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Entries in Rania Abouzeid (9)


Syria 1st-Hand: Life in Islamist-Controlled Raqqa (Abouzeid)

Mass demonstration in Raqqa last Friday

Raqqa City was once dubbed the “hotel of the revolution” because it became home to hundreds of thousands of people displaced from fighting elsewhere who sought refuge in a place considered firmly in the grip of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Earlier this month, however, the city in north central Syria, which was late to the anti-government revolt, became known for something else: It is the first and only provincial capital that Assad’s regime has completely lost — with the rebels taking control of it within the span of a week.

The regime will likely lose the entire province within days. There are only three remaining regime outposts in this vast eastern tribal area that extends all the way to the Turkish border: there’s Division 17 a few kilometers outside the city; the military airport at Tabqa about 40-to-50 kilometers away, and Brigade 93 in Ain Issa, some 70 kilometers away. All three positions are under heavy rebel attack and government counter-attack.

But here in Raqqa city, some 100 kilometers from the Turkish border crossing of Tal Abyad, the scars of war are faint. Warplanes still rumble in the air, mainly to aid the men besieged in Division 17, but, despite reports from earlier in the month, airstrikes and artillery shelling in the city are now rare.

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Syria 1st-Hand: The Insurgent Sniper in Aleppo (Abouzeid)

Insurgents in AleppoHe may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”

He refused an order in November to fight a proregime, ethnic Kurdish militia in a Kurdish neighborhood of Aleppo that the rebels had entered. “Why should I fight the Kurds?” he says. “It’s a distraction. This isn’t our fight.”

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Syria 1st-Hand: Visiting the "Deadly Stalemate" in Aleppo (Abouzeid)

Destruction in the Bustan al-Basha section of Aleppo

The street warfare isn’t winning the rebels any more friends. The urbane Aleppans have never really warmed to the opposition fighers, most of whom come from religiously conservative Sunni Muslim small-towns --– and there is growing concern that the rebels are turning more sectarian. The rebels know they’re not really welcome. “The Aleppans here, all of them, are loyal to the criminal Bashar, they inform on us, they tell the regime where we are, where we go, what we do, even now,” says Abu Sadek, a defector from Assad’s military now with Liwa Suqooral-Sha’ba, one of the three rebel units in Bustan al-Basha. “If God wasn’t with us, we would have been wiped out a long time ago.”

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Syria 1st-Hand: Who are the Al-Farouq Brigades? (Abouzeid)

Photo: Sebastiano Tomado/SIPA USAThe Farouq Brigades emerged from the central city of Homs and nearby Rastan just months into the now 18-month Syrian uprising. In the period since, operating under the FSA umbrella, they have formed units across the country, from Daraa in the south near the Jordanian border to the northern region bordering Turkey. According to some of their leaders, they comprise a force of 20,000 fighters. The brigades take the name Farouq from Omar bin al-Khatab, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, political architect of the caliphate and, historically, the second Caliph.

The brigades are both a source of envy and pride among the rebels. Dressed in their matching military fatigues emblazoned with the brigade’s black insignia, they look like a professional fighting force, unlike the many hodgepodge groups in their mismatched items of military and civilian clothing. The Farouq’s slick media operation ensures that their exploits are widely known. Their videos are quickly uploaded onto YouTube, along with the group’s statements. Most importantly, their support — both in terms of money and weapons — is strong and consistent.

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Syria Feature: Saudi Arabia v. Qatar in the Arming of the Insurgents (Abouzeid)

Disorder and distrust plague two of the rebels’ international patrons: Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The two Gulf powerhouses are no longer on the same page when it comes to determining who among the plethora of mushrooming Syrian rebel groups should be armed. The rift surfaced in August, with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups — including various shades of secular and Islamist militias — under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

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Syria 1st-Hand: A Fractured Insurgency Asserts Its Authority (Burke/Paul)

Abu IssaFor better or worse, Abu Issa's rise to unchallenged leader of a burgeoning mini-state is a motif being repeated across the country. As the authority of Assad’s regime recedes, power is passing not into one unified opposition, but into the hands of many local rebel leaders. In Jebel Zawiya alone, a region of only about 300,000 inhabitants, there are two major rebel groups, a third emerging, and a smattering of smaller ones tucked under other umbrellas. Several national opposition groups, often more brands than organizations, may have become well known on the international stage, but they have trifling clout on the ground.

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Syria Snapshot: Armed Groups Complicate the Fight in the Northwest (Abouzeid)

Insurgents celebrate the seizure of the Bab al-Hawa border post on the Turkish-Syrian border, 19 July 2012

Although there are still loyalist checkpoints along some of the main highways (which are easily avoided using backroads), the rebel flag flies in many of the towns and villages in this flat, fertile agricultural region, creating pockets that function as informal safe zones free of government troops. Still, although vast swathes of northern Syria may have fallen out of government control, they are not necessarily firmly in the Free Syrian Army's.

Criminal elements also function within these pockets; groups that kidnap people for ransom (releasing them dead or alive after payment of a ransom or purchase of weapons), and that carjack civilian vehicles. Sometimes, those criminal elements operate under the FSA’s banner, prompting other FSA units to try and neutralize them via one of two ways --- firepower, or by leaning on local leaders with influence over certain families, tribes and areas. The FSA are trying to police their own ranks, while fighting the regime and competing for suppliers, supporters and resources with each other and with other armed groups like the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigades.

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Syria Feature: The Next Challenge --- Running a Liberated Town (Abouzeid)

Demonstration in Saraqeb, 29 June 2012

Saraqeb is still at the mercy of the tanks of President Bashar Assad, just as it has been for about a year. The military invaded during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan in 2011. It re-entered on March 24 for a couple of days. It also shelled Saraqeb on July 19, in response to an attack by local elements of the rebel Free Syria Army on a checkpoint on the outskirts of the town. Some 25 people were killed in several hours of shelling on that night. It is Ramadan once again and the tanks every now and then lob a shell in the direction of town to remind Saraqeb that Assad’s forces are still around.

But a different flag flies in Saraqeb: the three starred one belonging to the rebels. And the local government works. The Baladiye, or local council, in this Sunni town of some 40,000 in northwestern Idlib province is still functioning. Its 90 or so civil servants still show up for work and still draw their salaries.

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Syria Feature: An Insurgency Running Short of Ammunition (Abouzeid)

"Fouad," a rail-thin Syrian in tight jeans who looks at least a decade older than his 25 years, leans forward in a black faux leather armchair in an unheated, sparsely furnished room in this southern Turkish city.

"I need ammunition," he tells Abu Mohammad, a stocky Turkish weapons dealer sitting impossibly upright on the stiff couch. "I'll pay five and a half." He quotes the price in Turkish liras -- about $3 per bullet.

Abu Mohammad smirks. He carefully places his white, half-moon Turkish coffee cup on the small square table in front of him. "They're seven each," he says. "If you can get them for five and a half, I'll buy them from you."

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