Life with Syria’s rebels in a ruthless war

C.J. Chivers reports: Abdul Hakim Yasin, the commander of a Syrian antigovernment fighting group, lurched his pickup truck to a stop inside the captured residential compound he uses as his guerrilla base.

His fighters had been waiting for orders for a predawn attack on an army checkpoint at the entrance to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The men had been issued ammunition and had said their prayers. Their truck bomb was almost prepared.

Now the commander had a surprise. Minutes earlier, his father, who had been arrested by the army at the same checkpoint in July, had called to say his jailers had released him. He needed a ride out of Aleppo, fast.

“God is great!” the men shouted. They climbed onto trucks, loaded weapons and accelerated away, barreling through darkness on nearly deserted roads toward a city under siege, to reclaim one of their own.

Mr. Yasin was pensive as he drove, worried that the call was a ploy to lure him and his fighters into a trap. “Often the government does this,” he said. “Usually it is an ambush.”

He had sent an empty freight truck ahead, he said, to check the way. But he never slowed down.

During five days last week, Mr. Yasin and his group, the Lions of Tawhid, allowed two journalists from The New York Times to live and travel beside them as they fought their part in the war to unseat President Bashar al-Assad.

This group falls under the command of Al Tawhid Brigade, a relatively new structure in Aleppo Province that has unified several groups and fights under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, the loose coalition of armed rebels.

While broad extrapolations are difficult to glean from one fighting group in a complex society, the activities and personal stories of these men, a mix of civilians who took up arms and dozens of army defectors who joined them, offers a fine-grained look of the uprising, and the momentum and guerrilla energy it has attained.

Mr. Yasin, 37, was a clean-shaven accountant before the war. He lived a quiet life with his wife and two young sons. Now thickly bearded and projecting a stoic calm under fire, he has been hardened by his war in ways he could not have foreseen. [Continue reading…]

And this is the point that everyone outside the war must remember, be they critics or supporters of the revolution: with our glib certainties we might imagine we know what course of action our political beliefs and moral values would dictate at a time of war, but we really don’t actually know what we would do if we found ourselves faced with the stark choices that now shape the lives of so many Syrians. Paradoxically, the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes often depends on our ability to acknowledge how limited is the experience we share.

In this report and many others, the religiosity of the rebels is apparent and its mix with chilling violence will for many Western observers confirm their fears about the rise of Islamic extremism. But think about it. This doesn’t simply reflect the conservative religious trends that permeate the Middle East. Religiosity in this case is as much as anything reactive. It is in part a reaction to the fact that across the region, secularism, corruption, and dictatorship seem to have always ended up working together hand in hand. Thus those who are concerned that the fragile growth of democracy requires the protection that secularism might seem to offer must acknowledge that in the Middle East, secularism has too often been the vehicle of injustice. (I note this as an atheist.)

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