A Tour Inside Syria's Insurgency

Smuggled by anti-regime fighters across the Lebanon border and into the heart of the uprising, I found fearless protesters, calls for intervention, and the growing threat of civil war

pw dec29 p.jpg
Still image taken from video shows purported members of "Free Syrian Army" firing at a convoy of government security buses in the village of Dael / Reuters

Qutaiba, a 22-year-old engineering student, had never been arrested before Syrian security forces detained him at a checkpoint in a suburb of Damascus and dragged him to a military base. At the time, he didn't know if he would survive: activists like him were disappearing, sometimes turning up later as mutilated corpses. But he did survive, and what he went through would later lead him to me.

When Qutaiba arrived at the military base, at first he was left to stand outside, hooded, hands cuffed behind his back. It seemed as if everyone walking past gave him a kick, a punch, or a blow from a rifle butt. After maybe 15 minutes, he was taken to see the officer in charge, a colonel. The hood was removed, though not the handcuffs.

The colonel, looking the prisoner up and down, asked, "Who hit this guy?"

"It was Abdullah," one of the guards answered.

The colonel shouted for Abdullah, who quickly arrived.

"You motherfucker," the colonel spat at the soldier. "If I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times: No one. Should touch. Any. Citizen."

On the word "citizen" the colonel's hand flew out and smacked Qutaiba on the side of the head. The blow sent him crashing to the ground, looking at their boots. The officer had struck him "with the flat of his hand, but it was a strong one," he later remembered. The colonel remained silent. The guards and Abdullah laughed uproariously.

Then he was taken away to be beaten and tortured over a period of weeks. It was not sophisticated or inventive. Electric shocks while he lay on the floor in a pool of water. Endless kicks and punches that would leave his guards exhausted at the end of each flurry. For the first five days, they didn't even ask any questions. That came later, the initial pummelling just to soften him up.

Always, he tried to remain standing. "When you are on the ground, they will hit you more," he said. "They were doing Debke on my body," he told me, naming the Arabic folk dance that means literally "stamping of the feet." He laughed at that, and good-naturedly, and as he remembered each taunt from the guards. "This is for Facebook." Smack. "This is for Twitter." Punch. "This is for CNN, for the BBC, for Al Jazeera." A drumming of feet. "Look, we've caught the leader of the Syrian revolution."

I met Qutaiba in an upmarket coffee shop in Beirut, where he had fled to after being released. At the next table, men wearing leather jackets and Rolexes were puffing on fat cigars. Stylish, well-dressed 20-something women greeted one another with air kisses. Six-foot-two, handsome, relaxed, and smiling throughout his story, Qutaiba didn't look at all out of place.

He had been picked up by the feared Air Force Intelligence, al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya. Syrian activists talk a lot about Air Force Intelligence. Hafez al-Assad, the former president and father of Bashar al-Assad, had commanded the air force, making its security arm one of the most powerful of Syria's dozen or so secret police organizations. They were brutal but incompetent, Qutaiba said. They fumbled so long over logging in to his Facebook account that by the time they did another activist had managed to get in to delete everything. They couldn't open the flash memory card full of opposition literature and videos, he laughed.

The only time he did not break into his story with an easy smile was when he came to how he had been caught. It was an informer, a "rat.," he believes. His suburb of Damascus had many of them, he said, who often conducted their business in the open, because they were so sure of the regime's protection. "They are proud that they are doing this ... every month, there is a crackdown. They are the people who are preparing the lists."

The "rats" were the biggest threat to the revolution, he believed, which was why he had come to Lebanon to buy silencers for pistols to use against suspected loyalists. "We got to a situation where either we kill them or we really hurt them to send out a message."

Qutaiba had started out in April as a peaceful protester and had continued that way for many months. His personal trajectory is in some ways like that of Syria's revolution and of Syria itself. The struggle with the government is becoming increasingly militarized; there is a small but growing insurgency.

Many inside and outside Syria worry it may end in a civil war, perhaps a sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunnis against the Alawites, a minority that includes the Assads, and their Shiite and Christian allies. Qutaiba is a practicing Sunni but he told me that the Syria he wanted, the Syria he was fighting for, would be democratic, free and pluralist. During one week in late November of travelling covertly inside Syria, meeting protesters, opposition activists, and fighters, I heard the same thing over and over. But people know what to say to outsiders. Sometimes, what they said to each other was different.

We -- a BBC cameraman Fred Scott and I -- entered Syria the same way that Qutaiba's pistol silencers were going in, smuggled over the border from Lebanon. The men we joined were not professional smugglers but activists who were supporting the Syrian Free Army, an informal network of defected government soldiers. They were taking in medicines and weapons and bringing out the wounded, an underground railway working in both directions.

