BAB AL-HAWA, Turkey – My cab driver was called Abu Nour, a 30 year-old, high-spirited chain-smoker from Barzeh, Damascus. We got on very well despite the fact that he spoke no English and I spoke little Arabic. “Shou?” “NOW Lebanon.” “Lebanon?” “No, NOW” – here I pointed lamely at the ground, the best I could do on short-notice to indicate temporality – “Lebanon. It’s a magazine. In Beirut.” “Ah, Beirut!” A few seconds passed before Abu Nour issued what my translator explained was a colorful imprecation against Hassan Nasrallah.
I’ve had a lot of taxi drivers in two years of covering Syria, but Abu Nour was the most garrulous and amusing. Whenever we passed a stray dog tramping down the highway, he’d point and say: “Bashar al-Assad.” He told me he loved New York, where I’m from, even though he’d never been there. He’d never been anywhere, in fact, besides Syria and Turkey.
Abu Nour lives in Antakya now, as do so many Syrians who’ve escaped the war, though he goes back to his native country, if not his native city, on a near daily basis. He also loves Americans, especially our common friend, the journalist Austin Tice, whom he’d driven around Idlib several months before Tice was captured by what Abu Nour thought were jihadists but were, in fact, regime agents. Another favored American was Mohammed. “His mother was from Afghanistan, an emigrant. He didn’t know how to say anything [in Arabic] besides, ‘Food, sleep, battle, withdrawal,’ and ‘boom-boom-boom.’ They called him Mohammed the Monster.” I didn’t ask why.
In the 45 minutes or so it takes to drive from Antakya to Reyhanli, which is the Turkish border town abutting Idlib, Abu Nour kept telling me not to get my hopes up because today was Friday and on Friday everything is quiet. Saturday, Sunday,” he said by way of contrast, and then made an indescribable but apt noise denoting frenetic activity. Still, I wanted to see the border for myself because now the CIA was said to be running American-bought weapons to the Free Syrian Army and I was stupid enough to think that this might be observable in broad daylight.
The way it works is actually not much more clandestine than that. There are “weapons nights” and on a weapons night the Turkish border control and military disappear, leaving the gates to Syria open. The trucks filled with materiel – some of it heavy, such as anti-tank or anti-infantry guns, most of it light such as AK-47s – drive right through the gate uninspected and unobstructed. The only problem for the foreign correspondent is this: You never know which night is going to be a weapons night and, as I mentioned, I was coming here during the day.
Not that this was exclusively my own fault. Reporting on Syria in the field means you’re beholden to no certain clock. Interviews are conducted whenever the subject turns up, which is not when he says he’s going to turn up but you just try being late when he does. It’s been two-and-a-half years since the revolution started, but it’s impossible to tell one minute from the next. Syrians keep to inshallah time in Turkey. Inshallah the Americans will bomb. Inshallah we will get anti-aircraft missiles from the Saudis. Inshallah your taxi driver will be here soon to take you to Bab al-Hawa.
Arriving there one notices a typical no-man’s land demarcating the end of one country and the start of another. A parking lot lies adjacent to the border gate, which bisects two main thoroughfares for entry and exit. Last February, a car bombing killed 12 people and injured two dozen more here; now concrete barricades were in the early stages of construction in both lanes, with wire mesh protruding through foundation slabs. Huge trucks, filled what was I was told was strictly humanitarian aid, left and entered Syria as did smaller minivans and coupes stuffed with suitcases, televisions, and bric-a-brac of emigrating – or in some cases, returning – Syrians. A thousand people go back and forth every day, one man told me, and several kilometers on from where I was standing was the Syrian border-guard, manned collectively by rebels from the Farouq Brigades, Ahrar al-Sham, and Suqoor al-Sham. Depending on whom you asked, you’d either be all right with these shabab or you’d be in trouble. “Don’t go through Bab al-Hawa, mate,” a journalist friend of mine had warned me prior to my trip. “It’s Kandahar on the other side.” My wife had already told me she’d divorce me if I went back into Syria and returned alive. Abu Nour was having none of that, however; he repeatedly offered to take me to see for myself, and I repeatedly, politely, declined.
No one I met said anything about any weapons transfers and it’s quite possible they were all telling the truth. “Armed people from the Free Syrian Army go into Turkey, but arms do not go through,” said one relief worker called Bitar. “It’s been a year that I’ve been bringing money to support the groups from al-Madinah al-Munawwara [the enlightened city],” by which he meant Saudi Arabia. “Is he videotaping us?” another man asked my translator. “Because I am not okay with him videotaping.”
I asked another Syrian what he saw on his way out. “I didn’t see anything other than miserable and tired people. It was a pitiful situation. I saw the camps [presumably the one at Atmeh], something that’s really very painful.” He was from Binnish, which was still being bombed by jet fighters.
A former nut-and-seed merchant from Homs explained that he was allowed to move freely between Turkey and Syria even though he had no passport. He’d left it in Homs and wasn’t about to go back to retrieve it. Besides, he said, “there is no more Homs. It’s done.”
An older, skinny man with a grizzled beard and mouth full of loose dentures whom I’ll call Yusuf (he didn’t want to give his real name) was packing up his car and talking loudly with everyone and anyone nearby. Yusuf seemed willing to chat with an American journalist and he made me laugh when he said, slightly off to the side and perhaps thinking this wouldn’t be translated, “If we have to speak as filler in newspapers, we’ll do it.” I asked Yusuf about living under the authority of the Free Syrian Army. “We are safe and even prices are controlled.” So why was he leaving? “We’re escaping the shelling and rockets and airplanes and tanks of the regime because most recently [Bashar] has been hitting us mercilessly.” “They are even attacking us with chemicals,” added someone else in Yusuf’s entourage.
