Feature

Back from hell, back from Syria

14.02.13 @ 09:18

  1. By Koert Debeuf

CAIRO - From 18 to 23 January I travelled to the Hatay region in Turkey and the Aleppo region in northern Syria.

  • Syrian refugee: freezing tents, mud, no food, no medicine for millions trying to survive the conflict (Photo: FredomHouse)

I was there with Rami Jarah and Deiaa Dughmoch (two Syrian activists who had in the past visited the Liberal group in the European Parliament) and Hisham Saad Eddin (the cousin of general Haqim Saad Eddin, from Rastan Homs, where most generals of the Free Syrian Army come from).

We stayed a few days in Hatay (Antakya or Antioch) where many Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders come to meet and hunt for outside aid.

We met with six generals of the FSA (four from Aleppo, one from Deir Ezzor and one from Homs), with the field commander of Latakia, the information co-ordinator of Deir Ezzor and with five people responsible for humanitarian aid in those regions.

They gave us a very good overview of what is happening on the ground, of how the FSA areas are currently organised and on the humanitarian situation.

On 21 January we went into Syria with general Abdel Nasser Farzat, the military commander of the FSA for the entire Aleppo region. As the border of Bab Al Salam was temporarily closed, we were smuggled in.

At the first checkpoints in Syria (there are checkpoints every five kilometres) the general said we were soldiers. When asked if we were Syrian army defectors, he answered No, as we would have been taken away.

With six persons in one car, we started our journey into the war zone. First we were brought to a meeting the general had set up with a battalion from the city of Idlib in order to prepare what was strategically the most important battle of the moment - the one to take the airport of Quweris.

On the way, we saw burned Syrian regime tanks. After the meeting, we headed for Azaz, a city some 40 kilometres from Aleppo.

To my surprise, we first had to cross six checkpoints run by the PKK, the Kurdish partisan group. The general explained to us that the very northern part of Syria (a corridor of more or less 10 kilometres from the Turkish border) is occupied by the PKK. They are not with the Assad regime or the FSA. The PKK acts independently.

I will come back to the Kurdish point later.

In any case, the moment we left the PKK area and entered FSA territory the general told us: "Now, we are safe."

Using small roads, in order to avoid shelling and to avoid regime soldiers who still occupy a few strongholds in the Aleppo region, we arrived at about 8pm local time in the house of one of the FSA officers, who offered us a meal. Then we headed to the headquarters, where we had a meeting with Ahmed Abeit, the revolutionary commander of the High Council of the Military Council.

It was quite clear from the beginning that nobody really knows who holds exactly which function in the FSA.

There are two structures which are intermingled: the FSA structure, where former generals of the regime army lead former soldiers (the general commander is called Idriss, who was not in the country at that time, but who promised us we would meet next time) and the revolutionary structure, which draws soldiers from among the anti-regime parts of the civilian population. Both have commanders. They work together, but the hierarchy is unclear.

In any case, Ahmed Abeit told us he has been elected the general commander of all revolutionary structures for the whole of Syria. The next day, when we visited the battlefield of the Quweris airport, we saw Abeit again and realised he was the one in charge of the situation here.

It was not easy talking to the top commanders.

They are deeply suspicious about anything European or American. Every single one of them kept repeating how they have seen nothing at all of the many promises that were made by the international community.

We (the international community) promised them support if they would get organised militarily. Nothing came. We asked them to set up civilian councils. Nothing came. We promised them humanitarian aid. Nothing came. Weapons. Nothing came.

Every single one of them is convinced the West is on the side of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A few days before we arrived it was made public that the UN would channel $519 million of humanitarian aid through Assad (and the Syrian Red Cross), while they are getting nothing at all, so is was very hard to defend the Western approach.

I'll come back to humanitarian aid below.

Despite the distrust, they really did appreciate that I had come along. Because of security reasons (mainly kidnapping), only the top officers knew that I worked at the European Parliament. They were glad that, at the least, a lone European official had made the effort to come to the region and was trying to help (without promising anything) despite the danger.

After a conversation which lasted about two hours, we went back to the officer’s house in Azaz, where the four of us and the general got some sleep on the floor of the living room.

During the night we heard bombs coming down from planes in a neighbouring town. The officer said it was likely they would hit our area in the morning. Luckily, that did not happen.

On the front line

The next morning the general took us in the car onward to Aleppo (or so we thought). Instead, he brought us to the battlefield at the airport of Quweris.

They told us it was safe, but we heard and saw continuous shelling and gunfire. We had to run or walk fast from one place to the other. The area had just been liberated the day before and they were preparing for a big battle for the airport a few days later.

