Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Em Anis

Syria’s Islamist Fighters: Welcoming reporters for a media blitz?

Rania Abouzeid posted on the New Yorker this September  5, 2013 “Among Syria’s Islamist Fighters
The climb was tough, uphill through a parched orchard of plum trees with yellowing leaves and fruit the color of a dark bruise.
Mohammad, a Syrian Islamist fighter, was walking in front of me; he clambered over the five-foot-high stone terraces set like a staircase in the side of the hill rather than use the orchard’s well-worn paths.
This was no time for a leisurely walk in the verdant mountains of Jabal al-Akrad, in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province.

The Syrian regime’s MIG fighter jets flew overhead, swooping in low to drop their payloads nearby. It was 1:40 P.M. on a warm day in mid-August, and the jets had already undertaken 11 sorties, accompanied twice by helicopter gunships that opened their doors to release barrel bombs—improvised explosives packed into large barrels.

There was a smell of burnt trees, set ablaze by artillery and other firepower.


Photograph by Alice Martins/AFP/Getty

At one point, Mohammad extended the barrel of his Kalashnikov to help me up the hill: Like many conservative Muslims, he would not touch a female hand who was not a close relative. He had done this twice before realizing there was a bullet in the chamber.

The apex afforded a panoramic view of the battlefronts between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents.

Three peaks of regime position rose behind us:

1. One known as Izay’a, or the Station, because of the three communication antennae sprouting from it;

2. Dahr Sahyoon; and

3. Nabi Younes, the highest, at more than 1,500 meters above sea level.

In front of us, plumes of smoke hung over many of the villages in the hills and shallow valleys, populated by members of Assad’s Alawite minority. Eleven villages had been captured by Syrian Islamist rebels in the first week of August; Assad’s forces succeeded in getting them back by August 19th. The to-and-fro continues. (Lately, the regime recaptured the 3 strategic hills)

The fight here is critical: this is Assad’s heartland, the base of his support.

The battle in these parts is led by a conservative Islamist coalition, spearheaded by Al Qaeda’s the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Suqoor el Ezz (falcon of dignity) and headed by a Saudi called Sheikh Sakr.

The Islamist coalition includes Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also tied to Al Qaeda; the Salafi Ahrar al-Sham brigades; and groups solely made up of foreign fighters, who are here in great numbers. The rebel Free Syrian Army is also fighting here, but not in the lead.

In a freshly dug cemetery in Tartiyah, a small Sunni village near Salma, most of the handwritten names on the 48 simple white slabs serving as gravestones belong to muhajiroun, or emigrants. Locals have dubbed it the “Cemetery of the Muhajiroun.” There’s another larger  cemetery in Doreen.

The term muhajiroun refers to the early Muslims who migrated with the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, but these days it’s applied to Islamist foreign fighters or proselytizers. The names reveal the origins of the men now lying under the grayish, stony soil: Abu Obaida il Tunisi (from Tunisia), Abu Abdullah al-Moghrabi (from North Africa, probably Morocco), Abu Falah il Kuwaiti (from Kuwait). And, of course, the Chechens.

Elsewhere in Syria, and abroad, a fair proportion of Assad’s opponents view the foreign fighters with suspicion and disdain for their ultraconservative views. They also know the accounts, some captured on amateur video, of summary executions of prisoners—sometimes with a simple shot to the head, and sometimes through beheadings or slit throats.

These reports are not limited to the foreign fighters—they’ve been ascribed to some among the Syrian rebels, too. Others say that they need them now to help topple Assad, and that their ideas about a future ultraconservative Islamic state, and their reputation for brutality, can be put aside and dealt with later.

Some rebels, however, aren’t waiting until the fall of the regime, and have openly clashed with some of the more hardline Islamist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. (All of this is a confounding problem for the United States as Congress debates military action.)

But there’s no wariness or hesitation here, not among the Syrian Islamists fighting alongside the foreigners.

On a recent evening, in the inner courtyard of a modest single-story home where I was staying, 8 Syrians from several Islamist units in the area recounted tales of Chechen bravery. They spoke of how the Chechens fought without cover, as part of an effort to terrorize the enemy psychologically by showing no fear, and how they urged the Syrians to do the same.

The home belonged to the elderly parents of a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter named Omar, who is in his twenties and also lived there. I’d known the family for a while. Omar was with Ahrar al-Sham earlier in the year, but had joined the more hardcore Jabhat al-Nusra. (“He’s been promoted,” one of his friends said jokingly, adding that the next time I saw him he might be with ISIS.)

