Syria’s Second Front
NARRATOR: Reporter Muhammad Ali is crossing into Syria as a violent new phase of the civil war is beginning. He is filming his journey into the north of the country under the protection of fighters from the Free Syrian Army, who began the uprising against the regime of Bashar al Assad but are now also battling radical Islamic factions, jihadists who want to take over the country.
MUHAMMAD ALI, Reporter: We have just crossed the Syrian border with Turkey. The jihadists don’t like journalists. They don’t like the FSA battalions because they are accusing them of being spies for the West. It’s a very dangerous situation now.
NARRATOR: Muhammad and the rebels are picked up in a car and driven for seven hours through the night.
MUHAMMAD ALI: The situation is not that good as before. New groups came and they start stealing the revolution. So very important for me to tell what’s happening on the ground. No Western media can get in.
HAZEM, Fighter: [subtitles] Peace be with you.
NARRATOR: He is taken to stay at a rebel base where a battalion has retreated after many of their comrades were killed fighting the jihadists.
After losing ground to the jihadists in recent months, more moderate rebels are now coming together to fight back. Muhammad is brought to a secret location for a heavily guarded meeting of opposition leaders.
MUHAMMAD ALI: They were very worried about the situation, concerned about suicide bombers. They checked my camera equipment. They checked my radio device, everything. They were asking me for who I am working. I was the only journalist.
NARRATOR: This meeting was one of the first times the leaders of different factions, religious and secular, had met since the war began. It would turn out to be historic.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Over three years of my covering the civil war in Syria, I’ve seen the rebels getting more and more divided. So when I saw them coming together, it was very shocking.
REBEL LEADER: [through interpreter] We’ve lost many men and shed a lot blood. Now even your own families who’ve lost loved ones are starting to give up. If we continue with this mentality, then I tell you from my point of view as a simple man, these faces are not the faces of victory. If we are able to join forces, then we can take a step forward. There is nothing more important than our cause and our land. And there is nothing bigger in history than our revolution.
NARRATOR: The group agreed to unite behind a new leader, Jamal Marouf.
MUHAMMAD ALI: He was one of the beginning leaders to lead this revolution. He was very famous and people like him.
JAMAL MAROUF: [through interpreter] Everyone, listen up. Listen up. We’re trying to build an army, whether we like it or not. Today, we set up a structure for the military. What if the regime were to collapse? If the regime collapses, who’s going to run the country?
NARRATOR: Marouf would lead a new movement called the Syrian Revolutionary Front, to fight against the Jihadists.
JAMAL MAROUF: [through interpreter] We’re ready to fight every group that behaves like the regime. And if a group wants to use weapons against us, fight us, and their goal is to steal the Syrian revolution, we will not hesitate to fight back.
[www.pbs.org: More about Jamal Marouf]
NARRATOR: A young fighter named Hazem, who was a lieutenant in Assad’s army before defecting, has signed up his rebel battalion to the new Syrian Revolutionary Front. He shows Muhammad what they are up against.
HAZEM: [through interpreter] We’re driving along these farm roads to avoid being attacked by the jihadists. The jihadists are more ruthless than Assad’s regime. They attack villages with artillery and shells. In that village, they just killed 15 civilians, including women and children. They use mines and car bombs as if we are their main enemy. But they are the enemy of the revolution and for Syria as a whole.
NARRATOR: The most radical of the jihadist factions to turn against the other rebels is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The group wants to establish an Islamic state in Syria. It claims an alliance with al Qaeda, but even al Qaeda has severed ties with them.
ISIS has been capturing territory all over the north, including the town of al-Atareb, a crucial location in the war.
MUHAMMAD ALI: If the jihadists control al-Atareb town, then the FSA will be stuck in the south between the jihadists in the north and the regime troops in the south. So it was a very important moment.
[Islamic State of Iraq and Syria( ISIS) video]
NARRATOR: In November 2013, ISIS staged a show of strength in the town, parading a group of rebels captured in battle, including a rebel commander, Hassan Jazra. Locals filmed it on their cellphones.
