Most of the attention on Syria is focused on the cities (such as Damascus) and the towns (where much of the activity associated with the current uprising is taking place). But, I wanted to give you a better feel for what all of the space in between (which represents the majority of Syrian territory) is like…
Starting this one off with a strong opening picture – goats. If you zoom in, you can see the goatherders in the middle of the picture:
You can see the home of the goatherders in the background (on the right) below:
A small town on the road to Damascus:
Homes being constructed in another Syrian town:
Rural life in Syria:
Not much between here and the border as the majority of Syria’s population is in the west… Next stop Iraq:
I thought this was interesting… The below is one small section of a massive tree planting program that can be observed outside Damascus on the way to Iraq. When I use the word “massive” – we were driving along this expanse of planted trees for more than an hour. Now, granted we were in a rickety minibus that was not traveling at the speed of light, but that is still a hell of a lot of trees. I hope they survive. And I wish that Lebanon had such an ambitious program to try and restore their cedars:
Interesting piece from The Guardian…
Inside Syria: the rebel call for arms and ammunition
Exclusive: With Syrian rebels desperate for arms, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad finds smugglers doing a roaring trade selling guns and bullets
In his second exclusive report, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad crosses the border with the smugglers supplying weapons to Syria’s fighters
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 11 December 2011 10.11 EST
Syrian rebels are desperate for arms, striking deals with Bedouin smugglers for any weapons they can lay their hands on.
The route across the Syrian border was marked by a single shining piece of string. It stretched from the road on the Turkish side for a few hundred metres to the steel and razor-wire fence that ran along the boundary.
The smugglers followed it silently and quickly, jumping from one stone to another in the moonlight. Each man carried a thick, plastic-wrapped load on his back. The plastic bundles rattled and clinked as they ran along.
Beyond the fence the shadows of men and animals moved. “Do you have money?” asked a Turkish voice.
“Next shipment,” the Syrian replied.
A man with a scarf wrapped around his face held the coils of barbed wire flat while the cargo was passed across and loaded on to the backs of the waiting mules. Then the men hurried the animals away from the border and up into the mountains of northern Syria.
The smugglers paused on a cliff to examine the cargo. Inside the plastic packages were small boxes filled with pistols and bullets of different calibres.
One of the men broke off to answer his mobile phone. It was one of several lookouts keeping watch for Syrian security forces. There was a government patrol on the mountain: the men had to split up and move quickly.
“Grab the mule’s reins and run along next to it,” a smuggler hissed. In this fashion we climbed further into the mountains, playing cat and mouse with the Syrian patrol.
At the edge of a small village we lay in a ditch and waited. A man whistled and a white truck appeared. It had come to collect the cargo.
After eight months of vicious crackdowns by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s revolution is sliding towards civil war. Many in the opposition who have seen their friends and family members disappeared, tortured or shot by the Syrian security forces are looking for ways to fight back.
The smugglers, sensing a business opportunity, have been quick to respond. In the south the weapons come from Lebanon. Here in the north, they are flowing in from Turkey and Iraq.
“We used to smuggle cigarettes coming from Lebanon via Syria,” a portly man told me the night before in Turkey as he channel-hopped between Egyptian chatshows. Since the Syrian uprising began new business opportunities had opened up. “Now we only do weapons,” he said. “Three shipments per day.”
After crossing the border into the north Syrian province of Idlib, we travelled to meet the revolutionary command council with Muhyo, a fighter, and Abu Salim. Abu Salim had made it his job to find weapons and ammunition for the rebels after running out of bullets during a firefight with the regime. .
“When the army came to [the town of] Benish last time, we ambushed a bus filled with security people,” he said. “I had a pistol and eight bullets, but after a few minutes of shooting I had run out. I stood there watching those dogs but had no ammunition. That’s when I decided I would arm every man in my town.”
Now he spends his days driving through villages and deserts, meeting smugglers and weapon dealers, scavenging bullets and old rifles. Each day he comes back with a gun or two and few bags of ammunition. “The last time the army attacked Benish there were 30 Kalashnikovs in the town,” he said. “Now we have more than 600.”
In this part of Syria, the young men tell how they have sold their wives’ jewellery, their cars and even their furniture to buy weapons and ammunition. “A man would rather sleep with his Kalashnikov than his wife,” they say in Idlib.
Were they getting any support from outside Syria? Abu Salim laughed. “There is no outside support,” he said. “You have seen how hard it is to get ammunition: the price of a bullet is $2, and an old Kalashnikov is $2,000.”
To avoid the checkpoints around Benish, we left the road just before reaching a roadblock of four Syrian army tanks and drove on muddy dirt roads. In the villages, we passed children chanting revolutionary songs. Graffiti that read “the people want to topple the regime” and “Freedom” was painted over Ba’ath party slogans on school walls.
We climbed into hills covered in stubby olive trees. The army was unable to reach the fighters’ hideouts on the mountain, so they harassed the people in the lower-lying villages to try to stop them helping fighters with food and assistance.
Driving up a narrow street in one village, Abu Salim stopped the car and froze. Ahead of us, less than 100 metres away, was a long army and security convoy: three green army trucks, two military jeeps, six civilian SUVs, two buses and a couple of armoured vehicles.
Abu Salim swerved and entered the backyard of a house. Women were sitting outside sifting wheat and rice, but they moved their chairs to the entrance of the yard to cover for us, strangers avoiding a military convoy. Minutes later they gave us the signal to leave.
We followed the convoy from a distance. The commander of the village, a veteran jihadi from the Iraq war, drove ahead on a motorbike, his Kalashnikov slung on his back. He and a few of his gunmen escorted us to the safe house where members of the revolutionary command council would convene later in the day.
From the window, the mountains folded away towards the horizon. Around 20 fighters sat in the different rooms, chatting, eating, praying or sleeping. The walls of each room were piled with blankets, mattresses and gym bags. Towels and jackets hung from nails on the walls. Muhyo sat with an older fighter, in his late 50s, exchanging stories of torture. The man had been detained by the security forces in President Assad’s father’s era, when Muslim Brotherhood fighters roamed the mountains and the countryside in Edlib.”Each day they would leave the food for us in the middle of the prison yard where one of us had to fetch it. They would beat him on the way out and on the way back.”
A teenager in a black tracksuit sat listening and cleaning guns. He dismantled each weapon and then with a towel dipped in petrol cleaned every joint and bolt.
Late that night, the revolutionary leadership gathered in a small room. A dozen men sat around a kerosene heater whose fumes mingled with cigarette smoke to make a stuffy atmosphere. They were an eclectic mix of tribesmen, farmers and city people, Islamists and nationalists, young and old, bearded and clean-shaven.
“We started the revolution because we wanted to be treated like humans, we are looking for our humanity,” said Amar, a commander with a short beard and thick arms. “All my life I have been treated like an inferior, a human being of the 10th class, while Assad and his people controlled this country. We also have a right in this country.”
One of the council members seemed to carry more authority than the others. He was thin and angry, his face creased like an old leather chair. “This revolution was led by the kids, the children,” he said. “It’s their revolution. This is the generation that didn’t see the horrors of the 80s. If it was up to us we would have never started the revolution. We have been burned once. But they are brave. They led and we followed.”
Who was in charge of it? The people inside Syria or the Syrian National Council based in Turkey? “We don’t have a Benghazi so the revolution has two arms. The people outside, who have no weight on the ground, and the people inside, who are actively leading. But the people inside are scared. They can’t talk in public. No one knows who they are because they are afraid and we don’t have a safe haven.
“Look at all these men in this room,” he said, gesturing towards them. “I didn’t know any of them before March and they didn’t know me. I don’t trust them and they don’t trust me. I know one of us is a spy and this is why we take all these precautions. This is an evil regime. It has converted Syria into a big prison where everyone is a spy.
“I don’t count on major defections in the army because all the big commanders are Allawite. But if there was a safe haven, a protected zone or a no-fly zone, people would defect. Low-ranking officers and NCOs, the backbone of the army, would defect.”
When two short, delicate Bedouin tribesmen entered the room, the fighters sprang to their feet. Abu Ali and his companion were two smugglers from the Iraqi border. Their tribe, the Shamar, stretches from eastern Syria to Mosul in northern Iraq and south to Saudi Arabia, and they move freely between these countries in pick-up trucks, ferrying goods and sheep and smuggling weapons and fuel. They laid out their wares on the floor: 10 old Kalashnikovs, two rusty RPGs, six rockets for the RPG and one medium machine gun.
