Syria: Snipers of Aleppo
Over the last six months the FSA and the battle for Aleppo has transitioned from a full-on frontline assault into a slow-paced but still deadly sniper war. Photographer and videographer Robert King recently returned to the conflict-ravaged city to meet the snipers of the FSA, interviewing them about the new challenges they face on the ground as they steadfastly peer through their scopes and pick off the enemy, one by one, day by day.
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A Syrian Proxy War Is Being Fought in Syria
“If we all piss on them at the same time, they will drown.” The Sunni fighter in Bab al-Tabbaneh tells me this while gesturing up the hill towards the neighboring Alawite district of Jabal Mohsen. Over the past eight days, fighting between these two neighborhoods in Lebanon’s second city of Tripoli has claimed nearly 30 lives and resulted in over 200 injuries. But while Tripoli’s Sunnis may outnumber Alawites to a ratio of 4:1, there is little chance of either side gaining an advantage any time soon. Instead, an ongoing battle of attrition is being played out, in the middle of which the Lebanese army regularly finds itself caught.
Clashes between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen are nothing new. The two have been going at it for decades, yet they have started clashing far more regularly since the beginning of the uprising in neighboring Syria two years ago. This latest outbreak of violence began at the same time as an Hezbollah supported assault just over the Syrian border in the strategic town of Qusair. This has only served to fuel speculation that what’s going on in Tripoli is not just linked to the Syrian civil war, but is actually a directproxy of it—with the Alawites of Jabal Mohsen supporting embattled Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabbaneh on the side of the rebels who are trying to topple him.
Syria’s Refugees Are Trapped Between Hells
I first met war photographer Giles Duley a month ago, to talk about his work both before and after he became a triple amputee in Afghanistan. Giles’s most recent trip since we spoke was to Jordan, where he documented the arrival of Syrian refugees after a long journey across the border. Here’s his account of new arrivals to the Zaatari Camp. – Jamie Collins
The nights become so bitterly cold that I’ve taken shelter in a portakabin staffed by UNHCR doctors. We sit, sipping tea, fighting our tiredness, waiting. It’s nearly 1 AM and there’s still no sign of any refugees arriving. Restless, I go outside to join my colleagues, who are sharing a cigarette in the starless night. Suddenly we are silent. In the distance we can hear buses and then out of that cold dark night they start to arrive. The first to appear is a young girl, maybe five years old, dressed in a cream coat walking with a purpose beyond her years, followed by two young mothers clasping their children, wrapped tightly in blankets to protect them from the cold. They make their way into the large military-style reception tent where they will be processed, fed, given medical attention, and finally allocated their own plot within Zaatari Camp.
I watch as more and more arrive—tens, hundreds and, by dawn, nearly 2,000. There’s man wearing a suit, holding his kid’s hand; an elderly couple struggling to carry their meagre possessions; a pregnant woman in tears; a young man carried across the rough ground in his wheelchair. Each face seems haunted and etched with exhaustion, uncertainty, and fear. The scenes are reminiscent of so many earlier wars, faded black and white images of civilians uprooted and forced to flee with only what they carry. But this is not some terrible past, this is happening now and the war grows more violent and brutal each day.
The numbers are almost beyond comprehension. More than 70,000 people killed, over four million displaced, and more than one million refugees registered by the UNHCR. In Jordan alone, there are 340,000 refugees, many in the tented Zaatari. This number is expected to rise to over one million by the end of the year.
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Chatting About Game of Thrones with Syria’s Most Feared Islamic Militants
“Ameriki?” the jihadi asked, pointing at me with a bemused look on his face. I’d just approached him at a house that serves as the local base for Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the most feared Islamic militant group operating in Syria. A month ago, his colleagues took over a street right next to my fixer’s house, blocking it off and hoisting up the black flag that serves as their symbol. They spend their time milling about outside, sometimes riding off in pickup trucks, the beds overflowing with black-clad young men holding RPGs and AK-47s.
Accompanied by a few Free Syrian Army rebels, I was still quite apprehensive about approaching al-Nusra. More experienced journalists had warned me to be wary of them, and the Obama administration had recentlydesignated them as a terrorist group. While the al Qaeda link hadn’t yet been made official, it wasconfirmed a couple of days later. Additionally, I had awoken that morning to the news that the FBI had justarrested Eric Harroun, an American who allegedly fought with al-Nusra in Syria.
Al-Nusra and other Islamic groups showed up in the Syrian border town of Ras Al Ayn in November, and—along with the Free Syrian Army—forced out the remnants of the Assad regime in fierce, block-to-block fighting. Afterward, this coalition fought against Syria’s most powerful Kurdish militia, the Popular Protection Units (YPG). The fighting lasted months before a ceasefire was arranged, and the city was essentially divided in two, with the YPG operating on one side and the FSA and al-Nusra on the other. More recently, al-Nusra had even clashed with an FSA brigade in the nearby town of Tal Abyad, but peace was restored shortly after.
