In a time of war, great journalists are rare. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is a truly unique reporter.
His recent dispatches from deep inside Yemen, including Al-Qaeda territory, were remarkable.
The column of eight rebel fighters picked their way along the street in Deir el-Zour at sunset, moving carefully through the debris of crushed glass and concrete, keeping their heads low and backs bent under the weight of the guns and rockets they carried.
They worked their way along the cratered road, past buildings chipped with multiple bullet holes and apartments and shops that had spilled out their contents on to the warm tarmac: burned mattresses, sofas, a fridge.
Nearby, mortars and shells were pounding out a rhythm. The men stopped in front of a collapsed building whose remaining walls were black with soot. There was a stench of rotten bodies. “We lost three men here two days ago,” said the commander. He pointed at three dark puddles of congealed blood. “They lay here next to each other.”
One fighter picked up a melted black flipflop. Another picked out the charred remains of a man’s robe. He sniffed it. “This belonged to Abu Qutada,” he said. “This is the smell of a martyr.” He tucked the stinking fabric into his bag.
The eight men moved off, darting across the burned and newly named Freedom Square in the centre of the eastern Syrian city, zigzagging through the arcades that once housed shops selling gold, spices and electrical goods, but now home to packs of dogs half-crazed by the shelling. In Deir el-Zour, the battle appears to be on an endless loop. Every day, loyalist troops and tanks stubbornly try to take the city from the rebels.
The rebels push them back and the army retaliates by pounding the city with mortar shells and rockets.
The barrage starts in the morning and stops at midnight. Its aim is arbitrary: shells can land almost anywhere in the city.
Until recently, when more sophisticated weapons began to flow in from Turkey, the province of Deir el-Zour was the main supply route for the rebel arms and ammunition which came over the border from neighbouring Iraq. Now most of the desolate countryside in the region is in the hands of the rebels, including the main border post.
“We control 90% of the province,” said Abu Omar, a defected Syrian army major with a thick beard who headed of one of the two military councils leading the fight. “Is this province liberated? Not yet. We have more men, but they have the bases and we can’t capture them without ammunition.”
According to the rebels, a month of fierce fighting and artillery bombardment in Deir el-Zour city has seen hundreds of civilians, rebel fighters and loyalist soldiers killed, and 86 tanks and armoured vehicles destroyed.
But even as the civil war has moved into Damascus, the regime’s security forces have continued to fight on this far edge of the country. In the past week government forces managed to take over two major intersections in the city, occupying them with tanks and establishing sniper positions. Many of the rebels are close to exhaustion. Food is served once a day to the fighters and supplies have dwindled to a trickle. They take four hours to travel a gruelling route through government lines.
The soldiers fare better than the civilians, however, as smuggled food comes with smuggled ammunition. The civilians are reduced to begging food from the fighters. One day during a week-long stay, a woman approached us.
“We need food. I have four kids and nothing to feed them,” she said. “I will send you some tins later,” said the fighter, sounding tired. “I have asked three units before and no one gave me anything,” the woman retorted, before walking away.
The ragtag army can fight a war of attrition with the government, but with no leadership and no command structure, they are unable to organise a concentrated attack on its bases.
Opposition forces in Deir el-Zour are organised into around 20 battalions. The fighters consist of secularists and salafis, townspeople and tribesmen from the country, civilians and defected soldiers. They frequently bicker among themselves and accuse each other of hoarding weapons.
Some units have lost 70% of their men through casualties and desertion, and ammunition in some cases is so low that soldiers go to battle with one magazine. Others, however, hold stockpiles of brand new RPGs, Austrian-made machine guns and hand grenades, part of a shipment that the fighters say was bought with private money from Syrian donors and delivered by Turkish military intelligence over the border.
There are more weapons and men in the countryside, but many commanders prefer to protect their villages than send their men and weapons to fight in the city.