ISIS LEADER: [subtitles] The group leader Hassan Jazra has been found guilty of corruption and theft! After investigating the group, the court of ISIS has decided to apply Sharia law on them! [bound rebels are shot]
NARRATOR: Muhammad persuades some of the rebels to sneak him into al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: I was about to enter the town. The first thing i saw was the big flag of al Qaeda. The only thing was in my mind that scene of seven fighters of the FSA were executed. I was sure if they catch me and they suspect me, I will be killed.
NARRATOR: In the town square, ISIS is holding a public rally where fighters are pledging allegiance to global jihad. Muhammad wants to film it, but the rebels say it is too dangerous, so a local man agrees to film it for him.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Film it from many angles and get many shots.
LEADER: You promise our leader to listen and obey. If I order you to go to Khartoum, you go there. If I order you to go to Deir Alzour, you go to Deir Alzour. Understood? Good. Let’s join hands. I say, and you repeat. I pay homage to ISIS.
FIGHTERS: I pay homage to ISIS.
LEADER: To listen and obey.
FIGHTERS: To listen and obey.
LEADER: God is a witness to what we are saying.
FIGHTERS: God is a witness to what we are saying.
LEADER: Praise God!
FIGHTERS: God is the greatest!
LEADER: Praise God!
FIGHTERS: Praise God!
MUHAMMAD ALI: We left the rally and the rebels were all worried. Hazem told me, “If we’re going to leave the situation like this, all of us will be under their control.”
HAZEM: [to Muhammad] These are our soldiers.
Hopefully, everything is OK with you, Khaled.
FIGHTER: [to other fighter] Stay there near the barricade!
We want some cigarettes for the guys.
HAZEM: OK, OK. Later.
NARRATOR: Muhammad and the rebels have returned to their base just outside al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Are they firing at us?
FIGHTER: Yes, but don’t worry. They always do that.
[fighters, radio traffic] [gunfire]
Come on, come on!
Go back! Friendly! Friendly!
MUHAMMAD ALI: The bomb went off at 2:00 AM. We were thrown out of our beds.
Go back, go back! I’m in an ambulance coming to you!
Shoot them! They’re over there!
NARRATOR: The next morning, the rebels show Muhammad where an ISIS suicide bomber had blown himself up by a local farm. It destroyed houses and killed two of Hazem’s men.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Suicide bombs were going off almost every day. Hazem told me he’d had enough.
NARRATOR: Later that day, Hazem and the new rebel movement prepare to launch one of their first major attacks against ISIS.
FIGHTER: Am I going to become a martyr tomorrow?
HAZEM: God willing. I hope we all become martyrs.
FIGHTER: I hope you guys become martyrs together.
HAZEM: Don’t say that. God willing, we’ll kill them all.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Are you worried about tomorrow?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] Yes, kind of. I’m thinking about how God is going to help us win this battle.
MUHAMMAD ALI: [subtitles] Do you think it will be a difficult mission?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] ISIS is very tough. They’re animals. They’re not real Muslims.
NARRATOR: The rebels tell Muhammad that because they have not received military support from the West, they are relying on equipment captured in battle.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Peace be with you. Did you get the munitions?
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Yes, they’re here.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] We’re coming to get you ISIS. You’re Assad’s stooges. We’re coming to get you, ISIS, stooges of the regime, of the West. They’re dogs! They’re filth!
HAZEM: [to fighters] [through interpreter] Whoever dies will go to heaven, God willing. Just put in your head and heart that they are extremists. We’re fighting them because they killed our families and our children. We have God on our side.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] What about the loot?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] The loot is for everyone. But remember, looting should be the least of your concerns. Don’t die a meaningless death.
[drawing map on the ground] [subtitles] This is the command headquarters. Here’s the arms depot. Here are the guards. In a synchronized move, we’re going to advance on the battalion. There are two tanks here, and another that’s not working. These two are not working, either. They have to rely on guns. May God keep you safe.
NARRATOR: Many of Hazem’s men are devout Muslims, but they say ISIS are extremists who are distorting Islam. Before they go into battle, they are addressed by a young cleric.
CLERIC: [through interpreter] If ISIS declares themselves a state, then what will we have? We will end up with a group of states fighting each other, with hate being their only common denominator. These people are savages, not humans at all.
NARRATOR: Hazem has 100 men in his unit, but he is one of the few with any military experience before the war.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Don’t you know the way? Go towards al-Atareb. There is a gas station there.
NARRATOR: These were farmers, barbers, shopkeepers, ordinary working men who’d been fighting in a revolution that has turned into a war against Islamic extremists.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Victory or martyrdom! We will be victorious over ISIS! God is great!
NARRATOR: Hazem leads his men towards the ISIS base just outside al-Atareb. He orders them to surround it. One of the fighters films the battle. A sniper covers the rebels as they advance.
Are you going to shoot?
When you’re ready, tell me.
NARRATOR: Hazem and his men move in.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Be careful over there, guys. There might be landmines.
NARRATOR: When they get inside the base is empty. The surviving ISIS fighters have fled.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Raise your voice, Syrians. We don’t fear death. Today ISIS, tomorrow Assad!
[graffiti: "Attention! ISIS banned!"]
NARRATOR: Having taken the base, the rebel forces now had control of al-Atareb.
[www.pbs.org: More on the battle for al-Atareb]
HAZEM: [through interpreter] Just like we fought Bashar, we fought ISIS. They’re even worse than the regime. If we had waited to attack any longer, they could have controlled the whole country. Once we finish with ISIS, we can return to fighting Assad and deliver a serious blow to the regime.
NARRATOR: With ISIS gone, Muhammad returned to al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Big moment, you know, that— to see people, you know, free again and speaking without, you know, any fears from anyone.
BOY: [to merchant] [subtitles] Allow me to light your cigarette.
1st TOWNSMAN: [through interpreter] Since we were freed, we live in safety. Their hobbies include sabotage, kidnap and murder in cold blood. The ones who pay for this are the weak civilians. Only over our dead bodies will we hand the town back to ISIS.
2nd TOWNSMAN: [subtitles] Yes, only over our dead bodies will we let them take over.
NARRATOR: He went back to ISIS headquarters, where the seven rebels were executed.
MUHAMMAD ALI: The slogans were still there, but the building was empty. It was eerie being back there. The town was still in the middle of a war, but life seemed almost normal.
[On January 29th, the Assad regime began bombing the town of al-Atareb.]
ANNOUNCER: Coming up next on FRONTLINE— through the eyes of children, a startling portrait of everyday life in a war zone. Children of Aleppo begins right now on FRONTLINE.
Children of Aleppo
PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
INTERVIEWER: What do you like to do most here?
FARAH, 8: My favorite is helping my father. I stay with my father in his office, and we make bombs.
NARRATOR: Farah lives with her three siblings, her older sister, Helen, her younger sister, Sara, and her brother, Mohammed. Their parents are former engineers here in this middle class suburb that is now a front line, in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo. Some 200,000 residents have fled the brutal fighting.
SARA, 5: When a shell fell here, I died. When they threw the missile on that house there, I died one big death. I died and then lived again. Once, someone shot rockets and one got stuck inside a stone. It exploded and shrapnel went everywhere.
Mister, how much longer ‘til we finish? This long?
HELEN, 13: We are in an area called Sayf al-Dawla. These houses were abandoned a year ago. My mother and siblings and I are staying here. This is a very important military zone. The army headquarters are directly next to us. There’s hardly any distance between us and the army, just a wall this size.
[in English] [holding photograph] See my dad. He my dad.
[subtitles] This is my father a long time ago, when he was young.
ABU ALI, Father: [on the radio] Go ahead, in the name of God. [sound of explosion] Khalid, splendid. Go to a secure place, Khalid!
