Dispatch

On the Front Line with Syria's Free Army

Along the Turkish border, a ragtag rebel group of Syrian defectors, believers, and volunteers fights for their survival and the future of their country.

AIN AL-BAIDA, SYRIA – The Turkish flag flies next to the green, white, and black standard of the Syrian revolution at a Free Syrian Army (FSA) position above the village of Ain al-Baida. Here, about 150 rebel fighters -- mostly defectors from the Syrian Army -- are situated in concrete and cinderblock houses pockmarked by bullet holes, their weapons pointed across the valley at the Syrian military below.

Ain al-Baida is just across the border from Turkey, in Syria's Idlib governorate. The village is not much more than a small cluster of buildings in a wide valley surrounded by wooded hills. The FSA has spread out across the north of Syria, making it difficult for Syrian security forces to control areas outside the major cities, such as Aleppo.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters -- over 4,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the United Nations -- has provoked a growing armed resistance to his rule. These insurgents, comprised of defected army soldiers and outraged citizens, are building their military strength from a sliver of territory within Syria. They also rely on an impressive network of supporters inside Turkey to ferry supplies into Syria, deliver messages for senior FSA commanders, and transport wounded fighters and fleeing refugees out of the country.

On Dec. 7, Turkey announced additional sanctions on Syria, including a 30 percent tax on goods arriving from the country. For the past several days, Syria has blocked Turkish trucks from entering, forcing Turkey to look for alternative routes for trade with the Middle East.

The poorly armed fighters challenging Assad's army believe that only an armed uprising stands a chance of toppling the Syrian regime. "We cannot accept our families and friends being killed," said a burly fighter wearing camouflage fatigues and grasping an assault rifle. "We will fight Assad by any weapon, by knife, by gun. We will fight."

Though the FSA claims to be composed of defectors from the Syrian military, this man said he was a civilian volunteer from the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which had been demolished this summer by the Syrian army's infamous Fourth Armored Division, under the control of the president's brother, Maher.

"I have not seen my children and wife for months," he said. "I think they are in Damascus, but I cannot reach them anywhere."

The fighters hold less than half a mile of ground down the hill towards Ain al-Baida, and the Syrian military regularly fires upon them from across the valley. Just last week, one fighter was shot in the shoulder. In September, a 24-year-old refugee named Adelsalam Hassoun was shot in the head by a sniper just after he crossed into Turkey from Ain al-Baida. Yet spirits remain high.

Why does the Syrian military not rocket their position or launch a large-scale assault? The FSA fighters are positioned about a mile from the Turkish border, near enough to escape across if the situation turned dire. They appeared confident that the Syrian military would not risk provoking the Turks by trying to displace them. The Turkish government, which had previously been one of Assad's closest allies, initially gave the Syrian regime several chances to halt its brutal crackdown. After Turkey was rebuffed, its leaders became some of the most prominent international critics of Assad's rule.

But these fighters' confidence in the relative security of their position was shaken on Dec. 5, when the Syrian military opened fire on what the state news agency later claimed was a group of 35 armed men crossing the border from Turkey. The clash, one of the most sustained thus far, began late at night and lasted several hours, according to Abu Nassr, a Syrian smuggler living on the Turkish side of the border who had guided me back into Turkey only hours before.

Another smuggler, Mohammad Ashik, who was on the hill above Ain al-Baida when the clash took place, said the Syrian military had been firing on a group of smugglers who were trying to steal cows to sell in Turkey, presumably mistaking them for FSA fighters. Four of the smugglers were wounded after venturing into the valley too close to the military's positions, he said. The FSA fighters on the hill opened fire on the military, some even venturing from their outpost to carry the wounded smugglers to safety.  No FSA fighters were injured, both smugglers agreed.

Nassr and Ashik are among tens of smugglers who cross the border several times a week, carrying food, medical supplies, clothes, satellite phones, and computer equipment. They also serve as guides for refugees and carry the wounded on their backs. Once they are near the Turkish border, they call ambulances or Turkish gendarmes to transport the wounded to a hospital, disappearing back into the trees as the Turks arrive.

"They know I am doing something human," said Ashik, when asked why Turkish authorities did not pursue him. "There is someone wounded or someone that needs food, so they accept the situation."

The Turkish government has strenuously denied that it provides the rebels with material support, a claim echoed by the FSA. But there is no doubt that the insurgents receive assistance from those living within Turkish territory. The smugglers are aided by small groups of Syrians living in Antakya, a Turkish city near the border, who arrange for the supplies to be delivered into Syria.

In a small flat in Antakya, a 26-year-old man from Damascus, who gives his name as Udai Sayeed, sits in a room full of laptops connected to the Internet by USB modems and talks to contacts on Skype. He and his band of opposition activists -- which include a defected soldier, a former businessman from Jisr al-Shughour, and his nephew -- purchase and transport supplies for the FSA and also civilians who lack food and medical supplies, such as bags for blood to be used in make-shift hospitals.

