When Tyler Smith visited northern Syria this January, he found himself in a dance-off with Syrian rebels at a training area near al-Bab. “I tried to show them how to do the worm,” the 20-year-old American chuckles. “They taught me how to disassemble and reassemble an AK-47.”
The trip was Smith’s first-ever venture to the Middle East, a five-day jaunt to a war-ravaged village in rebel territory north of Aleppo with his two friends, Joe Alencar and Karar Mousa. The guys all attended different colleges, so they timed the trip to align with a break between semesters.
“Most people on their holiday go out partying, but we decided to do something a little different for once,” says Smith. They had “no contacts or anything like that” in southern Turkey or the northern part of Syria controlled by opposition forces. Nonetheless, they flew to Istanbul, hopped on a bus, and made their way to Kilis, a small, dusty town barely on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, the last safe stop on the road to Aleppo.
Smith is pale and gangly, sporting a flop of dirty blond hair and a strikingly deep voice. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and loves his dog Eddie, who climbs on Smith’s lap and showers him in licks.
Freshly out of his teens, Smith’s bent towards idealism and revolution drew him to follow the sweeping changes of the so-called Arab Spring. He watched horrific video footage of the Syrian war online, and his life began to feel increasingly incongruous.
In late 2012, his friend Mousa—who now lives in Chicago, but who was born in Iraq and lived in Syria for five years—lost a friend to the war in al-Zabadani, a village near the Syrian capital of Damascus. The conflict was now personal. Smith felt compelled to action.
“I wanted to help out in any way I could,” he says, especially in refugee camps and hospitals. Though he lacked medical training, Smith decided to go to Syria himself, without contacting any of the numerous NGOs that operate official and makeshift refugee camps on both sides of the border.
He floated the idea with Alencar, a 24-year-old Brazilian who grew up in Miami and describes himself as “militant.” For Alencar, who “wanted to experience what it would be like in a war,” the notion was appealing, and they agreed to head to Syria. Their objectives were vague, and they had no concrete plans on how to achieve them.
Mousa decided to tag along, for reasons he wouldn’t disclose. “Seventy percent of my whole purpose of being in Syria—even Tyler and Joe themselves know nothing about this,” he told me. “It’s really personal.”
In one photo, Smith is on his knees, hands in the air, while a rebel points a Kalashnikov at his head. The caption reads “I figured this would be a good postcard to send home.”
When the trio got on the bus heading southeast from Istanbul, they began asking random Syrians for help crossing the border into the war zone. When this elicited suspicion and accusations of espionage, they decided instead to seek out war correspondents at the border for advice.
Predictably enough, the three young men spotted a few journalists nursing beers at Kilis’s only bar, where the mustachioed proprietor sometimes raises prices if he thinks a patron might be drunk.
Journalists who cover war grow quickly accustomed to the strange assembly of characters who show up in border towns looking for a battle. In the past six months alone, Kilis has housed a French woman armed with boxes of antidepressants to hand out to refugees; a Japanese man who went to Aleppo several times a week just to do a bit of shooting; an Italian woman whose fixer claims she went searching for alien DNA on the front lines; numerous foreign jihadists; and amateur photographers whose blunders have created extremely dangerous circumstances for locals on the ground.
After a brief exchange to decipher why Smith, Alencar, and Mousa wanted to go to Syria, the journalists told them to go home. “Tyler’s heart was in the right place, but he didn’t know what he was doing,” recalls one of the journalists. “And he really seemed to be under Joe’s influence.”
“I wanted to prove to myself that I can handle this with my own bravado,” said Alencar, “that I can throw myself into the ring and survive.”
Though the three young men recognized that the journos “had been to multiple conflicts,” they “kind of put them to the side” and decided they’d go in anyway, help or no help. “We didn’t come thousands of miles to have some people at the last minute tell us not to do it,” says Smith.
The following day, they encountered a Syrian “fixer” living in Kilis, who said he could make arrangements for them to cross the border, as he had done for many journalists before. “I asked why they wanted to go inside, you know, it’s crazy,” the fixer recollects over a cigarette. “They told me they want to be like Matthew Van Dyke.”
The name Matthew Van Dyke often triggers eye-rolls among journalists covering recent conflicts in the Middle East. Though he no longer identifies himself as a reporter, Van Dyke entered Libya in 2011 as a freelancer (UPDATE: while he was described as a freelancer in media reports at the time, Van Dyke says that "nobody has ever produced any documentation or evidence that I entered or operated in Libya as a freelancer,") but quickly took up arms and fought alongside Libyan rebels in the revolution. Subsequently, he made a short documentary on the Syrian conflict.
Van Dyke became something of a spectacle, garnering praise from idolizing fans—adulation that he evidently treasures enough to painstakingly aggregate and post on his website in the form of over 700 endorsement tweets and comments along the lines of “u r a true hero.” But Van Dyke has also been the target of blistering criticism from those who see him as less freedom fighter and more war tourist. (UPDATE: Van Dyke has spoken out strongly against war tourism, insisting, "I don't like war tourists. I don't like people who go in for a rush.")
As it turns out, Alencar was a big fan of Van Dyke’s, and also wanted to fight on the front lines of Aleppo for “altruistic reasons.” They even had a brief correspondence over email, in which Van Dyke cautioned “What you are planning to do is a very bad idea and is not what the rebels need at this time… The three of you are going to look like spies for sure… You guys are just walking into a disaster if you go there now.”
Alencar interpreted this as envy or condescension, asserting that “Either [Van Dyke] didn’t want other Westerners stealing his fame” or he “thought we were naïve adventure-seekers with no idea what we were getting ourselves into.” At any rate, the three friends had already made up their minds.
Though Smith insists that the extent of their humanitarian efforts was limited by being “on a dollar and a dime for everything,” they paid the fixer $1000 to bring them into Syria for five days under the supervision of a man who called himself General Abu Hassan. Contrary to his claims and the fixer’s charismatic assertions, Abu Hassan is not in fact a general in the Free Syrian Army, but a driver with a dubious record of punctuality with journalists. The back seats in his banged-up white Mercedes are bloodstained from transporting wounded soldiers to field hospitals away from the frontlines.
Smith, Alencar, and Mousa wanted to go to Aleppo, but instead General Abu Hassan dropped them off at a Free Syrian Army training facility near al-Bab, far from the fighting. The supervising rebel brigade, Liwa al-Tawhid, gave them a tour of the town, showing them bombed-out hospitals and schools, and introducing them to civilians.
A life-long Catholic, Alencar converted to Islam on his second day in Syria. “What better place to do it?” he says with a laugh. He’s now been a practicing Muslim for ten months. “A lot of people convert, but not actually in the struggle.”
But Alencar’s biggest struggle ended up being with the rebels who were, in the words of his Kilis-based fixer, “babysitting him.” He found al-Bab too safe, too boring. All he really wanted to do —all he had paid to do—was go shooting on the frontlines of battle-torn Aleppo. But that never happened because the supervising FSA brigade swiftly took the guns away and told them they couldn’t go.
Alencar had handled guns a few times before, and Mousa had fired occasional celebratory shots at weddings (as is customary in much of the Middle East), but when the rebels handed Smith a Kalashnikov for a few practice shots, his inexperience outed the group.
“Tyler was shitting his pants when he first got the gun,” chuckles Alencar. “He couldn’t even cock it. He was kind of trembling … and then this 10-year-old kid just snatched it from his hands and chk-chk!” No more guns for the three of them, much to Alencar’s chagrin.
Not that the rebels ever intended to let them fight, as the whole trip was arranged by the fixer as an expensive tour. Save for a bit of target practice, they only got to hold guns when posing for pictures with opposition forces, which Smith and Alencar uploaded to Facebook. In one photo, Smith is on his knees, hands in the air, while a rebel points a Kalashnikov at his head. The caption reads “I figured this would be a good postcard to send home.”
Before long, the three claim, they had had a brush with Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group with connections to al-Qaeda, which has reportedly kidnapped Westerners in northern Syria.
Alencar says the Nusra fighters responded well to his recent conversion to Islam, but were “messing with [Tyler] a little bit to see if he flinches.” One fighter allegedly told Smith that Osama bin Laden was his father. Smith believed him, prompting raucous laughter from the Islamists. The guys say another one grilled Smith on whether he wanted to “go to paradise,” to which Smith says he responded “Yeah… but not now.”
Having proved themselves sufficiently entertaining to the Nusra fighters, Smith claims the trio earned an invitation to tea. He says about half of the Islamists were wearing explosive suicide vests, but overall he did not feel threatened. Smith says the Islamists left him with a parting gift of the black flag that marks territory under jihadist control in Syria, which he keeps in his closet at his parents’ house near Chicago.
