The Beginning of the End?
Nothing can be heard except the uncanny drone of a helicopter circling over the town. Apart from that, all is quiet. Twelve activists are monitoring the sky from behind barred windows, ready to take cover. Like many of the buildings in the neighbourhood, the school has taken numerous hits from shells and rockets. No classes have been held for a long time. The last of the teachers fled two weeks ago, along with the schoolchildren and their parents, and indeed almost all the inhabitants of Azaz. Only a very few remain: those who are too poor to travel, plus a handful of activists. Nobody here knows where the next shells will land, when the helicopters will next come hovering over the town ready to blitz rebel positions, when tanks will roll into the streets in an effort to drive out the insurgents. The question the remaining inhabitants of Azaz are asking themselves is not whether but when the next round of shelling will begin.
The school building, a flat yellow structure, is being used as a media centre by the twelve rebels. A giant antenna is sticking up into the sky from the roof. With its help they are able to access the internet via satellite and upload photos and videos of the fighting and casualties to Facebook and Youtube. It's a desperate attempt to get the world to play its part in the civil war; desperate because there is no question the regime knows what the building is being used for. For the helicopter pilots circling over Azaz hour after hour every day, the antenna is an easily recognisable target. But the school possesses a crucial advantage; it lies in the lee of a hill, and is thus out of range of the snipers who have lodged themselves in the minarets of a mosque and spend their time firing on anything that moves.
"This place is as good as any for our purpose," says Ahmed Sayed Ali, 31, a slight man with partially bald head. He has a revolver in the holster slung over his shoulder. On the wall hangs the revolutionary flag: three stripes – green, black and white – with three red stars in the middle. Next to it stands a Kalashnikov. A few exhausted rebels are dozing on mattresses. All of them are students, but now that they are no longer able to study they are working round the clock for the revolution. Ahmed, a typical student-turned-rebel, incessantly roves the maze of backstreets filming skirmishes between the FSA and government troops.
It's eight in the morning and Ahmed is waiting for a laptop to free up so that he can upload his night's filming. He is watching the screen with weary eyes and smiling. His friend Jamal, a restless lad in a check shirt and bulletproof jacket (with an outsize helmet on his head that keeps slipping down over his face) filmed an FSA ambush yesterday. Wobbly footage shows a tank going over a mine and being engulfed in flames, and then a second tank being hit by a bazooka. The men all slap Jamal on the back, crying "Allahu Akbar!" and setting the clip to play on an endless loop.
While Ahmed and Jamal are uploading their films to the Internet, another activist is climbing a high rise building. Al Jazeera and the Orient TV network broadcast live footage from Azaz almost every day. From up top you can get a good view of the town, watch the tanks roll in and film the shelling. This building has been hit many times. Assad's troops watch television too.
In the afternoon another helicopter comes wheeling over Azaz; it does one round after another, then hovers over the school building like an angry insect. A moment later a rocket lands close to the school. Fragments and stones shower down on the roof. From somewhere nearby, a rebel 14.4mm artillery unit fires at the helicopter, which immediately veers away. The same evening, Ahmed, Jamal and the others dismantle the antenna from the roof, pack their computers and cameras in boxes and plastic bags and move to another building. "Evidently Assad's people know where we're broadcasting from," says Ahmed as he grabs his camera and puts on his helmet. He is about to accompany his friends on another FSA night operation.
It took awhile for the revolution to reach this part of Syria, only a few kilometres away from the Turkish frontier. News from the rebel strongholds of Homs, Hama, Damascus and Daraa only got here as second-hand reports. Government troops essentially ignored the towns and villages of the north. In the vacuum left while the crisis in other parts of the country dominated the news (and the attention of the Syrian army, more and more areas in the north were able to liberate themselves. Here, as elsewhere, it started with demonstrations against the regime. First a dozen or so people took to the streets, then hundreds, and finally thousands of them, demanding reforms and more freedom. In due course, the public managed to drive out the regime’s myriad agents: mayors, police chiefs, members of the Shabiha, government informants and hit-men.
Abu Anas is the commanding officer of one of the three rebel units in Azaz. He is a thin man, 24 years old, with long curls and a full beard. He is convinced that Azaz will soon be liberated. Every day, rebel detachments mount attacks on the last remaining government stronghold, blasting holes in their walls with home made bombs comprising TNT and steel screws. At night, they lob hand grenades into the soldiers' barracks, fire bazookas and machine guns and wreck tanks. Patting his Kalashnikov, Abu Anas says he reckons no more than sixty soldiers and a handful of officers are left holed up in the building. The rebels have surrounded the base and cut off any escape route. For weeks, Assad's loyalist troops have been without electricity, water or food supplies. They are gradually running out of ammunition. "Victory is nigh, insha’allah," he says. At stake is a security corridor from Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, and the Turkish frontier.
Abu Anas is a conservative, religious young man. "I have no fear of death. If I fall in battle I'll die a martyr. That will fill me with pride," he says. Like many here, he cannot comprehend how the world can sit watching Syrians die without doing anything about it, while expressing fury at Russian and Chinese intransigence in the United Nations Security Council. “Why don't America and Europe do something to end the massacre?” he asks. "We need help, and we’ll accept anything we're offered, no matter from whom. Anybody who is willing to assist us with weapons or fighters is welcome. The west is scared that ‘Islamists’ may support us, yet they do nothing to help us."
As we talk, Abu Anas is watching a video showing him and his men blowing up a tank, causing the death of its crew. "I feel sorry when soldiers are killed," he says, his eyes expressionless, his head resting on his hands. He knows there are many conscripts in the army who have no desire to fight for Assad, but are forced to do so. "Most of them would like to desert, and I'm always ready to help them do so. But they have to make up their own minds. If they stay put, they'll get killed."
Assad’s army is patently breaking down. It isn't the poorly equipped rebel army or the thousands of demonstrators who pose the real danger to the regime, but rather mass desertion from the Syrian army by regular soldiers and conscripts. Meanwhile, government helicopter pilots and infantrymen often shoot wide of their targets intentionally. Some officers get in touch with the rebels by phone and let them know in advance their locations and plans of attack.
In the first part of July alone, twenty-five soldiers fled from their barracks in Azaz and joined Abu Anas and his band. More than forty deserters are now fighting for the FSA against their erstwhile colleagues in the town. Two of them are former lance corporals Fawaz, 21 and Faris, 20. They spoke of sense of despair among government troops. They had served sixteen of their eighteen months of conscription before managing to escape. "They told us we were fighting against terrorists," says Fawaz. I notice Faris, sitting next to him, staring at his hands, clenching them into fists.
"At first I really believed it," Faraz continues. He describes how his unit was transferred from Daraa in the south to the northern part of the country, and how his mind began to change. They moved from village to village and town to town: First Daret Ezzeh, then Anadan, Marea, Telreffat, and finally Azaz. There, Fawaz says, he saw officers shooting civilians, raping women and plundering houses. Residential areas were targeted indiscriminately by artillery, tanks and helicopters. "We loaded fridges, TV sets, furniture, anything we could carry, onto tanks and lorries." Then they burned the houses down.
Faris then describes seeing an officer shoot and kill a colleague of his who had refused to fire at civilians.
"From then on, we knew we were not fighting terrorists at all," says Fawaz. He insists that he always aimed wide to avoid hitting people.