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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VICE: What made you decide to hack the Onion this week after spending so much time targeting serious news organizations?
The Shadow: We are well aware of the satirical nature of the Onion, but this does not detract from the fact that the basis of their “humor” was rooted in the narrative promoted by most major corporate media. What convinced us to make our move was an article titled “The Onion Website Joins the U.S. Anti-Syria Club” by Shamus Cooke that details how the Onion can be a more effective wartime propaganda tool than even “serious” and seemingly credible media. The irresponsible promotion of chemical weapons claims and attribution of all the mayhem in Syria on the one side attempting to keep order is very much an assumption of their focus on Syria. This is why the majority of informed people do not find such articles funny.
Why did you accuse the Onion of taking “Zionist money” in exchange for defaming Syria?
We have various tactics when we penetrate a media outlet. For the Onion, we decided to loosely follow their style. We do not seriously suggest any kind of money transfer from unnamed “Zionist” sources, we realize it is more likely that the Onion follows the corporate line as a matter of ideology. During the Second World War, both the Germans and the Americans used satire to attack one another. The Onion serves the same sort of wartime role that the Disney anti-German short films did back then.
What do you think about the Onion’s response?
Many readers found it in poor taste. One Twitter user responded with a simple “yikes.” This reaction was exactly what we were hoping for, as the writer placed all their anger in it, dropping the mask of the real situation in Syria. The rebels were depicted in the exact same manner as reality, so it cannot really be classified as satire except with one difference—the Syrian army will win and we don’t have a “base” that can be attacked.
—We spoke to an alleged member of the Syrian Electronic Army about hacking The Onion’s Twitter. Full interview
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.
Sectarian Tensions Build in Northern Syria
Above: Adbul Rahman Ali shows his former Baath ID, in Hayyan.
The sentiment is echoed by Abu Jood, 36, a former electrician and member of the jihadist militia Jabhat Al-Nusra.
“I studied in Nubl for four years. Now I cannot even speak to my former friends who live there,” says Jood, positioned on the periphery of the village of Mayer, less than a mile from Nubl. “The Shia swear their allegiance to the Iranian regime and correspondingly the Baath party here.”
“I don’t want to fight them, but they follow the propaganda of the Assad regime.”
Spokespeople for the government have frequently appeared in the media warning that its downfall would result in the country being overrun by Sunni extremists. Something Bashar Hajj knows too well.
Hajj, 28, a former mechanic and native of Bayanoun is married to a Shia woman from Nubl. A member of the Nasr brigade of the Free Syrian Army, Hajj fondly recollects meeting his future wife while in high school.
“I studied at a secondary school in Nubl. We were classmates,” recalls Hajj. “We were married for five years. We were happy.”
“When the war broke out, I joined the FSA. She supported my decision, but her father worked with the regime and her brother was killed fighting for the army. He tried to convince my wife that I was a terrorist.” continues Hajj.
On the January 1, Hajj’s wife went to visit her family in Nubl. She has not returned.
“For the first week, I spoke with her on the phone. I asked her to come back, but she said her family wouldn’t let her. Then her mobile line went dead. I haven’t heard from her since,” says Hajj, his hands clasped together looking skyward.
“I still love her. She is my wife. God willing, I will see her again.”
Hajj’s story is just one example. Sitting in the salon of his family home in the Qoreitem district of Hayyan, Mustapha Outroo, 19, a student in the final year of secondary school when the civil war broke out, holds a picture of his older brother Mahmud.
Israel attacked Syria yesterday, which means shit’s probably about to hit the fan.
World Peace Update
Compared to last week’s French air strikes against Islamist rebels in Mali, this week—world violence-wise—has been a bit of a wash out. If it weren’t for some pissed off Egyptians, Turks, and the never-ending slaughter in Syria, I’d be so bored I’d have probably paid some attention to Obama’s inauguration. Then again, when I think about Obama, I think about drone wars. So that’s always a plus, I guess.
Meet Syria’s 11-Year-Old Killing Machine
Mohammed Afar is 11 years old. The modified AK-47 assault rifle he carries stretches to nearly two-thirds his height.
Over top of his faded yellow jacket a Free Syrian Army vest holds three extra clips, each full with live ammunition, and a walkie-talkie. An FSA badge sits on one side and a rendering of the Islamic Shahada, in Arabic calligraphy, on the other.
He says he does not miss school or want to stay at home with his mother and two sisters.
“I want to stay as a fighter until Bashar is killed,” he says, referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The fighters surrounding him, all claiming to be from Liwa al-Tawhid, pass him a sniper rifle and offer to take him to a frontline, so he can demonstrate his shooting.
“He is a great shot,” says his father, Mohammed Saleh Afar. “He is my little lion.”
Over the course of its grinding 21-month insurgency, Syria’s children have endured numerous abuses.
Caught-up in shelling, airstrikes, and sniping, they have additionally been subject to arbitrary arrest, torture and rape, as reported by the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria in August; which, additionally, noted “with concern reports that children under 18 are fighting and performing auxiliary roles for anti-Government armed groups.”
Both the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Children carry provisions that call for not using combatants under the age of 15, while the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute makes it a war crime.