"Every group [in Turkey] has its own job," Sayeed said. "[The Turks] gave us our freedom to move."

"Dictators believe until the last minute of life that there are a lot of people behind them," he added. "In the end, they finish. Like Qaddafi, Bashar will finish, his end will be the same."

Nazir, another Antakya-based activist, agreed that Assad would only be overthrown through force. "We believe there is only one solution, the Free Army," he said. "It's clear after eight, nine months of peaceful protest, when they kill so many people. What's the solution?"

Sometimes he has moved as much as $8,000 worth of supplies to the border at a time, Nazir claimed. "When you organize yourself, you will win," he said.

He claimed to prefer fighting on the front lines with the FSA, "as a soldier with a new ID." (When soldiers defect they show their Syrian military IDs as proof.) Nazir said that the FSA aimed to keep the fighting at a "professional" level, preventing it from disintegrating from the anarchy seen in Libya or Iraq. "Yes, if I die you need to give my family money and the ID, like a hero," he said, claiming that many Syrians living around the border area and in refugees camps are waiting for Asaad, the FSA commander, to call them to fight.

Asheik, the smuggler, echoed the claim. "All young men want to go to the Free Army," he said. "There is no [international] support for the FSA now so the battle has not started yet. We are waiting for something, but don't know when it will come."

In Ain al-Baida, though the Syrian military fires upon the FSA position with ever greater frequency, defectors continued to arrive to take up arms against their former comrades. Abo Mohammad, an FSA commander and another civilian volunteer who had spent two months living in the Turkish refugee camps, estimated that, on average, two or three defectors arrived per week.

Few of the fighters agreed to be photographed without scarves covering their faces. This was not out of concern for their security, Mohammad explained. Rather, in the past months of rough living, many of the fighters had grown beards. Indeed, Mohammad's beard was much fuller than the whiskers I'd seen on his face when we first met in Guvecci, a Turkish village along the border he had initially fled to in June.

The fighters were concerned that the photographs would be used by the Assad regime as "proof" that it was fighting Islamic extremists. "There is no barber," said one fighter. "When we were in the Army we were prevented from growing our beards long. So to distinguish us from the military, we make our beards long."

After a long discussion about the photos and their possible implications, the fighters seemed relieved to hear that I understood having a beard in the Middle East did not necessarily mean someone was a fundamentalist. The raised their arms and shouted "Allahu Akbar!" when one of them spoke of overthrowing Assad, but hardly came across as Islamists.

Again denying all reports of arms smuggling from Turkey, Mohammad said the FSA had a gun for every man, some taken from the Syrian military. They wanted to be supplied with arms, but were not receiving any from abroad, he claimed. "God will help us fight Bashar Assad if no one helps us," he said.

What Mohammad seemed to want, even more than weapons, was an internationally established buffer zone and no-fly zone inside Syria. "Many people from other cities can come to stay [there], or wounded can go to Turkey," he said.

Abdul Satar Yunsu, the FSA commander of the Hamza Khatib Brigade, laid out three possible locations for a buffer zone: In Deraa, near the Jordanian border; in Deir al-Zour, near the Iraqi border; and in Idlib, along the border with Turkey. Of all these options, however, the buffer zone along the Turkish border seems the most plausible.

Turkey is not yet leading the international charge into Syria. But the FSA might just carry its flag further south in the coming months.

Justin Vela

Dispatch

K Street-on-Thames

Britain discovers that its lobbyists are just as sleazy as America's.

LONDON — David Cameron's government has not enjoyed much success in predicting the future of the British economy, but the prime minister's political foresight has not entirely deserted him: Last year, following the News of the World hacking controversy, he forecast that lobbying was "the next big scandal waiting to happen." Lobbying, he said, has "tainted our politics for too long" and become "an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money." Greater transparency, said the prime minister, was needed to rid British public life of the suspicion that a chosen few were able to purchase power and influence.

That chicken came back to roost this week, as newspaper reports revealed the extent to which lobbying companies with close ties to Cameron's government boast of their ability to influence British government policy. If British voters could ever comfort themselves with the thought that the level of influence peddling regularly observed in Washington was unheard of in Whitehall, those days are over.

An investigation published by the Independent created a fake Uzbek business conglomerate called the "Asimov Group" that asked some of the most prominent British public affairs companies to help improve Uzbekistan's dismal image. (The story was a British update of a similar sting pulled off by investigative journalist Ken Silverstein in Washington in 2008.) Of the ten companies approached by the Independent reporters, five expressed an interest in representing the Asimov Group in London. 

Of these five, Bell Pottinger -- a public affairs firm founded by Tim Bell, formerly Margaret Thatcher's media advisor during her time in Downing Street -- was the most enthusiastic. The company's managing director, Tim Collins, himself a former Conservative member of parliament, boasted that Bell Pottinger had "all sorts of dark arts," some of which could not be put in a written presentation because "it's embarrassing if it gets out." 

