This piece originally appeared in print inSo It Goes Issue.3, Spring 2013.
All images © Martin Armstrong
In March 2013, driving through the Aleppo suburb of Kafr Hamrah, the sound of mortar rounds punctuated the still, spring air. A group of men stood around a crater measuring ten square metres – the result of a stray rocket attack. A couple were taking selfies, a strange yet fairly common phenomenon to encounter in theatres of conflict in the Levant. The driver slowed the van to observe the scene. In the back of the vehicle Cookie, a kid no older than eight wearing a Max 10 utility vest and a grin simultaneously angelic and demonic, sat playing with a pistol – another strange yet fairly common phenomenon. Caressing the cold steel in his hands, Cookie clicked back the safety before pointing the weapon playfully at a Hungarian journalist who formed part of the retinue.
“Bang,” said Cookie, smiling that angelic-demonic smile before Kareem Ramadan, a former English student at the University of Aleppo fighting within the ranks of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), took the gun from the boy’s hand. Cookie looked crestfallen but his disappointment was short-lived; within half an hour he’d be holding a Kalashnikov.
Exiting the vehicle to observe the crater, Kareem, who possessed a particular affection for Braveheart and spoke of a desire to visit the Scottish Highlands one day, grabbed my shoulder before pointing to an image on his mobile phone.
“My cousin was killed in an airstrike two weeks ago. A shell landed on the room he was sleeping in,” said Kareem with a lack of palpable emotion – a mixture of apathy towards the omnipotent cycle of death and destruction Syrians now live with, and the steadfast religious belief that those martyred now reside in a better place.
“Look how peaceful he is in the picture, and look at his beard. It is a miracle,” continued Kareem.
“You can see the word ‘Allah’ inscribed in his stubble. Surely this is a sign of God’s favour.”
I looked closer at the image, aware of Kareem’s enthusiasm, but couldn’t see it. The scenario reminded me of Daily Mail headlines about people in Bognor Regis or New Zealand discovering the image of Jesus or the Virgin Mary on pieces of burnt toast. Looking back at Kareem, keen for affirmation, I decided to agree. It was a miracle.
Kareem was part of a local unit of the FSA stationed in the towns of Bayanun and Hayyan in the suburbs of Aleppo. Others in the group included Bashar Hajj, a former mechanic whose Shia wife had been kidnapped by her own family after Hajj joined the FSA; Ramadan’s brother Abdul, a former teacher with a passion for training pigeons; an impeccably dressed, smiley man who people called Abu Aqrab (Father of the Scorpion) and, of course, Cookie. Some often did not seem sure which division of the FSA they belonged to, but morale was relatively high.
Rebel forces had managed to expunge the Syrian army from all but small isolated enclaves of Aleppo province. Walls in rural villages throughout the province were tagged with hastily inscribed epitaphs stating ‘The End of all Oppressors’ and ‘Freedom Alone’, with more vitriolic statements directed at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reading simply ‘Leave You Iranian Dog’.
Whilst the battle for Aleppo city was still raging, many rebels claimed that a strategic attack on the regime-controlled Minnigh airbase would stymie the transport of supplies and personnel to the Syrian army, enabling the FSA to take the city and move on towards a decisive battle for Damascus. Some predicted that, once given Western aid, Minnigh would fall within two months and the Assad regime by the end of the year.
The buzzword in the international press at the time was Jabhat al-Nusra, the ‘Victory Front’. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group had begun to emerge as a fighting force in northern Syria, professing an ideology centred on the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. Their emergence had understandably led to concern in Western corridors of power. People in Aleppo knew it. Some joked about the group in a manner evincing a strange mix of fear and loathing; awe and admiration. Others, perhaps wary of negative press impeding the flow of Western support to the opposition, provided good PR, playing up in particular a perceived lack of corruption within the group, coupled with a commitment to distribute aid. Some did both at the same time.
“Nusra. They will kill you,” joked one taxi driver in Aleppo rather seriously before then stating that the Islamist group contained a Christian brigade within its ranks. Everyone laughed. The taxi driver began talking about Chinese snipers. Ramadan seemed wary of Nusra’s growing presence but pointed out that other foreign actors were present in Syria supporting Assad.
