Dispatch

Waiting for the Tomahawks

How do Syria’s rebels feel about a U.S. bombing campaign against Assad?

BEIRUT, Lebanon — When President Barack Obama first dangled the possibility of launching a punitive military strike against the Syrian regime, he may have been caught off balance by the reaction of some of Bashar al-Assad's staunchest opponents. Rather than gleefully welcoming support from the world's biggest superpower, some Islamist rebels worry that the United States isn't really coming for Assad -- it's coming for them.

"America is going to strike empty bases that are useless to the regime and this cosmetic strike will then be used as a front to go after us," said Suhaib, a 30-year-old fighter with the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, in a Skype interview. "The Americans decided to destroy airports, arms and munitions factories, and scientific research centers when they realized that the honorable revolutionaries of the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists of the Islamist factions are on the verge of seizing them."

If there is one thing that Syria's diverse armed factions converge around, it's the nagging feeling that the United States wants to pull a fast one on them.

In extensive interviews, several rank-and-file fighters and high-ranking commanders expressed the fear that U.S. forces will sweep in at the very last moment, "stealing" the hard-fought Syrian revolution from them after all sides are sufficiently weakened and installing a pliable, hand-picked leadership in Damascus.

"There was never a single day in my entire life where I ever felt like I could trust the Americans or the West in general," said Abu Obaida, who leads a small battalion within the Ahrar al-Sham movement, a countrywide jihadist group that nevertheless maintains close ties to mainstream rebel groups. "This complete lack of trust comes from the strike on Iraq ... American forces seized the oil, brainwashed people's minds, took over state institutions, and they went in based on a pretext."

He scoffs at Obama's humanitarian arguments for embroiling the United States in the Syria conflict. With hundreds of people dying every day, he finds it odd that America would be moved to act by a single chemical weapons attack. It is merely an affectation, he believes, to dampen Americans' outrage about embroiling them in yet another military campaign in the Middle East.

"They left us to die for two years," he says. "So can I ask: What difference is there if there's blood or not? It is not a moral imperative for them. We all know that."

The reaction of Abu Obaida and like-minded fighters, however, is just one aspect of the diverse rebel response to the prospect of U.S. military intervention in Syria. While it is difficult to find a single rebel fighter who is not skeptical of American overtures, most moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders welcome a U.S. military strike as the only potential salvation from the horrors of the Syrian regime's crackdown.

These divergent opinions have become a microcosm of the larger challenges facing the sprawling armed opposition. While a U.S. strike may present the rebels with an unprecedented military opportunity, the fractured movement has seemingly failed to organize a coordinated response.

Even some of the rebel groups who were on the front lines of the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, which the United States says killed over 1,400 people, are ambivalent about U.S. military intervention. Liwa al-Islam, a Salafist group that operates in the eastern Damascus suburbs, released a statement that warned darkly of the true American intentions behind intervening in Syria.

"What matters to us is the question of: Who will America target its strike against? And why choose this particular time?" the statement asked. "The Assad regime has used chemical weapons dozens of times and the U.S. did not move a finger. Have they experienced a sudden awakening of conscience or do they feel that the jihadists are on the cusp of achieving a final victory, which will allow them to seize control over the country? This has driven the U.S. to act in the last 15 minutes to deliver the final blow to this tottering regime so it can present itself as a key player and impose its crew which it has been preparing for months to govern Syria."

Commanders of more moderate rebel factions will admit, after much prodding, that they feel invigorated by the prospect of a U.S. strike. But that doesn't mean they trust in the benevolence of Washington's intentions for one second.

Jamal Maarouf, the leader of the Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, is considered one of the most prominent strongmen in the northern Idlib province. Maarouf's brigade includes more than 30,000 fighters, he says, which are now spread across most of Syria's provinces. In describing the U.S. motivation for intervention, he explains that the United States can invade a country in two ways -- by deploying its ground troops, or building up a local autocrat who it can control. In Syria, Maarouf says, Washington has opted for the latter option.

"The U.S. wants a pliant leadership that it can control remotely," he explains. "But who is capable of ruling this mess of a country when there are more than 200 armed factions currently fighting on the ground? That's why the U.S. did everything it could to prolong the conflict."

