Behind Rebel Lines: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on Syria’s “War of Attrition”

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad has made a career of reporting from the world’s most dangerous war zones. As a reporter for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, he has covered fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and most recently, Syria. In Syria, he wrote about the drift of rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army to Al Qaeda, as well as about the rebel stalemate in the city of Deir el-Zour.

Abdul-Ahad, who was the correspondent for FRONTLINE’s Al Qaeda in Yemen earlier this year, has received numerous accolades for his work, including the 2008 British Press Award for foreign reporter of the year. Below are excerpts from his interviews with FRONTLINE about filming The Battle for Syria.

Traveling Into and Around Syria

At first, it seems safe and so easy to cross from Turkey into Syria. It’s a 10-minute walk, then you take a [car] ride, then you’re driving throughout all of these towns and villages. Liberated.

You see the graffiti of the Free Syrian Army. You see checkpoints of the Free Syrian Army. Then you start hearing distant [sounds] of shelling. Then the drivers start pointing out at these bases, and you realize that even within a liberated zone of Syria, you still have pockets of the military capable of shelling the villagers, the towns around, helicopters, aircrafts, jets, all of that taking place within the so-called “liberated Syria.” …

While driving in these villages and towns on the outskirts of Aleppo, the randomness of the destruction is a sign of the randomness of the fight. The rebels, the residents, the villagers, are all under the mercy of the random shelling, the random air raids of Syrian military. So you can pass through a neighborhood that seems intact, and then suddenly you come into a massive scene of destruction because of the randomness of the Syrian government shelling.

The Spirit of the Rebels

They are very tired, but … I’ve never heard any fighter say, “What are we getting from this revolution?” This is a very interesting point. They have been fighting, demonstrating, getting detained and arrested almost for the past two years. They can’t afford to question where they are at this moment. So they are so focused on fighting.

Their whole existence is about the war, about fighting. When you sit with them … you hear these kind of war stories about capturing a pro-regime militiaman, detaining him, fighting. War stories that you hear all the time: “I was walking in the street, someone was sniping at me, someone died next to me.” Endless, endless hours spent and people sharing their war adventures. They’re not telling these war adventures because they want to talk about it or boast about it or something. But this is their life. This is what’s been happening to them.

“Death hangs heavy in the air. … In Syria, you meet [someone] in the morning, they die in the evening.”

There’s something else very interesting … People die very quickly in this revolution. Death hangs heavy in the air in Aleppo, and Salaheddin, and all these neighborhoods. Not only the death of the people you see in the street — the bodies strewn around — but also, as you spend time with the rebels, you sit with them, you talk with them, you eat with them, and the next day, you hear they’re dead … It’s a very unique thing. In different wars, you meet someone, and someone dies two weeks, three weeks later. Here in Syria, you meet them in the morning, they die in the evening. That was very strange.

The Battle for Aleppo

Through the battle of Aleppo, we can see the future of the Syrian revolution. You have different elements: Can the rebels — which up until now have been very successful in controlling the countryside — can they transform the countryside insurgency into the city? Can they convince the people of Aleppo, who have been reluctant to support the revolution up until now, to support it? Can the government take back the city from the rebels, or can the rebels actually push the government to the edge and liberate the city?

This is the most important battle in Syria. It’s being fought in Aleppo at this moment. It’s extremely important. The winning party in Aleppo will actually change the face of this revolution. If the rebels can take over the city, they will continue their march on [the capital] Damascus. If the government manages to defeat the rebels in Aleppo, that’s the end of this stage of the revolution, and there will be regrouping into a different stage. So the outcome really matters.

“A War of Attrition”

In Aleppo, every 10 meters of rebel capture is 10 meters they’ve worked very hard for, and every street the government can recapture from the rebels. They did that with tanks, with snipers, with shells, with artillery. So every corner is a battle, is a skirmish in Aleppo.

There is nothing called the “battle of Aleppo.” There are dozens of battles taking place everyday, in every street corner, in all these different places. The collection of these little skirmishes [are] creating the so-called battle of Aleppo. … If you think there are headquarters where the rebels agree or disagree on the next move, there’s nothing like that.

People on the ground … different little commanders, young people, they wake up in the morning and they inspect the streets around their neighborhoods, their headquarters. Someone tells them the tank is there, that’s where the battle is for that day. Wherever the tanks are, the battles are there. There are pre-planned attacks on government installations — this happens — but the majority of the battle of Aleppo is the battle that happens around street corners and alleyways.

The rebels would tell you, not only in Aleppo but all over Syria, the only way they can win is by a war of attrition. They can only win by depleting both the arsenal and the army of the regime.

On Rebel Commander Abu Mohammad

Abu Mohammad is a very, very important character in Aleppo and in Salaheddin. Abu Mohammad is a member of the Aleppo Military Council. He is a defected member who joined the rebels eight months ago. He doesn’t command troops on the ground, but because he his a member of the Aleppo Military Council, through him, brand new ammunition and brand new weapons are being channeled into the rebels. Because he has control over the ammunition, that is creating a new niche for the military council that is giving them authority over different other units.