Yusuf was from Maarat al-Numan, a city just off the highway between Hama and Aleppo. In the summer of 2011, some of the largest protests against the regime occurred here and a year later, some of the fiercest battles between the Syrian Army and the FSA. “I am one of the first people that took up the revolution in Maarat al-Numan,” Yusuf said. “All of those that are resisting the regime, whether it’s [Jabhat] al-Nusra, or Ahrar al-Sham, or Suqoor al-Sham, or the Free Syrian Army, they’re all from the people. The work is one and the goal is the same, the names are just different. Make sure he understands that,” Yusuf instructed my translator.
What did he think about the American response to the Syrian crisis? “The position of your government is mutazabzib,” which is one way to say it flip-flops. “It leans toward the regime more than it does toward the Syrian people.” This wasn’t a singular lament; almost every Syrian I met on this trip believed it now more than ever.
Rebels are easy to spot at the Bab al-Hawa crossing because they don’t cross with caravans full of personal belongings; they hoof it in duos or trios, carrying little if any baggage, and wearing their civilian garb uncomfortably. I saw two such men, one of whom looked a lot like Jesus Christ in a hoodie, coming my way and instructed Abu Nour to ask if they’d be amenable to an interview. Abu Nour returned after a few seconds and apologized that they would not. Were they in fact from the Free Syrian Army? Not quite, he said. They were in Jabhat al-Nusra. It was my first face-to-face encounter with al-Qaeda in Syria.
Jabhat al-Nusra may be the homegrown variant of the Bin Ladenist network, but it’s also fielded more than a few fighters from abroad. Nusra’s rival franchise, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, predominantly consists of non-Syrians. People wonder why jihadists have had such an easy time assembling in northern Syria, particularly at the margins of the country, but the answer is simple: the Turkish government hasn’t bothered to vet those who transgress the border and it has only recently discovered that this might not have been such a brilliant policy after all. Indeed, on every flight I’ve ever taken from Istanbul to Hatay there have been one or more obvious muhajireen types. An acquaintance back in Istanbul had told me that one of her colleagues once stood in line at customs behind two men from Tunisia and overheard their exchange with a Turkish official, which went something like this: “Why are you in Turkey?” “To do jihad in Syria.” Their passports were stamped.
Pace Yusuf, Syrians themselves are beginning to chafe under the governance of the takfiris, which is why several FSA-aligned rebel formations have been fighting against al-Qaeda with growing frequency and ferocity. An old and constant antagonist of Nusra is the Farouq Brigades, one of the largest and most powerful FSA organizations in Syria with a heavy presence in both Idlib and Aleppo. About five minutes or so after the Nusra rebels told me bugger off, I met a Farouq fighter called Hasan Jalel, who looked about 30 years old and wore a trimmed black beard. I asked him about the jihadists in northwest Syria. It’s been a cold peace lately. “There are not really problems now,” he said. “They work on their own and we work on our own.” He left it at that, then he bid me goodbye.
Abu Mustapha was more forthcoming. A former engineer from Khan al-Assal, a town in Aleppo that was hit by chemical weapons several months ago and had recently been taken by rebels from the regime, he now commanded Liwa al-Muhajireen, a rebel group signed up with the Western-backed Supreme Military Command. Weapons, he said, had come but only from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – none from the United States. Abu Mustapha said of al-Qaeda in Syria: “They claimed to come to liberate the country, too. Their position is one – as if they are supporters of the regime. Now, we are not against them, but if they keep going like this then we will be against them and we will fight them the way that we are fighting Bashar.”
Abu Mustapha was traveling with Abu Mihidi, a fellow rebel originally from Hama, and after a few minutes of discussion Abu Nour offered them both a ride back to Antakya – on my lira, of course, but it was worth it. So the three of us, Abu Mustapha, Abu Mihidi, and your humble correspondent, were crammed into the back of Abu Nour’s sedan. Abu Mustapha argued with Abu Mihidi and teased him that he didn’t want to continue fighting as a man from Hama had already suffered enough under Hafez al-Assad. Then Abu Mustapha proceeded to show me videos on his cell phone of the seizure of Khan al-Assal. Dead Syrian soldiers and shabiha were lying on the ground beside an army base in one; in another, Liwa al-Muhajireen fighters were shooting machine guns behind a stone wall; finally, in the last video, Abu Mustapha exhibited captured soldiers from the regime. He said they were all prisoners of the FSA now.
Abu Mustapha’s men had all been hoping for an American airstrike, he said. In preparation for one, they’d divided up Aleppo military so as to wage opportunistic assaults on regime installations once the Tomahawks hit. At one point, Abu Mihidi mentioned Nusra’s presence in Aleppo, to which Abu Mustapha objected. “I swear there is no Nusra in Aleppo except for the western suburbs. The Islamic State has taken over them and they run around saying that they have liberated areas, after the FSA liberates them and cleans them up. America did this to Syria, it's the one that has let the Islamists get a foothold here. I was hoping to go to Afghanistan to fight with them once, but when they came to Syria, I saw how they work. I hope they go out from the country when the revolution is finished.”
And if they didn’t, would he fight them? Abu Mustapha shrugged. A few seconds passed before he said, laughing: “Bashar al-Assad is beautiful compared to the Islamic State.”
Maya Gebeily contributed translation.
*As this piece was being published, reports emerged of another car bombing at Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian side of the crossing.