The making of a Syrian rebel: The saga of Abboud Barri

Time magazine reports: Abboud Barri jiggles the dog tags as if they belonged to animals being raised in a puppy mill. “I have a lot of these,” Barri says. “Any buyers?” He is joking. The tags belong to human beings, soldiers of the Assad regime who are now held captive or were killed by Barri, a local commander of one of the franchise groups of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Unlike some other militia leaders, Barri says he isn’t interested in demanding ransom from his captives’ families. He says he keeps the ID tags so those families know “to look for them in hell.”

He keeps the eight military-issued dog tags in the right pocket of his sand-colored cargo pants; they are war booty from his unit’s recent assault on a loyalist checkpoint in Idlib province.

Barri, along with 20 or so other men from several different FSA units in Idlib, is reclining on deep red cushions spread out on plastic straw mats under a sprawling almond tree in the Jabal al-Zawya region in northern Syria. Some of the men laugh as they recount some of Barri’s wilder antics, like the time he set out on an extremely perilous but heroic journey to the besieged town of Rastan, halfway between Homs and Hama, to deliver much needed bags required for blood transfusions. Others recall how Abu Rabieh, a respected revolutionary figure in Idlib province, refused to give Barri a gun, fearing what the former agricultural worker might do with it. Rabieh was shot dead late last year in an ambush. A few months later, Barri formed a military unit, which he now says includes some 58 men. “He was always a risk taker,” one of the men later says about Barri. “In the beginning of the revolution, before there was so much destruction, we didn’t want hot-blooded risk takers who didn’t carefully study their actions. Now it doesn’t matter.”

As Barri speaks, one of his phones beeps. Like a few others in his possession, the device belongs to one of his prisoners. It has received a text message from the captive’s father, wishing him a happy ‘Id al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. After several minutes, the phone rings. It is the father. “Read him the fatiha,” Barri says dismissively to the parent, referring to a Muslim prayer often recited for the dead. “May God have mercy on his soul.” Some of the other men, who admire Barri’s bravado, are taken aback by his coldness. “I was very uncomfortable when I heard him say that,” one of the men says. “I was sad for the father.”

War is dehumanizing, and civil wars in particular can brutalize a society in ways that fundamentally alter its very nature. Neighbors become enemies; differences — social, economic, religious — become magnified as a means to confirm the otherness of the enemy. Local accents and surnames can reveal sectarian identities and, by extension, presumed political views. There is little room for nuance or civility in a civil war.

The U.N. and other international organizations have said that both sides in the bitter 18-month Syrian conflict are guilty of committing human-rights abuses, although President Bashar Assad’s forces are responsible for the vast majority of the transgressions. In more than a year of clandestine travel in Syria, TIME has seen little direct evidence of rebel attacks on civilians, although suspected shabiha (regime thugs) and loyalist troops are often treated mercilessly.

However, an FSA fighter told TIME of a rebel attack on Alawite civilians in a village in Sahel al-Ghab, a vast expanse of plains between Idlib and Hama. He said the small group of rebels were in the village to apprehend a suspected shabih, but things didn’t go as planned. He said a woman opened fire on the group, prompting some of the fighters to shoot her dead and then kill two other women and several children in the house. “We had a serious fight. We, the rebels, clashed over the killing of the women and children,” he said. “We told the others it was wrong, forbidden, but some of them didn’t care.”

The fighter was extremely troubled as he recalled the incident. “See this blood?” he said, pointing to a patch on the knees of his jeans. “It’s Alawite blood.” He held his head in his hands, asking for forgiveness. “What are we becoming?” he said. There was no way to verify his account. He said he and the other men buried the bodies and hurriedly left town before the army arrived. There has been no report of the alleged incident in state media. [Continue reading…]

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