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.
The atrocities and war crimes currently ripping Syria apart at the seams are evident at a field hospital in Aleppo, the country’s largest city. Inside the hospital exhausted doctors indiscriminately treat civilians, members of the Free Syrian Army, and captured Syrian Army troops alike.
Today we are proud to present the first bits of The Syria Issue, an entire magazine dedicated to one of the oldest and most important cradles of civilization in the world. It is also a place that has been decimated by brutal internal strife for the past year and a half, following the widespread unrest of the Arab Spring. Just like in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc, the revolt in Syria was sparked by decades of authoritarian rule by a megalomaniac—namely President Bashar al-Assad.
Unlike other revolutions in the region, however, Syria has reached a boiling point that could result in the total collapse of the geopolitical stability of the region. The organized opposition known as the Free Syrian Army—an amalgam of defected Syrian Army soldiers, jihadists, and average citizens who are fed up with oppression—have clashed with Assad’s forces, resulting in an ongoing civil bloodbath inside the capital of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and other cities throughout the nation. Following a failed UN-organized peace effort that was deemed a complete failure and dissolved in late August, the situation has only gotten worse.
What’s happening in Syria right now is perhaps one of the most confusing and complex conflicts of our time. So we have created what amounts to a reference book on the subject that attempts to view the strife from a myriad perspectives, and we believe we have succeeded in this regard.
Check back throughout the month of November as we post stories from the new issue every day, and head to one of the locations listed here to obtain a hardcopy of what is undoubtedly one of the most important issues we have ever published. It will begin hitting the streets this week, so you may want to call ahead.
For now we encourage you to gain some historical and cultural perspective on the war and the country where it is taking place by reading our “Road to Ruin” historical timeline illustrated by Jim Krewson, our comprehensive “VICE Guide to Syria,” and a piece about graffiti writing in Syria, which has played an important role in fueling the opposition following the arrest and torture of a group of boys who spray painted anti-regime slogans in Daraa.
You should also watch our ongoing Ground Zero: Syria series shot by photographer and videographer Robert King (who contributed 22 pages to this issue). The first installment, which you can watch below, is very graphic and documents victims of war crimes (including many children) being treated by valiant doctors in a field hospital in al-Qusayr over the summer. Part 2 documents the destruction and burning of an ancient souk (marketplace) in the Old City of Aleppo.