On the death of another Syrian

A message flashed up on my phone just before 10 o’clock tonight: “Molham died today.” I called my friend straight back and he gave me the sketchy details. There was a battle near Aleppo’s Central Prison, Molham was there, and he died. That was all that he knew.

Molham was my friend, the first person I met in Aleppo – a seventeen year old who I’d watch change from a happy teenager to a messed up young man who, at one stage, was adamant that he wanted to join al-Qaeda. In May I wrote an article about him: ‘My friend, the aspiring suicide bomber’. I called him ‘Yusef’ in that article to protect him from the repercussions of what he was saying. I never imagined that he wouldn’t live long enough for the repercussions to matter.

In long conversations on Facebook I tried to persuade him to leave Aleppo and come to Turkey. He refused. He didn’t have a passport, and he didn’t have any money. His family were all still in Syria and he didn’t want to leave them or his friends.

To my shame, in recent months I tried to put a distance between us. As I grew increasingly paranoid about the risk of kidnapping in Aleppo, I worried that he might make some offhand comment to one of his friends that would reveal my presence in the city to the wrong people. I stopped looking him up when I was there, and now I wish that I hadn’t.

In the end he didn’t join al-Qaeda; he started working as a photographer, hoping to emulate some of the journalists he was hanging around with. He often asked me if he could work with me and I refused, because I didn’t want the responsibility of an eager seventeen year old with no war zone training and little experience on my shoulders. Soon afterwards I saw that he was filing photos for Reuters. I hope that they took responsibility for him in a way that I couldn’t, and I hope that if he was taking photographs as he died in the hope of selling them to that agency, they also take responsibility for him now.

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I took this photo of Molham one of the last times that I saw him in person. He’d just come off his motorbike; that’s why his hand is wrapped up in a bandage. It seems stupid now to think that I berated him, and told him to be more careful on it.

What can you really say about a seventeen year old who has just been killed in his own city? All you can do is state the obvious. His life should be a quarter of the way through, not over. He shouldn’t have been anywhere near a frontline. That motorbike should have been the most dangerous thing he had to worry about.

Maybe to the rest of the world this is just the death of another Syrian – another statistic. But when it is the death of someone you know it makes you look at those statistics in a very different way.

On the death of Hajji Marea

I didn’t hear the news about Hajji Marea’s death until well after the event, although I had an inkling that it had happened. On the day he died in an airstrike in Aleppo I was 100km north, in the Kurdish region of Syria with patchy internet and phone signal. When I managed to get onto Facebook for a few brief minutes I saw that many of my Syrian friends had changed their profile photos to pictures of Hajji Marea. In Syria, that’s always a sign that something bad has happened.

By the time I got back to Turkey, newspapers and blogs were full of tributes to the leader of the Liwa al-Tawhid, the largest, and for a long time the most powerful, rebel brigade in Syria. It was too late to do a piece of my own – by that time I was five days too late.

But I feel that I need to write something about Hajji Marea, but not because, as some journalists have claimed, his death will be of any great significance to the eventual outcome of the Syrian war. It’s a personal urge. Hajji Marea was the first rebel leader I interviewed in Syria, and the piece I wrote about him – ‘Tea With Hajji Marea’ – was one of my first big exclusives for my newspaper.

I met him in February at the Tawhid’s base in Aleppo. It was 11 o’clock at night, and we had been waiting for for him over an hour in an underground room, listening to the relentless shelling in a nearby quarter of the city. The war in Aleppo was going full pelt. Hajji Marea was a busy man.

I was nervous. I was expecting to meet an imposing military man with serious hostilities towards the West. When he walked in I was confronted with a slight, smiling guy in casual clothes. I was instantly disarmed.

I liked him. He seemed shy and modest, and he didn’t stop smiling throughout the interview. He said that when the war was over he wanted to go and live on an island with his wife and young son, away from all the attention that had been thrust upon him. It was his family that I thought of first when I heard the news about his death.

But it is impossible to separate Hajji Marea from the rebel group that he led, which, in the months after the interview, I grew gradually more cynical about.

It’s no secret that the Tawhid is an Islamist group that has drawn much of its support, at least in the past, from the Muslim Brotherhood. They are usually described as a ‘moderate Islamist’ group, which – in comparison to the al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham – they are.

But moderate is a relative term. The more time I spent with the Tawhid, the more irritated I became at the strict code of Islamic behaviour they forced on me, an atheist journalist. On the streets of Aleppo, a multi faith city in a multi faith country, I was ordered by them to wear the headscarf. They said it was to show ‘respect for the people’. It wasn’t. Usually, when I entered ordinary people’s homes in Aleppo, the first thing they did was to tell me that I could take off the headscarf if I wanted to. This was all about respect for the Tawhid.

