Jihadi veterans of Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan have joined up with foreign idealists on the frontline of Aleppo against Syria's Bashar al-Assad.
"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 &ndahs; 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 were 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.
The men were also secretive, especially when dealing with the Free Syria Army. When the Syrians asked them where they were from, a blond French-speaker said they were Moroccans, the Chechens said they were Turks and the Tajiks said they were Afghans. On the steps of a commandeered school, behind a flimsy barricade of corrugated sheets and a barrel, a group of Libyans sat complaining about the lack of ammunition.
They had arrived the previous day and already lost one of their friends to a Syrian army machine gun. "This is a poor revolution, very poor. We are in the second year [of it] and they still don't have enough weapons and ammunition," one of the Libyans complained.
Inside the school was a Jordanian who often roamed the frontline with his Belgian gun, for which he had only 11 bullets. He was a secular and clean-shaven former officer in the Jordanian army who lived in eastern Europe running an import-export business. He had come to Aleppo without telling his wife and children where he was going.
"This is my duty," he said. "Originally I was from Palestine. I know what this [Syrian] regime did to the Palestinians, shelling the camps in Lebanon, assassinating the commanders. Half of the miseries of our nation are because of Israel and the other half are because of the Syrian regime.
"Many Arab men I know want to come and fight. Some lack the means and others the energy, but so many people hate this regime. For 20 years the regime has destroyed the Arab world."
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-Qaeda 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 withdrew, 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.
Abu Omar, the Chechen commander, issued an order for his men to advance to try to retake their lost positions around the University of Science.
The Syrian soldiers had stopped their advance and withdrawn their tank, leaving only the snipers. A car was riddled with bullets and still on fire, a skeleton of a bus lay few metres away smouldering, and orange flames and black smoke was spewing from a the first floor of a building.
But three of Abu Omar's men were pinned down by snipers, and one had stood up to shoot the tank with an RPG and been riddled with bullets.
Two Chechens were already in the middle of the square. They hid behind a short stone wall while bullets chipped on the wall's edge. Abu Omar conferred with a Syrian officer in heavily accented classical Arabic on how to rescue his men. A column of Syrians climbed over an apartment building and tried to shoot at the sniper.
After an hour, the shooting had eased and the two men ran across the alleyway. They zigzagged and fell on the ground. One of them was thick-set, his grey T-shirt torn and covered by a patch of blood. A small metal piece of shrapnel was lodged in the left side of his chest. He pulled it with his fingers and held it for his friends to inspect. Then he smiled.
In broken Arabic, the Chechen described how it had happened.
"For one or two hours we were there, but the sniper shot at us too much," he said. "We moved to the left and the brother moved to the street. There the sniper shot him. There is no sadness, no fear, the brother is a martyr," he said, and quoted a verse from the Quran.
But Abu Omar was angry. There had been 40 muhajiroun few days earlier but by the end of fighting that day they were down to 30. They had lost 10 men in two days.
That night he issued an ultimatum to the Syrian rebel commanders. If they hadn't mustered a large number of men to support their rear the muhajiroun would pack up and leave.
The reinforcements did not materialise, so the Chechens left in the night.
"Let them go," fumed a Syrian commander next day. "I didn't hit them on their hands and tell them to come fight the jihad and take responsibility of this frontline."
Bab al Hawa
At the border post of Bab al Hawa some days later, a confrontation was brewing between the jihadis and Syrian rebels.
Fighters from the Farouq brigade – one of the best-equipped and most disciplined units in the FSA – were sleeping on the grass in the shadow of a big concrete arch. The fighters wore military uniforms and green T-shirts emblazoned with insignia of the brigade – an achievement in the disarray of the revolution. They had many tanks and armoured vehicles captured from the Syrian army parked around the border post, under cover.
Nearby, a group of 20 jihadis had gathered in a circle around a burly Egyptian with a chest-long silver beard.
"You are in confrontation with two apostate armies," the Egyptian told the men, referring to the Syrian army and Free Syrian Army. "When you have finished with one army you will start with the next."
The confrontation had started a few weeks ago, when the foreign jihadis, who played a major role in defeating government forces at the border post, raised the black flag of al-Qaeda, emblazoned by the seal of the prophet, on the border post.
The Farouq brigade demanded the flag be lowered lest it antagonise the Turks and threaten the rebels' vital supply route. One bearded fighter in the Farouq brigade, a salafi himself, said he had pleaded with jihadis, telling them that their presence would stop Nato from sending supplies. "They told me they were here to stop Nato," he said.
Ultimatum to evacuate
The rebels gave them an ultimatum to evacuate, and the jihadis had taken up attack positions on the stony hills overlooking the post, surrounding the Farouq fighters, who in turn were threatening to use their armoured vehicles.
I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade, a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara'a called Abdulah Abu Zaid. "I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology," he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. "Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam."
The jihadis, he said, had looted and stolen from the local people and demanded protection money from local businesses in order not to steal their merchandise. "I managed to stop them," he said, "and I won't let them spread here."
Later that day he issued an ultimatum to their commander, a Syrian called Abu Mohamad al Abssi, to leave the area with his foreign jihadis or he would be killed.
I met Abu Mohamad, a monosyllabic doctor, the next day. He emphasized that he had been struggling against the regime since 1992 while the Free Syria Army were defected officers who until recently served the regime. The Arab spring was, he said, a result of Islamic fervour.
"We will never leave our positions here," he said in a quiet voice. "God-willing we will win."
A few days later, Abu Mohamad's body was found in a ditch. He had been kidnapped and killed. – © Guardian News and Media 2012