Journalist Examines Chaotic Fighting In Syria

A Syrian rebel fires toward a position held by regime forces during clashes in the northern city of Aleppo on Sept. 14.

hide captionA Syrian rebel fires toward a position held by regime forces during clashes in the northern city of Aleppo on Sept. 14.

Marco Longari/AFP/GettyImages

The battle in Syria is being fought by rebel fighters who lack many of the basics typically associated with warfare: helmets, a large supply of ammo, and military planning.

"I was with one fighter who had 11 bullets, and he was, like, roaming as a freelance fighter along the front line trying to pick up a fight somewhere," journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad tells Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

Abdul-Ahad describes the situation in Syria as fluid and complicated. A correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian, Abdul-Ahad reported for the PBS Frontline documentary The Battle for Syria, which airs Tuesday.

"There is chaos, there is no military planning, there is no organization," he says. "Most of the skirmishes happen like a game of cat and mouse: The tank is the cat. When the tank moves down street, the rebels disperse, run away, try to ambush the tank, they go from a corner to a corner. Meantime, there is shelling [and] mortars raining on them."

Abdul-Ahad has covered conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq for the past nine years — and he says he hasn't seen such disorder and violence since reporting on Fallujah during the Iraq War in 2004.

"In other conflicts, you meet people and then you hear they died after a few weeks, months, years," he says. "In Syria, you meet someone in the morning and they die at the end of the day. As one of the officers was saying: 'The only thing we have plenty of to spend is men.' "

The Battle for Syria is an up-close look at insurgents fighting government forces in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.

Abdul-Ahad says most of the fighters he has met — some of whom are jihadis, secularists or Salafists — are "just driven by the spirit of the Arab Spring, the spirit of the revolution ... fighting to topple [Bashar] Assad because they wanted a form of dignity. They were tired of being ruled like sheep, enslaved by one family, one ruling party."

Ghaith says he sees the recent protests and violence in Egypt and Libya as manufactured events by Salafists [ultra-conservative Muslims] looking to drive religion into daily political life.

He says if the film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad were the motivation behind the demonstrations, there would have been millions of Muslims in the streets of Cairo and Libya, not just hundreds or thousands.

"There are so many grievances against the West, but [they're] not necessarily the reason for these demonstrations. We are not entering a new era of anti-American feelings," he says.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian reporting for PBS Frontline. i i

hide captionGhaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian reporting for PBS Frontline.

Martin Argles/The Guardian/AP
Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian reporting for PBS Frontline.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a correspondent for The Guardian reporting for PBS Frontline.

Martin Argles/The Guardian/AP

Interview Highlights

On Syrian rebels posing as Salafists, followers of an ultra-conservative sect of Islam

"They are very, very restrictive in the way they interpret Islam. They have a very specific ideology ... You see them as probably 30-40 percent of all the fighting that happens in Syria. ...

"Why? Because most of the support is coming again from the Gulf countries, from Saudi, from Qatar, who really espouse these ideologies. And again, they [Syrian rebels] really have to take money from these countries because no one else is giving them money. I've met Syrian rebels who grow beards, who espouse this very conservative radical rhetoric when they speak. In reality, they drink, they take drugs, they have nothing to do with Islam, but they have to adopt this ideology to get money and support."

On the crowds demonstrating sadness over Ambassador Stevens' death

"[There are] far more people in Libya, in Tunis, in Cairo — especially in Libya — who support what the ambassador was doing in Libya than the people storming the embassy or killing the poor guy.

"But the reality is, those guys, these Salafists, most of these demonstrations were led by the Salafists — and the Salafists were totally outfitted by this Arab Spring. They were posing as the opposition to these oppressive regimes, they were saying for a long time — they and other Islamists — they were saying that Islam is the solution, that Islam provides the path for the revolution. And then, suddenly, you see those masses pouring into these streets calling for democracy. They didn't call for Islam ... the revolution was never about having an Islamic state."

On the American approach to Syria

"I think [the U.S. is] taking the worst approach at the moment. They are not openly supporting the rebels, while they are, from under the table, coordinating with the rebels, letting their allies send them a trickle of weapons — the weapons are neither enough for the rebels to win nor for them to be defeated.

"So you have this prolonged conflict and mainly because of — not only the West, but the whole international community — paralysis of the Syrian situation. For months, the activists, the people were demonstrating in the streets, but no one wanted to touch the Syrian uprising because they feared it might change the balances in the Middle East. ...

"So I think a big opportunity was missed when the activists were not supported, with the paralysis of the international community, allowing Russia, China and Iran to play a huge, big role in this conflict, allowing the Saudis and Qataris to sponsor militias and send weapons. So [the U.S. is] neither supporting the rebels, nor ... stopping this conflict."

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