Journalist Paul Schemm was part of a four-member Associated Press team that spent two and a half weeks traveling around Aleppo province in northern Syria, gathering firsthand information on the increasingly bloody rebellion against President Bashar Assad — the longest and deadliest uprising of the Arab Spring.
Syria's humanitarian crisis set to deepen with onset of cold weather
TEL RIFAAT, Syria (AP) — The days are still warm across the fertile plains of northern Syria around Aleppo, but night brings a chill — an ominous harbinger of winter's approach and the deepening of the already severe humanitarian crisis gripping a country wracked by civil war.
Warm temperatures and plentiful food have cushioned the blow somewhat for hundreds of thousands of Syrians displaced from their homes or living in refugee camps across the border. But the arrival of near-freezing temperatures could mean greater suffering and even deaths from exposure, as international aid agencies scramble to cope.
Among the first things to go will be the practice of sleeping outside to avoid the artillery and airstrikes that rain down late night death on homes.
"Most people sleep in the fields at night, out of fear of the bombardments of the towns," said Abu Mohammed, who has taken to sleeping in the olive orchards outside Tel Rifaat, a rebel-controlled town north of Aleppo. "In the winter the suffering will only increase."
Like many people in Syria, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution should the government retake his town.
At a news conference earlier this month, actress Angelina Jolie, a special envoy for the U.N. Refugee Agency, reported that many of the refugees living in camps along the Turkish border were worried about the approach of cold weather.
"It is a very large concern for all of us, and I hope we can all work together to make sure that ... nobody freezes to death in this very frightening time," she said.
As the second winter approaches in an 18-month-old conflict that has claimed more than 20,000 lives, fighting has spread to many more parts of the country and people's resources are dangerously low.
Abu Mustafa, Mohammed's brother, said the family survived last winter on savings, but now the financial situation is much worse.
"Last winter, people had money, but now people have nothing because there is no work," he said. "Most of the work was in Aleppo and most went there for jobs, but now they can't."
An agricultural breadbasket, northern Syria has food, but not everyone can afford it. In many cases, families are forced to flee to refugee camps on the border not only for fear of fighting but because they have run out of money for food.
The length of the conflict is also wearing people down, leaving them even more vulnerable, said Sybella Wilkes of the U.N. Refugee Agency.
"The more people are displaced, the longer they are living in difficult situations of hardship, the more stretched their coping skills are," she said.
The U.N. agency is planning a new international appeal to help the refugees on the borders, as well as those still inside the country, including winterizing tents and distributing blankets and warm clothing.
"Already ... the displaced are suffering from cold in the evening — this is a real concern," Wilkes said. She said the number of registered refugees has far exceeded earlier estimates, growing more than 12-fold from about 20,000 in June to 250,000 today.
Another 1.5 million Syrians are displaced inside the country, while an additional 1 million are in urgent need of assistance because they have run out of money for food and other essentials, according to U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliassan. A $180 million emergency response plan is only half-funded, he added.
Temperatures during the winter months can drop below freezing in northern Syria, and it often rains heavily. Most houses are designed to deal with the scorching summers, but are not well insulated against the cold.
Neighboring Turkey has already taken in 80,000 refugees in overflowing camps and for weeks had to temporarily close its borders to new refugees.
At the Bab al-Salameh border crossing, more than 5,000 Syrians are camped out in hangars once used by customs officials to inspect trucks — structures without walls, running water or electricity.
"When winter comes, how will I keep them warm?" asked Fatima Abdallah, gesturing worriedly at her tiny newborn twins as she sat on the concrete floor. Turkey has started admitting a few hundred Syrians at a time, but it's unclear if everyone will be housed in the camps by the time the cold weather sets in.
While food supplies seem to be holding steady, the biggest challenge will be staying warm and preparing food. The parts of the country outside government control have to rely on smuggled supplies of gasoline and heating oil, which have already tripled in price.
Smugglers drive to government-controlled areas, usually to the east, load up their cars with butane tanks and jerry cans of gasoline and drive them back to the rebel-controlled areas.
"There are already shortages of kerosene used to heat homes and there is also a shortage of fuel and cooking gas. And when winter hits, the prices will go up for everything," said Marixie Mercado of UNICEF, noting that the displaced tend to live in public buildings like schools or stadiums that cannot easily be heated.
Many also have taken refuge in construction sites or half-built houses without windows, which will offer little protection against the country's wet winters.
UNICEF is stockpiling supplies, including baby blankets and thermal underwear for children, as well as stoves to heat schools — assuming the fuel is available.
"People are cutting down trees to get wood," said Abu Mustafa, relying on wood-burning stoves to cook as gas supplies have run out. "We cut off a bunch of dead branches in our orchards and collected them, but the next time we went to our fields to pick them up, someone had stolen them. People are getting desperate."
International agencies are working with local partners, particularly the Syrian Red Crescent to distribute food and supplies around the country, said Ben Parker of the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Red Crescent can cross the lines of the conflict, but even then, their efforts have been stymied by the proliferating checkpoints and rising violence.
"It will be a bitter winter," Parker warned.
Extremists showing up on front lines in Syria
TEL RIFAAT, Syria (AP) — The bearded gunmen who surrounded the car full of foreign journalists in a northern Syrian village were clearly not Syrians. A heavyset man in a brown gown stepped forward, announced he was Iraqi and fingered through the American passport he had confiscated.