At the al-Nusra base in Ras Al Ayn, the jihadi who had asked me if I was American pulled back his fist in an exaggerated motion, then play-acted punching me when I confirmed my citizenship. The man—a cross-eyed Egyptian who I would later learn served as the group’s public-relations officer and preacher, of sorts—laughed heartily.
“Watch out, we’re terrorists!” his colleague, a lanky Emirati with facial hair reminiscent of Orlando Bloom chimed in, before he started laughing, too. The Emirati then excitedly asked me what part of New York City I was from. “Oh, Brooklyn? Yeah, I know it. I went to school in Seattle for a year,” he said.
Meet the Ladies of the Free Syrian Army – They Have Guns, Dead Families, and Nothing to Lose
An all-female FSA brigade gathers inside Auntie Mahmoud’s house in Atmeh, Syria. Photos by Andreas Stahl.
Just a few hundred meters from the Turkey-Syria border lies Atmeh, a once quiet farm town that, in recent months, has become a safe haven for the Free Syrian Army. Fifteen thousand Syrians roam freely, displaced by the civil war, along with various brigades and Islamic militants. There’s also Auntie Mahmoud’s house—a meeting place for a local all-female unit of FSA fighters.
Auntie Mahmoud is a tough old broad who’s happy to shake your hand, even while other Syrian women in town naturally shy away. She lives in a small house across the street from a FSA base and makes it her business to know everything that goes on around her. Her living room is carpeted with thin mattresses, and when we visited her recently, we found eight women, draped in black hijabs and seated with Kalashnikovs resting on their laps. These brave women are members of the FSA who are ready to plunge into intense urban firefights alongside their male counterparts, if needed. Though they originally hail from cities like Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib, many of them now live in the camp near Atmeh and share strikingly similar backgrounds: each of their husbands was killed or imprisoned while fighting Assad’s regime, their homes were leveled by shelling and other attacks, and over the course of two years of Syria’s civil war, they all grew tired of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a favorable outcome to the conflict.
Am Ar’ou, a 37-year-old former law student from Aleppo, is the leader of the brigade. Wearing a military vest and with her face completely veiled in niqab, she stroked her rifle as she recounted how her husband was arrested only because he had a beard and prayed five times a day. She worked closely with the FSA when the war began, storing weapons and supplies in her home until the cache was discovered, shelled, and destroyed. After the attack, she spent three months in the hospital with jaw, hand, and back injuries. Once discharged, she had no home to return to and became a refugee in her own country. She traveled to the camp in Atmeh and soon found other women who also had nothing but one another, sad stories, and some guns.
Safa, who has been involved with the revolution against Assad from the beginning, walks through the streets of Atmeh.
The women in Am’s brigade have declared jihad against President Assad in the name of freedom, democracy, and women’s rights in an overwhelmingly male-dominated society. But they’re also wary of some of their allies because Atmeh is a hotbed of rebel activity and home to hard-line Salafist Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (one of the best-known Islamic groups fighting in Syria today, who were recently added to the US’s list of terrorist organizations), the al-Farouq Brigade, al Qaeda, and various other foreign mujahideen fighters. This has made Am and her comrades’ mission particularly difficult to execute. Jabhat al-Nusra, for example, support the women in theory but refuse to fight alongside them or allow them to carry their weapons openly. Even though they’re all opposed to Assad, the Islamic rebel groups are determined to create an Islamic state in Syria, while most Syrians are opposed to this idea. Am and her brigade are devout Muslims, too, but they don’t want an Islamic state; they want a democracy.
Your hospital has been hit numerous times by Assad’s forces, is that correct?
Yes. It has been hit five times and more than 15 times around the hospital.
Do you consider these actions to be war crimes?
Yes, of course, but the Syrian regime considers medical staffs and doctors military targets.
Why do you think that is?
Because when you kill one doctor, it’s much better than killing 1,000 fighters.
Inside Aleppo, Syria’s “Stalingrad”
I am traveling with the Free Syrian Army on the front line of the al-Arqub neighborhood in Aleppo. Sniper rounds crack as the bullets zip over our heads. The acidic taste of gunpowder scares my throat and burns my waterless tear ducts. Just a half mile from the gutted and destroyed Dar al-Shifa hospital, we are traveling in an area known by the locals as Stalingrad. The reference plays on the macabre similarities between the Nazi’s relentless bombardment of the Russian city during the Second World War, and the unforgiving attacks this part of Aleppo has seen during Syria’s uprising. One group of fighters here is so conservative they refuse us the luxury of smoking a cigarette while escaping death on the hollowed streets.