NARRATOR: The children’s father, Abu Ali, was one of the first to join the rebel group the Free Syrian Army.
MOHAMMED, 14: My mother and three sisters and I, we decided not to leave Dad but to stay with him by his side, to resist by his side. Whatever happens to the men, or to my father, will happen to us as well.
NARRATOR: Abu Ali commands a katiba, or battalion, of 300 fighters. They hold a strategic position on a hill overlooking the regime-controlled city center. Daily, there are violent gun battles.
HALA, Mother: In the beginning, I would stay at home in case someone was injured. I would put the kids in one room, and they couldn’t sleep. I gave them a lot of cough syrup so they wouldn’t notice anything. But when the shelling became heavier, I would tell them it was fireworks. They love them a lot. But then I could not lie any longer.
MAN IN STREET: Take them inside because of the shelling. Come on!
HELEN: Dad, are they shelling here?
ABU ALI: It’s OK.
HELEN: [to children on balcony] Come down! Come down!
ABU ALI: [to fighter with mortar] Where is the third one?
FARAH: The other day, a bomb exploded inside the warehouse, down in the garden. They were making a bomb. Dad was with them. One of them lit the lighter, but the bomb caught fire. Only one of them died. His head was cut off.
INTERVIEWER: Did you see the man who died?
FARAH: His name was Abul Waleed. His head was split like this, from here. Me and my two cousins, we were walking, and my cousin was in front of us. The army stormed the place and surrounded us.
[loud bang] That was close by! It didn’t explode. It didn’t explode. That was a rocket. No, a tank shell. But it didn’t explode.
NARRATOR: Mohammed sneaks through the front line to explore his friend’s home that’s been almost totally destroyed by shelling.
MOHAMMED, 14: The sheets act as blinds, so the snipers don’t strike. Someone will walk into a sniper zone without knowing, and then while he’s walking, he’s shot. Their lives are lost in vain.
BOY: Look what happened to our house. Here. Here. I was born here.
MOHAMMED: My heart is destroyed. When I sleep, I cry and say to myself, “I wish the revolution was a dream.”
Is this a life? No, this isn’t a life. Human beings have become cheap. They cost one dollar. I don’t have any feelings left anymore.
I’m surprised that the chandelier didn’t fall with that rocket.
SARA: I’m scared of dreams. I am walking in a house, and then some snipers stand in a circle around me. And then they shoot me! One of them shoots me here, one shoots me here, and one shoots me here.
INTERVIEWER: Are you scared?
We used to walk around everywhere and buy ice cream. We would eat, shop, everything. But now we can’t even think about going anywhere.
NARRATOR: Just a short distance away, the rebels have tighter control and people can move more freely.
SARA: You pass by that checkpoint. You walk that way. You’ll see crowds of people. There’s the ice cream. We love ice cream. And people, people are like that, and that, filling the street like a demonstration. They stop the traffic, like a demonstration. They’re saying “The people want”— a little boy shouts, “The people want to topple the regime.”
NARRATOR: Twelve-year-old Aboude is one of those demonstrators. He performs here almost every day. He was one of the first to lead protests at his school. Teachers reported him to the police and he was beaten for his defiance. Now he’s a well-known member of the local opposition, leading singing at peaceful street rallies.
ABOUDE, 12: Demonstrations have become our profession. We are addicts now. Now, if we don’t demonstrate each Friday, we don’t know what else to do.
WARDA, Aboude’s Mother: Once he cried for 10 hours after his father forbade him from going. He was dying to go. He wanted to disobey our orders. The revolution is in his blood. Chanting is in his blood.
DEMONSTRATORS: [singing] We will be free whether you like it or not. Bashar.
ABOUDE: [singing] He who kills his own people is not a human, but an ass. Free, free, freedom. We want freedom.
DEMONSTRATORS: [singing] Whether you like it or not, Bashar, we will get our freedom—
WARDA: He obeys his brother, Abu Mariam, because he is his older brother and he knows what’s best for him. I say to him, “Whatever he tells you, you have to do.”
ABU MARIAM, Aboude’s Brother: The peaceful civilians protested before the Free Syrian Army came, and we still do. The protests are a reminder to show that all the shelling and destruction will not bother us. We will protest every day, and we’ll bring him down.
NARRATOR: Aboude’s family worries he is a visible target. They say government spies infiltrate the rebel-held areas and kidnap protesters. Those who have gone missing are often never seen again.
ABOUDE: We try to protect ourselves with knives. They gave me a gun, but I don’t know how to use it.
NARRATOR: Life here has dramatically changed. In parts, the city’s almost a ghost town. Homes abandoned during the fighting have become a place where the girls go exploring.
FARAH: [exploring] Oh, poor thing! This bird is dead in its cage.
HALA, Mother: In Syria, you have to work really hard to own a house. And in the end, all your hard work and your dreams, it falls apart in front of your eyes and you can’t do anything about it.
FARAH: Maybe I’ll find a rifle or something.
SARA: [discovering some toys] Look, Mister, look! Wow! They are like my bear. They’re so lovely. We won’t take any of them.
Wow! Farah, come and look at this little bear. I’m going to save these in my house. Can someone help me carry these? Farah, can you carry that ball and that bear? Put them all in a bag. We’ll only take these. Look at them! Only these. OK?
HELEN: You shouldn’t do this. It’s wrong.
FARAH: I’ll give them back to them.
HELEN: No. You shouldn’t take them. It’s shameful. It’s wrong.
SARA: But they are really pretty, aren’t they? Let’s go! We won’t break them, right? We’re finished. You and I can go downstairs on our own.
HELEN: No, no. it’s wrong.
SARA: But we should hide them from the sniper? Shouldn’t we hide them in our house?
HELEN: No, we shouldn’t.
SARA: [to father] Look at these! She got these from people’s houses.
ABU ALI: No. We got them from the library.
SARA: Those are from people’s houses.
ABU ALI: No, they aren’t from other people’s houses.
SARA: But you’re taking things from houses. You just got some coffee kettles. They were from other people’s houses.
ABU ALI: Darling, we got them from your other house.
SARA: Well, that’s it. I don’t want anything.
HALA: Once I was telling my daughter Sara, “If someone asks you, never say that we don’t like Bashar because they will take your mum and dad.” She said, “Don’t worry, Mama. Don’t worry.” I used to be very upset that I was teaching them to lie, but it’s essential.
[www.pbs.org: Watch on line]
NARRATOR: Most schools have been destroyed or closed.
HELEN: I just want my siblings to be happy, to feel the spirit of childhood, the spirit of play.
[to children in home school class] Look at me! Don’t laugh! Don’t laugh! Come on!
My friends, half of them were pro-regime. They were dear to me, but when they saw dad speaking on TV at a demonstration, they abandoned me. I only had one friend left. No one would talk to me any more. All the teachers became very hard with me. When I’d walk down the staircase at school, I felt that at any moment, I could be slaughtered. I felt afraid.
ABOUDE: The head teacher came and caught us, and put us in the office. Then they called the Kallaseh police station. And the police came. They held our feet up high in the office and started to beat our feet. My mum doesn’t know this. I haven’t told her we were beaten on our feet.
NARRATOR: Aboude now spends most of his time at the demonstrations and protests.
ABOUDE: I started feeling tired and I’d lose my voice. My brother, Abu Mariam, said “I’ll bring someone to help you.” Nasma approached Abu Mariam and asked him if she could join in. He approved and she sang a song. We thought she had a nice voice, so I started training her.
[November 16, 2012]
ABOUDE: We were out at the demonstration. It was the first time Nasma sang with me. We were chanting, and when we were done, there were lots of cameras. We gathered up our things. Then a journalist came up. He wanted to film Nasma and me singing a song each.
