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Not a Crosswalk


Aleppo, Syria

09 December 2013

The Syrian war is growing.  Growing in size and complexity.

Yet the more one learns about this conflict, the less accurate it becomes to call it “The Syrian War.”  Thousands of foreigners have flooded in.  Some are moving through southern Turkey today.  Just this weekend Jihadist hardliners seized yet another town on the Turkish border, ten minutes drive from a Turkish town.  Barbarians are at the gate, and the gate is wide open.

As these words are written, foreigners are fighting inside and creating international contacts that will transcend this place and time.

Jihad is being crowd sourced.  Tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, are being raised from private sources.  See, “Inside Kuwait’s Kickstarter campaigns to fund Syrian Jihadists‘.

image003A Syrian Christian gave me this image from Aleppo, saying that the left side of the road is controlled by the Assad regime, and the right side by the Free Syrian Army and ISIS.

Some of the young fighters I have spoken with express fondness for al Qaeda in the sense that people flocked to Che Guevara.  They are mindlessly drawn to a picture and a caption without context.

Others are fond of the terrorist organization Jabhat al-Nusra, or the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), or one of countless obscure groups whose names mean little to anyone other than people involved, or analysts.

The Christian who made the photo above said that since March 2013, the Assad regime has controlled the left side, while the FSA and ISIS (al Qaeda linked) control the right.  And so FSA and ISIS fight each other on the right, and both fight the regime on the left.  The war is a perfect mess.

Iraq veterans from about 2005 to 2007 may recall the many teenaged boys recruited by al Qaeda.  AQ would arm the boys, pay them a little, provide a reason to be, and a mission from the skies.  Many boys become terrorists because they have nothing better to do.  Terror groups become their families and identities.

Gangs of teenaged al Qaeda fighters answered only to men who were willing to kill them.  In Syria, young men are growing up today in an environment where they know only war.

image005Syria film by Matthew VanDyke:

Documentary filmmaker Matthew VanDyke, who has spent time with Nusra and FSA, created an excellent film from inside the battle zones, which included a young volunteer-journalists named Nour.  She said, “I have to do this for my country.”

Matthew told me that many of the jihadists sweeping in are “double-digit IQ types” from countries like Bangladesh, who likely could not find Syria on a map.

Jihadists come in many forms.  Some are recruited as fodder from abroad.  They are purchased as baitfish for an expedition.  They are ignorant, buyable, renewable resources whose names are as unimportant as those of minnows.  Their bones will rest where they fall.

The minnows are battlefield expenses.  Nobody eulogizes minnows that help to catch fish.  Unlike minnows, they may survive, and perchance make it back to their countries, and continue with their own battles.

Others are do-it-yourself, full of initiative, who go at personal expense, often enduring great hardship to arrive at the battlefields they dreamed about.  They may come from Denmark, Norway or California.


Matthew VanDyke knows all about this sort: he was one.

In Libya, Matthew was fighting Gaddafi, where he was wounded in combat and woke up a prisoner of war.  He was not there as a journalist and made it clear, though news sources repeated the claims that he was operating as a journalist.

Had Matthew been a US Soldier, he would have received a Purple Heart, medals for bravery, and been welcomed home as a POW war hero, likely with offers for a book deal.

After his capture, most people thought Matthew was dead.  He was not dead, but was tortured for nearly half a year.

Only Matthew knows his innermost motivations, which appear to be based on a distaste for tyrants like Gaddafi.  Matthew appears to be the type who would volunteer to get bin Laden, then when done, call it a day.  That is a different sort of foreign fighter, with a specific and finite goal in mind.

Some jihadists bring similar if separate motivations.  They come for a season of jihad with the motivation of fulfilling their “jihad obligation.”

Often the captured fighters say these things, but also after killing them in fights, our people frequently capture their homemade videos, which show the story of their one-season jihad.

The video begins, “Here we are departing Tunisia for the glorious jihad.  We shall be home by winter.  Do not worry mother that I will not return to complete my studies.  I will only miss one half year of school.  Now we are in Pakistan preparing to cross into Afghanistan to begin our duty.  The food is fit only for donkeys and the weather is hotter than we imagined.  Jamal is not accustomed to the hardship and was thinking of turning back but we agreed that we must endure to fight through summer.  Though we have not yet fired a bullet, we already miss home.”

image009aReaper taking off over Afghanistan: four Hellfire missiles and two GPS guided bombs.

Then a Hellfire missile kills them and we get their video.

For others, jihad is more intense, intended without end, but even that has its conclusion.

Osama bin Laden is said to have instructed his own children in his will not to join al Qaeda and not to go to the front.

Once a jihadist posts a video to YouTube saying he will attack certain countries, or his fingerprints are found on a bomb in a European shopping mall, he has signed up for the lifelong plan.   There is no turning back.

For jihadists who buy the ticket for the larger mission, Syria will either be their dead end or a whistle stop.

Syrian rebels have told me about young fighters strutting around like suicidal peacocks, wearing explosive belts.  Young al Qaeda wear these belts as invincibility shields.  Al Qaeda gives them identity, a wolf pack and comradeship.  They enjoy power of life and death without penalty.