In order to give the regime soldiers (some 2,000 were stuck at the airport) no chance to take back any ground, the FSA fired bombs from where we stood.

I saw with my own eyes what Ahmed Abeit told me the day before: as they have not received any serious weapons they have to make them themselves. Literally. The FSA has to make bombs and the equipment from whatever iron they find.

On the other hand, I saw cluster bombs and other huge projectiles being fired by the regime. There are no anti-aircraft weapons on the FSA side, even though that would be the only way to stop the continuous bombing of the civilian population. Because of the bombing and shelling there is not one safe place in the entire region.

I visited a small division on the front line, where I saw three bombs fired at the airport.

Although the soldiers were proud to show off their fighting prowess, the commander told me they were sad they had to fight. He said the FSA wants peace, but Assad has forced them into war. He gave me a branch of an olive tree and asked me to bring it to the European Parliament in order to show Europe that their intentions were good.

The generals present also made a video message for the regime soldiers inside the airport.

They asked them to surrender or defect. They told them they did not want to fight them, but Assad. Those who surrender would be brought before a court, which would decide about their fate. Those regime soldiers who had really murdered and butchered people would probably be executed. The others would get the choice: join the FSA or go home.

An important detail is that the cousin of the general was one of the regime soldiers in the airport.

I was relieved when we left the battlefield. We went back to Azaz, where we visited some dramatic places - we saw the only bakery which has not been bombed.

The regime is deliberately attacking bakeries in order to hurt the general population.

But even worse was the market place we visited. One week ago, at 2pm, the most crowded moment on market day, the regime hit the market square with two huge missiles. Thirty people (of all ages) were killed immediately, 300 were heavily wounded. The place was completely trashed. Local people told me that there were still people under the rubble, but that they had no means to look for them.

Desperate local people blamed the EU and the US for doing nothing and for not helping them in any way. There is no food, no medical aid, no electricity and almost no heating.

It is hard to put into words my frustration, my pain and the shame I felt at that moment in the market place.

Before we headed back to Turkey, we insisted to see one of the refugee camps inside Syria. We already said from the very beginning that this was one of the main things we wanted to visit, as well as the city of Aleppo. The general and the others kept on telling us that it was not safe enough to go to Aleppo, as the roads were being shelled.

When they also hesitated to bring us to a refugee camp we got the impression these Syrians were rather ashamed to show us the worst.

As they felt too proud to ask us to help them with aid or weapons ("We don’t need Europe …"), they must have thought that showing the misery would have been like admitting their own failure.

But as there was a camp on our way to the border (where we were smuggled back into Turkey), we did get to go to a camp. Here the same scenario. The director of the camp first did not want to let us in. It was thanks to the general we were able to go inside.

The Azaz refugee camp

The lack of humanitarian aid is the most striking thing in the refugee camps. I visited a camp in the north-eastern area of the Aleppo region.

Even though the camp is only a few hundred meters from the Turkish border (Bab el Salam) and there is no security problem at all, almost no aid is going to the camp.

As proof of the safety, I can tell that I saw a Turkish ambulance passing by the camp, from inside Syria to Turkey.

I will summarise what I saw in a few points:

* in the camp there live 11,400 people, even though it was initially built for a few hundred. Eight thousand of them are children;

* in the storage room for milk, there is no milk. Usually they do receive some milk, but not enough. So after every few days of milk there is two weeks of no milk;

* there is a serious lack of food. That is the reason why they cannot give people more than one meal a day. Even then there was only food for two more days. When I asked the camp director if he knew if food would come soon, he said he could only hope;

* there is a serious lack of heating. Yesterday four children died in the camp because of cold. Some tents have no heating (I have seen a family with a disabled child in such a tent), others have a small coal heater. There is coal but I have seen families who were just burning paper. In some camps people recently died because tents went up in flames;

* the tents are of course small (nine square meters) and families are usually quite big (six to 10 people). Because of the rain, the bottoms of the tents are wet;

* there is a lack of toilets, so the area around the camp (and some parts of the camp) is an open toilet. This situation is very dangerous for epidemics. In one camp this is already the case;

* there is hardly any electricity;

* there is as good as no medical support and no medicine. I saw a baby boy (one year old) with an open wound on his leg caused by shrapnel. It had not been treated for days. His father came out of one of the unheated tents in the mud to show him to me;

* the weather is cold and rainy. Water and mud streams between the tents. Open spaces are even worse;

* not surprisingly, morale is very low. Many of the refugees have psychological problems because of the shelling. Many do not dare to go back home. All of them just want their family and themselves to survive.

My conclusion is that the Syrians are right: there is no support whatsoever going to the liberated areas or to the revolutionaries.

In terms of surface area, the FSA controls more or less 75 percent of Syria. In terms of people, however, it is hard to tell, but it must be more or less 50 percent of people who live in "liberated areas."

Here I will not go deeper into the dramatic situation of arms.

I will concentrate on humanitarian aid.

The humanitarian situation is incredibly dramatic. It is such a disaster that it is hard to describe, even to imagine.

But I will try to summarise the situation as follows:

1. There is no official international aid coming to the liberated (FSA) areas. Every commander or council leader confirmed to me that the only aid they get comes from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and from small, mostly private organisations. The only official organisation that is represented is Medecins sans Frontieres, with three small field hospitals for the entire region of Aleppo.

2. There is no aid coming to the liberated areas through the Syrian Red Cross. The Assad regime is blocking as much official aid as possible from going to his "enemies." The director of the Azaz camp told me the only thing he ever received through this channel was rubber for people to sleep on, a long time ago. The fact that this week again the UN announced it would give the Syrian Red Cross $519 million created outrage in the region of Aleppo.

3. Contrary to rumours, Turkey has not closed its border. I have seen some 100 trucks waiting to enter Syria at the border. The reason given for the temporary closure was security. Turkey decides alone when it is safe enough for trucks with aid to go in. In general, it must be said that if there is one country caring for and helping the Syrians, it is Turkey.

4. The security situation is of course dramatically bad. The shelling is absolutely random and unpredictable. The regime shells the FSA areas with heavy ordnance from airplanes and with long-range surface-to-surface missiles. It is very clear from everything I saw that the regime is targeting primarily civilians, much more than soldiers. The main targets are bakeries (bread is more essential in the Syrians diet than for European eating habits), packed market places, wheat factories, any crowded areas. It is clear that Assed wants to wreck civil society, break the morale of the people, the backbone of the revolution, create as many refugees as possible and promote the idea that without him, the country is a disaster. The fact that the civilians are punished for this in humanitarian aid as well makes them, of course, very angry.

5. Contrary to its image, the liberated areas are well organised. In every area (except Homs) there is a military council, a civilian council, a court and a police force. The main reasons why they do not do more are the continuous shelling and the lack of humanitarian aid. People are that desperate that there is a lot of theft. Because of the shelling, it is hard for police and judges to concentrate on day-to-day law and order. The lack of humanitarian aid also weakens the authority of these councils (and of the Syrian Opposition Coalition) because if they cannot provide the people with the absolute basics of food and medicine, what is the use of listening to them?

However, it is very important to know that these councils are there and that they could work properly if they got the chance.

The leaders of these civil councils travel to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan in order to find aid and bring it back to their cities. Many of them assured me that it is perfectly possible to co-ordinate with all of these councils in order to get aid to every corner of the liberated areas, and even beyond.

The people of Homs, for example, also provide help for the regime-controlled areas. They assured me that a system of accountability for crimes is perfectly possible. It even exists already in some cases.

What should be done?

Many ordinary Syrians trying to flee the fighting are going to die if humanitarian aid does not come to the FSA territories quickly.

The aid promised by the UN to the Syrian government (Syrian Red Cross) will not come to these places, whatever they promise.

In order to get aid to the right areas and the right people we have to differentiate between two problems:

First, there is the urgent situation in the camps near the Turkish/Syrian border. As it is not true that the border is closed and as there is no security problem here at all, the camps inside Turkey and near to Turkey should be provided with direct aid. This can be done through the Turkish Red Crescent or similar organisations. Except for international bureaucracy, I cannot see any other problem in order to get aid to these camps.

Secondly, concerning the aid that has to go deeper into Syria, there is also a solution. The organisation is there in Syria. Right now the aid does go from Turkey to various rebel areas, even to Homs (completely surrounded by the regime). This network is mainly civilian and gets FSA protection. It is organised by the civil councils of the rebel cities and towns.

International aid from the EU and UN has to bypass the government.

In Syria this is of course problematic. Since the Syrian Opposition Coalition of Muaz Al Khatib has been internationally recognised, this umbrella group creates another possibility.

The UN knows this and has asked to create a special unit for dealing with it, the so-called ACU. However, the problem is that this unit is not connected to the network inside Syria and that the inside network is not properly co-ordinated.

I have convinced Abdel Nasser Fazat, the military commander of the FSA on the ground in northern Syria and Ahmed Abeit, the commander of the FSA on the ground for the whole of Syria, to appoint a civilian leadership for managing future aid.

This was not easy, as both are very cynical about the West and all the promises that were made in the past, without any, any results.

They have given me one chance to try again. This person/unit will connect the links that already exist and represent them. He will also make sure every piece of aid will arrive at the place it was meant for. They have created and used systems of accountability before.

This can only work if the EU agrees with this process.

The EU must take a leap of faith - it is the only way to save people's lives inside the FSA territories. The EU urgently needs to take action in order to convince the international humanitarian community to take the same leap of faith. If this is impossible, another way must be found. Urgently.

The political side of this is also important.

The FSA and the civilian councils are losing respect and authority because they cannot deliver aid. That is one reason why popular support is growing for jihadists and Al Qaeda - they deliver.

If we hesitate on the humanitarian aid front, as we did in the past on the political and military front, we should not be surprised if post-Assad Syria will be more anti-Western than the Assad-era one.

They are ready to give us one more chance. After what I have seen in the last few days, doing nothing would be, simply, inhuman.

The political-military situation

I spoke to FSA commanders and civilian leaders in five liberated areas: Aleppo, Idlib, North-Latakia, Deir-Ezzor and Homs.

Each one of these areas is organised more or less in the same way. They have a military council and a civilian council. They have courts, where judges genuinely work and they have a police force.

The FSA is organised in two wings: the military wing (led by former regime generals) and the revolutionary wing (lead by civilians turned into soldiers). It looks like the former generals are in charge of the co-ordination of the military battles, while the revolutionary leaders are the ones who unite battalions under one command.

The fact that this is what the latter do gives these revolutionary leaders more authority. My impression of the Aleppo region, where I have seen both sides of the FSA co-operating, is that, although this complex organisation is not ideal, it nevertheless seems to work.

In any case, the FSA is working hard on uniting the battalions. In Latakia for example, already 26 battalions were brought under one command. In northern Aleppo, 30. However, it was not clear how the biggest battalions in Aleppo (Liwa Al Tawheed and Jabhat al Nusra) fit into this.

Commanders told me there is a kind of common understanding on how these military councils and civilian councils should work and what their responsibilities are.

Meanwhile, the courts, together with the police forces, are trying their best to keep order. However, these quasi-institutions have a serious lack of capacity. The main reason for this lack is the continuous and random shelling.

As most people have no work and thus no income, they depend on the councils in order to survive. As the bakeries are being shelled and almost no aid is coming in, many people abuse the confusion during shelling in order to steal. This might be understandable, but from the point of view of trying to establish law and order, it is unacceptable.

One of the problems is that if they catch a thief, they do not know what to do with him or her. There are no prisons and as one (Salafist) commander told me: "What can I do? Cut his hand? We are not living in an Islamic State, you know!"

They asked me for advice. I advised them to organise public processes and to condemn thieves to community work, like reconstruction. They accepted this advice and will try to implement it.

The second reason for the lack of capacity is the lack of aid and of proper weapons. The FSA is incapable of doing anything against the planes that are firing on them on a daily basis. If they shoot one down, it is always by luck.

The commander of Latakia told me he once received a shipment of 200,000 bullets, but that he hardly needs these. What he needs are anti-aircraft weapons. Stopping the aircraft from bombing towns and targeting civilians is the only way for the rebels to get organised. It will also allow humanitarian aid organisations to come in. The fact that the FSA is not receiving aid and proper weapons decreases its authority and prestige.

The most dreadful example is Aleppo.

In the north-eastern part of Aleppo there are 120,000 refugees. Women and children are living in schools. In every school there are at least 60 orphans. There is no heating, no bathrooms, no transportation (the price of diesel is astronomical), only one hour of electricity a day, not enough food, almost no medicine.

They received some medicine from Germany, but these were all past their expiry dates and many boxes of pills were half-used.

There are factories to make food and fuel, but they were built for a capacity of 15,000 people, and now they need to serve 200,000 people. If something breaks down in a factory, there are no spare parts and there is hardly enough fuel to make the generators work.

The general of north-east Aleppo said they had enough wheat for three years, but that there are no processing plants to produce anything from it. Along the 800-km border between Syria and Turkey, just one plant is actually functioning.

This lack of capacity creates space for the agenda of the Assad regime. From the beginning, Assad has been saying that the opposition wants to divide Syria and to create an Islamic State.

In order to promote this idea to the international community, Assad is supporting the PKK. He is happy about the creation of Jabhat Al Nusra, but even more so with the fact the US put it on its terrorist list.