The only signs of life come from atop a bleeding tree scarred and bent by bullets and shrapnel. This bleeding tree offers me a moment of solace, because the pathetic little spruce has refused to die. In defiance of war and the death that follows, this ugly thing sprung two new leaves—green specks of life on the naked branches that defy man’s destruction. This sight offers me a faint memory of what the allure of life was before this inhuman war.
I Left My Family For the Free Syrian Army
Loubna Mrie grew up in a high-profile Alawite family, but unlike most of the adherents to the Twelver school of Shia Islam, Loubna does not support the Assad regime. When civil war broke out last March and Assad’s troops began shooting civilian protesters, she was persuaded by friends to support the rebels of the nascent Free Syrian Army in Damascus, where in February she was assigned to a six-month ordnance-smuggling stint.
When the revolt began I was opposed to armed revolution. Then the cruelty of the Syrian Army forced me to change my opinions about the possibility of a peaceful resistance movement.
You should know that the FSA are not a strange army that just came to Syria. They are friends whom we were protesting and working with before any sort of rebel force was actualized. I knew they needed help, so I asked what I could do. One of them said they needed bullets, so I called my friend who took me to another area (it would be irresponsible for me to say exactly where) to buy them. I later smuggled them back. It’s not complicated, but it’s very dangerous.
At checkpoints, the Alawites, Christians, and Druze (followers of a branch of Shia Islam who also incorporate other beliefs into their religion) are always free to pass—the government and the shabiha (armed men in plain clothes who support the regime) think all the activists are Sunni. They don’t thoroughly search believers of these other faiths, so they can smuggle anything easily—even guns.
THE MAN WHO WAS THERE -
ROBERT KING HAS BEEN COVERING THE FSA SO LONG THEY NAMED HIM “HAJI MEMPHIS”
(Above) September 30, 2012: Fighters with the jihadist Tawhid brigade in the midst of a battle with Syrian Army troops inside Aleppo’s hotly contested al-Arkoub neighborhood.
VICE reached out to photographer and videographer Robert King in an attempt to arrive at the twisted core of the matter in Syria. Robert is a man with a heart of gold, a preternatural gut, and balls of pure lonsdaleite (an ultra-rare mineral 58 percent harder than diamond). For more than two decades he has documented the most volatile places in the world at their most violent times, including Iraq, Albania, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and many others. We won’t get into all he’s done and where he’s been here because the following 20 pages of reportage he sent us speak for themselves.
August 28, 2012: A man holds up his Koran in front of an FSA flag at a protest after Friday prayers in Aleppo.
Ibecame interested in the conflict in Syria for the same reason I’ve always wanted to cover anything—it seemed to be underreported. There weren’t very many news organizations willing to commit resources needed to inform their readers about the situation on a continuous basis, so I took it upon myself to do so.
I genuinely believed in the Syrian people’s call for more than just demonstrations, especially once it was made apparent that Assad’s regime was using helicopters, jets, detainment, and torture to squash the rebellion. During a stint in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2005, I was kidnapped by a brigade of Sunni fighters. I managed to escape, but I was wary of going back to the region—especially to a country where a violent battle had erupted between rebel forces and government troops. Still, I knew I had to go, and before I left my home in Memphis I established connections with relief and aid groups working inside Syria.
My initial contacts directed me toward other people who, once I was inside, would hopefully point me in the direction of activists who could smuggle me in via a city near the Syrian border. When I felt confident that I had ensured my safe passage as much as I could, I began to move into Syria very cautiously.
For about $1,000 round trip, I was able to take a back door into the country and was guaranteed—as much as a smuggler can guarantee—safe passage for ten days inside the governorate of Idlib. They took me to a town called Binnish, where they told me they could find me a place to stay for about $100 a night.
The first round wasn’t a very easy go. At that point, late March through April, there were still very few publications willing to assign long excursions into Syria. I also quickly discovered that the activists I was embedded with were in the habit of staying up and drinking Pepsi till the wee hours of the morning and then sleeping in until 3 PM.
The reality was that Binnish was pretty dead. There wasn’t much fighting or anything else going on, and it was difficult to get my guides to take me to the places I wanted to go. Looking back, hiring these people was probably not the wisest investment. Around Easter weekend, toward the end of my three-week trip, a horrific massacre broke out about ten miles away in Taftanaz. Dozens of people were slaughtered. And I was one of the only Western journalists there.
After the onslaught, there were fears that the fighting would spread to Binnish. The Free Syrian Army rebels who had tried to contain the attack in Taftanaz left about two hours after they arrived because they had run out of ammunition. It quickly became apparent that they were incapable of protecting or enforcing anything.