Around this time, the three young men again asked about going to the frontlines, and again they were belittled by the supervising brigade. No matter, says Smith, “I had fun. [The rebels] were singing and dancing a lot.” He enjoyed their more traditional dance moves, but also tried to show them some moves he’d learned in Chicago, and let the children play war video games on his computer.
General Abu Hassan reappeared in his old white Mercedes on day five to drive them back to Turkey. They say he tried to extort more money from them on the way out of Syria, but Mousa engaged him angrily in Arabic. Within an hour they arrived safely in Turkey, Smith and Alencar crossing legally while Mousa slipped through illegally, since he only had a single-entry visa for Turkey.
Was their trip a failure? Smith says it was because they didn’t end up helping anybody, but then recalls that he led a successful post-trip “public relations campaign” convincing his family and neighbors that the rebels were actually “pretty cool.” Yet undoing all his previous assertions about idealism and revolution, he admits that they picked the Free Syrian Army because “the rebels will take us to war and the regime won’t.” Nine months after the trip, Smith released a short video documentary on Youtube with his footage from Syria.
“I hate to say it, but it [was] almost like war tourism,” Alencar concedes. Having the guns taken away castrated his entire objective. He wanted to “get involved in the fight,” he stresses, “out of humanitarian concern for the Syrians.”
Mousa was disappointed that they never made it through the 180 miles of violently disputed territory separating Aleppo and Damascus, as he hoped to visit his friends back in al-Zabadani, as well as his father’s grave. Today, he is sick of Syria talk, and asserts that all warring sides are guilty of perpetuating the violence. But for him, the trip was still worthwhile because while in Syria they learned the secret of “how the revolution was born.”
“Honestly what we discovered is, like, the opposite of what they’re telling us,” Mousa says. In “the real story,” that “the media isn’t showing,” he says young men in the southern city of Dara’a posted anti-Assad graffiti in early 2011 only to be arrested and tortured, prompting protests à la Egypt and Libya, which invited brutal crackdown and thereby sparked a nationwide revolt.
Yes, that is the real story, but no, it is not hidden. Hundreds of prominent articles in top publications covered the Dara’a protests, and Wikipedia’s page on the Syrian Civil War mentions them as well. News organizations ran profiles of the Dara’a boys who started the war with a paint can.
Smith, Alencar and Mousa went to see what Syria was like in war time, and returned home unscathed. But not everyone is so fortunate. Many foreigners crossed the border this summer without professional reasons for doing so—some for war-tourism, others to fight jihad.
Among others, an elderly Italian woman cried her way to the frontlines hoping to retrieve the body of her son, who had gone to Syria, joined an al-Qaeda linked group called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and died for jihad. According to her fixer, she converted to Islam in the presence of the Islamic State, while her son’s body rotted, unfetchable, in an area surrounded by at least three government snipers. And a recent spike in kidnappings of foreigners, orchestrated by jihadist groups and criminal gangs, has made it clear that this war is no place for curious bystanders.
Rebel-held territory in northern Syria has grown untenable for professional journalists and aid workers as well. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 18 journalists are currently missing in Syria, but the actual figure is likely higher because kidnapping cases are often kept under media blackout at the request of the families involved. American freelancers Austin Tice and James Foley were abducted last August and November respectively, and are still missing. French journalists Didier Francois and Edouard Elias were kidnapped from their fixer’s car by armed gunmen in June on the road to Aleppo. Polish photographer Marcin Suder disappeared from the Idlib Media Center in July, but escaped his captors a few days ago and is now recovering at home. This August I shared beers with a journalist in Kilis who was abducted on the road to Aleppo a few days later, and is still being held. Sky News Arabia lost contact with a three-man reporting team in Aleppo last week, and Mohammad Saeed, a journalist working for the Saudi-owned news network Al-Arabiya, was executed by a hooded gunman with a silenced pistol this Tuesday. At least 50professional and citizen journalistshave been killed since the start of the war in 2011.
Back in Kilis, the Syrian fixer who arranged the tour of al-Bab for Smith, Alencar, and Mousa still laughs about it today. “I get people like that coming to me for help all the time,” he says. “Kilis is a zoo. But now I tell them tourism season is over.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Matthew Van Dyke fought with The Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. The Daily Beast regrets this error.