The light was fading as we reached a Lebanese border village, where a casualty had just arrived by motorbike. There were three people on a tiny 50cc machine: one driving, another behind with the injured man carried horizontally in his arms, unconscious and bleeding. They laid him on the floor in the back room of a farmhouse. A doctor bent over him to apply fresh bandages. "I am just a GP," he told me. "This man needs a surgeon." There were two bullet wounds. The doctor gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving, though even those odds were thought better than what he would get in a government hospital, where security forces look for wounded fighters.

A smuggler named Hassan had brought the injured man in. He offered to take us over back over the border on his motorbike, one at a time. We were still waiting for a bag of our equipment so we refused, a decision that may have saved our lives. Hassan waved and drove off up a dirt track leading into Syria. An hour later, we heard long echoing bursts of automatic fire. Villagers gathering around the back door of the farmhouse, swapping news. Hassan had been captured by a Syrian patrol, one reported. No, said another, he had been captured but he had escaped. He had been shot, said a third. We still did not know what had happened, except that Hassan had not come back by the time another group of smugglers came to fetch us, three hours later.

We took a different route than Hassan's and went on foot. It was around midnight and chilly when we set off, six men, each carrying a sack of ammunition and two or three Kalashnikovs for the fighters inside. They spoke in tense whispers as we crept through apricot orchards and across fields. There were mines, they said, and the Syrian Army had recently reinforced the area. "Now you have to tip toe, like a ballet dancer," said one of the smugglers under his breath as we prepared to cross the heavily patrolled asphalt road that marked the border. This time, there were no soldiers. We made it over and, a hundred yards further on, found a small truck waiting for us. Everyone piled in and we were taken to the first of many safe houses.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor, we chatted over a late supper of flat bread, cheese, and tiny glasses of hot, sweet tea. One of the men was Khoda, a Syrian house painter who had been working in Lebanon before he gave up his job to do this. "In Egypt, the revolution started because of poverty and hunger," he said. "In Libya it started because of misuse of power. In Syria, the main purpose of the revolution is to gain back our dignity and our honour."

"Dignity" was a word I heard a great deal from Syrians explaining the revolution. Here, he was talking about Dera'a, the small southern town where the uprising had begun. In March, 15 school children were arrested for spraying anti-regime graffiti on a wall. Desperate families went to the local security headquarters. According to the widely circulated stories, the officer told them to forget about their children and that his men would rape the mothers to give them more. Two weeks later, the children were released. Some had had their fingernails pulled out. Neither the injuries, nor the insult, were forgotten.

Khoda continued, "Syrians are immigrants in Lebanon, or Jordan, or Libya, because they don't feel their humanity in Syria and they go to search of it elsewhere. The minute you step over the border into Syria, you feel you have lost your humanity again because of this regime."

The next morning, Hassan showed up at the safe house, alive and wearing a triumphant grin. He had been arrested by a Syrian Army patrol, he said, and had pled with the captain to release him, pointing out that he was after all only carrying medicines. He offered to pay a bribe, a common practice along the border, which is frequently traversed by smugglers. The captain said he would like to help but that military intelligence were already on their way. Some soldiers took Hassan outside to a flatbed truck and were about to throw him in when he told his captor, an Alawite: "My family and my tribe know where you live. If I die here tonight, they will slaughter your whole village." He ran, pursued by the bullets we could hear a couple of miles away.

One question -- who is Alawite and who is Sunni? -- was in the background for every moment of my time in Syria, surfacing again and again in the conversations we had with fighters, activists, and local people. [ At the next safe house, I met Haydi Abdullah, who had been a nurse at the military hospital in Latakia before fleeing to join the opposition. After the protests started, he told me, any medical staff whose loyalty was not believed to be 100 percent were sacked. In practice, Sunni doctors and nurses were replaced with Alawites, who were thought more loyal to the Alawite-led government. "All the hospitals now have turned into huge military posts, full of security men," he said. Injured demonstrators "would receive all kinds of insults from the nurses and doctors: 'Bastard. Son of a bitch. Whore. Son of a dog. You spy, you agent of Israel.'" Haydi said he had seen four patients, injured protestors, murdered in the hospital. One man was brought in with a chest injury. "He would have survived but they [the doctors and nurses] beat him and stabbed him with needles. If my face had shown even a sign that I was upset, I would have been sent to jail."