Omar cut an imposing figure, dressed like many members of Jabhat al-Nusra in a black shalwar kameez (common in the subcontinent but not in Syria), a black headdress wrapped around his shoulder-length curly hair, and a beard (Salafi-style, without a mustache). He recently had been shot twice, once in each leg, and although his wounds were still healing and bandaged, he was back fighting on the front.

We sat eating plums, figs, watermelon, and pears in a courtyard illuminated by electricity provided to the Sunni villages by Islamist fighters. (State power has been out for more than a year.)

Last winter, a barrel bomb exploded in the house’s backyard. It killed one neighbor and cut the legs off another. Omar’s father, Abu Anis, sustained shrapnel wounds to his back. A wall of Omar’s family home was blown away. It has been crudely patched up, but most of the outer walls still bear deep pockmarks from shrapnel.

The men were openly disdainful of the Free Syrian Army units, saying they were engaged in “tourism” well behind the front, and were also openly hostile to the Alawites, or Nusayris, as they called them.

“Even the Shiites have declared them kuffar [nonbelievers],” said one.

“They are all the same. They view us Sunnis as the enemy; they are all involved in the war against us,” said another.

“They won’t want to stay here after this,” said a third, meaning after they’d swept through the villages.

The men also mocked the Muslim Brotherhood as inadequately committed to its faith.

“We call the Muslim Brotherhood ‘whatever the audience wants,’ ” said Mohammad, the Syrian Islamist fighter. He wore green military camouflage pants and a black T-shirt bearing the Islamic shahada in white script. “If the people say they want Sharia, they say they want it. If the people say they want democracy, they say they want it. They just want power.”

The very concept of moderate Islam was false, Omar claimed. “There’s no such thing—it is a modern expression,” he said. “A moderate Islamist means an Islamist who walks with them, who agrees with them, with the Americans, the Europeans, and Iran.”

As Omar spoke, there was an explosion nearby. It was one of 9 within the span of an hour, but only twice did the men in the courtyard move: once when an artillery shell whizzed past and crashed into a field near the house, and once when a MIG jet flew very low before bombing a position nearby. There was robust outgoing fire, too, from a rocket launcher and other artillery.

“The decision-makers in this country will be those with military power,” Mohammad said. “If they”—the F.S.A. and Syrian political opposition—“want a secular state and have the military power to create one, let them. If they are going to confront us because of our project, we will confront them. We are fighting for religion, what are they fighting for?”

Omar excused himself. One of his Chechen colleagues in Jabhat al-Nusra was marrying a local Syrian girl that evening.

The next morning, the fighter jets were out early, before 9 A.M. Omar’s mother—a sweet, harried woman—prepared breakfast. She always seemed to be cooking, either for Omar and his colleagues or a unit of Ahrar al-Sham stationed up the street.

The 8 men, who were joined by several others from Ahrar al-Sham, listened intently to a walkie-talkie set to intercept regime communications.

“Abu Ali, they’re asking for a [rocket-propelled grenade launcher]. They said they can see our tanks,” screeched one message, before the speaker identified the village where he was based.

“Send them a rocket,” Omar told one of the other men, who got up to relay the message to fighters closer to the field.

A helicopter circled overhead. It was flying high and appeared almost in slow motion relative to the speeding jets.

The men on the ground watched it intently as anti-aircraft fire erupted around them. The barrels the helicopters disgorged usually took time to drop to the earth—enough time, perhaps, to fool yourself into thinking you could run away from them.

The men debated which direction to scatter if the helicopter dropped its payload. It eventually passed over them and emptied a barrel bomb on an adjacent hill. A few days later, an Islamist unit commanded by one of the men sitting there, Abu Najdad, would be responsible for shooting the first MIG out of the air over Latakia province.

I didn’t see the MIG get hit at the time, Omar’s parents and I were cowering in a pit the old man had dug at the end of his garden, under a rock face. It was about two metres long and a metre deep, and felt like a shallow grave.

The old man hid in it every time a MIG took to the air. Em Anis, Omar’s mother, had other concerns. She’d placed stuffed zucchinis on a wood fire outside her house (there was no gas or electricity to power a stove), and she wanted to feed the men of Ahrar al-Sham before they headed back out. “They haven’t had lunch,” she said. Her husband just looked at her and laughed.

Earlier, Em Anis told me that Omar had seen 5 potential brides, but he stipulated that his future wife must understand that he would go wherever his jihad took him, and that she must be ready to accompany him. There had been no takers.

Note 1: Most of the kids who died in the latest chemical attacks were kidnapped by the Nusra Front in Lattakieh suburbs before the regime recaptured the hills.

Note 2: It appears that the Syrian rebels started the chemical attacks and the regime responded in kind?





June 2023

Blog Stats

  • 1,522,172 hits

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by

Join 770 other subscribers
%d bloggers like this: