Syria’s Rebel Press Is Fighting Back Against Jihadists
Rami Al Razzouk was traveling between Raqqa and Tabaqa in northeastern Syria when he was kidnapped at a checkpoint by ISIS. The al Qaeda offshoot seized him as he was on his way to conduct an interview as part of his work as a journalist on ANA Radio. After he was taken, ISIS used his key to raid the premises of the Raqqa-based radio station later that same day. Two weeks after that, they broke in again and confiscated all of the station’s equipment and data. Apparently there isn’t much space for a free press in the Islamic caliphate that ISIS are trying to create.
Outraged, the ANA New Media Association—the network behind the station—has decided to go head to head with the extremist group’s “deliberate strategy to crush press freedom and impose censorship upon the Syrian people.” As ISIS continues to oppress the fledgling media landscape in the north and east of Syria, ANA has pledged to whip up a storm of protest every time a journalist or activist is targeted by the jihadis. This is a pretty brave step considering ISIS has beheaded so many of their enemies that they recently got confused and beheaded one of their allies.
On Monday, the network launched a campaign backed by 21 Syrian media organizations and 50 international organizations, encouraging the continued growth of Syria’s burgeoning free press. Astatement from the campaign read, “We demand the immediate release of all detained journalists and citizen journalists held by the regime, ISIS or any other group. Additionally, we call on international media and those organizations in support of press freedom to join this initiative and to take relevant action for the safety of journalists and freedom of speech in Syria.”
Black Gold Blues: The Hazards and Horrors of the Makeshift Oil Industry in Rebel-Controlled Syria
Deir ez-Zor, Syria’s sixth-largest city, is also the country’s oil capital. For four decades, the al-Assad regime (first run by Hafez, and now by his son Bashar) struck deals with Western oil companies like Shell and Total that resulted in the extraction of as much as 27,000 barrels of black gold from the sand every day. A pittance compared with other Middle Eastern countries’ production, but it made Syria a bona fide oil-exporting nation. At least this was the case until international sanctions were imposed in 2011 in response to the regime’s crackdown on the antigovernment protests, which quickly morphed into a civil war.
Located in the middle of the desert and less than 100 miles from the Iraq border, Deir ez-Zor dominates the eastern portion of the country and has had a long, fruitful relationship with the petroleum industry: before the war, its 220,000 inhabitants often worked for oil companies as engineers, technicians, and laborers.
Downtown Deir ez-Zor is still home to many modern glass-walled buildings erected by Western firms, but in the past two years, they’ve been largely abandoned as the battles between the rebels and al-Assad’s forces, each of whom hold portions of the city, have left them pockmarked, windowless, and scarred.
When I visited Deir ez-Zor in September, there were snipers lurking on roofs as combatants exchanged fire from Kalashnikovs, mortars, and heavy machine guns below. Beyond the city limits the suburbs give way to the mostly empty desert where the oil wells are located and where the rebels—most of them hard-line jihadists, and many of them with ties to al Qaeda—are in complete control. It’s a very different place than it was prerevolution, but it is still an oil town, albeit one of an entirely new sort. Instead of multinational corporations, it’s now the Islamist rebels who are providing jobs to the locals.
Al Qaeda’s Teenage Fan Club
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I realized Syria had turned into Mad Max. We were driving through Manbij, a small tumbleweed kind of town in the dusty northern outskirts of Aleppo province on a Friday afternoon during Ramadan, about a month before the August 21 chemical-weapons attacks that finally forced the international spotlight onto Syria’s two-year civil war.
Manbij’s deserted streets radiated in the midday heat of the holy month. Shopkeepers had pulled the crinkled metal shutters down over their doorways. When you’re fasting in Syria in the summertime, the daytime is for sleeping.
Our driver stopped the car on a side road near the yellow-gray town square. “Look,” he said.
We peered through a scrim of dust at a set of vague shapes in front of us. The figures quickly sharpened into an oncoming pack of men on motorbikes, roaring up the road with horns beeping. As they approached, the drivers’ passengers stood up on their seats with their arms outstretched, brandishing the black flags of al Qaeda as they yelped into the sky.
I fumbled for my camera.