"We know all American journalists are spies. Now tell us what you are doing here and who you are spying for," he said in English before going on to accuse the U.S. of the destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I really want to cut your head off right now," he added, telling his men, many of whom appeared to have North African accents, that this American kills Muslims.
With the intervention of nearby villagers, the confrontation eventually was defused. But it underscored the unpredictable element that foreign fighters bring to the Syrian conflict.
Most of those fighting the regime of President Bashar Assad are ordinary Syrians and soldiers who have defected, having become fed up with the authoritarian government, analysts say. But increasingly, foreign fighters and those adhering to an extremist Islamist ideology are turning up on the front lines. The rebels are trying to play down their influence for fear of alienating Western support, but as the 18-month-old fight grinds on, the influence of these extremists is set to grow.
On Monday, a U.N. panel reported a rise in the number of foreign fighters in the conflict and warned that it could radicalize the rebellion.
The Syrian government has always blamed the uprising on foreign terrorists, despite months of peaceful protests by ordinary citizens that only turned violent after repeated attacks by security forces. The transformation of the conflict into an open war has given an opening to the foreign fighters and extremists.
Talk about the role of foreign jihadists in the Syrian civil war began in earnest, however, with the rise in suicide bombings. U.S. National Director of Intelligence James Clapper said in February that those attacks "bore the earmarks" of the jihadists in neighboring Iraq.
Rebel commanders are quick to dismiss the role of the foreign fighters and religious extremists, describing their numbers as few and their contribution as paltry.
Col. Abdel-Jabbar Aqidi, a top rebel commander for the Aleppo area, told The Associated Press there were maybe 500 jihadis involved in the battle for Aleppo, while a report from the Quilliam Foundation, a London-based think tank studying extremism, estimated a total of 1,200-1,500 foreign fighters in all of Syria.
Other commanders estimated that at most, jihadis, whether local or foreign, made up no more than 10 percent of the fighters.
While this is a small amount compared with the thousands of rebels estimated to be battling the regime, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group warns that the religious extremists will have an influence on the rebellion.
"I think numbers are irrelevant," he said, adding that the extremists are a "very important phenomenon in many ways. Their presence is very divisive, whether there are many or not."
"They are certainly visible, and this increasingly shapes the complexion of the opposition in ways that are not negligible," Harling said.
Reflecting their extreme sensitivity to the topic, the media center on the Syrian-Turkish border investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters in Syria.
"My brother died in this revolution. This revolution means everything to me, and if the world thinks that al-Qaida is involved, it is finished," said Nader, a young rebel with the media center who declined to give his last name.
The media center investigated and questioned any journalists they discovered who had written about foreign fighters being involved in the rebellion.
Most of the rebels fighting in the north come from the countryside and have always been more traditional and religious than the more cosmopolitan urbanites of Aleppo.
Rebels often wear the beards associated with religious Muslims and pepper their conversations with references to their faith, but that does not necessarily mean they subscribe to ultraconservative views.
"Having a beard is not a symbol of extremists. It just means we're religious, like a woman wearing a headscarf or a Christian wearing a cross," said Abdel Malik Atassi, a young rebel in the town of Marea, as he gestured to his bearded comrades.
Atassi also noted that the fighters tend to be more religious.
"As a fighter, I am constantly close to death, so yes, I am more religious and I want to follow the prophet's traditions more closely in case I die," he added.
Rebel leaders like Abdel Aziz Salameh, one of the top commanders in the countryside, said that while he hopes for a future government system based on Islamic law, it will ultimately be the people's choice.
"We don't let the foreign fighters spread their way of thinking in our home," he told AP. "We don't need foreign fighters. We have 100,000 men who want to fight, but we don't have weapons for them."
While Salameh and other rebel commanders have pledged to respect Syria's pluralistic society, which includes many ethnic and religious minorities, the jihadis are increasingly framing this war as part of a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.
Assad and many of the top people in the regime belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the jihadis are framing the struggle in Syria as another front in the battle against what they perceive as heretical Shiites.
In the numerous online statements celebrating their nearly daily operations in Syria, Jebhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, the largest jihadist group, often states that the attacks are to "avenge the Sunnis killed by the apostate regime."
Despite their smaller numbers, the jihadis bring experience in fighting guerrilla wars as well as their own supply lines for much needed weapons and ammunition, making them attractive to local Syrians to join.
"The infiltration of weapons and funding to these groups, as well as the ethno-religious component of the Syrian uprising, is likely to continue to serve as a source of attraction for many fighters, some of whom are ex-Free Syrian Army soldiers and many of whom are from foreign countries," noted the September report by the Quilliam Foundation about the role of jihadis in the rebellion.
The jihadis also have a reputation for heading straight to the front lines. Few were in evidence in the countryside, where many rebel units are involved in managing the civilian areas.
A French physician with Doctors Without Borders working near the front lines in Aleppo said in an interview last week that based on style of dress and what their companions said, half of the rebels he treated were jihadis, both foreign and Syrian.
In the end, the 12 bearded men who threatened the car full of journalists may have backed down because of wanting to maintain a good relationship with the civilians from the nearby village.
The more a rebel group is entrenched in the population, the more self-discipline it will exercise and the less likely it will engage in atrocities, Harling said. The problem with the jihadis and foreign fighters is that they often have few links with civilians.
"There is no jihadi precedent in the Islamic world that hasn't ended in one way or another in total failure, which makes it difficult to understand how it carries so much appeal," he said.