One day in May, as I was waiting at the Tawhid’s base in a baking hot car with an agonising headache for an interview that never materialised, growing gradually more furious at being ordered to wear an uncomfortable symbol of someone else’s faith, I ripped the headscarf off my head. “Fuck this,” I muttered to myself.

I will never forget the looks I got from the surly fighters who were hanging around the base. Several times I heard them whisper between themselves, ‘Sahafiya’ – ‘Journalist’. To their credit, no-one actually approached me and told me to put it back on, but I could feel the intense hostility.

More troubling, however, was the Tawhid’s and Hajji Marea’s willingness to accept the presence of Jabhat al Nusra in the city, and to fight alongside them on the front lines. The radical Islamist group’s base was right next door to the Tawhid’s, and in recent months it has been reported that they kept their hostages – foreign journalists and aid workers – in a building that the Tawhid shared with them. Hajji Marea never, publicly at least, protested at their increasingly worrying behaviour.

Members of the Tawhid, too, have been accused of committing similar crimes – of stealing and kidnapping for money in the areas they control. “Some of the Tawhid’s brigades are arseholes,” one fixer told me. If true, then maybe Hajji Marea was never really the strong and powerful leader he was so often portrayed to be.

By chance, I had spoken to a lot of people about the Tawhid Brigade while I was in the Kurdish region. It was they who had first entered the city of Ras al Ain and snatched it from the regime’s control. The city’s Kurdish residents apparently felt much the same as I did about them – they resented being told that their women had to cover their heads, and that they couldn’t drink alcohol. This was not the behaviour they expected from men who claimed to be fighting for freedom.

In August, the last time I visited Aleppo, the road outside the Tawhid’s base had been freshly tarmac-ed and a promenade of flag poles had been erected, leading up to the heavily guarded entrance. “We call it the UN,” laughed my fixer. And this just metres away from water mains burst open by falling artillery and schools and homes obliterated in the fighting.

I always felt uncomfortable with the Tawhid’s sense of their own self importance, and with the widespread hero worshipping of Hajji Marea. So many of the Middle East’s problems stem from its history of strong man politics and authoritarian rule. If this revolution is going to be in any way successful in the far off future, that is exactly what people need to break away from. When men are treated like Gods they tend to start acting like them too. The problem is that men are fallible.

The Tawhid’s power has waned in Aleppo since I interviewed Hajji Marea. Jabhat al Nusra, the group he said he was happy to fight alongside – have grown to eclipse them. And now even they seem moderate in comparison to ISIS, the latest and most brutal Islamist group to have entered Syria. If the Tawhid now falls apart it will make little difference to the war – the dynamics have moved on. But Hajji Marea’s death is sad and symbolic in a different way because he, like so many other Syrians who will never be written about in the newspapers, was ultimately just an ordinary man who found himself in the most extraordinary of circumstances. In that sense, there are thousands of others like him.

Kherbet al Binaat – ‘The Girls’ Corner’

The YPG and YPJ (People’s Protection Units) are the Kurdish militias, male and female respectively, that are fighting against the al Qaeda linked groups Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in Northern Syria. At their base in Kherbet al Binaat (literally “the girls’ corner” in Arabic) these women are on the frontline against al Qaeda, whose troops are just 2 miles away.

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War or no war?

For ages I’ve been grasping around in my head for a word to describe Beirut and the best I can settle for is ‘bipolar’. This city is a crazy bitch, the only place in the world where I’ve seen an army checkpoint metres away from a designer boutique. I can’t make my mind up about it either – sometimes I love it for its buzz and its live-for-the-day fatalism, but sometimes I loathe it for its superficiality. Today I’m happy to be here because I spent the morning near the port looking for an on-the-loose crocodile with a Cockney called Pete, and in the afternoon I found a beauty salon where you can get a full leg wax for the equivalent of £7.50. That’s the kind of city Beirut is.

But the situation can change here as quickly as my opinion. Two days ago everyone was expecting that the US would imminently launch missile attacks on Syria and that the ensuing chaos would instantly spill over Lebanon’s borders. Amid the high hemlines, the bars and the boutiques of Beirut, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that you can drive to Damascus in two hours. But millions of refugees have flocked to this tiny and already struggling country. The kids selling roses, the women in headscarves begging on the streets, and the people huddled up for the night underneath the Kola Bridge – they’re all Syrians who wish they weren’t here.

“You see how Syria disintegrated over two years?” says my Lebanese friend. “Well Lebanon could do that in two days.” Still piecing itself back together in the wake of its own sectarian civil war, Lebanon just needs one sharp jolt to make it fall apart again. The influx of refugees has already strained relations here, as has Hezbollah’s boots-on-the-ground support for Assad’s regime. Many people here believe that the strikes could provide that jolt.