“Be careful,” said the driver. “They won’t be offended because you’re a journalist taking pictures. They’ll be offended because you’re a woman taking pictures.”
The gang circled the square on the shiny little two-strokes that the Syrians call “smurfs.”
From the passenger seat, my friend—a Syrian with a sharp sense of irony—looked back at me. “Well,” he said, “that’s freedom. You never could have had a motorbike gang under Bashar.”
Are Greek Neo-Nazis Fighting for Assad in Syria?
Not every report that comes out of Syria is bad news for Bashar al-Assad, the country’s president. While the world’s media worries about recently radicalized jihadists flying from England to Aleppo to gun down the embattled leader’s soldiers, there’s another type of international engagement playing out in the country—and this time, it’s playing out in the regime’s favor.
Since the conflict began in 2011, far-right groups from across the world have been courting the Syrian government. On the slightly more moderate end of the scale, BNP leader Nick Griffin rode into Damascus a few months back to have his photo taken with the prime minister, Wael Nader Al-Halqi, and publicly rail against the Free Syrian Army. On the more extreme end, fascist Greek mercenaries may now be training in Syria to help defend Assad and have formed a European support network to spread pro-regime propaganda.
Just over a month ago, the Irish-Greek blogger Glykosymoritis sent me an article translated from the right-wing Greek newspaper, Democratia. The clipping contained an interview with an obscure far-right group called Black Lily, who were making bold claims about having a “whole platoon of volunteers [who] are fighting side by side with Assad’s government forces.”
I spent the subsequent weeks emailing the group, looking for pictures or video evidence to prove that their fighters are on the ground. The group’s responses were guarded, as they were apparently worried for the safety of their members, but their claims weren’t totally implausible. “These days, more Greeks are in Syria with the Syrian Armed Forces,” they told me. “Very soon we are going to have news.”
Dodging Bullets with Syrian Rebels Who Love Soccer and Adolf Hitler
As he does every morning, Amir wakes me by asking if I would like to die with him. “I can take you to Damascus, but we won’t survive. We’ll go to Allah together, you and me, as martyrs,” he says, grinning as though we both had nothing better to do today, or any other day, than buy the farm.
“Forget it, Amir,” I say. “I’m not in a dying mood.” It was a long night of soccer—Dortmund vs. Malaga. I shake my head and try to shake the pins and needles from my limbs. “Not today!”
Sooner or later, I want to see Damascus. But I want to see it alive. Amir is 22 and hates waiting. He is always thinking of things to do. “I want to show you something!” he says, hopping excitedly from one foot to the other. “Get up! Get up!” A field trip? Why not? Almost anything beats spending the day in a semi-trance state on a mattress covered with stains.
Syrian Rebels Are Killing Each Other for Control
"Watch out—there are snipers on this street," warned the ISIS fighter as my driver stopped next to him and eight other heavily armed men who were preparing to head into battle. ISIS, or the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham, is an offshoot of al Qaeda currently operating on the battlegrounds of Syria.
He wouldn’t have guessed it, but we were all trying to reach the same place—the front line outside the headquarters of yet another of the militant groups fighting in Syria, Ahfad al-Rasul. This organization is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and had declared war on ISIS just a few hours earlier, for control of the provincial capital of Raqqa.
This was my third visit to the city in the four months since it had been “liberated,” as Syrians tend to refer to areas where rebels have managed to expel government troops.The battle against Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Raqqa had only lasted for about a week—a sharp contrast to the fighting in Aleppo, where gunfights and shelling have continued for over a year since the conflict began.
Once rebels take control of an area, it is now standard procedure for the regime to respond by bombarding it with indiscriminate air strikes in the hope of killing swathes of anti-Assad fighters. But back in April, just weeks after the liberation, cheerful residents seemed to greet the inevitable trail of destruction as a good thing—a sign of the progress the rebels were making.
Recently, however, the tension has risen considerably in Raqqa and the atmosphere has completely changed, as the rebel resistance continues to splinter, pitting many groups who once fought side by side against Assad against each other. The original celebration of freedom has given way to fear and uncertainty.
A number of civil movements—both religious and secular—have also been trying to establish themselves in a bid to influence the future of the city and eventually the country. A group named Haqna, Arabic for “Our Right”, is one of the organizations leading the charge. Its logo, a hand making a V sign, the index finger marked with election ink, is spray-painted all over the city. Mostly made up of young local activists, Haqna is aiming to educate the population about their civil rights and the importance of elections.
