The Syrian people are suffering under the ‘moderate rebels’ and ‘opposition forces’ backed by the US, NATO member states and their allies in the Gulf states and Israel. Yet their suffering is largely ignored in the mainstream media unless it furthers the agenda dictated by the State Department.
This article is the first in a two-part series of one Western journalist’s journey to Aleppo, a city ravaged by an insurgency supported by the United States, NATO member states, and their allies in the Gulf states and Israel. In Part I, Vanessa Beeley lays out the mainstream narrative on Syria, revealing a neoconservative agenda promoted by NATO-funded NGOs. These NGOs paint the destruction of the historic city as being caused by the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, not the violent armed insurgents which receive arms, funding and training from Western governments and their allies.
Aleppo has become synonymous with destruction and “Syrian state-generated” violence among those whose perception of the situation in the war-torn nation is contained within the prism of mainstream media narratives.
The NATO-aligned media maintains a tight grip on information coming out of this beleaguered city, ensuring that whatever comes out is tailored to meet State Department requirements and advocacy for regime change. The propaganda mill churns out familiar tales of chemical weapons, siege, starvation and bombs targeting civilians–all of which are attributed to the Syrian government and military, with little variation on this theme.
The purpose of this photo essay and my journey to Aleppo on Aug. 14 was to discover for myself as a Western journalist the truth behind the major storylines in the U.S. and NATO narrative on Syria.
Traveling from Homs to Aleppo
Travelling with a fellow independent journalist, Eva Bartlett, a translator and a taxi driver, I entered Aleppo on Aug. 14 via Castello Road, which some mainstream media have taken to calling “Death Road.” To get there, we were given a security clearance which enabled us to travel via roads that, from the western city of Homs onward, snake through areas where various terrorist groups, including Daesh, are never far from the route or where the threat of kidnapping is to be taken into account. Entry into military areas once inside Aleppo could not be approved without SAA protection and accompaniment.
In Homs I witnessed what is a familiar sight throughout Syria: buildings scarred and battered by years of terrorist attacks. I was told that we were passing what was once known as 60th Street, but has since taken a new name, Street of Death (Shara al-Moot), as it came under terrorist attack from north, south, east and west. These attacks employed snipers, mortars and suicide bombers; it seems there were no restrictions on ways for terrorists to kill the Syrian people in Homs.
Traveling north on the road from Homs to Hama, we came to a major SAA checkpoint at a crossroads teeming with life. Waiting for the inevitable security check, I had the opportunity to lean out of the taxi window and observe. Photography, however, is forbidden at checkpoints.
These SAA checkpoints are common throughout Syria. Their main purpose is to check cars for explosives and weapons or extremist militants such as Daesh or the Nusra Front, who might be attempting to pass undetected from one governorate to another. Cars and other vehicles are used as suicide bombs in many areas, particularly in Homs’ al-Zahra’a neighborhood, which has been targeted many times, resulting in multiple deaths and injuries.
A steady stream of buses and livestock wagons came into this checkpoint from the directions of Hama and Homs. Many of the buses were carrying families clutching their belongings, possibly refugees, and vans were topped with assorted boxes and bags.
We got a wave from passing SAA soldiers, who, despite the severity of the fighting in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, never displayed anything except courtesy and respect–something I found to be true throughout my four-week journey around Syria. One soldier sat cross-legged on top of a tank that was on a transporter parked at the crossroads, and he smiled in the already sweltering morning heat as he waited for his comrades to join him.
The SAA equipment was noticeably battle-weary. Their weapons bore the marks of war and had not been replaced for some time. And while public images of Daesh fighters usually feature weapons and other supplies that look like they’ve just been taken out of the box, many SAA soldiers were wearing boots and uniforms with heavy wear and tear.
The SAA is affected by the sanctions enforced by the United States and European Union, but the various terrorist brigades backed by the United States, NATO, their allies in the Gulf states and Israel are not. The latter’s supply chain is unbroken and unaffected, thanks to the Turkish gun and equipment running services via its porous borders with Syria.
U.S. and EU sanctions effectively prevent any supplies from entering Syria via legal channels, and we frequently saw the detrimental effects this has had on essential civilian infrastructure as well as military personnel and equipment.
However, illegal supply channels have not been affected, ensuring perpetual conflict by arming and equipping the many brigades of “moderate rebels” and “opposition forces.” Whether it’s Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates sustaining Daesh with arms flowing in through the Balkans, or the United States supplying its rotating cast of “moderate rebels” with weapons via Turkey, there is no turning off the logistics and armament tap to the “armed opposition.”
In April, for example, an IHS Jane’s report featured a packing list for a December 2015 U.S. arms shipment to “Syrian rebels” via the Syria-Turkey border. The report stated:
“The cargo listed in the document included AK-47 rifles, PKM general-purpose machine guns, DShK heavy machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers, and 9K111M Faktoria anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) systems. The Faktoria is an improved version of the 9K111 Fagot ATGW, the primary difference being that its missile has a tandem warhead for defeating explosive reactive armour (ERA) fitted to some tanks.”
It should be noted that this particular arms shipment to the “moderate rebels” was made during a ceasefire agreement that had been implemented across many Syrian governorates.
