Journalist Paul Schemm was part of a four-member Associated Press team that spent two and a half weeks traveling around Aleppo province in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad — the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.
Syria's humanitarian crisis set to deepen with onset of cold weather
TEL RIFAAT, Syria — The days are still warm across the fertile plains of northern Syria around Aleppo, but night brings a chill — an ominous harbinger of winter's approach and the deepening of the already severe humanitarian crisis gripping a country wracked by civil war.
Warm temperatures and plentiful food have cushioned the blow somewhat for hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes or living in refugee camps across the border. But the arrival of near-freezing temperatures could mean greater suffering and even deaths from exposure, as international aid agencies scramble to cope.
Among the first things to go will be the practice of sleeping outside to avoid the artillery and airstrikes that rain down late night death on homes.
"Most people sleep in the fields at night, out of fear of the bombardments of the towns," said Abu Mohammed, who has taken to sleeping in the olive orchards outside Tel Rifaat, a rebel-controlled town north of Aleppo. "In the winter the suffering will only increase."
Like many people in Syria, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution should the government retake his town.
At a news conference earlier this month, actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N. Refugee Agency, reported that many of the refugees living in camps along the Turkish border were worried about the approach of cold weather.
"It is a very large concern for all of us, and I hope we can all work together to make sure that ... nobody freezes to death in this very frightening time," she said.
As the second winter approaches in an 18-month-old conflict that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, fighting has spread to many more parts of the country and people's resources are dangerously low.
Abu Mustafa, Mohammed's brother, said the family survived last winter on savings, but now the financial situation is much worse.
"Last winter, people had money, but now people have nothing because there is no work," he said. "Most of the work was in Aleppo and most went there for jobs, but now they can't."
An agricultural breadbasket, northern Syria has food, but not everyone can afford it. In many cases, families are forced to flee to refugee camps on the border not only for fear of fighting but because they have run out of money for food.
The length of the conflict is also wearing people down, leaving them even more vulnerable, said Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
"The more people are displaced, the longer they are living in difficult situations of hardship, the more stretched their coping skills are," she said.
The U.N. agency is planning a new international appeal to help the refugees on the borders, as well as those still inside the country, including winterizing tents and distributing blankets and warm clothing.
"Already ... the displaced are suffering from cold in the evening — this is a real concern," Wilkes said. She said the number of registered refugees has far exceeded earlier estimates, growing more than 12-fold from about 20,000 in June to 250,000 today.
Another 1.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, while an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other essentials, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassan. A $180 million emergency response plan is only half-funded, he added.
Temperatures during the winter months can drop below freezing in northern Syria, and it often rains heavily. Most houses are designed to deal with the scorching summers, but are not well insulated against the cold.
Neighboring Turkey has already taken in 80,000 refugees in overflowing camps and for weeks had to temporarily close its borders to new refugees.
At the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, more than 5,000 Syrians are camped out in hangars once used by customs officials to inspect trucks — structures without walls, running water or electricity.
"When winter comes, how will I keep them warm?" asked Fatima Abdallah, gesturing worriedly at her tiny newborn twins as she sat on the concrete floor. Turkey has started admitting a few hundred Syrians at a time, but it's unclear if everyone will be housed in the camps by the time the cold weather sets in.
While food supplies seem to be holding steady, the biggest challenge will be staying warm and preparing food. The parts of the country outside government control have to rely on smuggled supplies of gasoline and heating oil, which have already tripled in price.
Smugglers drive to government-controlled areas, usually to the east, load up their cars with butane tanks and jerry cans of gasoline and drive them back to the rebel-controlled areas.
"There are already shortages of kerosene used to heat homes and there is also a shortage of fuel and cooking gas. And when winter hits, the prices will go up for everything," said Marixie Mercado of UNICEF, noting that the displaced tend to live in public buildings like schools or stadiums that cannot easily be heated.
Many also have taken refuge in construction sites or half-built houses without windows, which will offer little protection against the country's wet winters.
UNICEF is stockpiling supplies, including baby blankets and thermal underwear for children, as well as stoves to heat schools — assuming the fuel is available.
"People are cutting down trees to get wood," said Abu Mustafa, relying on wood-burning stoves to cook as gas supplies have run out. "We cut off a bunch of dead branches in our orchards and collected them, but the next time we went to our fields to pick them up, someone had stolen them. People are getting desperate."
International agencies are working with local partners, particularly the Syrian Red Crescent to distribute food and supplies around the country, said Ben Parker of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Red Crescent can cross the lines of the conflict, but even then, their efforts have been stymied by the proliferating checkpoints and rising violence.
"It will be a bitter winter," Parker warned.
Extremists showing up on front lines in Syria
TEL RIFAAT, Syria — The bearded gunmen who surrounded the car full of foreign journalists in a northern Syrian village were clearly not Syrians. A heavyset man in a brown gown stepped forward, announced he was Iraqi and fingered through the American passport he had confiscated.
"We know all American journalists are spies. Now tell us what you are doing here and who you are spying for," he said in English before going on to accuse the U.S. of the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I really want to cut your head off right now," he added, telling his men, many of whom appeared to have North African accents, that this American kills Muslims.
With the intervention of nearby villagers, the confrontation eventually was defused. But it underscored the unpredictable element that foreign fighters bring to the Syrian conflict.
Most of those fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government, analysts say. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels are trying to play down their influence for fear of alienating Western support, but as the 18-month-old fight grinds on, the influence of these extremists is set to grow.
On Monday, a U.N. panel reported a rise in the number of foreign fighters in the conflict and warned that it could radicalize the rebellion.
The Syrian government has always blamed the uprising on foreign terrorists, despite months of peaceful protests by ordinary citizens that only turned violent after repeated attacks by security forces. The transformation of the conflict into an open war has given an opening to the foreign fighters and extremists.
Talk about the role of foreign jihadists in the Syrian civil war began in earnest, however, with the rise in suicide bombings. U.S. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper said in February that those attacks "bore the earmarks" of the jihadists in neighboring Iraq.
Rebel commanders are quick to dismiss the role of the foreign fighters and religious extremists, describing their numbers as few and their contribution as paltry.
Col. Abdel-Jabbar Aqidi, a top rebel commander for the Aleppo area, told The Associated Press there were maybe 500 jihadis involved in the battle for Aleppo, while a report from the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank studying extremism, estimated a total of 1,200-1,500 foreign fighters in all of Syria.
Other commanders estimated that at most, jihadis, whether local or foreign, made up no more than 10 percent of the fighters.
While this is a small amount compared with the thousands of rebels estimated to be battling the regime, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group warns that the religious extremists will have an influence on the rebellion.
"I think numbers are irrelevant," he said, adding that the extremists are a "very important phenomenon in many ways. Their presence is very divisive, whether there are many or not."
"They are certainly visible, and this increasingly shapes the complexion of the opposition in ways that are not negligible," Harling said.
Reflecting their extreme sensitivity to the topic, the media center on the Syrian-Turkish border investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters in Syria.
"My brother died in this revolution. This revolution means everything to me, and if the world thinks that al-Qaida is involved, it is finished," said Nader, a young rebel with the media center who declined to give his last name.
The media center investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters being involved in the rebellion.
Most of the rebels fighting in the north come from the countryside and have always been more traditional and religious than the more cosmopolitan urbanites of Aleppo.
Rebels often wear the beards associated with religious Muslims and pepper their conversations with references to their faith, but that does not necessarily mean they subscribe to ultraconservative views.
"Having a beard is not a symbol of extremists. It just means we're religious, like a woman wearing a headscarf or a Christian wearing a cross," said Abdel Malik Atassi, a young rebel in the town of Marea, as he gestured to his bearded comrades.
Atassi also noted that the fighters tend to be more religious.
"As a fighter, I am constantly close to death, so yes, I am more religious and I want to follow the prophet's traditions more closely in case I die," he added.
Rebel leaders like Abdel Aziz Salameh, one of the top commanders in the countryside, said that while he hopes for a future government system based on Islamic law, it will ultimately be the people's choice.
"We don't let the foreign fighters spread their way of thinking in our home," he told AP. "We don't need foreign fighters. We have 100,000 men who want to fight, but we don't have weapons for them."
While Salameh and other rebel commanders have pledged to respect Syria's pluralistic society, which includes many ethnic and religious minorities, the jihadis are increasingly framing this war as part of a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.
Assad and many of the top people in the regime belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the jihadis are framing the struggle in Syria as another front in the battle against what they perceive as heretical Shiites.
In the numerous online statements celebrating their nearly daily operations in Syria, Jebhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, the largest jihadist group, often states that the attacks are to "avenge the Sunnis killed by the apostate regime."
Despite their smaller numbers, the jihadis bring experience in fighting guerrilla wars as well as their own supply lines for much needed weapons and ammunition, making them attractive to local Syrians to join.
"The infiltration of weapons and funding to these groups, as well as the ethno-religious component of the Syrian uprising, is likely to continue to serve as a source of attraction for many fighters, some of whom are ex-Free Syrian Army soldiers and many of whom are from foreign countries," noted the September report by the Quilliam Foundation about the role of jihadis in the rebellion.
The jihadis also have a reputation for heading straight to the front lines. Few were in evidence in the countryside, where many rebel units are involved in managing the civilian areas.
A French physician with Doctors Without Borders working near the front lines in Aleppo said in an interview last week that based on style of dress and what their companions said, half of the rebels he treated were jihadis, both foreign and Syrian.
In the end, the 12 bearded men who threatened the car full of journalists may have backed down because of wanting to maintain a good relationship with the civilians from the nearby village.
The more a rebel group is entrenched in the population, the more self-discipline it will exercise and the less likely it will engage in atrocities, Harling said. The problem with the jihadis and foreign fighters is that they often have few links with civilians.
"There is no jihadi precedent in the Islamic world that hasn't ended in one way or another in total failure, which makes it difficult to understand how it carries so much appeal," he said.
Wounded flood hospitals in Syria's largest city
ALEPPO, Syria — It had been a calm day in Aleppo's Shifa Hospital, said Dr. Osman al-Haj Osman, his face etched with exhaustion from just three hours of sleep. Then, a man burst in bearing the shrieking bundle of a 6-year-old girl who'd had a machine-gun bullet rip through both her knees.
Two months into the battle for Syria's largest city, civilians are still bearing the brunt of the daily assaults of helicopter gunships, roaring jets and troops fighting in the streets.
Shoving aside the orderlies and armed rebels milling around the cramped lobby Tuesday afternoon, the man deposited Fatima Qassem onto a gurney as a nurse swooped in and began cutting away the blood-soaked bandages on her knees.
A doctor reached in and pulled out an inch-long fragment of metal. There was a gush of blood. Large sections of bone and muscle were missing from the back of her knee.
She cried out plaintively for "Baba," because the man who brought her was not her father — just someone who had rushed her across town to the hospital. The family was hopefully on its way.
There was a piercing scream as the nurse picked her up again, jostling her awkwardly dangling legs and carrying her around a narrow corner into a small operating theater. Her cries subsided into a steady moan.
Her father, Abdu Qassem, came in 15 minutes later, his shirt covered with blood, probably from carrying his daughter out of the car, and frantically asked the orderly behind the desk how she was doing.
Qassem said they had been driving through a neighborhood when their car was raked by machine-gun fire from government troops.
In the operating room, Fatima's crying grew muffled as an anesthetic was administered and her mouth went slack. Osman cleaned the blood away from the wound and tried to find a way to repair the damage.
Just a few feet away from the commotion, on the next bed, a nurse calmly bandaged the hand of a stone-faced rebel who was oblivious to the stricken child nearby.
A tiny boy walked in and stared with curiosity at the blood and ruin of Fatima's legs before a nurse suddenly saw him and ushered him out. It was Osman's 4-year-old son, Omar.
When Osman started pulling all-day and all-night shifts during Syria's civil war, his wife and two children moved into the hospital so that he would actually get to see them.
"He plays between the wounded. It's a great upbringing," Osman joked in the few calm moments before another patient was carried in. He spoke in English — a language he said he learned from watching the Fox Movie Channel on satellite TV. Perhaps another joke.
The 30-year-old doctor estimated that 80 percent of the patients are civilians, wounded by falling buildings and exploding shells from the constant bombardment that government forces mete out to the parts of the city outside their control.
On Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported shelling in several areas across Aleppo that killed more than a dozen and collapsed a three- story building in the nearby neighborhood of Haideriya.
Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have been increasingly relying on the government's artillery and air power to fight the tenacious rebels who so far refuse to be dislodged from Aleppo.
The city is Syria's commercial hub, and its middle and upper classes were bastions of support for Assad. If the rebels took such a key city, it would give them a quasi-capital to complement the large swaths of territory they control in the north, up to the Turkish border.
