Tice’s friends remember how the ex-marine and amateur journalist seemed right at home covering the war inside Syria—staying upbeat until the day his communications stopped. Tice called going to Syria 'the greatest thing I’ve ever done.'
Government tanks were pounding away at a road block up ahead when Austin Tice finally decided he needed some rest. The 31-year-old journalist had been hard at work for more than 24 hours covering the rebel campaign to liberate Idlib, in eastern Syria, as fighting raged there this summer. So he lay right down in the dirt, some 50 yards from the battle lines, and went to sleep, remembers his friend and translator, Mahmoud Sheikh al-Zour.
Zour wondered how anyone could sleep through such mayhem. But Tice seemed right at home. “Man, the only thing that was bothering me was the fucking fly that kept landing on my nose,” he told Zour after he awoke.
Tice, a former Marine, had just finished a semester at Georgetown law when he decided to try his hand as a journalist embedded in Syria’s increasingly bloody war. When he’d met Zour in a city near the Turkish border, looking to be smuggled into Syria, he’d never been published before—but soon he was writing articles from the front lines for the McClatchy news service and The Washington Post. And he was received warmly by the residents in the Idlib towns he and Zour used as a base. “Everybody knew him. They called him Austus and Ashton,” Zour says. “I was so proud.”
Zour kept in contact with Tice by Facebook as he moved on from Idlib, eventually making his way to the outskirts of Damascus, whose suffocating security presence makes it one of the most dangerous places to be for journalists in Syria. Then, in mid-August, the messages stopped.
The regime has gone beyond military objectives, leveling entire neighborhoods and destroying homes, some opposition members and analysts say, in an apparent bid to devastate areas it cannot control.
Samer Kanjo has been chronicling the destruction of Aleppo since the battle between rebels and government forces began there in July. As the managing editor of Aleppo Today, an opposition news channel covering Syria’s largest city on satellite TV, Kanjo has overseen a steady stream of accounts from the mayhem—from photos of demolished homes and shops to news flashes of tanks rolling through residential streets. He estimates that about half of the city has been either destroyed or badly damaged.
In recent days, a new surge of fighting has seen that destruction reach a fever pitch, with much of the city’s historic souks, the prize of a UNESCO World Heritage site, going up in flames. To Kanjo, the cultural tragedy only served to reinforce a darker theme—that Syrian forces in Aleppo, from his point of view, have become more concerned with wrecking the city than with winning it back. “No government would behave this way unless it was trying to destroy the city,” he says.
Until July, when rebels launched a surprise offensive in Aleppo, it had managed to steer clear of the war gripping other cities such as Homs, as the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became an increasingly deadly armed struggle. From the start, the government campaign in Aleppo has relied on an overpowering show of force—launching shells into the city from the outskirts and dropping bombs from the skies, leveling rebel positions and neighborhoods alike. According to an August report by Amnesty International, government forces in Aleppo have frequently targeted civilian areas with “indiscriminate attacks.”
Kanjo has become convinced that standard military objectives are beside the point—houses, factories, and schools, he believes, are targeted on their own, along with key infrastructure such as the water supply. It has not been determined that events like the burning souks and the damaging of one of the city’s main water lines last month were the result of planned regime attacks rather than unintended consequences of the continued fighting. But Human Rights Watch has lambasted the regime for bombing bakeries while residents wait in line for bread. “The regime is targeting regular life in Aleppo,” Kanjo says. “It has nothing to do with fighting a war.”
Moving undetected across the front lines, female freedom fighters have become indispensable to the fight.
On the afternoon that Syrian soldiers finally forced their way through Raifah Sammie’s front door, they were surprised to find her stomping right toward them, shouting angrily, having just finished putting her headscarf on. “You can’t just barge into someone’s home like this!” Sammie scolded the men. “Don’t you have mothers and sisters? There are women here! We need time to cover up.” The soldiers had been searching homes in the rebellious province of Idlib in eastern Syria, and at first they demanded to know what had taken Sammie so long to open up. They had knocked and shouted repeatedly before her son let them in. But as the soldiers surveyed the scene—four women sat nervously with their kids, while the formidable Sammie stood guard before her 22-year-old son, who she proudly noted was attending medical school—their suspicions gradually eased. “I’m just a housewife,” Sammie said.
Fighting has led to food shortages and long lines, like this one at a bakery in Aleppo. (Daniel Etter / Redux)
Once the soldiers left, Sammie reached between a bedroom window and shade and retrieved the hard drive she had stashed there while the soldiers were busy pounding on her door. She had also been frantically deleting contacts from her two mobile phones, while tearing up pieces of paper with the phone numbers—from Romania, America, Turkey, France—of Syrian contacts living abroad who regularly sent over large sums of money that she then channeled to the rebellion. Sammie was indeed a housewife, just as she’d claimed. She was also a key cog in Idlib’s revolutionary machine, having graduated from organizing demonstrations to distributing funds to rebels who needed money for arms.
On a recent afternoon near the Syrian border in the Turkish city of Antakya, where she took refuge last month, Sammie, who was wearing an elegant pink headscarf and a carefully tailored black abaya, recounted the ruse with a grin. It was just one of many successful operations, which also included helping people to defect and raising cash for the rebels.
A fire devoured a historic market in Aleppo on Saturday, as government forces and rebels clashed in Syria. The fight for Aleppo has lasted more than two months, and has begun to take its toll on the country’s infrastructure and historic landmarks. A YouTube video showed gunfire erupting at the Souk Madina, a centuries-old marketplace, though the authenticity of the video hasn’t been verified. At least 94 people were killed across Syria in fighting Saturday, according to opposition groups.
As fight for control of the city intensifies.
Intense fighting continued in the Syrian city of Aleppo on Saturday as rebel and government forces clashed in what’s being described as a “decisive battle” to push out those still loyal to president Bashar al-Assad. Once considered an Assad stronghold, Aleppo has seen the fighting intensify since July. A YouTube video showed gunfire erupting at a medieval marketplace, though the authenticity of the video hasn’t been verified. At least 94 people were killed across Syria in fighting Saturday, according to opposition groups. Meanwhile, the U.S. has warned Iran to stop shipping weapons to the Assad regime, as the Obama administration recently pledged $45 million in new aid to Syrian opposition forces.
Syrian rebel forces are intimating that a decisive battle for the heart of Aleppo is at hand—but analysts say the fight for Syria’s largest city is likely to be a long war of attrition. Mike Giglio reports from the Syrian border.
As fighting flared in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo on Friday, the country’s rebels billed their latest push there as a decisive one, painting it as the “zero hour” for wresting control of the metropolis away from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.
An injured rebel fighter is helped during heavy fighting with Syrian government troops some 50 meters away in Aleppo's northern Izaa quarter on Sept. 27. (Miguel Medina / AFP-Getty Images)
But the top rebel commander in Aleppo, Col. Abdul Jabbar al-Okeidi, told The Daily Beast that the battle for Aleppo will continue to drag on as a long and difficult fight—a view in line with analysts who have predicted that a war of attrition is at hand.
“We’re gaining new ground and we’re hurting the regime,” Okeidi said. “But we don’t have the heavy weapons that the regime has, or the air power or tanks. So what we’re doing is fighting them slowly, and we’re waging a guerrilla war. It’s going to take time."
As the civil war escalates, some analysts say the scale and nature of the conflict will eventually demand a united response from Russia and the West.
By Damien McElroy and Richard Spencer
The death toll from fighting in Syria’s civil war has escalated sharply, as expectations grow that a foreign military intervention would be necessary to try and contain the bloodshed.
Activist groups that track death tolls said that more than 5,000 people were forecast to die this month alone, substantially above the 4,000 that died in August. By contrast, the worst month in the Iraq conflict—after the initial invasion—accounted for 3,028 lives, in July 2006.
The United Nations refugee agency meanwhile predicted that up to 700,000 Syrian refugees could flee abroad by the end of the year, nearly quadrupling its previous forecast.
As main rebel group announces move from Turkey to Syria.
Insurgent-controlled areas of Syria are under continued aerial attack Saturday, as Syria’s main rebel group announced it will be moving its command center from Turkey to either Aleppo or Damascus. The anti-Assad group, known as the Free Syrian Army, also claimed to have brought down a key government fighter jet Saturday as aerial bombings pounded rebel strongholds. FSA leaders say the transition of their group’s headquarters from Turkey to Syria over the next two weeks will help prepare forces for an offensive push against government troops in Damascus. Activists estimate that more than 27,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed over the last 18 months as a result of fighting in Syria.
