Gaining a Clearer View of the Syrian Civil War
By Christoph Reuter SPIEGEL ONLINE 12/31/2012 05:06 PM
After spending months reporting on the conflict, a SPIEGEL journalist has
pieced together a realistic view of the situation on the ground, and reports
that dictator Bashar Assad's fall seems inevitable. But as the fighting
grows more barbarous on both sides, he worries what the ultimate price will
It was August 2012 and we were sitting in front of the TV. The Syrian
state-run channel was reporting that the country's army was fighting bravely
in the streets of Maraa, and was close to defeating the terrorists there. At
this very moment, the program continued, Syrian army troops were storming
the cultural center where the last terrorists had holed up. The screen
showed soldiers running past three-story apartment buildings.
We watched the TV, fascinated.
We had been in Maraa for days, waiting for a driver who would take us
further into the interior of the country. Not a single government soldier
had been seen in this small city north of Aleppo in quite a while. Not even
the artillery cannons in Aleppo were capable of reaching the town. Someone
called an acquaintance living near the cultural center, and learned that
everything was quiet there too. And the multi-story apartment buildings?
There aren't any in Maraa.
The entire report, several minutes long and related in a breathless tone,
was fiction. This time we ourselves were witnesses and knew the truth.
When the Syrian state-run television channel or the private channel
al-Dunya, which is owned by the Assad family, expose a Satanic conspiracy
against Syria under the direction of United States President Barack Obama,
or reveal that the movements of FC Barcelona's soccer players are actually
secret commands directed at Syrian rebels, no one in the West pays much
attention. These reports are all too clearly grotesque propaganda.
But when the events reported are ones that seem plausible at first glance --
for example the flood of foreign al-Qaida fighters supposedly organizing the
Syrian rebellion, the presence of a huge number of CIA agents or the
expulsion of Christians from Syrian cities -- these claims elicit a response
in the West. It's often difficult for us journalists to determine whether or
not they are true, because the Syrian civil war is far less accessible than
the war in Libya was. In Libya, the eastern part of the country around
Benghazi was liberated in a week, making it possible for journalists to
There is no Benghazi in Syria. Any corner of the country's embattled regions
can be hit by an air strike at any time. At the same time, the regime's
Orwellian PR machine not only presents journalists with its official view of
the situation, but also provides us with supposed eyewitnesses to atrocities
and al-Qaida fighters it has allegedly captured.
And no other war has been so ubiquitously captured on video. Whether these
videos are real or falsified is difficult to determine. Any cliché, any
falsehood can be illustrated with a video.
During one of my first trips to Syria, I traveled by bus from Damascus to
Homs and found myself at an evening protest in the Hamra district of the
city. The protestors, perhaps 300 of them at that point, walked along
pitch-black streets toward a large intersection. For 26 minutes, the growing
crowd chanted in the street, the sound reverberating off the surrounding
buildings. Here and there, the power was on and streetlights bathed the
demonstrators in yellowish light. Ahead of us, about 150 to 200 meters (500
to 650 feet) away, was the T-junction where the troops would appear.
It took a great deal of courage to walk in the middle of that street. With
few exceptions, only the youngest of the protestors ventured there, everyone
else keeping to the semidarkness along the building walls. At the edge of
the crowd, a father walked with his perhaps 11-year-old son, holding tight
to the boy's hand and talking to him in a quiet voice. Those who were even
more afraid stuck to the side streets, peering out into the main street.
My own experiment with going to the middle of the street was a peculiar
experience that took several minutes to accomplish. It felt as if I had glue
on the soles of my shoes, and I could barely set one foot in front of the
other. The shots could come at any moment, generally with about 10 or 20
seconds' warning. The dictatorship wanted to be sure that anyone who dared
to defy it would experience the consequences.
A few of the demonstrators were standing closer to the intersection, and I
heard them shout, just as I later heard the shouts in Aleppo as the regime's
troops approached, and within seconds everyone had dived for cover. If the
feeling wasn't complete insanity, it was something so close to it that our
feet didn't know the difference.