NASMA: [singing] I’m yearning for freedom. I yearn for my nation which knows no safety. I’m yearning for freedom— [loud explosion]
MAN: Are you OK?
ABOUDE: It dropped next to us, and I fell to the ground to take cover. There were heads rolling on the ground. It was a horrible scene. I was used to scenes like that by then, but the smell was horrible. You could throw up. Lots of blood. Lots of people were injured and killed. The cameraman injured his leg. Neither of us was hurt.
INTERVIEWER: Where is Nasma now?
NARRATOR: It’s estimated the fighting has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 thousand children across Syria. It has also separated friends.
INTERVIEWER: Have you missed your other friends?
MOHAMMED: Half the school.
COUSIN: Me, too.
MOHAMMED: But now some of them are regime thugs. Others have fathers in the army.
ABU ALI: [to fighters in building] You have to fire from the other window!
MOHAMMED: He and I were the leaders of a gang in school. There’s around 11 of us. We all have BB guns. We plan the attack— us in this area, and them in that one. We block the doors, so when someone goes in, they can’t come back out. Our only games are about fighting.
ABU ALI: [carrying child] She’s got a fever.
HALA: Where’s she got a fever?
ABU ALI: Her face.
[tending to child] Is that better?
My wife and I couldn’t conceive for eight years. After eight years of patience, God granted us a child. God gave us Mohammed. That’s why they are special.
WARDA, Aboude’s Mother: There is nothing more precious than a child. I try to prepare myself every day and say “God give me patience. If one of my children is martyred, God put patience in my heart.” This is Aboude’s life. The revolution and chanting is in his blood.
ABOUDE: In the future, I would like a Syria without snipers. We would swim, go to school. The teachers would come back. Aleppo would be for all of us, not half for the regime and half for the Free Syrian Army. Syria would belong to us, the people. This is how I would love for Syria to be.
NARRATOR: But now Aboude’s brother has gone missing, and his family fears he has been captured by Islamic extremists.
ABOUDE: My brother went and didn’t come back. That’s the whole story. We don’t know where he went. Those who kidnap are no different from the regime. The same. There’s no difference We will still protest. If we keep silent, our turn will come, one by one.
HELEN: The people of Aleppo, they’re not united. How will Syria be liberated? Just tell me. How?
[Abu Ali gives sweets to children during class] Go away, Dad! Nobody is allowed to approach me during the class. Dad. Dad—
ABU ALI: I am the reason for destroying my children’s future. Living here, they could get killed any moment. They have been wronged greatly. This is all so the revolution can succeed. I hope to God this will count as a positive point for me. Those in charge of the revolution must know that I have sacrificed my children.
HELEN: [in class] Clap for Farah! She did well!
I fear nothing anymore. I’m not scared. I have my family here with me. My siblings are here with me, the whole Free Army. Why would I be scared? Why?
MOHAMMED: Death only keeps away from you if you confront it face to face. I want to face it. That way, death becomes scared. It won’t come near me. The most important thing is that if I die, it’s with my mum, dad and my sisters. I want to make sure I die with those five people
HELEN: Tell me again about your dreams.
SARA: I have a dream that’s amazing. I was walking in the street, and there’s an army and I was trapped from behind. I was blocked on both sides.
SARA: And then a plane comes, and who’s flying it? It’s Ali. He’s flying it and he goes up here and turns, and he takes me home.
I like dreams like this. There are lots of dreams, nice dreams. There’s one where I was riding a horse. I’m running and I’m happy. It’s really clean. There are flowers. People come and start singing.
HELEN: What do they sing?
SARA: I’m not going to tell you. [Helen tickles her] My favorite— my favorite song—
CHILDREN: [singing] What happened to this town? A child was martyred. What did he do wrong? Keep away, soldiers! Don’t obey this tyrant! Free, free, freedom.
ABOUDE: I will protest here and I will die here. We were raised in Syria. We were born here. We stayed here. The regime killed us here. We lost people here. We lost dear ones here. It is us who defend our town.
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