Airstrikes hit a gas station, activists say.
At least 30 people were killed in northern Syria on Thursday as forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad launched airstrikes that hit a gas station and caused a massive explosion. Dozens more were reportedly wounded in the attack, which was the latest in a bloody civil war that has pitted Assad loyalists against rebel groups trying to topple the dictator. Hours before the airstrike, a Syrian military helicopter crashed near Damascus after colliding with a passenger plane carrying 200 people. The plane landed safely and no one on board was injured, according to Syria’s Information Ministry.
The battle to overthrow Bashar al-Assad rages on, but Syrian rebels say the anti-U.S. protests are distracting attention from the war—and strengthening Assad’s hand.
On Sunday, as last week’s wave of anti-American protests was dying down across the Middle East, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the powerful Lebanese militant group Hizbullah, took to its TV channel to call for more. “The whole world needs to see your anger on your faces, in your fists, and your shouts,” he said, and on Monday, an estimated 500,000 of his followers in Beirut answered the call.
As the protesters massed next door, many Syrian revolutionaries—who are facing a brutal crackdown in their 18-month-old campaign to overthrow one of Nasrallah’s chief allies, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—mused darkly on how the protests over an amateur anti-Islam film were distracting international attention from their plight. “Assad must be very happy by now,” an activist in Damascus, who uses the pseudonym Lena, says.
Some even thought that Nasrallah—who made a rare public appearance at Monday’s rally in which he called it the start of “a serious campaign that must continue all over the Muslim world”—had created the stir to help his friend. “They’re trying to thwart the Syrian revolution,” says Gen. Mustafa Sheikh, the head of the military council for the rebel Free Syrian Army. “Meanwhile, Syrians are getting killed at the hands of Hizbullah and the Iranians, and no one is helping.”
Syrian rebels view Hizbullah, along with its prime benefactor, Iran, as directly involved in their war against Assad. The three groups are aligned religiously—both Hizbullah and Iran are Shia, while Assad’s minority regime is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, a Shia offshoot. They have remained steadfast allies throughout the uprising, and there have been reports that both Iran and Hizbullah are assisting Assad in the fight.
As the media turn their attention to senseless violence elsewhere, the struggling, besieged people of Syria wonder: Where’s the demonstrators’ anger about what’s happening to us?
“Dear Arabs, if you had dared to protest against Bashar in the same way of your protest against the American embassies, Bashar would not have been able to kill 200 Syrians a day.”
Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces in the northern city of Aleppo, Sept. 14, 2012. Syrian regime forces used fighter jets and helicopter gunships to pound the city and province of Aleppo, where fierce clashes raged around a military airport, monitors said. (MARCO LONGARI Marco Longari, AFP / Getty Images )
So read a banner in Syria satirizing the absurd and exaggerated outrage against the Web trailer for Innocence of Muslims. Another read: “We have an Assad-esque movie that offends the messenger [Muhammad] and the god of the messenger. It’s been playing for 18 months.”
Many Syrians on Twitter, Facebook, and other social-media sites have expressed outrage about the production of this Web film. But their anger is largely directed at the Arab world’s reaction. Bashar al-Assad’s forces are slaughtering people on a daily basis not in a movie, but in real life, while the media and protesters elsewhere have shifted attention to what many Syrians call “a silly movie.”
When Bashar al-Assad became president, Syrian boys were named after him as a matter of pride, but now many men carrying the reviled strongman’s first name are ashamed of it—and some are dropping it altogether.
Bashar Mahmoud Kabisho was almost 20 when he learned that Syria’s next leader would share his first name. It was January of 1994. An aging Hafez al-Assad was the country’s strongman at the time, and Bassel, his eldest son, was being groomed to take his place. But when Bassel died in a car crash, flipping his Mercedes as he sped down the highway through a heavy fog, the spotlight moved to his lesser-known younger brother, Bashar, who was off training as an ophthalmologist in London at the time.
