This is a rare, personal report of a trip into Syria’s beleaguered provinces. Koert Debeuf, a Belgian working for the European Parliament, travelled with commanders of the rebel Free Syrian Army into the Aleppo region. Back from “the hell called Syria,” to use Debeuf’s own words, he describes his impressions and conclusions from talks with soldiers, civilians, and refugees.
From January 18 to 23, I visited Turkey and the Aleppo region of northern Syria. In the city of Antakya in southern Turkey—known in ancient times as Antioch—I met commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and people responsible for distributing humanitarian aid in those regions. They gave us a very good overview of the situation on the ground.
On January 21, we went into Syria with General Abdel Nasser Farzat, the FSA commander for the Aleppo region. As the Bab al-Salam border crossing was temporarily closed, we were smuggled into the country. Using minor roads to avoid shelling and regime soldiers who still occupy a few strongholds in the Aleppo region, we arrived at about 8 p.m. in Azaz at the house of an FSA officer who offered us a meal. After dinner we headed to the headquarters where we met Ahmed Abeit, the commander of the revolutionary High Council of the Military Council.
It was clear from the beginning of our trip that nobody really knows who has exactly which function in the military opposition. There are two overlapping structures: the FSA—dominated by former generals from the Syrian regime army—and the revolutionary forces. Both have commanders; they work together but the hierarchy is unclear. Ahmed Abeit told us that he had been elected general commander of the revolutionary structure for the whole of Syria. The next day, when we visited the battlefield at Quweris airport, we saw Abeit again and realized he really was in charge.
A Deep Distrust of the West
It was not easy talking to the senior commanders. They are deeply suspicious about anything European or American. Every one of them kept repeating how they have seen nothing at all materialize from the many promises that were made by the international community. We—the international community—promised them support if they organized themselves militarily. Nothing came. We asked them to organize civilian councils. Nothing came. We promised them humanitarian aid. Nothing came. We promised weapons. Nothing came. Every single one of these commanders is convinced that the West is on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is very difficult to disprove these accusations.
Despite the distrust, they really did appreciate that I had come. Because of security concerns—mainly a fear of kidnapping—only the most senior officers knew that I work at the European Parliament. They were glad that at least one European official made the effort to come to the region and was trying to help (without promising anything). After a conversation of about two hours, we went back to the officer’s house in Azaz, where the four of us and the general slept on the living room floor. That night we heard bombs being dropped from planes on a neighboring town. The officer said it was most likely the bombing would reach Azaz by morning. Luckily that didn’t happen.
A Visit to a Battlefield
The next morning we thought the general would take us by car to Aleppo. Instead he brought us to the battlefield at Quweris airport. They told us it was safe, but we heard and saw continuous shelling and gunfire. We had to run or walk quickly from place to place. The area had just been captured the day before, and the rebels were preparing for a big battle to seize the airport. To prevent the regime forces from taking back any ground—about 2,000 soldiers were stuck at the airport—the FSA fired bombs from where we stood. I saw with my own eyes what Ahmed Abeit had told me the day before: The FSA has to build bombs and equipment from whatever metal it can find because it doesn’t receive any serious weapons from abroad. This is in sharp contrast to the cluster bombs and other huge explosives I saw fired by the regime. The FSA has no antiaircraft guns either, so they have no way of stopping the continuous random shelling of the civilian population.
I visited a small division at the frontline from where I saw three bombs being fired at the airport. Although the soldiers were proud to demonstrate their fighting skills, their commander told me they were sad to be fighting at all. He said the FSA wanted peace but that it was Assad who had forced them into war. He gave me an olive branch and asked me to take it to the European Parliament to show Europe that the FSA’s intentions were good.
Bombing the Bakeries
I felt relieved when we left the battlefield. We went back to Azaz where we saw the only bakery that was still in operation; the regime is deliberately bombing bakeries in order to hurt the population. Even worse was the marketplace we visited: one week earlier, at 2 p.m., the most crowded time on market day, the regime shelled the marketplace with two huge missiles. Thirty people of all ages were killed immediately, and 300 were seriously injured. The place was razed to the ground.
Desperate local people told me that there were still bodies under the rubble, but that they lacked the equipment to dig them out. They blame the EU and the United States for doing nothing and for not helping them in any way. There is no food, no medical aid, no electricity, and almost no heating. It is hard to describe the frustration, the pain, and the shame I felt at that marketplace.
The Azaz Refugee Camp
The shortage of humanitarian aid in the refugee camps is shocking. I visited the camp at Azaz in the Aleppo region. Almost no aid reaches this place, even though it would be perfectly safe to bring in food and supplies. The camp is located only a few hundred meters from the Bab al-Salam crossing on the Turkish border where no trucks were waiting. I even saw a Turkish ambulance pass right by the camp on its way from Syria back into Turkey.
