’s a faint scar on my right arm from a bomb blast that smashed my armored vehicle in Logar province two years ago. My lower back is always a tiny bit sore after I broke my tailbone in a different armor-plated truck. And my bad knees never recovered from scaling 10,000-foot mountains with the U.S. Army in Paktika province.
It’s easier to traipse around a combat zone when you have no idea how much it can hurt. Nothing’s easy for me any more. And in covering Syria, the heightened fears of my colleagues proved contagious. Heart pounding, stomach a cauldron, I sat with my friends in the hotel lobby, ignoring their small talk as I tried to read the future in the swirls of my thick, sweet Turkish coffee.
Would I make it across the border? What about the checkpoints? If someone tried to take me, should I run as I had in Chad, or should I go peacefully and trust Juma and my Syrian friends to negotiate my release? If my captivity lasted months, could I cope? How would I fight the boredom? Would my allergies be a problem without medicine? What if the bad guys broke my glasses?
If they killed me, would it be fast or slow? If I had only a few more seconds to think, what should I think about? Or would my mind simply stop working as animal instinct took over, like it did that night in Chad when those terrifying child soldiers pursued me and I felt nothing?
I feared the checkpoints the most. But my friend Amr, a professor, businessman and humanitarian, said I should worry more about the regime air strikes. He would know. He still has shrapnel inside him from an attack by a Syrian air force MiG. “The problem is the terrain is wide open,” Amr said. There’s nowhere to hide. Especially if the weather is good and the regime pilots can see all the way to the horizon.
Amr was right. Chauffeured about by Abu Khaled in that damned yellow Hyundai, we cleared the first checkpoint then two more—and cruised under a clear blue sky across an endless flat expanse of farmland dotted with earthen hamlets. We stopped in one village for a quick shot of sludge coffee. Juma pointed at cityscapes in the distance.
Saraqeb. And beyond that, Idlib. Rising pillars of white smoke spoke of raging battles, destroyed homes, dead men, women and children. The daily stuff of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in just 31 months.
Death from above
The warplanes and helicopters of Syrian Pres. Bashar Al Assad’s air force are the regime’s biggest advantage over the rebels, who have no warplanes of their own, no radars, no large surface-to-air missiles. In Syria, when death comes from above, it comes unimpeded.
Al Assad waited nearly a year to fully unleash his air arm on rebels and civilians. As the fighting escalated in Aleppo in the summer of 2012, Syrian air force jets and helicopters fired rockets and dropped bombs.
The aerial campaign quickly spread. The regime’s nearly 500 fixed-wing planes and hundreds of helicopters ranged across Syria, hitting rebels and civilians indiscriminately. Some of the helicopters dropped canisters that emitted noxious fumes—a preview of the August 2013 gas attack in Damascus.
Air power was the decisive factor in many of the regime’s victories on the ground. In April pro-regime fighters from Hezbollah launched an all-out assault on a rebel stronghold in Al Qusayr that had resisted relentless ground attacks. The attentions of regime warplanes turned the tide.
As many as 300 bombs struck the rebel battalion. “How can you survive in these circumstances?” unit commander Yahya Mhebeldin asked from a hospital bed in Lebanon, where he was sent after being hit by shrapnel in the gut at the height of the bombardment.
The rebels pleaded with the U.S. to enforce a no-fly zone, but the Pentagon was wary of the high cost and complex logistics. And Russia threatened to vote down any U.N. resolution granting legitimacy to American air patrols.
So the rebels revised their request. How about sending them small anti-air missiles of their own? But no, the U.S. State Department was worried the rebels, whom many uninformed Americans consider no better than Al Qaeda, might some day use the missiles against America.
Zeyad Haaj Abayed, a former colonel in the Syrian air force, defected to the FSA and began teaching rebels to hit back at regime warplanes using heavy machine guns mounted to the back of pickup trucks. “I know how to target a jet when it comes to attack a target,” Abayed says. The key, he adds, is to wait until the plane is pulling away after an attack—and shoot it in the tail.
That’s easier said than done when your target is moving through three dimensions at 300 miles per hour hundreds of yards away.
