To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
A trim young man with closely cropped black hair and beard, he looks intense but calm as he sits in complete silence for hours, finger on the trigger, peering through the telescopic sight of his Dragunov sniper rifle. He’s careful not to let its barrel protrude through the double-fist-size peephole he has punched through an apartment wall lest it give away his location to the regime’s sharpshooters, some of whom are only about 50 m (165 ft.) away.
He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”
He refused an order in November to fight a proregime, ethnic Kurdish militia in a Kurdish neighborhood of Aleppo that the rebels had entered. “Why should I fight the Kurds?” he says. “It’s a distraction. This isn’t our fight.”
Syrians in the opposition, whether armed or not, have often said that there may be a revolution after the revolution to unseat Assad. The fault lines differ depending on whom you talk to. Some envision a fight between Islamist and secular rebels; others between defectors and armed civilians; some say it will be ethnic, between Kurds and Arabs; others simply territorial, between rebel commanders in a particular area, irrespective of ideology. Others say it won’t happen. The Sniper, like many fighting men, thinks that it will, and that it will be ugly: “We will not become Somalia after Bashar falls,” he says. “We will have many Somalias in every province.”
It didn’t start this way — neither for this young rebel nor the revolution. “I think I’m unrecognizable now,” the Sniper says. “I never really thought I’d kill someone.” But since he defected, he has killed — 34 people who did not see his bullet coming, including, he suspects, his childhood friend Mohammad, a man who was “dearer to me than a brother.”
The Syrian revolution is also unrecognizable from 20 months ago, when Syrians first took to the streets in peaceful protests demanding freedom and dignity from a totalitarian leader who allowed little of either. The uprising soon morphed into an armed revolt as soldiers defected and men took up arms against the loyalist troops shooting into the crowds and going house-to-house looking for dissenters. As the conflict became deeper and bloodier, and the international community looked on impotently, armed rebels scrounging for help were increasingly compelled to compete for resources. Various backers — both Syrian and foreign, private and state-sponsored — entered the fray, picking their men on the ground and funneling weapons and money to them. The help wasn’t always free: it often required pledges of allegiance, which many rebels have said they made with little intention of keeping. The money and weapons haven’t really bought the rebels’ love or obedience, just their temporary gratitude.
Over the past few weeks, the rebels have made sizable inroads in many parts of the country, but in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its once pulsating commercial hub, the intense firefights and dramatic capture of neighborhoods that marked the initial frenetic rebel push into the city have largely stalled. Although the government’s warplanes and heavy weapons continue to pummel various neighborhoods in the city and the rebels continue to try to pound their way forward, in many areas that fell out of government control early on, the fight has ground to a stalemate. In these districts, territory gained is measured in street corners and meters rather than neighborhoods. And the snipers reign. A few good sharpshooters can effectively freeze a front line by ensuring that any movement by their rivals will be costly.
And so rebel snipers, especially professionally trained ones, are in great demand. The Sniper says he has “been offered so much money, it is as if I am working for the mafia.”
“Some [rebel commanders] offered me money. Others would say, ‘Just tell me what you want.’ One told me, ‘I’ll bring your parents, take them to safety. Just come and work with me,’” he says. “It does not honor me to work with people like this who think they can buy and sell me.”
Instead, he has found a home with Liwa Suqoor al-Sha‘ba, an Islamist unit of the Free Syrian Army headquartered in Azaz, a town north of Aleppo in the vast band of countryside in rebel hands around the city. For the past few months he has been stationed in the northeastern neighborhood of Bustan al-Basha, a devastated wasteland emptied of all but three of its thousands of residents. “We cannot charge on [government] positions — if we do, they will eliminate us — nor can they advance on us,” he says. “It’s not that I’m tired, but I want something new. New territory. I’m sick of it here, I’m disgusted by it.” But he respects his adversaries, who he says have pinned the rebels down now for months.
He is always on the lookout for new sniper positions. “Are you ready?” he asks before running alongside me as we dash past regime snipers to minimize my chances of being hit. We walked through the deserted neighborhood, up darkened stairwells and through a maze of holes punched through apartment walls to avoid exposure on the streets. The Sniper kicked in locked apartment doors, moving through family rooms and kitchens with rotting vegetables as he searched for higher, better ground. He paused in one living room to feed fish in a tank. A few days later, he replaced the damaged locks on the apartments he had entered. In one flat, on the fifth floor, a blackened male corpse lay in what was a bedroom. The rubble strewn around the room from the gaping hole in the ceiling made it clear what killed the man. The stench was tear-inducing. Fat maggots crawled on the bloated corpse. Several rebels removed the body, wrapping it in a blue blanket. The next day the small group, along with the Sniper, returned, methodically removing the china from a dining-room cabinet and placing it in a dusty lounge room, before punching a small hole through the dining-room wall. The room looked out onto a government position in the shrubbery below and would serve as a new rebel outpost.