There are 11,400 people living in the camp, a place initially built for a few hundred. Eight thousand of these are children. Yet the storage room for milk is empty. The camp does receive some milk, but not nearly enough. So for every few days of milk, there are two weeks of no milk. The lack of food is so serious that people in the camp only get one meal a day. Even then, the supplies were only going to last another two days after our visit. When I asked the director whether more food would arrive soon, he said he could only hope for that.
A Humanitarian Disaster
There is a serious lack of heating. On the day we visited the camp, four children died because of the cold. Some tents have no heating—I saw a family with a disabled child in such a tent—others have only a small coal stove. The tents are, of course, small (9 square meters), and families are usually large (between six and ten people). Because of the rain, the tents are wet underneath, and water and mud runs between them. Due to the lack of toilets, parts of the camp have become an open sewer, which leads to a high risk of epidemics. Disease has already broken out in one camp. There is rarely any electricity. There is no medicine and almost no medical support. I saw a twelve-month-old boy with an open shrapnel wound on his leg. It hadn’t been treated for days. His desperate father came out of one of the unheated tents in the mud to show him to me.
My conclusion is that the Syrians I spoke to are right: there is no support whatsoever going to the “liberated areas”. In terms of territory, the FSA controls about 75 percent of Syria. In terms of people, it is hard to tell, but probably about half of the population lives in “liberated areas”. The humanitarian situation is incredibly dramatic. It is such a disaster that it is hard to describe or even imagine.
I would summarize the situation as follows:
- There is very little aid coming to the “liberated” (FSA-controlled) areas. Every commander and council leader I spoke to confirmed that the only aid they receive comes from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or smaller, mostly private organizations. The only major organization represented is Médecins Sans Frontières, which has three small field hospitals in the Aleppo region.
- There is no aid coming to these “liberated areas” through the Syrian Red Cross. Assad’s regime is doing its utmost to prevent aid from reaching his opponents. The director of the Azaz camp told me that all he had ever received through official channels were some rubber sleeping mats—and that was a long time ago. The fact that the UN announced this week that it would give the Syrian Red Cross 519 million dollars to help all the people of Syria caused huge outrage in the Aleppo region.
- Contrary to rumours, Turkey did not close its border permanently. I have seen about 100 trucks with aid waiting to enter Syria, and Turkey decides when it is safe enough for them to go in. Turkey is the one country that is helping the Syrians.
- Contrary to their image, the “liberated areas” are organized. In every area except Homs there is a military council, a civilian council, a court, and a police force. The main reasons they can’t do more are the continuous shelling and the lack of humanitarian aid. People are so desperate that there is a lot of theft. Because of the shelling it is also hard for the police and the judiciary to concentrate on law and order. The lack of humanitarian aid weakens the authority of these councils because they can’t provide people with the absolute basics of food and medicine.
What Should be Done
It is clear that many people will die if humanitarian aid does not reach the FSA-controlled areas quickly. The aid promised by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to the Syrian Red Cross will not reach these places, whatever the Syrian government may promise. For getting aid to the right areas and the right people we have to differentiate between two situations:
The camps close to the Turkish-Syrian border—as well as those inside Turkey—should be provided with aid directly, as there is no security problem and it is not true that the border is closed. This can be done through the Turkish Red Crescent or similar organizations. Aside from bureaucracy, I see no obstacle in getting aid to these camps.
There is also a solution for aid that has to go deeper into Syria. There is already a network in place that brings aid from Turkey to various rebel-held areas and even to Homs, which is surrounded by regime forces. This network is organized by the civil councils of the rebel cities and towns and enjoys the protection of the FSA.
A Leap of Faith
I have convinced the two commanders, Abdel Nasser Farzat and Ahmed Abeit, to appoint civilians to manage aid efforts. This wasn’t easy, as both are very cynical about the West. They have given me one chance to try again. The person or unit they appoint will work with the connections that already exist and represent the civilian councils to make sure that every aid package will go where it was meant to go.
If the EU really wants to help the Syrian people, it should use this setup, even if needs to take a leap of faith to do so. The EU also urgently needs to convince the international humanitarian community to take the same leap of faith. If this is impossible, another way must be found. Urgently.
The political dimension is also important. The FSA and the civilian councils are losing respect and authority because they cannot deliver aid. That is why people are increasingly following the jihadists and al-Qaeda. If we fail to deliver on the humanitarian level as we did in the past on the political and military level, we should not be surprised if post-Assad Syria becomes even more anti-Western than the country has been under the current regime.
Koert Debeuf, 38, currently lives in Cairo and represents the ALDE group of Liberals and Democrats in the European Parliament. Debeuf studied ancient history at the universities of Leuven and Bologna. He was a spokesman for Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt before founding a liberal think tank, Prometheus, in 2008 to 2009.