In May 2013 in a safe house on the outskirts of the village of Hermel in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, Zeina Abbas sat drinking a cup of sweet tea. Plumes of smoke could be seen on the horizon rising from the town of Qusair across the Syrian border. A poster depicting Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, alongside his successor Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, covered the back wall. Hezbollah operatives in military fatigues intermittently passed through the building’s salon before making their way into the backrooms.
Hezbollah were fighting in Qusair. The group’s leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah had just openly announced the group’s military support of the Assad regime – confirming what everybody already knew. Abbas supported Hezbollah’s intervention. One of her sons had recently been killed fighting for pro-regime forces during clashes with the opposition in the village of Berita, close to Qusair.
“I asked him not to go,” said Abbas, taking a moment to compose herself. Sitting on the sofa adjacent to her was a severe looking Hezbollah member with a short beard, half-moon glasses, and a prosthetic right hand that I’d absent-mindedly tried to shake minutes earlier.
“But he said he wanted to defend his country. After he was killed, we left Syria. The situation is so bad that they will kill the smallest child because of the religious or political affiliations of his father. At first I supported calls for reform but now these people are not freedom fighters. They are erhabiyeen (terrorists),” continued Abbas.
“I want to go back to the same regime as before. God willing, Hezbollah can help us,” she said. “But I don’t feel safe here.”
Abbas’ sense of insecurity was perhaps understandable. Whilst Hezbollah’s participation in Qusair helped secure strategic thoroughfares linking the party’s stronghold in the Bekaa valley with the Assad regime in Damascus, it also ensured Hezbollah would become targets for jihadist groups, such as al-Nusra, linked with the amorphous Syrian opposition. Lebanon became the proxy front in Syria’s civil war.
Standing outside the Iranian Embassy in the Beirut suburb of Ouzai on 19th November 2013, Nabil Houwary stepped awkwardly over a car door lying on the tarmac. Glass, recently displaced from the windows of surrounding buildings, covered the street, crunching under foot. Paramedics, the Lebanese army, neighbourhood enforcers loyal to Hezbollah and a crowd of civilians congregated around a blast crater.
Sweat began to form on Houwary’s brow. He tried his mobile but couldn’t find a signal. The lines were jammed, a common occurrence in the aftermath of suicide bombs in the Lebanese capital as state and non-state actors relay information, and civilians try desperately to elicit responses from loved ones. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, Al-Qaeda affiliates, had claimed responsibility for the attack. Later twenty-three people were reported dead.
“My aunt … she lives in this area, beside the embassy. I can’t get through to her,” said Houwary, a local municipal worker.
“I mean, I am sure she is fine. I just want to confirm. This attack is a result of Hezbollah’s fighting in Syria but they are doing it to protect us. Sorry but I must go, I need to find her,” said Houwary before disappearing into the melée. A few minutes later he returned, a look of relief palpable on his face. His aunt was fine. Others have not been.
Syria’s civil conflict has claimed over 140,000 lives.
Since Hezbollah announced its participation in Syria there have been nine suicide attacks in Lebanon, killing further hundreds. Meanwhile, skirmishes between groups on either side of the political dividing line in Tripoli, and cross-border rocket attacks along the Lebanese–Syrian frontier, have become almost daily realities. Lebanese and Palestinian refugees now account for over a quarter of the Lebanese population.
Back in Aleppo some things have changed, but not necessarily for the better. Minnigh airbase fell to the rebels in August 2013 in a siege lead by the jihadist group ISIS, though talk of a united and decisive rebel assault on Damascus now sounds somewhat fantastical. ISIS and al-Nusra set up shariah courts in some districts of the city and, elsewhere in Aleppo province, children have been sentenced to death for as little as replying, “Not even if the Prophet himself returns” to requests for a free cup of coffee.
At least one member of the local brigade I met in the towns of Bayanun and Hayyan has joined al-Nusra, others have died – images of their faces wrapped in white funeral shrouds appear intermittently on my Facebook feed.
Meanwhile Kareem still dreams of visiting the Highlands and Cookie is still playing with guns.