That evening in Homs, no one knew what would happen from one minute to the
next. Then we found out why things had remained so calm. New reports came in
every minute, revealing that in the neighboring district of Bab Sabaa, state
security force units had stormed the Fatima Mosque and shot into the crowd
of people praying there. Other troops had opened fire on the nearby Rauda
That particular night, we returned unharmed to the place where we were
staying in Homs.
Traveling the Old-Fashioned Way
Journalists' trips to Syria since the beginning of the revolution have
generally been weeks-long expeditions into a country under extreme
conditions, making our way forward the way our ancestors traveled centuries
ago, when no one knew what the world looked like beyond the next hill. We
make our way from village to village, district to district, traveling by
car, truck, motorcycle or on foot, with a rotating cast of companions.
Just knowing the way is no longer enough, not since the army and the
regime's security forces started setting up "flying checkpoints," which
spring up suddenly and arrest or simply shoot members of the opposition, or
even just those who come from a town controlled by the rebels.
Many people hardly leave their villages or neighborhoods anymore. Those who
do set out, because they want to or have to transport something --
journalists like us, for example -- try to scout out the route beforehand. A
motorcyclist might cover the route first, an unsuspicious car drives on a
kilometer or two ahead, or a vegetable truck goes first to check out the
situation, its driver remaining in constant telephone contact with the
second vehicle, at least when there is mobile phone service.
In all of the larger towns, the people who help us and travel with us change
constantly. Each local committee, each rebel group has control over its own
neighborhood, but nothing beyond that. Trips that would once have taken a
few hours now often require days or even weeks.
The benefit of this mode of travel, though, is that it allows us the
unfiltered experience of all the facets of reality here. We travel with
professors and cattle-herding nomads, with students, bus drivers and
defected intelligence agents and soldiers. Sometimes we drive with rebels
from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), sometimes with a taxi driver who's just
happy to have a fare. Our impressions of reality in Syria are formed from
countless small experiences, from hours-long chance encounters during these
journeys and while waiting endlessly somewhere by the side of the road.
The rebels are starting to form media committees, especially near the
Turkish border, where there are many foreign journalists. They too tell us
their stories of the civil war, but they don't try to keep tabs on us. It
would be futile in any case, given how often the people accompanying us
change. And deep in the interior of the country, by the dam on the Euphrates
River in the north of the country, or on the steppes east of Hama, in the
beleaguered city of Rastan, or in Houla, the town west of Homs where more
than 100 people were massacred on May 25, we're generally the first
journalists to visit in months anyway -- or the first to show up at all.
Often our routes themselves reveal a great deal about the situation here.
Drivers in the provinces of Homs and Hama, for example, take the precaution
of making wide detours around any Alawite village. "They've all got weapons
from the regime there," one driver explained. "They may not all support
Assad, but there are militias in every village."
Investigating the Houla Massacre
Getting to Houla, the site of the massacre, from Rastan, barely 30
kilometers (20 miles) away, takes us three days and three different
vehicles. Taldou, the part of the city where the massacre occurred, is
located in a valley, surrounded by the higher elevation Alawite villages
from which the murderers approached on the afternoon of May 25. "They keep
an eye on all the roads into Taldou," an elderly farmer explained during one
of our many hours of waiting. "You have to travel in vehicles they're
familiar with. Otherwise they'll come down, block the road, and you're
So we waited until a milk truck came, waited until a second familiar vehicle
was available, then traveled in slow motion toward Taldou. But the route we
took proved to be an important clue in the question of who perpetrated the
massacre, rebels or soldiers.
What we saw was that it would hardly have been possible for 700 rebels to
have traveled here unnoticed from Rastan, kill people in Taldou and then
disappear again without a trace. This, however, is the story that the regime
is spreading in various creative ways. There's the Jacobite nun from a
convent near Homs, for example, who is traveling the world as a supposedly
neutral PR spokesperson for the regime and spreading the myths that there is
CIA conspiracy against Syria and that many thousands of foreign al-Qaida
fighters are in the country. Then there are the two supposed eyewitnesses
from Taldou that the regime presented to willing journalists in Damascus,
political tourists and the United Nations employees trying to reconstruct
the course of events of the massacre.
When we were in Taldou for two days in mid-July, it was under bombardment
from army artillery. The houses were in the line of fire of snipers at a
military post outside the town -- just as they were at the time of the
massacre, which also included houses near the post. The testimony of
eyewitnesses and survivors suggests the same conclusion that the UN's report
reached: It was the army, not the rebels, who perpetrated the massacre.
We had to make two attempts before we got to Houla. The first time, in June,
the trip was too dangerous. But detours and waiting are never useless. We
were traveling most of the time through areas that were no longer under the
regime's control, and in dozens of villages, small cities and suburbs over
the course of months, we asked the same questions again and again: Who is in
charge here? Who are the leaders of the committees? What do those who used
to hold power here do now? Who is fighting: army defectors, civilians,
foreigners? What causes soldiers to desert and civilians to take up arms?
What do the rebels want to do after the revolution?
It is an ocean of small stories and large decisions, and we can only publish
a fraction of it. Taken together, though, the things we learn allow us to
reach conclusions about events in this war and about shifts occurring in the
balance of power, because every few months we revisit the same places and
meet the same people. If they're still alive, that is.
In April we were in the northern province of Idlib and followed the trail of
havoc left by the regime's "Brigade of Death" as it attacked village after
village with helicopters, tanks and troops. We traveled to Bashiriya,
Sarmin, Taftanaz, Kurin, Deir Sunbul, Kastan, Ain Sauda. We saw the
destruction there, and at the same time pieced together a detailed picture
of the FSA, which had one of its strongholds in Idlib in the spring of 2012.
Around two thirds of the FSA is made up of army deserters local to the area.
Outsiders from Damascus or Aleppo are rare, and we didn't encounter any
In July, in the city of Rastan in central Syria, I met Lieutenant Faïs
Abdullah again. When we first met him in December 2011, Abdullah, with a
clean-shaven face and a hounded look, was one of the first officers who had
deserted the Syrian army. It was the pure chance of a broken foot that had
brought him home on leave to Rastan, where he saw his fellow soldiers
gunning down demonstrators and storming the city.
Promises of Paradise
Rastan, a city generally perceived as loyal to the regime, seems an unlikely
place for the rebellion. Mustafa Tlass, a friend of the late Hafez Assad
from their military academy days and the regime's eternal defense minister,
comes from here, as do thousands of army officers. Yet Rastan unexpectedly
turned against the regime. And when the peaceful demonstrations gave way to
armed resistance, trained members of the army such as Abdullah were on hand
to lead the movement.
In July 2012, Rastan is liberated but a ghost town, half destroyed and
surrounded by armored divisions, artillery emplacements and army troops that
shell the city daily. The rebels are the only people still here, aside from
a few city residents. Faïs Abdullah, clean-shaven seven months ago, now
sports a thick beard and is commander of the "Ali ibn Abi Talib Brigade,"
named after the fourth Caliph.
Anyone who wants to fight alongside him must be religious, says Abdullah, a
Muslim, but it doesn't matter which religion specifically. He doesn't care
if his fighters are Druze or Christian.
We rarely see Abdullah's 70 men pray, though. Far more of their time is
spent trying to open their Facebook pages over the satellite telephone
network, which is constantly crashing. Nor is their practical role model the
life of the Prophet, with his dates and swordfights. Instead they like
"Murat," a James Bond type who fights bad guys with high-speed chases and
explosives as the hero of a Turkish television series popular in Syria.
Later Abdullah explains how we should understand this matter of religion,
beards and promises of Paradise: "What can I offer someone who is supposed
to confront the tanks of Assad's army with not much more than a
Something new has come into being in Syria that didn't exist here before. In
their videos, these bearded field commanders and fighters with their
constant cries of "Allahu akbar" look the way the West imagines radical
jihadists look. And that's certainly how journalists portray it, writing
from their computers with disarming candor. The al-Qaida followers are easy
to recognize, author Amir Madani wrote in the well-regarded American
Huffington Post, because they are heavily bearded and fearless fighters.
By late this autumn, tens of thousands of rebels were fighting against the
Assad regime, but they didn't match the clichéd image of the fearless
super-terrorist, heavily bearded and always ready for action. Likewise, the
200 to 300 Libyans who were in northern Syria in September came not to
establish an Islamic state, but to topple their next dictator. There are
also dozens of Iraqi Sunnis fighting on the rebels' side, for example around
the city of Deir el-Zour near the Iraqi border, and they are the ones most
likely to have connections to al-Qaida's former Iraqi presence.
Two groups identifying themselves as fundamentalists have also cropped up in
Aleppo: "Ahrar al-Sham," which translates as "Free Men of Syria," and
"Al-Nusra Front." Both groups work together with the FSA, but operate
outside its command structure.
According to both the organizations' own assertions and the concordant
reports of eyewitnesses, the two groups each include around 50 foreigners in
their ranks -- Dagestanis, Tajiks, one British man, Pakistanis, a couple of
Tunisians, Libyans, Iraqis, Yemenis, Saudis, Turks -- most of whom met in
Egypt at a year-long program for Islamic preachers, where non-Arabs can
learn Arabic to a passable level. About 30 Chechens also came to Syria for a
while, but left again when they ran out of ammunition.
What these foreigners in Aleppo have in common, says one member of the Ahrar
al-Sham brigade, is less a hatred of Assad than a conviction that they must
fight against all Shiites, whom they consider traitors to Sunni Islam. "When
this is over," the man says, "they want to continue on and fight against the
These men with beards and Kalashnikovs, constantly shouting "Allahu akbar,"
do fit with a certain framework, but that framework doesn't exist anymore.
Nor does the image of the ultra-warrior apply to all who adorn themselves
with the al-Qaida logo. A group of jihad tourists kidnapped a British and a
Dutch photographer in late July, and the British photographer, John Cantlie,
later said their camp seemed "like an adventure course for disenchanted
In the village of Atmeh, directly on the border with Turkey, we too met
radicals with warlike garb, headbands and al-Qaida flags, their black
garments and new SUV spotless. "They drive back and forth here all day,"
said one perplexed FSA member. "They seem to like it." And in Antakya, the
sleepy provincial capital in Turkey where journalists, aid organizations and
Syrian refugees meet, the jihad tourists can be found every evening on the
patios of the nicer hotels, enjoying a Coca Cola and a water pipe.
That doesn't stop Syria's state-run media from spreading the story that the
majority of those fighting on the rebels' side are foreign al-Qaida
terrorists. Ironically, that story finds willing ears in the West, including
with Islam alarmists who think they detect al-Qaida behind every bearded man
they see, and with left-wing conspiracy theorists who see the US as
synonymous with interventionist imperialism.
The true danger, the one we sense growing with each trip we make to Syria,
is the increasing brutality and barbarism on both sides. The question is no
longer simply how this conflict will end, but also at what price. In any
case, the fall of the house of Assad is inevitable.
Tens of thousands of people have died. They are civilians, soldiers and
rebels. Gangs massacre their way through suburbs and villages. Half a
million people have fled abroad, and far more are desperately on the move
within their own country, afraid to stay where they are, but fearing death
around every next corner.
A year ago, Homs, Aleppo, Rastan, Talbiseh, Douma, Zabadani, Deir el-Zour,
Idlib and hundreds of other cities and villages did not yet look like small
Mediterranean Stalingrads. The irresistible pull of revenge increases with
each wave of killing, for both the Alawites and the Sunnis.
"If someone has lost a son, it's still possible to stop him," said a
pharmacist in the village of Martin. "If he's lost two, it's very difficult.
With three, it's impossible. I've read about what Mahatma Gandhi achieved in
India and I admire it. But what would have become of him here? In a week he
would have been lying dead in a field."
Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein