Thursday, February 14, 2013

Eyewitness Account—Syria: A Report From the Field

This is a rare, personal report of a trip into Syria’s beleaguered provinces. Koert Debeuf, a Belgian working for the European Parliament, travelled with commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army into the Aleppo region. Back from “the hell called Syria,” to use Debeuf’s own words, he describes his impressions and conclusions from talks with soldiers, civilians and refugees.

From January 18 to 23, I visited Turkey and the Aleppo region of northern Syria. In the city of Antakya in southern Turkey—known in ancient times as Antioch—I met commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and people responsible for distributing humanitarian aid in those regions. They gave us a very good overview of the situation on the ground.

On January 21, we went into Syria with General Abdel Nasser Farzat, the FSA commander for the Aleppo region. As the Bab al-Salam border crossing was temporarily closed, we were smuggled into the country. Using minor roads to avoid shelling and regime soldiers who still occupy a few strongholds in the Aleppo region, we arrived at about 8 p.m. in Azaz at the house of an FSA officer who offered us a meal. After dinner we headed to the headquarters where we met Ahmed Abeit, the commander of the revolutionary High Council of the Military Council.

It was clear from the beginning of our trip that nobody really knows who has exactly which function in the military opposition. There are two overlapping structures: the FSA—dominated by former generals from the Syrian regime army—and the revolutionary forces. Both have commanders; they work together but the hierarchy is unclear. Ahmed Abeit told us that he had been elected general commander of the revolutionary structure for the whole of Syria. The next day, when we visited the battlefield at Quweris airport, we saw Abeit again and realized he really was in charge.


It was not easy talking to the senior commanders. They are deeply suspicious about anything European or American. Every one of them kept repeating how they have seen nothing at all materialize from the many promises that were made by the international community. We—the international community—promised them support if they organized themselves militarily. Nothing came. We asked them to organize civilian councils. Nothing came. We promised them humanitarian aid. Nothing came. We promised weapons. Nothing came. Every single one of these commanders is convinced that the West is on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is very difficult to disprove these accusations.

Despite the distrust, they really did appreciate that I had come. Because of security concerns—mainly a fear of kidnapping—only the most senior officers knew that I work at the European Parliament. They were glad that at least one European official made the effort to come to the region and was trying to help (without promising anything). After a conversation of about two hours, we went back to the officer’s house in Azaz, where the four of us and the general slept on the living room floor. That night we heard bombs being dropped from planes on a neighboring town. The officer said it was most likely the bombing would reach Azaz by morning. Luckily that didn’t happen. More