The revolutionaries fell on the rusty old weapons and carried them to the boys sitting behind the commanders. The boys stripped each gun to its bolts and springs in a few minutes, cleaned them and put them back together. They cocked them and pulled the triggers. The weapons gave a metallic click.
Abu Ali, who spoke in a thick Bedouin accent, began. “I swear by Allah, I told our Iraqi brothers that these weapons are going to help our brothers in their fight and they should help us because we are fighting for the sake of god.”
“How much?” asked Ammar.
Abu Ali told Ammar he knew him and had worked with him before and trusted him: “Wallah for your eyes each one of the Kalashnikovs is $1,600. The RPGs are $5,000 with two rockets. The machine-gun is $5,000.”
There were gasps. “Abu Ali, you are a charity,” said one of the commanders sarcastically. “The Syrians have mined the border,” said Abu Ali. “We have to walk for miles each way carrying them on our backs.”
“We have emptied Mosul; no more guns there,” said his companion.
The bargaining proved irrelevant; the men had snatched their guns and were now counting out thick slabs of money.
“What about ammunition,” said an old man. “We need bullets. I can’t send them to fight with one magazine each.”
“Tomorrow, inshallah,” said Abu Ali.
The fighters packed the guns and left, each taking a different route, leaving nothing to chance.
To defect or not to defect?
Hussam is a soldier in the Syrian army. His brother and two cousins are fighting for the rebels.
“I would defect tomorrow if you could protect my family,” Hussam said. “But if I defected they would arrest my father and my brothers and the whole family would have no income. The regime is still in control.
“I am as low as I can be, my morale is below zero. I don’t know what to do, my family and people are getting killed – yet still there are no defections in the army.
“When they say the Syrian army is an ideological army they are right. The political officers and the Ba’ath party and the Assad family control the army. Even if a general did defect, he wouldn’t defect with his tanks and soldiers, he would defect on his own. So arming of the revolution is a mistake, it will not be strong enough to stand against the army and resist properly.
“With my artillery unit I could sweep through Benish in one hour. When the officers and the regime tell the soldiers that the villagers are armed, they will come in scared and shoot at everything.
“But when soldiers know that they are facing unarmed civilians, they are human beings after all. How many bullets were fired when they toppled Mubarak? Zero. Now everyone is armed, fine. But what’s next?
“If you want officers to defect give them a no-fly zone, give them a safe haven, where they can take their families.”
Hameed defected from the Syrian army three months ago.
“We were fighting in Rastan. They gave us the order to shoot and I could see we were shooting at civilians. Then the demonstrators started shooting back. There was chaos and I ran away down an alleyway heading towards the edge of town, but I saw the town was surrounded so I turned back. I walked through the dark streets knocking at doors, but no one would let me in. They saw me in my military uniform carrying a gun and they must have thought I was there to search or detain people. Then Allah sent me one man who opened his door. I told him I had run away and he took me in gave me fresh clothes and kept me inside.”
Three days later Hameed arrived back in his village. From there he was smuggled over the mountains into Turkey where he claimed asylum and was hosted in a refugee camp for defected officers. He later joined the Free Syrian Army under the command of Colonel Reyadh Assad.
“We did nothing there [in Turkey], just sat in our tents and watched TV and sometimes gave press interviews. I told them I hadn’t defected to sit in a tent, I wanted to fight. They kept telling me to wait, that they had a plan, but nothing happened.”
After three months in Turkey Hameed ran away again; this time he arranged for the rebels to smuggle him back into Syria.
“There is no such thing as a Free Syria Army,” he said. “It’s a joke. The real revolutionaries are here in Syria in the mountains.”
On Zawiya mountain, I met another defected officer. He had taken leave from the army to see his family, and when he reached his village he joined the fighters in the mountains.
“The regime can’t reach my family,” he said. “That’s why I could run away.” Most soldiers couldn’t defect because they feared for their families if they did. “The army is under the strict control of the political officers, who ensure we live in cocoon where we can’t see what’s happening outside.” Soldiers were not allowed to watch the Arabic news channels, just the propaganda served up by state TV, he said. “The political officers tell us every day that we are fighting armed gangs paid by the Americans and the Saudis.
“If only they would impose a no fly zone,” he said, “then the whole army would split.”