"The medical staff doing this were not just Alawites. They were Sunnis, too," Haydi said, though he accused the regime of encouraging sectarian hatred and fear to shore up their Alawite base, a common perception among activists. But, as his account showed, the regime still has support outside the Alawite communities, including among the Sunni majority. That may be part of why it has survived almost a year of challenges to its authority on the streets. The opposition, for its part, includes some prominent Alawite and Christian participants. Syria has not yet completely divided along sectarian fault lines, though that is what many fear.

Many Syrians are retreating into their own communities. During our short stay, as we were passed along a chain of activist groups, we met only Sunnis. We were heading for Homs, now the main center of opposition to the regime, but a divided city where sectarian tensions are probably the most acute in Syria. As we entered the city, Free Army supporters helped us to slip past a military observation post on foot, warning that if the soldiers spotted us, they would shoot. Our final destination was the Sunni quarter, Bab Amr. The place felt as if it was under siege. Armored vehicles sat on the major road junctions. As we drove within sight of a checkpoint, soldiers fired a burst of shots over our heads. We fled, but, half an hour later, a teenage boy was brought past us from the same place, raw cartilage in his knee exposed by a bullet wound. While we were there, a six-year-old boy was killed while playing on his front doorstep, shot by a sniper, locals said.

Bab Amr was run by Abu Mohammed. Tough, squat, shaven-headed, tracksuit-wearing, he would no doubt suit the regime's propaganda, which paints the democracy movement as the voice of a rough Sunni underclass.Abu Mohammed had two degrees, one in economics and one in Arabic literature. The good jobs were reserved for the Alawites, he said, so he had become a tobacco smuggler, a trade that required having a few guns around. He brought out those weapons in April, when the regime started shooting unarmed demonstrators in Homs.

"There were the regular security forces and some intelligence officers but then buses came from Air Force Intelligence," he remembered. "They had black masks on their faces. As soon as the buses stopped, they got out and started shooting. There wasn't a single shot in the air. There were six martyrs and 20 wounded in two minutes." He brought his Kalashnikov to the next demonstration. He was the only one.Soon, though, there were others.

We were talking in his sitting room, a brand new M-16 with a telescopic sight propped up in the corner. "You can't buy a bag of flour unless you are a partner with someone in Assad's family or entourage," he said, explaining his anger with the Assad regime. "They have become so greedy they want a slice of every kind of business, small as well as big. They are not just stealing the natural resources like oil and gas -- OK, we can put up with that -- they are stealing from our businesses as well. That is unacceptable." He went on, "At least Hafez [al-Assad, the previous president] had the sense to give a few jobs to the Sunnis." That has changed. "The regime is 100 percent sectarian now. They only recruit Alawites. The Sunnis are marginalized."

Abu Mohammed described worsening sectarian violence in Homs (though of course he spoke from a Sunni perspective). Alawites were setting up their own unofficial checkpoints to kidnap Sunnis, whether they were known government allies or not. "Later we find their bodies dumped on the side of the road." A Shiite village was stopping buses, checking IDs, and shooting Sunnis. (Alawites are a sect of Shiism.) A girl had been raped and beheaded, the purported work of the Shabihah, or "ghosts," a pro-government militia that recruis mainly among Alawites. Abu Mohammed blamed the regime for all this.

A man sitting next to him chimed in, "These Christians," he said, "don't support the protests. They are cowards. They are pigs. They won't even give us a liter of diesel."

"No," said Abu Mohammed, "there are Christians who support the revolution." He named a Christian village nearby that he said had helped people in Bab Amr.

Abu Mohammed did not believe there would be a bloody and prolonged civil war in Syria; the Alawites were too small a minority, 8 percent by his estimate (10 to 12 percent is more commonly cited). Sunnis would leave their government jobs in protest, he predicted, and "once they [in the regime] find themselves alone they will not fight us." But he said the regime would only give up power if forced. "The regime is dying. It is in the final stages," he said, citing the defections from the security forces to the Free Army. He said there were about 500 fighters in Bab Amr now, many former soldiers.

It was after 11pm. Tracer fire was arcing back and forth over the darkened streets of Bab Amr. A defection, we later learned, was taking place: soldiers were running away from their base, dodging shots from those remaining behind and returning fire as they ran. Five men arrived at our hideout, exhausted but elated, the newest recruits to the Free Army. People came out of their houses to embrace them. A sixth man had not made it out -- they carried his Kalashnikov. They had decided to run after being ordered to shoot on unarmed demonstrators. "These are our people," said one of the soldiers, referring, I suspect, to Sunnis rather than Syrians in general.

It is surprising that the Syrian Army, overwhelmingly Sunni though largely run by Alawite officers, has held together as long as it has. Although small in number, there has been a steady stream of defections. A whole unit, a battalion, or a brigade changing sides could be decisive. Until that day comes, however, the official policy of the Free Army is to merely protect the street demonstrators, not to go on the offensive.