What is Jabhat Al Nusra?

The Nusra front was created by international jihadists. The people behind it (who have links to Al Qaeda) are kind of mercenaries for radical Islamism. They fight in any given country to help their "brothers in faith" and after one job is finished they move to another country.

Although Jabhat Al Nusra was quite insignificant in the beginning (one year ago), it had two advantages which helped it suck respect from other FSA fighters. First, Assad proclaimed the Nusra as his biggest enemy, which is a plus in opposition circles. Secondly, the jihadists are experienced fighters. They are well organised and well disciplined. Contrary to some other FSA battalions they never steal and never get out of control.

They also get better funding from abroad. It is not clear where that money comes from, but it is channelled by private persons in Turkey. Putting them on the US terrorist register has fuelled popular theories that the West secretly supports Assad.

Jabhad Al Nusra are no angels.

They are radical Islamists and have a different agenda to the FSA battalions.

I did feel on the battlefield in Quweris (where one of the officers was as good as certainly Al Qaeda) the influence of these Islamists. As they are against smoking, all smoking soldiers must put their cigarettes away when they arrive. There was also a story of them intimidating a female journalist because she was not wearing a veil.

In Deir Ezzor Jabhat, Al Nusra is playing a power game in which it wants to take control of all natural resources (wheat and oil), causing serious tension with the other FSA battalions.

However, it is important to highlight that most of the fighters of Jabhat Al Nusra are not jihadists. They are people who joined them because of their good reputation. The fact that they have to grow their beards and so on in order to join, does not mean they are real jihadists themselves.

One important detail for the West is the fact that one radical group, which declared the formation of a new Caliphate in Aleppo, have been sentenced to prison because they did not represent anyone.

What is the PKK doing?

The PKK is gaining more and more territory in Syria.

They are not regime, not FSA and certainly not jihadists - they also have their own agenda. This was already clear during a large Syria opposition conference in Cairo in July 2012.

As the other Syrians did not want to promise autonomy for Kurdish areas after Assad goes, the PKK is taking matters into its own hands. I drove through PKK territory in the north of the Aleppo region, where it controls the border area going from Turkey some 10-15 kilometres deep into Syria.

They control a larger area in the far east of Syria and in the north-west region of Deir Ezzor. Some people from Deir Ezzor say the PKK is being supported by the Assad regime in order to weaken a local coalition of Christian, Arab and indigenous Kurdish tribes in the area. In any case, the PKK fighters are trained in Kurdish-majority-dominated Turkey and are trying to seize control of eastern Syria and its resources.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki has closed the border between Iraq and Syria, but there are also many contacts between the PKK and the Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq.

One civilian leader from Deir Ezzor says that the Iraqi-Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has 13 units from within Turkey, Syria and Iraq under his control. Barzani also gave 13,000 tents to the PKK in Syria. Whatever the real agenda of Barzani and the PKK is, no doubt it will become an important point on the agenda of the post-Assad transition.

Conclusions

The main conclusion of my journey is that the West is listening too much to Assad.

He warned us that the rebellion could lead to sectarian war, terrorists, an Islamic state, the disintegration of Syria.

There was a grain of truth in his warning. But for a long time, it was pure propaganda. Now, as the months go by, Assad's own actions are making it into a reality. Meanwhile, the fact the West heeded his warning and hesitated to get involved, made the problems look bigger than they are, helped Assad to propagate his self-fulfilling prophecy.

The fact we do not support the FSA has created space for Jabhat Al Nusra and the PKK. The fact that we do not give humanitarian aid is weakening the FSA and helping Assad. The fact that we do not give support to the civil councils makes space for sectarian violence.

One year ago, Syrian opposition member Fawaz Tello told the the Liberal group in the European Parliament: "Assad is going to fall, no doubt. The question is if Europe wants to be on the right side of history in order to limit the killings and play a role in the reconstruction afterwards?"

Today this question remains poignant.

We can still play a role, limit the casualties and help to build a secular/non-sectarian Syria. The task is not even that difficult.

We should give humanitarian aid directly to the liberated areas and we should give anti-aircraft defences to the FSA. It is the only way to support the right people in this conflict and to help non-combatant Syrians to survive.

Risks, doubts, glitches will hang over whatever we do.

But what is the alternative? Supporting a war criminal of historic proportions? By hesitating to support the opposition, this is exactly what the West is doing.

Koert Debeuf is the Liberal group's representative in Cairo and an advisor to Liberal leader and former Belgian PM, Guy Verhoftsadt. he also writes a blog for EUobserver