The anguished Othello — fatally fouled in the puppeteer’s strings — pointed to his death-dealing work on behalf of empire in the Syrian city of Aleppo as one of the crowning achievements of his life. Indeed, he re-enacted this bloody imperial service — against Muslim infidels — in taking his own life: “And say besides, that in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and turban’d Turk/Beat a Venetian and traduced the state/I took by the throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him thus.”
One hears a great deal of talk about the civil war in Syria, most of it thickly greased with hot globs of propaganda from interested parties on all sides. But there are very few unfiltered reports from the ground by writers with the knowledge and experience to move among the fighters and actually understand what they are seeing and hearing.
The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is one of those rarities. Many of us recall his remarkable reportage in Iraq, where he ranged back and forth between insurgents and invaders at the height of the carnage, giving us some the clearest pictures of what was really happening behind the smoke of the “surge.”
In Monday’s Guardian, Abdul-Ahad explores the tense relations on the rebel side between the Free Syria Army troops backed by the West, and the foreign ‘jihadis’ now flooding into the country. As one of the fighters — a veteran Iraqi insurgent — notes, the United States is once more on the same side with its old jihadi allies. And once more, we are seeing the old template playing out once more, as the Washington-led West empowers radical extremists to achieve short-term geopolitical ends — oblivious, as always, to the long-term effects of unleashing violent forces you cannot possibly control.
Abdul-Ahad’s extensive report, from the frontlines in Aleppo, should be read in full, but here are few extracts:
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smouldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
…Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. … The Syrians refer to the internationals collectively as the “Turkish brothers”.
…The men were also secretive, especially when dealing with the Free Syria Army. When the Syrians asked them where they were from, a blond French-speaker said they were Moroccans, the Chechens said they were Turks and the Tajiks said they were Afghans.
..Abu Salam, a rugged Iraqi with a black keffiyeh wrapped around his head, said he had fought the Americans in Falluja when he was a young man. Later he joined al-Qaida in Iraq and spent many years fighting in different cities before moving to Syria to evade arrest. These days he was a commander of the one of the muhajiroun [foreign fighter] units. I found him watching a heated debate between the Syrian commanders about how to defend the buckling frontline.
…One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off. “Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?”
…He seemed nonchalant about the prospect of defeat. “It is obvious the Syrian army is winning this battle, but we don’t tell [the rebels] this. We don’t want to destroy their morale. We say we should hold here for as long as Allah will give us strength and maybe he will make one of these foreign powers come to help Syrians.”
The irony was not lost on Abu Salam how the jihadis and the Americans – bitter enemies of the past decade – had found themselves fighting on the same side again.
A few days later, in Bab al Hawa, Abdul-Ahad gets a hint of what is likely in store if the shaky rebel alliance of secularists and sectarians (the latter often sharply at odds with each other) overthrows the Damascus regime: more war.
At the border post of Bab al Hawa some days later, a confrontation was brewing between the jihadis and Syrian rebels.
Fighters from the Farouq brigade – one of the best-equipped and most disciplined units in the FSA – were sleeping on the grass in the shadow of a big concrete arch. The fighters wore military uniforms and green T-shirts emblazoned with insignia of the brigade – an achievement in the disarray of the revolution. They had many tanks and armoured vehicles captured from the Syrian army parked around the border post, under cover.
Nearby, a group of 20 jihadis had gathered in a circle around a burly Egyptian with a chest-long silver beard. “You are in confrontation with two apostate armies,” the Egyptian told the men, referring to the Syrian army and Free Syrian Army. “When you have finished with one army you will start with the next.”
The standoff between the two groups came to a grisly conclusion, Abdul-Ahad reports:
I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. “I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,” he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. “Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.”
The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. “I managed to stop them,” he said, “and I won’t let them spread here.” Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.
I met Abu Mohamad, a monosyllabic doctor, the next day. He emphasized that he had been struggling against the regime since 1992 while the Free Syria Army were defected officers who until recently served the regime. The Arab spring was, he said, a result of Islamic fervor. “We will never leave our positions here,” he said in a quiet voice. “God willing, we will win.”
A few days later, Abu Mohamad’s body was found in a ditch. He had been kidnapped and killed.
As always, while our well-wadded Western interventionists sit safely in glitzy TV studios or cozy Congressional offices and cry havoc, it is others who are devoured by the dogs of war. A hydra-headed, multisided conflict has been unleashed in Syria, and our warmongers are seeking frenziedly at every turn to worsen it.
Their concern for the “Syrian people” — whose plight they have happily ignored for decades — is only skin deep; it never surfaced until a chance arose to, in their minds, give a hot-foot to their grand enemy du jour, Iran. (Just as Jimmy Carter midwifed the global jihadi movement more than 30 years ago in order to hobble the Soviets in Afghanistan.) Unfortunately for the Syrians, it is their skin, and that of their children, which will be seared as these cycles of violence, exacerbated at every turn by war profiteers and the cozy imperial cowards — who, unlike Othello, never fight in the front lines or take responsibility for their crimes — go on and on.
NOTE: Another excellent source for direct reports and cogent insights on the Syrian war is, of course, As’ad AbuKhalil, the “Angry Arab,” who wields a double-edged analytical sword on the depredations of all parties involved in the worsening, widening conflict.