In September Juma spent some time with a rebel air-defense team in Saraqeb, a rebel-held town just outside Idlib. A radio call warned of an incoming raid. Spotters tracked the roaring plane diving on Saraqeb and releasing a bomb. They counted down the 30 seconds it would take the munition to fall from 10,000 feet.
Men cried out and civilians scattered, but no one could be sure exactly where the explosive would strike. Staying put was as safe as fleeing. But told they’re being bombed, people are going to run. A video Juma shot, embedded above, depicts a rumble and a billowing eruption of dust, like a monstrous living thing standing up over Saraqeb.
Now was the time to hit the attacker. The air defenders floored their pickups’ accelerators. Juma’s video becomes a roller-coaster ride through devastated Saraqeb as the gunners angled for a clear line of sight. But the jet was too fast and they were too slow. The raid ended with the rebel trucks idling, the fighters muttering to each other—an eerie near-silence split only by the wail of an ambulance seeking the injured and the dead.
Life goes on in Saraqeb for those civilians who remain. FSA air-defenders are still on alert, their skyward-pointing machine guns more promise than actual defense. We drove through the ravaged town in our increasingly dusty yellow Hyundai, Juma pointing out the worst of the damage from years of ground battles and bombs.
Every mile had its tragedies, its victims, villains and heroes. At the Taftanaz airport outside town, a dozen regime helicopters lay in pieces after being caught on the ground and wrecked by rebels in January. An exquisite act of vengeance for more than a year of ceaseless aerial murder.
A taxi driver—a man from Juma’s home town—was fatally shot in the neck by a regime sniper hiding out in a former fuel depot in Saraqeb before the town’s liberation in late 2012. According to Juma, the snipers in the fortified depot wagered cigarettes as they competed to gun down the most “rebels.” The sharpshooters allegedly killed hundreds of people before the FSA rammed the depot with a car bomb and attacked, slaying the snipers.
We put Saraqeb and its miseries behind us. Before us loomed Mountain 40 and Areha. Skirting the peak from the east, Abu Khaled pushed the straining Hyundai up a winding road. With every yard there were fewer civilians around and more slumped rebel fighters leaning against walls with their rifles or scanning the sky from the backs of gun trucks. A rebel tank, captured from the regime, hunkered behind a wall.
On the southern slope of Mountain 40 we heard the first peels of gunfire from the fighting on the opposite side. Abu Khaled parked the Hyundai at a Sham Falcons outpost halfway up the slope. If Juma and I wanted to go higher towards the battle—and we did—we would have to go without Abu Khaled and our other escort. Juma called a rebel friend for a ride. I picked up a friendly stray cat for a quick cuddle.
Our ride up the mountain to the front line was a lean, handsome fighter named Basel the Tank Killer. No, really. He told us he’d earned the honorific in 2011 by, well, killing a tank.
Basel the Tank Killer dropped us off at another, higher outpost just yards from the narrow no-man’s-land separating the Sham Falcons’ positions from regime troops. Inside we found some fighters lounging on a carpet, one of them injured and wearing slippers with a cartoon bear on them. For comfort, he explained.
We’d just kicked off our shoes to join them when the helicopters came.
Views on death
A voice on the injured fighter’s radio said choppers were incoming. Later we would meet the man behind these ominous warnings: a sunglasses-wearing tough named Abu Hakem whose scrappy band of fighters live in an ancient chain of caves inside Mountain 40. Abu Hakem climbs high for the best vantage, tunes his radios to the regime’s frequencies and listens in on the chatter of enemy tank crews and pilots.
Sometimes he can tell when and where the regime intends to strike. “With these walkie-talkies, we work miracles,” Abu Hakem boasted. On Oct. 7, as on many days before, Saraqeb and its civilians were the target.
We could see Saraqeb from the outpost’s second-story balcony. One of the helicopters was fleetingly visible: a black speck looping over the town with incredible speed. Someone saw the bomb separate from the aircraft. We all began counting down from 30. The dust and smoke came first, flowering over Saraqeb. The sound came seconds later, a low rumble rolling up Mountain 40.