This 2014 video report from Deutsche Welle further explains the gun-running process from Turkey to Syria, a process that continues to this day. DW explains in the introduction to the video:
“Every day, trucks laden with food, clothing, and other supplies cross the border from Turkey to Syria. It is unclear who is picking up the goods. The hauliers believe most of the cargo is going to the ‘Islamic State’ militia. Oil, weapons, and soldiers are also being smuggled over the border, and Kurdish volunteers are now patrolling the area in a bid to stem the supplies.”
It is hard to disassemble the various factions of armed militants. Many times I asked for clarification on which armed group had carried out a specific attack and was told that most Syrians made no such differentiation. According to civilians, these groups are made up of criminals, mercenaries and terrorists, and their titles are irrelevant.
The United States has played this fact to its own advantage, using the “intermingling” of “rebel” groups as an excuse to impede Russian and Syrian efforts to target officially designated terrorist groups, such as Daesh and the Nusra Front, in case U.S. operatives are among them. As such, U.S. operatives in groups they are supporting effectively become “human shields” for the terrorist groups that the U.S. is ostensibly waging war against, like Daesh.
In an April 28 press briefing, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the State Department, noted:
“We know it’s a very fluid, dynamic environment, that there are – that there is intermingling between the groups. Some of that is by design because they want to be near one another and some of it is by happenstance. And it is why strikes in and around Aleppo become a more problematic issue, because it’s very difficult to separate some of these groups from one another geographically in order to – and then to be precise enough that only the group that you’re trying to go after is going to be hit.”
Along our route into Aleppo, assorted vehicles were being used to transport SAA soldiers–ramshackle livestock trucks with open backs, old buses, brightly colored supply wagons–but the level of respect and admiration with which the soldiers were viewed by Syrian civilians was palpable.
After the checkpoint between Homs and Hama, there is a stretch of road which is notorious for vehicles of bandits forcing cars and buses off the road before kidnapping passengers. Despite the risks it held, the stretch of road was picturesque, lined with maize, olive groves, and sunflowers. The first signs of livestock–chicken, sheep, and cows–dotted the greening landscape.
Passing through the city of al-Salamiyah, we were told that Daesh was encamped about 10 kilometers east of the road. Looking out across the seemingly interminable desert stretching into the horizon, it was hard to imagine that we were visible to these terrorist entities.
As the road continued toward Aleppo, we reached an area where Daesh had drawn closer and we were told they were only 2 kilometers away. Trucks were passing us on their way from Homs to Aleppo carrying supplies for SAA soldiers, I presumed as reinforcements for the campaign against the terrorist enclaves in al-Ramouseh, a suburb in southeast Aleppo.
Eerie reminders of the war being imposed upon Syria rose up out of the desert, like the burned-out trucks and cars overturned and disintegrating slowly in the blazing heat. An apocalyptic vision of a country being torn apart by another NATO intervention, a dirty war being inflicted upon a sovereign nation, with the objective of “regime change” regardless of the bloodshed and devastating costs incurred by the Syrian people.
As we drew closer to the outskirts of Aleppo, it became apparent that the SAA had closed the usual western route for security reasons. We were diverted to the east of the city via Khanaser, a town in the al-Safira district, and finally the industrial city of Sheikh Najjar before the road doubled back in toward the northern entrance into western Aleppo via the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.
We skirted some of Aleppo’s most densely terrorist-occupied areas in eastern Aleppo. Again, these terrorists might be Daesh, the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, or Harakat al-Nour al-Zenki, among many others. This map clearly shows the areas held by various factions of armed insurgents. Black represents areas held by Daesh; green: “moderate rebel forces;” yellow: Kurds; red: the SAA; and olive: contested areas. This map is constantly changing as the SAA advances, particularly in al-Ramouseh.
At this point, the “sniper banks” became more noticeable, sand and rubble piled high on either side of the road, sometimes topped by car remnants and scrap metal or barrels used as a screen to protect travellers from sniper sights and fire.
Prior to reaching Castello Road we arrived at a T-junction, and our confused taxi driver hesitated before turning right.
Another vehicle tore after us within seconds, with SAA soldiers on board who yelled at us to turn left. Turning right would take us directly into a Daesh-held area, they warned.
Nearing the entrance to Aleppo, not far from the city’s northwestern industrial area of al-Layramoun, we passed a checkpoint where the soldiers urged us to maintain our distance from other vehicles. There was a high risk of terrorist mortar fire, they explained, and putting distance between vehicles meant reducing casualties if one vehicle was hit.
Following fierce clashes, SAA forces had recaptured al-Layramoun from the Nusra Front and the 16th Division of the Free Syrian Army in July. The area is strategically important, as it borders Castello Road, which had been a major artery for supplies and arms for the terrorists streaming in directly from Turkey. Once the SAA retook the area, however, it effectively cut terrorist entities off from the Turkish supply chain.
In the fields along the route were dozens of unexploded gas canisters, the “hell cannon”-fired bombs usually packed with explosives, glass, shrapnel, nails, and even chemicals. Those which had not hit their targets littered the countryside. These are the improvised missiles fired on a daily basis into the Syrian government-held areas of western Aleppo by the various armed insurgents occupying the eastern parts of Aleppo.
Current figures from the Aleppo Medical Association put the population of government-held western Aleppo at 1.5 million civilians. Another 200,000 to 220,000 people–a quarter of whom are terrorists and their families–are living in the eastern parts of the city controlled by various factions of armed insurgents backed by the United States, NATO and their allies, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.
However, according to On the Ground News, a media outlet known for harboring sympathies for the “rebel” forces, there are no civilians left in eastern Aleppo.