There has recently been a small stir in the American media, as media organizations from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Associated Press have acknowledged a "presence" of al-Qaeda and like-minded jihadist groups among the Syrian rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In fact, such a presence has been obvious already for many months now: whether as a result of the numerous videos that have emerged showing rebel forces or supporters proudly displaying al-Qaeda's distinctive black flag (see here and here) or the dozens of al-Qaeda-style suicide attacks that have plagued Syria.*
But observations made by German journalist Daniel Etter during a recent visit to rebel-controlled towns near the embattled city of Aleppo suggest that there is no mere "presence" of jihadists among the rebels: religiously-inspired mujahideen is what the rebels are. The real question is whether there is a presence of anything else. Etter's report, which appeared in the leading German daily Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, also provides evidence that rebel authorities are subjecting civilians to arbitrary detention and torture and summarily executing captured members of the regular Syrian armed forces.
In the town of Maraa, north of Aleppo, Etter saw some 120 prisoners "herded into a large classroom" in what had previously been a school. Many of the prisoners showed apparent signs of abuse. The prison director, whom Etter identifies only as "Jumbo," refused to allow Etter to speak with them alone. Etter notes that Jumbo "looks like his name." "Jumbo is not someone with whom you would like to pick a fight," Etter writes:
not someone whom as a prisoner you would like to have as your jail keeper. Thus the detainees say that their wounds and bruises are the product of falls or shrapnel. They say how well they are treated here, and they swear loyalty to the Free Syrian Army. Much of what they say is not credible.
The most gruesome wounds that Etter describes involve a certain "Tamer" from Aleppo: until recently an enthusiastic supporter of Bashar al-Assad – so enthusiastic that he had a portrait of the Syrian president tattooed on his chest. By the time that Etter saw Tamer, however, the tattoo had been replaced by a series of bloody gashes. Tamer insists that he did the deed himself after rebel forces entered Aleppo. He says that he ran to the rebels' headquarters and slashed at the tattoo with a razor blade while yelling, "I give my blood for the Free Syrian Army!"
In a remarkable journalistic leap of faith, Etter writes, "Tamer's story cannot be independently verified either, but it is unlikely that Jumbo would have let a journalist speak with him if his scars were the result of abuse." As made clear by Etter's own description of the circumstances under which he was able to speak with the detainees, it is surely far more unlikely that Tamer would have accused his captors with "Jumbo" present.
Moreover, even supposing that Tamer did indeed inflict his own wounds, why would he commit such an act of self-mutilation if he did not expect worse from the "new authorities," as Etter puts it, if the tattoo was discovered? Rebel groups have repeatedly made clear that they feel entitled to target any and all supporters of the ancien régime.
Jumbo says that Tamer was a member of a pro-Assad militia: a so-called "shabiha." But there is no evidence presented for this in the article. "I have no proof that he killed anyone," Jumbo concedes.
It is equally unclear what "crimes" the other detainees are supposed to have committed. But their daily routine makes clear, at any rate, the ideological orientation of their captors. "They pray five times a day," Etter writes:
and study the Quran. Perhaps out of a sense of remorse, perhaps to please their jailers, perhaps because they are forced to do so. Jumbo seems to be convinced that their turn to God is doing good. "They are happier and they are changing their attitude," he says.
In the neighboring town of Azaz, Etter encountered a less didactic form of Islamism: namely, in the person of rebel commander Abu Anas. Etter describes meeting Abu Anas in his office: a Quran and a "silver sword" were lying on his desk and a black flag hung over it. An Arabic inscription on the flag proclaimed, 'There is no God but God. Mohammed is his Prophet" "It is the flag that al-Qaeda also used," Etter remarks.
Seemingly taking his cue from Western supporters of the rebellion, Abu Anas emphasized that the black flag was also used before al-Qaeda. But if it is the distinctive black flag with the circular white "seal of Mohammed" in the middle, there appears to be no evidence that this is the case. This is the flag that was made famous, more precisely, by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq: notably, as a result of the group's notoriously harrowing videos documenting the executions of captured Iraqi security personnel and American and other hostages. Prior to Zarqawi's innovation, al-Qaeda used the so-called caliphate flag: a solid black flag with the shahada (the Islamic declaration of faith) written in white. Both flags have turned up in rebel-controlled Syria.
In any case, it is not only in his choice of flag that Abu Anas seems to have been inspired by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Thus the rebel leader tells Etter that his forces captured Syrian government troops in the battle for Azaz. Asked what became of the captured soldiers, Abu Anas responded curtly, "We could not take care of them. Most of them are dead." "Earlier," Etter explains, "when Abu Anas was not yet in the room, a smiling subordinate of his showed with gestures how they bound prisoners and shot them."
While there is not much he can do to put a positive spin on the actions of Abu Anas and his men, Etter tries at least to cast "Jumbo" and his prison in Maara in a more positive light. In one paragraph, he even praises the rebels for their supposed efforts to build a "fairer" system of justice in Maara – this after he himself has raised the specter of prisoner abuse in Jumbo's prison. Jumbo tells him about one case involving a group of Alawites who were detained by the rebels. The Alawites, a Muslim sect to which Bashar al-Assad belongs, are a religious minority in Syria. According to Jumbo, the detained Alawites were later released since "we had no evidence against them." Etter does not ask: evidence of what? But even supposing that Jumbo's claim is true, it amounts to an admission that Alawites are being detained in rebel controlled territories simply because they are Alawites. Like so much else that Etter describes, this is clearly a crime under international humanitarian law.
* As was recently revealed in response to a parliamentary question, the German foreign intelligence service, the BND, has estimated the number of such suicide attacks at "around 90" just up to the beginning of July. (For the details, see here.) There have been several highly publicized attacks since then. The recent American reports, citing unnamed American intelligence sources, mention merely "two dozen" such attacks.
John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. His e-book The Jihadist Plot: The Untold Story of the Libyan Rebellion is forthcoming from Encounter Books. You can follow his work at www.trans-int.com. An earlier version of this article appeared on Asia Times Online here.