Osman said the rebels he treats mostly have gunshot wounds from the ubiquitous snipers scattered over the many front lines.
The hospital itself has been hit directly twice by shells, demolishing two of the upper floors. Bombs fell nearby several times, spraying the entrance with shrapnel and debris.
The hospital has a staff of only five doctors and no surgeons, so difficult cases are often farmed out to other facilities, including a hospital in the town of al-Bab, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) to the northeast.
While there are enough drugs in the hospital so far to deal with the daily violence — which on Monday killed 25 and wounded dozens in shelling believed to be in retaliation for the rebel capture of an army barracks — the staff is overstretched.
"What day is it? I don't know. What time is it? I don't know," Osman said, adding that he goes to sleep at 4 a.m. and wakes up at 8 a.m. — unless he's roused earlier for an emergency.
"My life is just the wounded and the dead," he said.
Outside the hospital, in the surprisingly bustling neighborhood of Tareeq al-Bab, there is the sound of gunfire. A helicopter gunship is lazily circling the neighborhood and rebels on the roofs of the apartment buildings are futilely emptying the clips of their inadequate Kalashnikovs into the sky.
Abu Hassan, who was once a carpenter, sells vegetables on the street facing the hospital because there is no other work. He navigates the tortuous jigsaw of rebel- and government-controlled neighborhoods every day.
"When we are under bombardment, the water and electricity can be cut for days," he said, explaining that if he had the money, he would try to follow the hundreds of thousands of other Syrians who have fled for the border. Since the uprising against Assad began 18 months ago, activists estimate that at least 23,000 people have been killed.
The streets between the shattered apartment buildings are choked with garbage that can no longer be collected.
Although meat is scarce, residents of Aleppo are eating adequately, said Alaa Mursi, gesturing at the eggs, chickpeas, tomatoes and other produce being sold. Many, however, are surviving on handouts.
"People give us food to eat," he said. "There are rich people who distribute food for us."
Just a few blocks away is the neighborhood of Hanano, on the city's edge, where the rebels began their assault two months ago. The streets are largely deserted because most residents were recent immigrants who could flee to relatives in the comparative safety of the countryside.
A few men lounge in the shade of a scraggly tree in the otherwise grim vista of cheaply built concrete five-story buildings.
Overhead is the whirring noise of a jet's engines — a mundane sound in the West that can mean sudden, inexplicable and random death in Aleppo.
"We are afraid to stay in the houses, so we hang out on the street," said Abu Alaa, a jovial 30-year-old who hasn't worked in months. "We sent our families to the countryside and we stay here to look after the place, in case of thieves."
The sound of the jet suddenly builds to a crescendo and there is a muffled crump, mercifully in the distance. Another airstrike. The men gesture in the direction of the explosion and say that just this morning, a bomb fell a block away, killing a woman.
"We can't sleep here during the night or day," said Abu Abed, who looks much older than his 40 years. "In the morning, it's the jets. In the afternoon, it's the helicopters. And at night, it's the shelling."
Syrian countryside gives vital support to rebels
SURAN, Syria — When the uprising against President Bashar Assad started, Fatima Zahra gave up her life as a dressmaker in a small town in northern Syria and began cooking and delivering meals for the rebels.
Bucking tradition in conservative rural Aleppo province, the stern, blue-eyed matron has also opened her and her husband's home to soldiers defecting from the army, providing them with sanctuary before they either join the rebels or head back to their villages.
"There are two or three other families in the village doing this kind of work but they are afraid to be known," she said. "I am not afraid of what I am doing because I believe the revolution will be successful."
Support from rebel-controlled towns and villages dotting the rich farmland of this northwestern pocket near the Turkish border is likely one reason that rebel forces have been able to keep going in a now 2-month-old battle for control of Syria's largest city, Aleppo. The region is the rebels' strategic depth. Towns provide fighters. Residents help funnel food, supplies and ammunition to the front lines. And rebels engaged in the fight can find a safe refuge to rest and recuperate.
Rebels in July launched an audacious assault on Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub that until then had been untouched by the fighting. Eight weeks on, the rebels have held large chunks of the city and show no signs of being driven out as they were in a failed assault on the capital of Damascus over the summer. According to the rebels, the vast majority of those fighting in Aleppo come from the towns and the villages to the north, many of which have been free from government control since May.