When Bashar al-Assad became president in 2000, he enjoyed a good measure of popularity. The young leader offered Syrians some hope, promising reform of the country’s suffocating police state. Kabisho took newfound pride in his name. “When Bashar became president, I felt a little arrogant, because everyone was saying, ‘We love you, Bashar,’” Kabisho says. “At the time, I didn’t know Bashar was going to be a criminal. I was happy.”
In Arabic, the name Bashar means messenger who brings good news. It has long been popular in the region even without any political help, notes Adel Iskandar, a professor of Arabic studies at Georgetown University. (Iskandar adds that a popular 1980s cartoon “featuring an enterprising bee named Bashar” gave it a further push.) Many Syrians say the name enjoyed another popularity surge once Bashar al-Assad took center stage, as baby boys started to get the president as their namesake.
Now the name Bashar, as Assad is often called, is commonly heard alongside words such as “dog” and “thief.” His regime is in the midst of an 18-month-old crackdown that has made Syria’s revolution the bloodiest by far of the Arab Spring. There have been some 26,000 deaths in the conflict so far, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The United Nations estimates that more than 235,000 Syrians have been made refugees, while another 1.2 million are internally displaced.
A major water line hit, lines of the hungry at bakeries bombed, refugees trapped—Syria’s largest city is under daily bombardment, and for many civilians, ‘this is almost the end,’ says the head of its medical association. Mike Giglio reports.
Wajih Jouma fled Aleppo last month, believing a humanitarian disaster was imminent. As head of the city’s medical association, he’d watched Aleppo deteriorate rapidly since heavy fighting took hold in July. The regime had turned its artillery and warplanes on the city, neighborhoods had been demolished, and casualties had massed. And even beyond all the dead and wounded, Jouma found myriad causes for a doctor to be alarmed.
Uncollected garbage sweltered in the streets, filled with potential for infection and disease. The threat was in the rubble too, where sewage leaked and untold toxins were unearthed. The regular health problems facing the people of Syria’s largest city, meanwhile, were increasingly left unaddressed. Aleppo’s medical facilities, Jouma said, had been “almost paralyzed.” He worried over everything from people suffering heart attacks in response to the shelling to children’s vaccinations being missed.
“There are people with heart problems, kidney failure, diabetes, cancer—even deliveries. If I needed a crib for a newborn baby, it would be impossible to find one right now,” Jouma said in a recent interview in Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the border with Syria. “Everyone has a medical issue, and it’s impossible for us to do our jobs.”
And that was before one of city’s main water lines was hit.
The Syrian rebels step up stealth assassination, kidnappings, and attacks.
One night last month, in an upscale neighborhood of central Damascus, a muscular man waited in the master bedroom of a large apartment, holding a folding knife. The plan was simple: two of his comrades would hide in a guest room down the dark hall. When the target came home, they would pin him down, and the enforcer would come in for the kill. The assassination would be quiet and quick. When it was through, the attackers would slip back into the night. The knife clicked as the assailant pulled the blade from its sheath.
A Free Syrian Army soldier in late August. (Stephen Dock / Agence VU-Aurora)
Sitting on his couch in Damascus last week, the man, whose nom de guerre is Shirzad Barazi, held a pair of identity cards to the video camera atop his computer screen that he says belonged to the middle-aged man he killed that night in the hall. The ID cards showed Mohamed Abid Osman, an employee of Syria’s state security department, whose government ID number was 74324, and whose job as
an intelligence officer, Barazi says, was to help the Syrian regime kill civilians.
As Syrian troops attack with air raids.
At least 77 are dead in Syria after government forces used shelling and air raids to bombard Aleppo on Saturday. Fighting also burst pipes responsible for delivering water to several hundered thousand people in the country, leaving certain areas with no drinking water. Across the country Saturday, 148 people are believed to have been killed. Aleppo has become the main battleground in the Syrian civil war, as rebels and troops fight for control.
Former Syrian prime minister Riad Hijab grabbed headlines at a press conference Tuesday, urging Syrians to rebel and claiming President Assad's regime is 'on the verge of collapse.'
Before jumping into Egypt or Syria, the U.S. needs to think about what comes next, next, and next. And then, don’t jump, writes Leslie H. Gelb.
A country at war with itself. Bombs and civilian massacres. Yet, in Damascus, the music plays on.
There is no sign of capitulation as the Syrian government’s bombardment of the city heads into its 20th day.