Most of the fighters were from the countryside, were religious based. The military council is officers, seculars, moderates. Because they have a monopoly on the new ammunition, it’s giving them massive authority on the ground. …

At one point, the whole front line had only 600 bullets in reserve. Six hundred bullets is nothing. It’s like 20 magazines in a Kalashnikov. So when you have the access of [a] massive armory of ammunition, that gives you authority, and that authority is challenging the authority of the Islamists, and is challenging the authority of the different commanders.

After leaving Aleppo, I drove with Abu Mohammad to the headquarters of the Aleppo Military Council. I sat while he was talking to his commanders, and later I drove and I saw this huge truck filled with hundreds of thousands of AK-47 bullets, hundreds of RPG rockets, brand new ammunition. This is not smuggled ammunition coming secondhand from Iraq, different places. This is ammunition coming directly from Turkey. One of the members of the military council was talking about how their supporters, western powers, through coordination with the Turkish intelligence, were channeling these new ammunitions. We have to remember, there is a big fear in the west, outside Syria, about Islamists taking over the rebellion, taking over the revolution. So someone is trying to give authority to former military officers, to secular individuals, and this authority comes through ammunition.

Islamist vs. Secular Rebels

The bigger issue that comes out of the battle of Aleppo is the fragmentation of the fighting force. The rebels can stop the Syrian Army from recapturing Aleppo, but they are incapable of driving the Syrian Army totally out of Aleppo because they are fragmented, because they have different leaders, because there are different ideologies.

Why do you have something like that? Because there are so many different channels of support. There is no one clear line of organization. This [is] why you have a whole full array of different units fighting on the ground, from the foreign jihadis to the [Islamist] Tawhid Brigade … all the way to seculars like Abu Muhammad. And I think the closest thing to Syria is the Afghanistan in the ’80s when all the Mujahideen were united in their aim to drive out the Soviets, topple the government of [Mohammad] Najibullah. Once they achieved that, you see those people fighting each other. At this moment in Syria, you have different units fighting each other, competing over resources. Imagine what will happen in the future. …

People keep telling us that the Syrian people are moderate people, they have a very moderate form of Islam, and they keep telling us, assuring us, that at the end of the day, the Syrian people will choose moderate Islam over the radical Muslims. I think this is a question to be answered within the next months, years: How would the Salafis shape the future of Syria?

Many people would like to hide their heads in the sand and claim that radicals are a minority of the Syrian revolution, but I’ve seen it in this year that I’ve been covering the Syrian revolution. I’ve seen them take more and more [of] a prominent role in Aleppo. I thought it was a myth, an urban myth, until I met them.

The Regime’s Dilemma

The biggest question I had during the battle of Aleppo was why the government soldiers are incapable of taking back these streets and neighborhoods. We saw it. When a tank passes the street, everyone is running like it’s the devil chasing us. Yet the government is incapable. I think it goes back to two points: A) They don’t have morale, the same courage the rebels have. They are better equipped, they are better armed obviously, yet the rebels are more courageous in one way or the other.

“When a tank passes the street, everyone is running like it’s the devil chasing.”

The second point is they don’t have enough troops. And remember, this is a year of constant fighting. They’ve lost so many tanks, so many armored vehicles. They are fighting a very difficult war with limited resources. We talk about the capacity of the Syrian government, but they’ve been stretched to the limit … That shows you how effective the rebels were at one point, and how weak the government soldiers are. That is one of the conclusions that I came out from Aleppo [with]. Unless they have a major overhaul of their strategy, of their resources, reorganize their troops, this is a lost war for the Syrian regime.

Civilians in the Crossfire

You sit with the rebels, you’re hiding behind a corner, trying to avoid government snipers. Then suddenly, in the middle of the street, come those civilians. They are walking in the middle of the street with their families, with their wives, with their kids, and they’re not leaving the war zone. They’re actually heading back to the war zone. They actually believe the government propaganda. They believe the government when it says they’ve cleansed Salaheddin, go back to your houses. This is the message of the Syrian government. Everyday, they keep saying, there are no rebels, just a few desperate gangs, go back to your houses, go back to your neighborhood, and then you see those guys walking, and next thing they’re dead. …

A lot of civilians died because either they refused to leave their houses, and they have the right because this is where they own [homes] and live. They don’t want to end up refugees in a refugee camp. …

Many people in Aleppo are not very happy with the situation. … They don’t help the rebels, they don’t offer them food, they don’t offer them water. So the rebels in Aleppo sometimes feel as strange as the government forces. Not as an occupying force, but as a strange force in the city. Again, in the countryside, those guys were used to hiding in the houses of the locals. They were part of the fabric of the society. In Aleppo, they are strange. They are outsiders, poor peasants from the countryside, coming to fight in a very rich prosperous city.

A Haunting Memory

The moment I will always remember in Aleppo is walking early in the morning one day — the air is fresh, crisp, but there is the smell of death — and you come across these two bodies laying in the middle of the street, their faces caked with black flies. You walk down the street a few more meters, and you see that taxi … a woman on her knees, a man cowering on top of her trying to protect her and their child in the back seat. It’s like the horror of death, of a battle zone frozen and given to you in one image. What did they feel? Did they die immediately? Did they bleed to death? Did they hear the shots and then they died? How scared were they? That image, I don’t think it will leave me ever.

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