A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Bab al-Salam border crossing to Turkey. (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters)
“Don’t even think about going to sleep tonight.”
My fixer, Mahmoud Elzour, shot me a wry smile from the corner of a rooftop patio in a safe house in al-Bab, a town about 27 miles north of Aleppo that was recently liberated by Syrian rebels. It was already two o’clock in the morning, and the predawn meal that was supposed to get us through the Ramadan day ahead was being served by our host, Abu Ali. With his large frame and close-cropped brown hair, he could easily have been mistaken for a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. We were surrounded by a gracious fraternity of activists, relatives of Abu Ali, and rebel fighters, among them one military defector and about four civilians. Earlier that evening, we had made a touch-and-go border crossing from Kilis, Turkey, and then drove for an hour along the completely quiet roadways leading from the border to al-Bab. The only military presence we encountered was a single Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint. So after all this, sleeping had never occurred to me. “We will go to Aleppo at four and leave at noon,” Mahmoud said. Was it safe? “Of course. I would not take you there if it wasn’t, habibi.” Another smile.
Reedy and bespectacled, Mahmoud is a 52-year-old Syrian who spent the last two decades in Atlanta. A few months ago, he sold most of his successful construction-vehicle dealership to move to Antakya, Turkey, where many Syrian fighters have formed an ad hoc base. Once there, he started financing his own rebel battalion. The day before our jaunt into Syria, he had returned from a fierce battle in central Aleppo that culminated in the rebels’ overrunning two police stations and defeating a group of shabiha, mercenary civilian thugs employed by the regime, from the pro-Assad Barri tribe. Some members of the tribe were later summarily executed, and a gruesome video of the incident appalled even pro-opposition Syrians. Mahmoud took no part in the executions, but he did participate in a raid on one of the police stations. Rebels blew up the ground floor with with a bomb that had been fashioned, Mahmoud said, out of an old water boiler. The officers inside had been offered amnesty and safe passage if they quit their posts, but after hearing the scream of fighter jets overhead and mistakenly believing that reinforcements were on the way, they angrily refused. So the rebels invaded, killing anyone who fired back.
WAR OF ATTRITION
After nearly 18 months, with over 20,000 dead and millions more directly affected, the Syrian revolution has become the foreign policy preoccupation of every Western and Arab government. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s few remaining allies — China, Iran, and Russia — show no sign of acceding to the aspirations of the Syrian people. And so what started out as a movement for economic reform, and was met with great violence, has now morphed into an armed insurgency, consisting overwhelmingly of civilians aiming to end the regime through force.
The Obama administration still professes not to know who the Syrian rebels are, even as busloads of foreign correspondents do the work of the Central Intelligence Agency in profiling them. The White House fears that the rebels’ ranks have been infiltrated by extremist or sectarian groups, most notoriously al Qaeda, and thus is wary of committing money and arms to their cause. Some analysts cite this restraint as proof of the administration’s prudence rather than of an incoherence that risks damning Syria to Washington’s self-fulfilling prophecies. Those opposed to U.S. intervention warned that it would inevitably breed jihadism, sectarianism, and regional instability — all of which have already come to pass. Meanwhile, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have had no such qualms about backing the opposition, albeit selectively and to further their own ideological interests. The rebels, for their part, have not equivocated in their call for outside help, giving weekly protests such names as “No-Fly Zone Friday.” It is the West’s hearts and minds that need winning over.
On the ground, however, the geopolitics of the struggle takes a back seat to more exigent considerations. The real story continues to be the unraveling of four decades of dynastic totalitarian rule. As horrifying as the carnage has been, the resilience of some segments of Syrian society leaves no doubt that the regime is finished. In parts of the country, an alternative to Assad’s rule is already being joyously experienced and seen as worth dying for.
Still, nobody can predict with certainty when and how the House of Assad will fall. For all the braggadocio I heard from the Syrian rebels (“We will take Aleppo in no more than ten days”), their congenial shrugs over specifics revealed them to be far more interested in fighting a long war of attrition than in planning any well-timed march on Damascus. They can withstand losing a city street here, or a whole neighborhood there, because even in tactical defeat they cost the regime money, ammunition, and men. The rebels learn from their setbacks, too. In February, it took a month of brutal artillery bombardment and some 7,000 soldiers for the regime to retake Baba Amr, just one district in the city of Homs. The FSA had about 400 men, most of whom retreated when they ran out of bullets. Mark the sequel in Aleppo.