Maarouf believes the Americans are more than content to see droves of Islamists from Afghanistan, Somalia, Tunisia, Pakistan, and Iraq flock to Syria, where they can all be conveniently eradicated at once.

"Here's what I think will happen: The U.S. strike will target the military airports, where the regime keeps its anti-aircraft missiles," he says. "Once that's taken care of, the Americans can send their drones, at will, to collect intelligence on the Islamist factions they want to get rid of. No one will notice as the war continues to rage on and the humanitarian crisis escalates. They think they are fooling us. No one has ever fooled us. But, unfortunately, what can we do about it?"

Such huge distrust of the United States, one might suspect, would make Maarouf hostile to the prospect of American "help" in his struggle against Assad. After all, he notes, none of the weapons promised to them months ago have arrived yet. But when asked if he supports the U.S. strike, Maarouf answers quickly.

"Definitely," he says. "I don't trust their intentions but, against my better instincts, I welcome this strike because they might at least damage the regime's military airports and, let's face it, the enemy of your enemy is your friend."

Rebel commanders have been further disconcerted by Obama's delay in launching a strike. "His decision to get Congress's permission gave Bashar plenty of time to change his strategic [military] positions," said Qassem, a commander who heads an independent battalion in Idlib. "In fact, he has transferred hostages to the locations that U.S. forces could strike so, if anything, there will be a huge loss in terms of civilian lives."

But despite the many potential downsides of American military action, many commanders see no other way to break the bloody military stalemate that currently grips the country. Col. Qassim Saad al-Din, a spokesperson for the FSA's military command who heads military operations in Homs province, doesn't share Maarouf's suspicions that Islamists are the real target of any upcoming U.S. strike.

"I am a 100 percent with the strike," he says. "We instructed all our commanders to be alert and ready to attack regime positions, security forces, and checkpoints. The strike is going to be limited but we will try to take advantage of it anyway."

Al-Din contends that all FSA battalions are coordinating with each other on how to exploit the aftermath of the strike, but they are not necessarily coordinating with Islamist factions. However, he is quick to add, "there is no tension between the FSA and Islamists either."

The Homs commander's comments are just one indication of a broader attempt by Islamists and FSA units to present a united front, at precisely a moment when foreign military intervention could tear them apart. In several interviews with members of Islamist factions, fighters downplayed recent signs of fractures, emphasizing that FSA and Islamist fighters were united in their struggle against the Assad regime.

"The relationship is excellent and the proof is that all our military operations are carried out conjointly with the FSA," said Abu Abd al-Rahman, the spokesperson of the Syrian Islamist Front. He cited the recent capture of the Mannagh Airbase near Aleppo as an example, explaining how both Islamist and moderate brigades took part in the offensive.

"There is no fear of betrayal" between the units, he added pointedly.

But the jihadists' belief that increased American involvement may isolate them from more moderate rebel factions no doubt weighs heavily on their minds -- and may inform their opposition to a U.S. strike. Abu Obaida, as a member of the Ahrar al-Sham movement, is aware that the Americans would likely never consider him a respectable interlocutor.

"We are tired of being referred to by terms pinned down by the West such as 'radicals, militants, extremists and fanatics,'" he complains. "We have given our organizations clear names. Why can't they at least use them?"

Apart from the fighters, Syria's civil society activists -- by far the most battered section of the uprising -- are less cautious about their support for a strike. Many of them are extremely hostile to the radical Islamist factions which they blame for the Syrian revolution veering off course. They have been savoring a rumor that al Qaeda's branch in Syria has fled the northern province of Raqqa and hidden in the desert prior to the U.S. strike. With more than 110,000 people killed during the conflict and countless more arrested, many of these activists are clinging to any hope for an end to the conflict.

Abu Qatada, a 24-year-old activist in the Damascus suburbs, has fought the desire to commit suicide for a year now. When the Syrian uprising erupted, he was one year away from obtaining a degree in psychology from the University of Damascus, but immediately put his studies on hold to join an FSA battalion as a media activist. He soon went into hiding and started moving from location to location with the armed group, which became his adoptive family. As the war ground on, he watched these men drop in battle day after day.

