Justin Vela

Posts Tagged ‘fsa

PHOTOS: Aleppo, Syria…August 2012…

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Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters head into a fight in Aleppo, Syria in August 2012.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters head into a fight in Aleppo, Syria in August 2012.

A Syrian rebel fires on a regime jet as it swoops overhead in Aleppo, Syria. August 2012.

The aftermath of an attack by regime jets in northern Aleppo province. Syria August. 2012.

The aftermath of an attack by regime jets in northern Aleppo province. Syria August. 2012.

Syrian rebels in Aleppo’s Salaheddine District in August 2012.

Syrian rebels in Aleppo’s Salaheddine District in August 2012.


Written by Justin Vela

September 11, 2012 at 6:27 pm

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Recent work from Aleppo…

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Syrian rebels head into a fight with regime forces in Aleppo, Syria on August 15, 2012.

Syrian rebels head into a fight with regime forces in Aleppo, Syria on August 15, 2012.

Istanbul – Last week, I was in the war torn Syrian city of Aleppo and the surrounding countryside.

During this time I accompanied Syrian rebels into combat in two different locations around the city. During one battle, the rebels faced off with regime aircraft, as I described for Foreign Policy:

Suddenly, we were there. A regime jet, probably an L-39 Albatros, screamed low overhead as rebels who were already engaged in battle fired on it with two truck-mounted Dushka guns. A fighter firing one of the weapons, a Soviet-era heavy machine gun, watched open-mouthed as the plane darted overhead. His truck sped down the street after it, but it was already out of range. Absent extraordinary luck, the rebels’ weapons were simply incapable of downing the jet.

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I also met and interviewed fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group with alleged links to al-Qaeda, for the Washington Post.

On a recent morning, three jihadist fighters chambered rounds into their AK-47 rifles as their bearded driver sped through Aleppo’s streets in a bullet-ridden white van.“If shooting starts, put your head down,” one of the jihadists said as the van headed toward the flashpoint Salahuddin neighborhood, blending in with the battle-scarred vehicles of other fighters hurtling through the streets.

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In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the trip, the border town of Azaz was bombed and about 40 people killed. Since men were badly wounded the death count could continue to climb. I described the aftermath for al-Monitor.

Tiny pieces of a dead woman were picked up one by one and placed in a white piece of cloth. It might have been a scarf or perhaps simply at hand when it was needed for a final task that certainly had not been its intended purpose. The young men filled the cloth with bits of the woman’s remains and moved broken pieces of concrete from around the rest of her body. The men carefully collected as much of her as possible.

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In the midst of all this, I ran into some foreign fighters, including one from the United Kingdom who I featured in The National.

Wounded Syrian rebels being carried in and out of crowded hospitals are hardly an unusual sight. But when one young fighter passing through the hospital doors says, “Excuse me, guys”, in perfect British English, bystanders take notice.

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See photos of Syria’s rebels

Written by Justin Vela

August 23, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Published work, The Middle East

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Back from Syria…a Syrian rebel just after firing on a regime fighter jet…

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A Syrian rebel just after firing on a regime fighter jet that flew overhead on a bombing run in Aleppo on August 15, 2012.

A Syrian rebel just after firing on a regime fighter jet that flew overhead on a bombing run in Aleppo, Syria on August 15, 2012.

Istanbul – Am back in Istanbul after spending several days in northern Syria. Articles from this reporting trip will be out soon.

Written by Justin Vela

August 19, 2012 at 7:17 am

Posted in The Middle East

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Southern Turkey a “rear base” for Syrian rebels + other stories…

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In July, I spent several weeks working on a series of stories along the Turkey-Syria border.

Most of these stories were published by The National and described how southern Turkey is being used by the Syrian opposition as a kind of rear base to rest, buy weapons, and treat the wounded.

A fighter from the Free Syrian Army sauntered into the front yard of a run-down home on the Turkey-Syria border where his friends, three families of Syrian refugees, were living. Wearing a black shirt and camouflage trousers, he was on a mission: to wash his laundry.

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For a full list of these articles please see the July section of my “Recent Work” page.

During my time at the border I also met Thwaiba Kanafani, a Canadian-Syrian woman who said she had joined the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). While Ms. Kanafani continues to pop up in the media, she herself admitted that FSA officers in Turkey had decided to stop working with her under rather shocking circumstances that I detailed in the Globe and Mail.

Her adventure, when it unravelled, unravelled quickly. On Monday, she won a post as a communications co-ordinator on a Free Syrian Army (FSA) committee at a Syrian refugee camp. That lasted barely three days. By midday Thursday, Ms. Kanafani was expelled from the council because of suspicion over her motives. “I left them,” she said. “I am not working with them any more because they say I am an Israeli spy.”

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An FSA flag hanging in a hotel room in Antakya, Turkey in July 2012.

An Syrian rebel flag hanging in a hotel room in Antakya, Turkey in July 2012.


Written by Justin Vela

August 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm

Gulf guns to the Free Syrian Army (FSA)…the frightening thought of Chemical Weapons and Western intervention…

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Istanbul- Last Wednesday, the Independent published a story I did on Gulf countries-including Saudi Arabia and Qatar-arming rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Since the start of the uprising, anti-regime activists have only smuggled small quantities of weapons, purchased on the black market, from Hatay in southern Turkey into Syria’s Idlib province.

However, three weeks ago, members of the loose assortment of rebel groups that comprises the FSA said they had received multiple shipments of arms including Kalashnikov assault rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry from Gulf countries and that Turkey was assisting in the delivery of the weapons.

Read the full story

The rebels first made the claims to me a few weeks ago and a Ankara-based Western diplomat more recently confirmed the news. The weapons will not turn the tide of the conflict against the Syrian regime, but they do provide a moral boost to the FSA groups that received them and appear to have contributed to an increased number of successful attacks. The delivery of the weapons (at least three shipments were made through Turkey) also mean that the conflict in Syria can be considered a proxy-war between Gulf countries+the US+Turkey vs. Russia and Iran. This is frightening. Especially given the regime’s vast stockpiles of chemical weapons.These could fall into the hands of extremists. Or the regime might deploy the weapons as its demise approaches. It appears more and more likely that the West will be forced to directly intervene, though the US is waiting for the most opportune moment to do so. And at the same time hoping it will not have to. Even if Assad falls in the next 12-months, or perhaps even by the end of the year, Syria will be chaos for years to come.

I haven’t been a very good blogger this year, but read a dispatch from my last trip to the Turkey-Syria border published in Foreign Policy:

BOHSIN, Turkey — The dull thud of the Syrian military shells woke me in the Bohsin refuge camp at about three in the morning

Across the tent, Wasim Sabbagh, a Syrian Christian from the province of Homs, did not stir. But across the Orontes River, which separates Turkey and Syria, people were dying as we slept, in numbers impossible to verify because the Syrian government denies independent observers access to the country. The United Nations saysthat “well over” 7,500 people have lost their lives during the yearlong uprising.

Life in the refugee camp — a life spent hoping President Bashar al-Assad will soon fall — has become routine. Sabbagh’s friends compare the different brands of tuna provided to them by Turkish aid workers, watch the pigeons one man keeps in a homemade cage, and, of course, follow the latest horrible news from inside Syria.

Full story here

A civilian volunteer for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Ain al-Baida, Syria in December 2011.

Written by Justin Vela

June 17, 2012 at 11:19 am

Inside Syria with the Free Syrian Army in Ain al-Baida…

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Istanbul-At the beginning of December, I was back on the Syrian-Turkish border, to do a story on couriers for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that were going back and forth between the two countries, carrying supplies in and secret dispatches and wounded civilians out.

A FSA fighter in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

While researching the story I again crossed the border into Syria, guided by a Syrian smuggler. On a hill overlooking the village of Ain al-Baida, I was introduced to a group of FSA fighters who were living in a small outpost across a valley from a Syrian military position.

The sharp pop of gunfire draws little reaction. The soldiers of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) point to a multi-storey house just across the wide valley from their base above the village of Ain al-Baida, about a mile from the Turkish border. “That is where the military is,” says commander Abo Mohammad, who wears a camouflage jacket over civilian clothes and cradles an AK-47.

Read the full article in the Independent 

A FSA fighter points to a bullet hole in a building occupied by rebel fighters in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

On the Turkish side of the border I also visited the Reyhanli refugee camp, one of several camps full of Syrians who fled the country. Many  have been there for months and tensions in the camp are high. Upon arriving, I witnessed a fight break out suddenly. A group of Syrian men in their late-twenties accused a Turkish worker of speaking unkindly to some Syrian children. The situation got out of control and the Syrian men pulled up large metal stakes anchoring a tent and went after the Turkish man. Other Syrian men intervened and the situation eventually cooled down.

Inside a camp for Syrian refugees in Reyhanli, Turkey. December 2011.

It is no wonder the Syrians in the camps are frustrated. Only a few days before I witnessed the fight in Reyhanli,  two Syrian men from the camp were sent back to Syria after a translation mistake by a Turkish gendarme, sparking a day of riots.

The two men returned to Syria – Azzam Haj Mahmoud and Omar Mahmoud Asheikh –had arrived in Turkey more than a week ago and were taken to Reyhanli, where some of the more than 8,000 refugees living along the border are based.

Refugees said that after five days the pair were told by camp authorities they had to return to the border to register with a gendarme.

They were driven to the frontier on Saturday and have not been heard from since.

Read the full article in the Independent 

By the time I was able to covertly enter the camp, the two men had returned to Turkey after negotiations between local authorities in Turkey and and officials in Syria’s Idlib province. Before the Syrian regime’s crackdown on opposition protests and ensuing sanctions, there was a thriving trade between Turkey and Syria and officials on both sides of the border worked together closely. Inside the camp, I met Azzam and Omar, who said that they were very happy to be back in Turkey and grateful that the Turks had been able to organize their release.

Turkey is playing a pivotal role in the international efforts to pressure the Syrian regime. The FSA fighters I spoke with in Ain al-Baida were looking to the country to establish a buffer zone inside Syria from which they could fight from, similar to the role the town of Benghazi played in Libya.

The flags of the Turkish Republic and Syrian opposition atop a roof in Ain al-Baida, Syria. December 2011.

The poorly armed fighters challenging Assad’s army believe that only an armed uprising stands a chance of toppling the Syrian regime. “We cannot accept our families and friends being killed,” said a burly fighter wearing camouflage fatigues and grasping an assault rifle. “We will fight Assad by any weapon, by knife, by gun. We will fight.”

Though the FSA claims to be composed of defectors from the Syrian military, this man said he was a civilian volunteer from the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which had been demolished this summer by the Syrian army’s infamous Fourth Armored Division, under the control of the president’s brother, Maher.

Read the full article in Foreign Policy 

Written by Justin Vela

December 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm