Gaining a clearer view of the Syrian civil war

In an effort to correct some of the caricatures of the fighters in Syria, Christoph Reuter reports: These men with beards and Kalashnikovs, constantly shouting “Allahu akbar,” do fit with a certain framework, but that framework doesn’t exist anymore. Nor does the image of the ultra-warrior apply to all who adorn themselves with the al-Qaida logo. A group of jihad tourists kidnapped a British and a Dutch photographer in late July, and the British photographer, John Cantlie, later said their camp seemed “like an adventure course for disenchanted 20-year-olds.”

In the village of Atmeh, directly on the border with Turkey, we too met radicals with warlike garb, headbands and al-Qaida flags, their black garments and new SUV spotless. “They drive back and forth here all day,” said one perplexed FSA member. “They seem to like it.” And in Antakya, the sleepy provincial capital in Turkey where journalists, aid organizations and Syrian refugees meet, the jihad tourists can be found every evening on the patios of the nicer hotels, enjoying a Coca Cola and a water pipe.

That doesn’t stop Syria’s state-run media from spreading the story that the majority of those fighting on the rebels’ side are foreign al-Qaida terrorists. Ironically, that story finds willing ears in the West, including with Islam alarmists who think they detect al-Qaida behind every bearded man they see, and with left-wing conspiracy theorists who see the US as synonymous with interventionist imperialism.

The true danger, the one we sense growing with each trip we make to Syria, is the increasing brutality and barbarism on both sides. The question is no longer simply how this conflict will end, but also at what price. In any case, the fall of the house of Assad is inevitable.

Tens of thousands of people have died. They are civilians, soldiers and rebels. Gangs massacre their way through suburbs and villages. Half a million people have fled abroad, and far more are desperately on the move within their own country, afraid to stay where they are, but fearing death around every next corner.

A year ago, Homs, Aleppo, Rastan, Talbiseh, Douma, Zabadani, Deir el-Zour, Idlib and hundreds of other cities and villages did not yet look like small Mediterranean Stalingrads. The irresistible pull of revenge increases with each wave of killing, for both the Alawites and the Sunnis.

“If someone has lost a son, it’s still possible to stop him,” said a pharmacist in the village of Martin. “If he’s lost two, it’s very difficult. With three, it’s impossible. I’ve read about what Mahatma Gandhi achieved in India and I admire it. But what would have become of him here? In a week he would have been lying dead in a field.”

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