"I have nothing to live for anymore," he used to say. "Life now is like death. It all feels the same".

Now, however, he is entertaining the possibility of having some kind of future again should the U.S. strike unravel the stalemate. After having come to terms with his dashed dreams, he is now timidly talking about studying international law in the United States next year. But most of all, he is simply waiting to see what the next weeks bring.

"I don't know what the Americans have in mind but we're eager for this strike to happen," he said. "I will decide how I feel about the U.S. after they strike, depending on how they strike, who they strike, and when they strike."

Ricardo Garcia Vilanova/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Triage and Terror

A doctor reports from the front lines of Bashar al-Assad's war on civilians.

NORTH SYRIA — Being an emergency room doctor gives you a strange set of priorities. We can't wait to get sucked into a crisis -- the bigger the trauma, the better. But sometimes, you get more than you bargain for.

On Aug. 27, I was sitting on the hospital balcony overlooking the olive groves in a northern Syrian hospital, drinking my fifth cup of sweet, sugary tea. Business was slow -- for the overworked Syrian doctors and nurses in this northern Syrian hospital, it must have been a blessing.

I had come to help, and was accompanied by a BBC Panorama team that was filming the work of Hand in Hand for Syria, the British charity that runs the hospital. I began to think my sole work that day would be to amuse the staff with my limited Arabic, drink tea, and show empathy to the victims. I admired the doctors for having stayed to work, when so many others had left the country. Medical workers are prime targets for Bashar al-Assad's regime and some have been detained, tortured, or disappeared for treating the war-wounded rebel fighters.

The sudden screech of a truck pulling into the hospital courtyard was the only alert we received that a patient had arrived. Back home in my London hospital, a red phone alerts us with a loud, distinctive ring that a seriously injured patient is en route. Here in Syria, there's no such luxury.

I ran down the stairs to the emergency room -- a sparse room with two trolleys, one monitor that measures blood pressure and oxygen levels (the only one in the whole hospital), and oxygen capability for only two patients at a time. Hand in Hand for Syria has turned this former clinic into a functioning hospital -- but despite ongoing donations, it is still under-resourced and staff are working around the clock. The gap between Syrians' needs and the available resources is simply too great.

An eight-month-old baby lay on one of the trolleys, crying in pain. He had a reddened face, and some minor evidence of early blistering on his forehead. The skin had slightly peeled on his right foot, and his left leg was red and hot to touch. It looked like he had been scalded. The initial explanation of what had caused the injuries was confusing -- I heard something about a car crash.

As I worked, a young boy appeared by my side. He was covered in white ash from head to foot,  looking almost ghostly. His eyes were wide and staring -- he moved slowly and quietly. On the right side of his head, he had a large full-thickness laceration -- the medical term for when a cut has gone through all the layers of skin. The flap of skin folded out to reveal his skull. "Where shall I go, my sister?" he asked. This car crash must have been a huge pile up, I thought.

Worried he would collapse, I held him upright and looked for a trolley or chair. As I turned the corner of the emergency room, I saw this was no car crash -- this was war. Within ten minutes, the hospital was overflowing with casualties. The patients packed the tiny hospital, laying on the floor or propping themselves up against the wall in the reception area, writhing in pain.

These were the victims, I would soon learn, of an incendiary attack by a Syrian regime warplane on a school playground in the city of Aleppo. The jet passed overhead several times, and then dropped a napalm-like substance on the area, killing at least 10 people and injuring many more. Of those who survived, many had burns over 50 percent of their bodies.

The attack came amid an international debate over how to respond to an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack in the eastern Damascus suburbs, which the United States, Britain, and France all say was perpetrated by the Syrian regime. As the U.S. Congress prepares to debate whether the horrors of that attack demand American military intervention, however, the massacres that Assad routinely perpetrates through other means risk being forgotten. As doctors, we are keen to find a way to secure a humanitarian corridor that allows healthcare workers and NGOs to work safely -- without risking becoming targets themselves.  While chemical weapons are undoubtedly horrific, the vast majority of deaths in this conflict have been caused by conventional weaponry -- and neither an American military strike nor any other action appears poised to end that tragedy.