How Much Will the Defense Industry Make from a Missile Strike Against Syria?
Even as diplomats work on a last-ditch effort to get Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to international authorities, the US gearing up to do what it does best: bomb a distant country. At this moment, six American warships are sitting in the Mediterranean, loaded with hundreds of missiles waiting to attack Syria should they get the order. If thecomplex, involved effort to get Bashar al-Assad to give up his chemical weapons fails and Barack Obama gives the go-ahead for a “limited” strike against his regime, those ships will let fly with hundreds of missiles—and that means the Pentagon will have to replace those weapons by purchasing them from defense contractors like Raytheon, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. How much is that going to cost?
To begin with, the US will likely want to target Syria’s air force. To do that, according to a report by Christopher Harmer, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War think tank, three types of missiles would likely be involved: Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAMs), Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSMs), and Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOWs).
Those kinds of missiles are a big part of what makes the US defense budget so massive.According to DefenseNews, the first few weeks of America’s intervention in Libya cost about $600 million, and more than half of that ($340 million) was spent on replacing munitions, in particular the hundreds of Tomahawk missiles it unloaded on the North African country at $1.4 million a pop. JASSMs and JSOWs are less expensive, but at about $900,000 and $285,000 apiece, respectively, they aren’t exactly a bargain.
A Munitions Expert Weighs in on Last Month’s Chemical Attacks in Damascus
Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime currently stands accused of committing one of the worst war crimes of the 21st century: dropping sarin nerve gas on the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus last month. The body of evidence against the regime is large and compelling, but—much like 9/11 truthers sharing links to HD torrents of Zeitgeist—people are still passing around misinformation like it’s gospel truth.
The debate will likely rage on for years in the armchair analyst community, regardless of whether military action is taken or not. But, for now, I thought it best to contact independent munitions expert Eliot Higgins, AKA Brown Moses, who, since the conflict began, has been investigating and verifying evidence of crimes on both sides of the conflict at his blog. Eliot isn’t operating on the ground in Syria. In fact, he’s operating from his house in Leicestershire and if he has an armchair, I don’t doubt that he’s operated from it before. But where he differs from your average lonely keyboard warrior is that he’s incredibly well respected among journalists and weapons experts for his forensic ability to identify munitions found on Syria’s battlefields. He has written for Foreign Policy and New York Times, and been interviewed by Channel 4 News, CNN, and the Guardian. Typically, he’s billed as someone who’s used the internet and social media to become an “accidental arms expert.”
Eliot has put forward a particularly convincing case linking the regime to the sarin attacks, which corroborates firmly with the information gathered by NGOs and the intelligence agencies of the US, UK, France, and Germany. I spoke to him to find out more about his research.
VICE: Hi, Eliot. Can you tell me how you came to know so much about munitions?
Eliot Higgins: I’m self-taught, first using resources available online, then by talking to a lot of arms specialists and learning as I went. I’d look at a video, see something new and then learn as much about it as possible. There are huge amounts of information about the Soviet weaponry used by the Syrian government and opposition online.
You have presented a lot of evidence that firmly suggests the Syrian government is behind the recent sarin attacks. Can you talk me through your conclusions?
The one thing you expect to find after a chemical attack is the remains of the munitions used. Unlike conventional munitions, the warheads on these weapons don’t explode, but disperse the chemical agent using different methods—for example, a small dispersal charge that pops it open. So instead of being blown into tiny pieces, you should find the remains of the munitions used.
In the case of the attacks in Damascus, there are two different types of munitions that have been found by activists. The first is an M14 140mm artillery rocket fired by the Soviet BM14 multiple rocket launcher. One warhead type for these munitions carries 2.2 kilograms of sarin, and the remains of the munitions recorded by activists were in very good condition, suggesting this might have been the warhead used.
What’s far more interesting is the second type of munitions, several of which have been filmed at the August 21st attacks, as well as previous alleged chemical attacks. These munitions are unique to the conflict; the many arms and chemical weapons specialists I’ve spoken to do not recognize it as appearing anywhere else in the world.