Secret recordings of the meetings between Bell Pottinger and the Asimov Group showed Collins cheerfully admitting that "a number of [our client] governments have had serious reputational issues." 

Bell Pottinger, however, would be happy to represent the Uzbeks -- one of the most repressive regimes in the world, whose state-run textile industry makes great use of forced child labor -- provided the Uzbek government was willing to change its ways. Collins told his would-be clients, "[That] justifies why a PR company is representing a country which previously people shouldn't have been talking to. Now it actually wants to change it is fully acceptable."

According to another Bell Pottinger excutive, "As long as you can see that each year is a little better than before, that's fine." The company cited work it had previously done for the government of Belarus, another totalitarian country in dire need of better publicity in the West but one unwilling to make the kind of reforms that might win such goodwill honestly. "In our work for Belarus, nobody knows who paid us," said the executive. In other words, in the murky lobbying world, transparency is a fine, but not necessary, thing.

The Bell Pottinger team boasted that they could arrange meetings for their clients with Foreign Secretary William Hague, as well as Ed Llewellyn, the prime minister's chief-of-staff. A meeting with the prime minister himself, however, would have to be the "end point" of a £100,000-a-month reputation-cleansing campaign. 

According to the team from Bell Pottinger, they had a track record of influencing government policy, citing an intervention made on behalf of the engineering firm Dyson. "We were rung up at 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, by one of our clients, Dyson," Collins boasted. "He said 'We've got a huge issue. A lot of our products are being ripped off in China.' On the Saturday, David Cameron raised it with the Chinese prime minister."

Unlike in Washington, where lobbyists for foreign governments are required to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, in London there is no official documentation of lobbyists or their clients, and firms are free to represent foreign regimes without having to declare their interests. Some of the claims made by Bell Pottinger, however, suggest that the lobbying business often bears a more than passing resemblance to a confidence trick. 

For instance, the firm boasted that they could set up supposedly "independent," "third-party" blogs to help whitewash Uzbekistan's image difficulties. Moreover, the company claimed it could manipulate Google, ensuring that unwelcome items were pushed further down any list of search results, and that it had a team that "sorts" unflattering Wikipedia entries. In other words, the firm would charge thousands of pounds a month for Search Engine Optimization and editing Wikipedia! (For what it's worth, a summary of this very claim by Bell Pottinger is now featured on Uzbekistan's Wikipedia page.) Granted, the Uzbeks could theoretically have done all this themselves but, if they did, why would they need Western PR experts? 

Government spokesmen denied that lobbyists have any undue influence on British policy, but admitted that lobbyists frequently made presentations to ministers. This should not surprise far less shock anyone. The affair, however, reinforces the idea, already prevalent, that there is a golden circle of Westminster "insiders" who enjoy privileged access to government. At a time when public faith in parliament has not recovered from the expenses scandal that disgraced MPs in 2009, the government can scarcely afford such controversy. 

Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne endlessly repeat the mantra that in this time of austerity and economic gloom "we are all in this together." Many voters, however, look at soaring executive pay and the billions of pounds paid out in banking bonuses and wonder how it can be true that everyone is hurting equally. Increasingly, there is a fear that the idea of meritocracy itself has been tarnished and that the game is rigged in favor of the rich and influential. That Cameron and many of his cabinet attended Britain's most exclusive private schools only adds to the sense that the few have too great an advantage over the many. The "Occupy" movement may have few answers, but some of their questions are wincingly pertinent. 

In some respects, this affair is but a small if leading indicator that government is not working as voters would like to believe it should. Governments, as jaundiced Washington-observers know full well, can be captured by special interests. This, it seems evident, is a crisis of confidence afflicting much of the Western world. Nor does the imposition of technocratic governments on Greece and Spain ease the sense that the project of European democracy as a whole faces grave challenges. The eurozone lurches from one crisis to another with little sign that the peoples of Europe will be permitted any great say in the outcome of the latest round of bargaining. This poses a particular problem for Cameron since he has promised a referendum on any new European treaty. Any such treaty would most likely be rejected by the British electorate, potentially plunging Europe into yet another maelstrom. Again, there is a palpable sense in Britain that decisions of major national and international importance are being made with little to no regard to public opinion. Here, too, politics is seen as some kind of closed shop.

Few things symbolized the changing face of British politics more than this year's Conservative Party conference in Manchester in July. Just 4,000 of the nearly 12,000 attendees were actually members of the Tory party; the rest were lobbyists, representatives of NGOs, trade associations, or journalists. Politics has become another business, only more tawdry than most. Perhaps it was ever thus, but it seems more plainly so now than in the past.

In such circumstances the divide between legitimate lobbying and the purchasing of questionable influence becomes ever thinner and tougher to discern. If British lobbying has yet to produce a Jack Abramoff-type figure that may be merely a matter of luck and time. 

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images