* * *

In the crowded emergency room, I was coming to grips with the enormity of the crisis. It was like a scene from a horror movie: Syrians streamed into the hospital, walking with outstretched arms to keep their burnt limbs away from their bodies, swaying side to side, their clothes shredded or gone. In the chaos and noise, I thought the hospital itself was under attack -- not such an unlikely prospect, as hospitals have previously been hit in this conflict.

"This is not the first or the worst scenario, and probably it won't be the last," one Syrian doctor told me. "But maybe this time someone will listen, because the camera is here. They don't listen when we tell them."

Ahmed, a 15-year-old boy, sat shivering and quiet on a chair. He was naked apart from his underpants. I looked at his hands -- the skin was falling off like he had been peeled.

"Assad, look what you have done," a woman screamed. "Why can't you die, Assad!"

The woman's husband was by her side. "Look what he did to her," he sobbed. She had suffered burns to her face -- the pain must have been horrific.

The staff tried to restore order to the chaotic emergency room. I couldn't recognize my colleagues -- their faces were obscured by white masks, as they initially believed that they were aiding the victims of a chemical weapons attack. Panic filled the air. I wasn't wearing a mask. I carried on in autopilot, unmasked, until a nurse forced one onto my face.

We ripped open bags of fluid to pour over patients, applied burn cream to their wounds, and moved the victims into wards. I treated five teenage boys: One of them, Mohammed, was so badly burned that his hair had melted. His body still emanated heat. "I want to sleep," he kept saying. I learned later that two of the boys I treated died of their wounds in Turkey.

If any one of these patients arrived to our London hospital, they would have instantly been transferred to a specialized unit to care for their burns. But here, with 28 victims and only basic care to offer, I felt so useless. The best we could do was move the patients around to ensure they had IV lines for fluids, and give them painkillers and antibiotics.

One girl spoke to me in English. Her mother cried by her side. "How bad is my face, my sister?" she asked, composed and calm despite obviously being in terrible pain. "Do you think they can fix my face?"

The girl and her fellow students had been attending class in a quiet, relatively affluent Aleppo neighborhood when the attack started. The headmaster of the school, Mohammed Abu Omar, described fire falling like rain, burning whatever it touched. He put out the flames on the students' bodies with his hands, sustaining minor burns in the process.

The first bomb hit a four-story building, penetrating three floors and injuring my first patient -- the baby. Everyone ran out of the school to help the injured, according to one of the unharmed students. His quick-thinking teacher saved him by grabbing him and throwing him into a ditch. The second bomb hit the school courtyard, right outside one of the classrooms.

The bombs incinerated everything around. Three students were killed instantly. Their charred, unrecognizable bodies were brought to us in the hospital. I was told they were girls, but I would never have known.

The attack reduced humans to strange mannequin-like beings, with hardened skin -- impenetrable to our efforts to place IV lines into those still alive. One boy's body had been fixed in position; he was unable to move his arms, legs, or even face. Only his eyes were moving, registering that he was alive and terrified. Doctors sedated him and placed a tube down his throat so he could breath. I could not find a single patch of unburned skin to place an IV line.

I later learned that the boy died on the way to the Turkish border. He was laid to rest without anyone knowing his name -- his family was unknown, possibly refugees in Turkey. I have a strong desire to see a photo of him from before the attack -- to know who he was. To see his face before it was so hideously disfigured.

I visited the bomb site a couple of days after the attack. The same strange odor that I had smelled at the hospital -- a strong, sickening scent mingled with the smell of burning flesh -- hung over the ruined school. A student's charred notebook lay at the bottom of the crater left by the bomb, the writing still visible. But the author of those scribbled pages was dead.

Somehow, the attack has not broken the spirit of the Syrians living in the neighborhood. As we walked around the school, a young girl, just eight years old, ran out to see us. Her hair was cut into a rough bob, hanging above her shoulders. She brought us a bottle of water from her home. She told us that her long hair had been cut short because it had caught fire that day. Never mind, we told her -- it will grow back.

ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images