The strategy to overthrow the regime remains focused on street protest. Demonstrators continue to take to the streets, unarmed and often facing armored vehicles with nothing more than placards, flags, and shouts for freedom. The United Nations estimates that more than 5,000 people have been killed so far. In Bab Amr, protests are not mostly at night and mostly in side streets, to screen demonstrators from snipers. The energy has not flagged. At one of the nightly gatherings we attended, people banged drums, yelling slogans as if it was their first time out on the streets.

"From Bab Amr. Oh Assad. From Bab Amr. Oh Assad. Victory from God. We are victorious," they chanted."Where are the millions? Where, where are the Arab people? Where, where is the no-fly zone?"

"This is Bab-Amro here. Long live Dera'a. Death over humiliation. Freedom forever over your will, oh Assad."

Mentions of NATO, and alternatively subtle or overt calls for an intervention like that in Libya against Muammar Qaddafi, are common.

"Bab Amr will only be free with missiles," they chanted. "The people want a no fly zone. The people want a no-fly zone. We want an international protection. We want an international protection."

They are not going to get it. Syria is not Libya; it has been called the "Arab Yugoslavia." It is too big, too complicated, with too many combustible neighbors. For the time being, much as Western countries would wish Assad gone, the Syrian people appear to be on their own.

The conflict is escalating. Late at night, on the way out of Syria, we joined about a dozen Free Army fighters as they debated whether to attack an army checkpoint. It was clear these men did not answer to any higher command authority. This was a question to be settled among themselves. They sat on the floor, automatic weapons leaning against the wall. "The Alawites never man the checkpoints. They always send our people [Sunnis] to do that. They want to get them killed," insisted one of the men.

"No, we don't want to kill those guys, they are Sunnis, our relatives," said another. A third suggested, "We can always shoot at them but not kill them, just to injure them." The discussion went round and round. Some thought that only security targets -- the mukhabarat, or secret police -- should be attacked. Others said that even if the soldiers were Sunnis, they had had nine months to defect, and could now expect to be targeted.

Finally, they decided to hit the building near the checkpoint as this, it was thought, was where the Alawite soldiers would be sleeping. "If they are Alawite, don't hesitate," said one of the fighters. "If you want to do the right thing, we shoot an RPG at the building. We shoot it through the window and we kill all of them. If any come out, we start shooting."

Another man objected. "Save those RPGs. Each one of us is working and paying for his own. It's not cheap, about $500 each. Really we have to be careful and not waste our ammunition."

The conversation was interrupted by a mobile phone, the ringtone a lyrical chant of "Dear God, promise us victory." That phrase is sometimes associated with ultra-conservative Salafi Islam; it was not uncommon to hear them intoned over videos of suicide bombings in Iraq. After the ringing was stopped, they left to carry out the attack.
RPGs exploded in the dark against the side of the building next to the checkpoint, a flare in the night. There was heavy machine gun fire, incoming and outgoing. "Oh God, you are the only one we can rely on," one of the fighters said, over and over, showers of plaster came down where bullets were hitting the wall behind us.

The skirmish died down after an hour of so. None of the opposition fighters had been killed. Their attack, they said, had killed two of the government soldiers and wounded two more. "Thanks God, we are victorious," one of the fighters declared.

A few weeks later, I was in a Gulf capital discussing Syria's future with a man who has been at the heart of the Assad regime -- under both father and son -- for decades. A maid brought tea and pistachio biscuits. He was afraid for his family still in Syria, he said, so asked to remain anonymous. He described how Bashar al-Assad had, on taking power, been transformed from an introverted and almost shy character into someone he no longer recognised today in the heat of the crisis. "Maybe he is taking medicines. While he was talking in the parliament, he was laughing, while blood was running in the streets," said the man, shaking his head, a reference to Assad's bizarre March 30 speech to the Syrian legislature.

The man's judgement was that not one single Cabinet minister truly supported the president but, like him, were still too afraid to speak out. Even the most hard line Alawites are calculating what a post-Assad Syria would look like, he suggested. Perhaps the plan was to retreat into the Alawite heartland in the north west, he went on, a speculation I had heard from activists but never from someone who had been so close to the center of power. He feared that a civil war was coming, he said, and the longer Assad took to leave, the more likely it would be. I thought of Qutaiby buying silencers, Hassan and his warning, and it was hard to disagree. For the past year, there has been stalemate. If the revolutionaries do not succeed, the prospect is of all-out civil war, something much worse than the regime they have been fighting.