Other foreign jihadists are more sophisticated than the dead-enders.  They have no intention to die and they are not the fools and minnows wearing suicide belts around town.  These are the types who likely will come back to haunt us in bigger ways, and with their increasing international contacts, with their imaginations and some work, they can slide into positions to hit multiple targets in multiple countries simultaneously.

Many Syrians believe the foreign fighters are ruining the revolution.  Similar feelings erupted during the Iraq war, with the ultimate result being a bloody backlash against the foreign jihadists, who at first were welcomed as holy warriors.

As in other wars, most foreign fighters will not care about the locals.  They are not the Peace Corps.  They come for the war.  They will not stay to rebuild because few really care, and fewer still can do good work.  The will help wreck Syria and kill its people in their apocalyptic playground, and Syrians who at first welcomed them will grow to hate them and finally kill them.

Many will arrive with no military training, and no doubt most coming from Europe will have little if any experience handling firearms.  Few will have felt the heft of a machine gun, or realize how heavy and powerful it really is.  Before the war, they will never have smelled the lubricant burning off as the barrel glows orange, and the gun becomes so hot that it begins to fire on its own. Their ears have not heard the tics and tinks a hot gun makes as it cools in the darkness after prolonged firing, and after the war, their brains might make the same tics and tinks, and keep firing on its own.

When they step into the wars, most of their noses will be virgins to the smell of plastic explosives, the scent of time fuse burning, and they will not have known before how to make a large bomb using little more than cotton.  When they have not seen a female for a month, they will smell and sense her from a block away. For those who survive and return to Denmark or Germany, they will know this and much more, and with their passports, it is a simple flight to Orlando.

image011A 20 year-old Syrian rebel provided this image, saying each of those tiny holes is apt to be a sniper position. Skeletonized bodies were on the road in the immediate vicinity.

On the global picture, investors in the Syria war include Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Turkey, and many other involved parties.  These are the players that buy the minnows, hire the fishermen and own the boats.

These are the players who, if they saw it in their collective interests, could shut off most of the war.

Russian-born fighters in Syria already are posting videos saying that after Syria, Russia is next.

“These bandits post videos daily claiming that after Syria they will migrate to the North Caucasus and engage in terrorist and subversive activities,” Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov said in a statement posted on the regional government’s website late on Wednesday.

“We cannot sit quietly listening to these threats and wait for this plague to move toward Russia … so the police and the republic’s leadership are taking preventative measures.”

image013Panorama of a sniper zone.

On the granular-level, it often comes down to “front lines” that can be static for months at a time, with enemies so close – just a street away – that the minnows can shout insults to each other across the road.

image015Scattered bodies become props on a stage.

The 20 year-old Sunni who gave me these images said that he loves al Qaeda, then seeing my reaction quickly said he was joking and that he loves FSA.  His saying he loves al Qaeda caught me so off guard that it provoked an involuntary response.  He looked startled for a moment and apologized for the joke.

We kept looking at the photos and he pointed to the bodies in the street.  The skeleton by the basketball.  On one side were FSA snipers that he was with, and on the other side were Assad snipers.

He made clear several times that FSA did not shoot these people, and that regime snipers did this.  The bodies were just in front of the FSA position, though the regime positions he pointed out were within range.

He said that relief workers wanted to collect the bodies but regime snipers would not allow it, and so the corpses lay there for months where dogs and cats picked at the bones.

image017Cats of Aleppo

While the Sunni rebel told me about cats and dogs eating the corpses, a Syrian Christian who wants Assad to fall, who was there with us during the conversation, curiously gave me this cat image he had taken in Aleppo.  Other Christians want Assad to win.  Nothing in war can be taken at face value.

image019Every day is Halloween in today’s Syria.

Americans reciting the Arab proverb, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” are becoming tiresome.  If this idea were held rigidly, we would be friends with al Qaeda.

Of all the jewels amid Arab proverbs, if only there were a magic shovel, to dig a deep hole, to bury “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so that the proverb would never be uttered again.


The skeleton by the basketball drew my attention.  Something looked off.


Yes, something was off.  There is a peg in the top of the skull.  The skull has been sawed, and the bones are the wrong color, and after all those months with the cats, dogs and bacteria, the spine still has discs.  And there is a rod going up the spine.

Good grief.  A medical school is missing its skeleton because it being used as a prop on this stage.  At least the director thought to remove the roller stand.

image025Amid so much reality another fiction is revealed.

Syria has become a terrorists’ melting pot.  Many of the people who came to Syria were not bought as minnows.  They are young wolves whose range already is international.  In the blast furnace of wars, friendships are made in months that might take years, if ever, in the peacetime world.  International wolf packs are forming.

Far more vibrant than inflows of jihadists are the outflows of millions of Syrians all over Europe and across the globe.  This is yet another historical exodus, a one way trip for a massive number of people.

Western governments have cried wolf so many times after 9/11 that nobody believes them.  Yet this wolf is real.  Syria is the World Cup and Super Bowl for jihadists.


If there are questions just how big and bad this wolf is growing, watch: Syria War – Al-Nusra Front Insane Heavy Intense Urban Firefight.

Men who can fight like this will find it a simple matter to take down a shopping mall, or to stage an audacious ground assault on a civilian airport.

When the foreign fighters return home, and their brains begin to cool during long nights, some will be shattered and broken.  Others will move on with life, while a smaller number will have found what they love most in life, war.

Wars never end.  They just go home, and not always to the home they came from.

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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