The helicopters angled in a second time, a third time. The second bomb exploded but the third was apparently a dud and did not go off—a frequent occurrence as the regime struggles to wage war with outdated and decrepit equipment.
If Saraqeb’s defenders were able to shoot back at the airborne assailants, we didn’t hear it. And a few minutes after the flying machines brought death to Saraqeb, Mountain 40 returned to normal.
Normal being unrelenting ground combat. We could hear the pop of sniper rifles, the clatter of machine guns, the concussive clap of heavy mortars, tanks and rockets. The shooting was rhythmic, steady, like a well-rehearsed routine—which indeed it was after many months of fighting.
Col. Jamal, the local leader of Sham Falcons troops, sidled up to us on the balcony. Fifty-six, rotund, laconic, he looks every inch like the Idlib farmer he was before the war. When Al Assad’s troops killed peaceful demonstrators in early 2011, Jamal, a retired army officer, was among the first waves of defectors.
His wife, four kids and two cats are still at home in Idlib. He fills their space in his heart with all the hundreds of cats of Areha, abandoned by their owners as the people fled the fighting. The cats are everywhere, meowing in echoing command bunkers, slinking under armored vehicles, hanging out under trees clipped by shrapnel.
The colonel and his men feed the felines the same canned food they eat: tuna, sardines and processed meat. Quietly and at great expense, the State Department has supplied the FSA with 300,000 packaged meals and the Sham Falcons have a couple cases of them.
But the shrink-wrapped items—among them nuts and bagel chips—aren’t very good. At least that’s what the Sham Falcons think. I saw one officer idly study the contents of one American-supplied meal before tossing it aside in favor of canned fish.
Jamal, like the cats, didn’t seem to mind all the gunfire. Wearing unmarked U.S.-style desert fatigues, armed only with a radio for commanding his fighters, the colonel slouched in a plastic chair and described the hard fighting in Areha. His men are dug in but so are the regime troops—and he lacks the means to dislodge them. He gestured at the stack of unwanted American rations. “What we really need are weapons.” But that’s unlikely to happen.
So who’s winning? No one, it seems.
Would we like to see the front line? Yes, we would. “It’s dangerous,” the colonel said. He was with Japanese reporter Mika Yamamoto in Aleppo in 2012 when she was shot nine times by regime soldiers and bled out. “Everyone comes to me to get martyred,” Jamal laughed. One hundred and fifty of his own men have died in Areha.
Abu Marwan’s factory
We strolled up the street, passing a pair of wire-detonated mines sunk into the asphalt by the regime and disabled by a very brave rebel with a pair of shears. We passed a captured BMP armored vehicle on our left, and on our right, side-by-side garages. In one a gun truck was parked, its crew awaiting word from Abu Hakem that regime warplanes were coming.
In the other garage, a tall, nearly toothless rebel with a vertical shock of blondish hair supervised a gang of fighters assembling homemade rockets made of scrap metal and filled with explosive nitrate fertilizer. The boss’ name is Abu Marwan. The garage, he gleefully told us, is called “Abu Marwan’s factory.”
One of Abu Marwan’s men scanned the battlefield with binoculars, looking for targets for the rockets, launched from the bed of pickup truck. Abu Marwan joked that he should fill the rockets with whiskey so that, when they exploded, they’d just make Al Assad’s men drunk and the rebels could capture them.
Jamal was indulgent. Abu Marwan’s efforts are admirable, but when his team launches one the crude devices Jamal said he orders everyone else to back up, just in case. DIY rockets are no substitute for real weapons.
We kept going. “Keep your heads down,” Jamal advised as we neared the six-foot barricade of dirt and debris that is the rebels’ first line of defense against the regime troops 60 feet away. A machine gunner somewhere to our left fired off dozens of rounds in a gleeful, barrel-melting fusillade.
Me, Juma and the cat-loving colonel crouched, ran and threw ourselves against the barricade. The half-dozen fighters manning the wall raised hands in greeting. Later I would learn that several of the men were Al Nusrah fighters under Jamal’s command—radical Islamists, if you believe the media consensus.
A young rebel, probably still in his teens, lay sprawled on the ground, a checkered scarf covering his face, his AK-47 resting a few inches from his limp hand. He looked dead but he was only sleeping, exhausted from who knows how many days defending the barricade against Al Assad’s troops.
The colonel chatted with his men as we snapped photos of them and, as best we could without getting killed, the Syrian army positions. After a few minutes, you stop hearing the gunfire because it’s always there.
Quiet, too quiet
Jamal drove us back to Abu Khaled and we coasted down in the mountain in the yellow Hyundai. We’d done it: gone into Syria, visited the front and survived despite the best efforts to stop us by fellow journalists, the Turkish army and Al Assad’s murderous air force.
Juma scrolled through the pictures he’d taken. He’s a better photographer than I am. With his powerful lens he’d captured the smoke rising over bomb-blasted Saraqeb. Scanning a distant olive grove from the Falcons outpost, he’d also spotted a regime tank.
We barreled off the mountain and onto the flat ground stretching all the way back to Turkey. Worn out from a sleepless and fearful night, and having spent all day pumped with adrenaline, I deflated like a balloon. I closed my eyes …
… and when I opened them not a minute later there were earthen walls close on both sides of the car and Abu Khaled looked worried. He’d taken a wrong turn and now we were lost in a hamlet at the base of Mountain 40.
An abandoned hamlet. There were shops, homes, mosques—all of them seemingly undamaged by the war. I saw one cat, but no people. “This is very strange,” Juma said. He, too, looked worried.
Abu Khaled drove at random, threading the narrow streets of the ghost town until we found ourselves in an olive grove. That’s not right. Reversing, we backtracked and eventually found the highway. Abu Khaled flagged down a rebel fighter to ask what had happened to the village’s residents.
The fighter smiled. “They ran away from the tank,” he said.
Suddenly it all made sense. The olive grove we’d wound up in was the same grove Juma had seen through his camera’s viewfinder. The tank Juma had spotted had lurked unseen somewhere among those trees, possibly just yards from us.
For all my fear of abduction, for all my planning and caution, for all the money I spent on my people and all the years of war experience that I believed had tuned my senses to battlefield risks, the closest I came to getting killed in Syria was probably when I sat there in that grove, a lost asshole in a yellow Hyundai, a comically easy target for a battle-hardened regime tank crew.
We drove on. Juma, my Syrian brother, fell asleep. I hoped he wasn’t dreaming, for nothing good could come of that.
The sun sank and its evening glow cast the world’s worst war zone in soothing shades of umber. I was a tiny bit wiser—and hopefully now you are, too—for my one busy day traveling to and from Syria’s front lines. I could write this story and others. I’d justified months of planning and thousands of dollars in expenses. I’d gambled my life again … and won.
Now I could have drinks with the same people who’d told me not to go to Syria. I wouldn’t say anything. I’d just sit there breathing, every beat of my heart a raised middle finger to their stifling concern for my safety. As if they understood the algebra of my soul: the equation I work out every time I go to some shit hole to report on some group of people firing bullets at some other group of people.
Is just another story from just another war really worth maybe dying for? Even now, with the house and girlfriend and cats?
Yes. Because Syria’s rebels are better people than you think. And they need help protecting themselves from a tyrant’s warplanes. This is important. More important than any one person.
Feeling small, I thumbed through the playlist on my iPhone for all the songs I associate with the ambushes, bomb attacks and nighttime kidnappings that have weighed on my life and my work.
The Coldplay single I listened to the morning after those Chadian kids tried to stab me. That embarrassing Avril Lavigne song from the Scrubs soundtrack that I accidentally—I swear—played on my iPod during a Taliban attack on my convoy in Afghanistan in 2009. The Mumford and Sons track I put on repeat while my brain unscrambled in the hours after I was blown up by a Taliban bomb in Logar in 2011.
I jammed my earphones in my ears and listened to my lifetime at war as Syria and its own complicated conflict disappeared behind the Hyundai. The music made me sad. It made me angry. It made me want to end this road trip to Hell.
Just not quite yet.