But with Obama now appearing to shy away once again from launching attacks, Beirut is exhaling with relief. The clubs of Hamra and Gemmayzeh are still heaving, even if tomorrow might bring a renewed threat of chaos. It’s nothing like normal – but nothing in Beirut ever is.

Robert Fisk has got it wrong

“The United States will be on the same side as al-Qaeda,” writes Robert Fisk in today’s Independent (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/does-obama-know-hes-fighting-on-alqaidas-side-8786680.html). In a short piece outlining the case against Western military intervention in Syria, Fisk argues that by entering the conflict the US will, for the first time in history, be entering into an alliance with the terrorist group that killed thousands of innocent people in New York in 2001.

But he has misinterpreted al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria, and his argument is wrong.

Al-Qaeda are not in Syria to beat Bashar; they are there to try to establish an Islamic state. Last month I interviewed an al-Qaeda member in Aleppo Province, and I asked him why he had come to fight jihad in Syria.

“The aim is to implement Sharia,” he replied. “If that was not the aim then we wouldn’t have come to fight here. We’d leave the Syrians to fight by themselves. We don’t fight for nationalist reasons, we fight for Islam.”

Later on he claimed that victory in Syria would provide al-Qaeda with a base from which they could advance on Jerusalem.

So here is the crucial point: al-Qaeda (and here I am referring to the foreign jihadist group that is officially linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq rather than the homegrown and more loosely aligned Jabhat al-Nusra) only entered the Syrian conflict after the war had been raging for over a year and society had virtually broken down in many areas. It is no coincidence that their presence is strongest in the most chaotic areas – they know that this is where they will draw most support.

For any extremist organisation, the war zone is a fertile recruiting ground. Conflict makes rational people desperate, and far more willing to accept the presence of groups they would find abhorrent at any other time. Al-Qaeda know this, and their entrance into the Syrian conflict was a cynical and well planned out manoeuvre. They are feeding off the state of constant war there.

So why would al-Qaeda want anyone – least of all the Western powers – to depose Bashar? Because once the regime falls they know that they will no longer have any legitimate reason for being there, and the Syrian people will no longer tolerate them or their ideology.

Al-Qaeda are fighting for no-one but themselves in Syria – and by intervening the West will not be forming an alliance with them, but weakening the crushing grip that they have been tightening on the rebel held areas in recent months.

The point of it all

It was the question that stopped me dead.

“Now I’ve got something that I want to ask you,” said the doctor I was interviewing in Aleppo. “Is this all a big adventure for you?”

Listening back to the recording of that conversation on my dictaphone I can hear myself getting defensive, telling him that I am here because I believe that what is happening in Syria needs to be reported, and that if I didn’t believe that then I wouldn’t be here, risking my life to do it.

“But do you believe in human rights?” asked the doctor.

“That’s a ridiculous question,” I replied.

I was annoyed at him, but not for long. I understand where his frustration came from: every day he treats civilians who are blameless but suffering appallingly, and from inside Syria it really is easy to feel that no-one in the outside world cares about it. And what good are the journalists actually doing here? Because no matter how many times we intrude on that suffering, it seems that nothing ever changes.

His questions unsettled me for days and made me think deeply about what I am doing in Syria. I do love adventure, it’s true, and I love this job for that. I know I am privileged to be able to spend my days travelling to new places and meeting new people in a part of the world that most people can only read about in the newspapers.

But if it was adventure alone that I was after I would travel around South America or ride the Trans-Siberian Express.

There are a lot of reasons why I decided to come to Syria, and most of them stem from that fact that I do care about what is happening there, deeply.

Initially I cared because I’d visited the country before, fallen in love with Damascus and got to know Syrians that I now count among my friends. When the uprising started in Dera’a I was so hopeful – I believed that maybe this was the moment that Syria would start to change for the better.

It didn’t take long for my illusions to disintegrate.

Now I care because I believe that this is the most important story in the world today. What is happening in Syria will reverberate around the world for years to come. It is shaping relations between Sunni and Shia, and between the Muslim world and the West, and that is why it needs to be reported.

But I also care because I have spent six months making friends who have been forced out of their homes, lost friends and relative, and watched their country shatter into so many pieces that it feels like it can never be mended. I care about those people, and what will happen to them. The headlines talk about the 100,000 dead and the millions displaced. To me these are not statistics – they are people I eat, drink and laugh with.

A journalist friend of mine put it best: “It’s like I’ve fallen out of love with the revolution and in love with Syrians.”