The rebels are proving the wisdom of Che Guevara, who preached the importance of establishing safe havens and local support in the countryside. "The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area. This is an indispensable condition," he wrote in the introduction to his 1960 manual "Guerrilla Warfare."
Every village has a base for the local battalion, where some rebels stay to patrol the countryside and those fighting in Aleppo can come back for a much-needed break before returning to the fray. Government forces, meanwhile, have to conserve manpower for fear of overstraining the elite units that are the only ones trusted to not defect in battle.
In the village of Suran on the outskirts of Aleppo, several young men fresh from the Aleppo fighting sprawl on thin mattresses and share a nargileh, puffing out aromatic clouds of apple-scented tobacco. For now, their uniforms are off and Kalashnikovs are stacked in the closet, but in days they will be back in Aleppo.
Abu Leith may have to wait a little longer than his comrades. In his wallet he carries the fragment of the sniper bullet that ricocheted off a wall and slammed into his shoulder the day before in a successful assault on a government barracks in the northeastern Aleppo neighborhood of Hananu.
"The fight is going well," he said, echoing the inexplicably high morale of his fellow rebels in the face of an enemy possessing a modern air force and mechanized brigades. "We believe in what we are doing, and they don't."
The next day, Monday, the injured went to the balcony to wave to their comrades prepared to head back to Aleppo.
Some rebels used the last moments before the journey to pray. Others loaded bullets into their magazines and checked the straps on their battle fatigues.
"We will make our stand to the last drop of blood," said Abu Yaari, a 39-year-old rebel, who like many fighters gave only a nickname for fear of retribution. "All the fighters you see are living martyrs."
With cries of "God is great," they then all piled into a pickup truck and a battered SUV and roared off in a cloud of dust.
The rebels in Aleppo province, most of whom say they are under the umbrella of the Tawhid or Unification Division that launched the assault on Aleppo in July, also are involved in governing these small towns that could well become the kernel of a new Syria outside of Assad's control.
"The rebels control the area and help the civilians govern it, and then there are our military duties," said Abdel Malik Atassi, a 27-year-old rebel from a battalion based in the town of Marea. "We protect the bakeries and resolve local problems."
The rebels have even set up a court system here. Acting as a judge is Ibrahim al-Najjar, a lawyer who fled from Aleppo after he woke up one morning to find government tanks ringing his apartment building.
"We have a mixture of civil and Islamic law," he explained, leaning on his motorcycle outside a home that been demolished by a regime jet the week before. "Marriages, for instance, are under Islamic law, but money and commercial matters are under civil law. ... With the new system, there is more justice and it is swifter."
Flush with food from a good harvest, the villages have enough to feed themselves as well as the rebels in their midst, many of whom receive home-cooked meals from residents such as Zahra every day.
Zahra, who wears a traditional headscarf common in the rural areas, used to travel to Aleppo buy fabric for her dresses but then began ferrying food to the fighters in the city until the road became too dangerous.
Now, she cooks up lunches of meat and vegetables, often with supplies donated by other villagers, for a band of several dozen rebels.
"They know I'm a strong woman, so they never say anything to my face," she said about some of the local women who disapproved of her mixing with so many men in a conservative society. "But I can tell the way some look at me that they had something on their minds."
Marketplaces in these towns are bursting with bright red peppers, purple eggplant and golden bushels of corn, while herds of sheep roam the countryside.
Yet many people used up their savings to make it through the last winter. Some of those who've flocked to the refugee camps in Turkey did so not just out of fear of the fighting, but because they've run out of money.
With more than 80,000 crossing the border to the refugee camps, there are fewer mouths to feed in the villages.
"So many people have fled to Turkey, so there is enough, though sometimes we have some shortages," said Zahra, who isn't looking forward to the colder weather. "This winter will be so difficult. There will be problems with the heating and the cooking because we have no fuel."
It is with an eye to the future that France announced Sept. 5 that it had started giving direct aid to five unidentified towns in the northern provinces of Idlib, Aleppo and Deir al-Zour that all have large areas outside the regime's control.
The aid is largely practical, including rebuilding bakeries, water systems and developing health care facilities. Foreign Ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot said it would prepare the ground for a future without the regime.
"The humanitarian dimension also has a political goal. It is clearly in our minds to prepare for after Bashar al-Assad, what we call, 'the day after,'" he told reporters Friday.
Associated Press writer Nebi Qena contributed to this report.
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