Still, on some days, the Sniper says, he doesn’t even fire a shot. He just watches and waits in nearly dark apartments with no power, alone with his thoughts. His victims, when he speaks of them, were all shabiha, progovernment paramilitary thugs — an easy term to dehumanize his enemies. But he knows that’s not quite true. He knows his childhood friend Mohammad was not a shabih. He says he doesn’t know if it was his bullet — or one of his colleagues’ — killed him.
“We were in school together. We grew up together. His mother was like my mother, that’s how close we were,” he says. The Sniper is pensive, takes several deep breaths and fidgets with his 10-mm handgun as he speaks of his friend, repeatedly flicking off the gun’s safety. The young men joined the army together and stayed in contact even after the Sniper defected. He was the only person outside of the Sniper’s immediate family who knew that he was still alive. “I would tell him to defect, he’d say, ‘Not yet, it’s still early.’ I’d say defect. I told him I’d come and get him, that I would go anywhere to see him, to help him defect, even to the gates of his brigade. Whatever he wanted, wherever he was, I would get him. He kept saying, ‘It’s still early, it’s early.’ He was scared that his family would go through the same thing my family went through.” The Sniper says his family members were interrogated, harassed, ostracized in their community. The only thing that saved them from greater harm, he suspects, was the clout of the loyalist military men in his family and the fact that they thought he was dead, not a defector.
Mohammad was eventually sent to Azaz, stationed at what was called the Shatt Checkpoint. Both the Sniper and his commander repeatedly urged Mohammad to defect, warning him that they planned to attack the checkpoint. He didn’t listen. “We were three snipers. We killed a colonel, a soldier and my friend. I don’t know which one I killed, I didn’t see their faces. They were soldiers in front of us, and we were ordered to kill them.” That was three months ago.
“He’s gone anyway, what good is thinking about it? I did — for a long time afterward. I thought, ‘Why? He was my friend. Why did I shoot at him? I shouldn’t have.’ But I have left those thoughts behind me. I have to move forward.”
Like many men on the front line, the Sniper has found solace in religion, but his is a politicized form of Islam. He speaks admirably of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra group that has been responsible for some of the most spectacular suicide bombings against regime targets. “They are clean and doing good work,” he says. He wants to join them, if he can “cleanse” his body and mind, he says pointing to a red pack of Gauloises cigarettes. A day later, he quit smoking.
He was not always like this. An avid boxer before he was the Sniper, the young man lived in Hamburg for five years, returning to his homeland in 2010. He attended the Goethe-Institut in Damascus and says his Arabic was so poor, he could barely read. It has since improved to the degree that he now reads the Koran aloud to his fellow rebels. He has long since shelved his dream of returning to Germany and training as a boxer. In fact, he doesn’t want to survive the Syrian uprising and is seeking “martyrdom.” “I’m only comfortable on the front line,” he says. “My rifle has become not just like a part of my body, it is my life, my destiny.” He remembers his religious awakening, in the first assault he participated in. It was a hit on a checkpoint on the road to the town of al-Bab on Aleppo’s outskirts. “We ambushed them. There was an Islamist with me. My heart was filled with faith. He told me the only thing between me and paradise was this road, was dying on this road. I was sorry that I lived.”
A few days later, we returned to the issue of victims, of whether or not they are all shabiha, and his friend Mohammad. At the end of the day, I told him, he was a Syrian killing other Syrians. “I used to think about the people I’d killed, I’d think about their parents,” he says. “Yes, we are all Syrian, but we didn’t create these differences, they did. It is because I am Syrian, because these people, these civilians who are dying are Syrian, that I am doing this, that I am standing with and for my people. Those who are not standing with their people are not Syrian, they are traitors, and traitors must die.”
And Mohammad? Was he a traitor? No, he said, he wasn’t, but “I’ve accepted it now, and nothing matters to me any more.”
“Whoever is going to be in my sights will die. That’s it,” the Sniper says. “My heart has hardened. I returned to religion, but after I killed, my heart hardened. A sniper sees who he kills,” he says, pausing. “It’s hard. A sniper sees his victim.”