Soldiers! Soldiers!” The man hissed his warning as he hurried past, two bullets from a government sniper kicking up dust from the dirt road behind him.
It was enough for Abu Omar al-Chechen. His ragtag band of foreign fighters, known as “muhajiroun brothers”, was huddled in the doorway of a burned-out apartment building in the university district of Aleppo. One of the brothers – a Turk – lay dead in the road around the corner and a second brother lay next to him, badly wounded and unable to move. They had been unable to rescue him because of the sniper.
Abu Omar gave an order in Arabic, which was translated into a babble of different languages – Chechen, Tajik, Turkish, French, Saudi dialect, Urdu – and the men retreated in orderly single file, picking their way between piles of smouldering rubbish and twisted plastic bottles toward a house behind the front line where other fighters had gathered.
Their Syrian handler stood alone in the street clutching two radios: one blared in Chechen and the other in Arabic. Two men volunteered to stay and try to fetch the young injured man.
The fighters sat outside the house in the shade of the trees, clutching their guns and discussing the war. Among them was a thin Saudi, dressed in a dirty black T-shirt and a prayer cap, who conversed in perfect English with a Turk sitting next to him. He had arrived the week before and was curious about how the jihad was being reported abroad.
“What do the foreign news organisations and the outside world say about us?” he asked. “Do they know about the fighting in Aleppo? Do they know that we are here?”
Hundreds of international fighters have flocked to Syria to join the war against Bashar al-Assad’s government. Some are fresh-faced idealists driven by a romantic notion of revolution or a hatred for the Assads. Others are jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
To reach the wars in those countries, foreign fighters had to cross borders with forged passports and dodge secret services. The frontline in Syria is easier to reach via a comfortable flight to southern Turkey and a hike across the border.
According to the Saudi, it was an easy walk from Turkey to the small Syrian town of Atmeh. There, in a hilly landscape flecked with olive groves, the recruits were received by a Syrian who runs a jihadi camp and organised into fighting units. Each team was assigned an Arabic speaker and given 10 days’ basic training, the point of which was not to learn how to shoot but to learn to communicate and work together.
The fighters were then dispersed among the different jihadi organisations, including Ahrar al-Sham (“the Free Men of Syria”) and Jabhat al-Nusra (“the Front for the Aid of the People of the Levant”). Some, like Abu Omar’s Chechens, were allowed to form their own units and simply referred to as the muhajiroun, or “immigrants”. The Syrians refer to the internationals collectively as the “Turkish brothers”.
The disparate levels of fighting ability among the men was immediately clear. The Chechens were older, taller, stronger and wore hiking boots and combat trousers. They carried their weapons with confidence and distanced themselves from the rest, moving around in a tight-knit unit-within-a-unit. One of the Turks was a former soldier who wore western-style webbing and equipment, while the three Tajiks and the Pakistani were evidently poor. Their trousers were too short, their shoes old and torn.
If some of the foreign fighters in Aleppo were callow, others such as Abu Salam al Faluji boasted extraordinary experience. Abu Salam, a rugged Iraqi with a black keffiyeh wrapped around his head, said he had fought the Americans in Falluja when he was a young man. Later he joined al-Qaida in Iraq and spent many years fighting in different cities before moving to Syria to evade arrest. These days he was a commander of the one of the muhajiroun units.
I found him watching a heated debate between the Syrian commanders about how to defend the buckling frontline.
The government attack had begun as predicted and mortars were exploding in the streets nearby, the sound of machine-gun fire ricocheting between the buildings. The mortars were hammering hard against the walls, sending a small shower of shrapnel and cascading glass, but Abu Salam stood unflinching.One Syrian, breathing hard, said that he had fired three times at the tank and the RPG didn’t go off.
“Don’t say it didn’t go off,” Abu Salam admonished him. “Say you don’t know how to fire it. We used to shoot these same RPGs at the Americans and destroy Abrams tanks. What’s a T72 to an Abrams?
“Our work has to focus on IEDs and snipers,” he told the gathering. “All these roofs need fighters on top and IEDs on the ground. You hunt them in the alleyways and then use machine-guns and RPGs around corners.
“The problem is not ammunition, it’s experience,” he told me out of earshot of the rebels. “If we were fighting Americans we would all have been killed by now. They would have killed us with their drone without even needing to send a tank.
“The rebels are brave but they don’t even know the difference between a Kalashnikov bullet and a sniper bullet. That weakens the morale of the men.
“They have no leadership and no experience,” he said. “Brave people attack, but the men in the lines behind them withdraw, leaving them exposed. It is chaos. This morning the Turkish brothers fought all night and at dawn they went to sleep leaving a line of Syrians behind to protect them. When they woke up the Syrians had left and the army snipers had moved in. Now it’s too late. The army has entered the streets and will overrun us.”
He seemed nonchalant about the prospect of defeat.
“It is obvious the Syrian army is winning this battle, but we don’t tell [the rebels] this. We don’t want to destroy their morale. We say we should hold here for as long as Allah will give us strength and maybe he will make one of these foreign powers come to help Syrians.”
The irony was not lost on Abu Salam how the jihadis and the Americans – bitter enemies of the past decade – had found themselves fighting on the same side again.