Friendly enemies on Syria’s front lines

Sunday 19/06/2016
Syrian men sitting next to damaged building in town of Daraya

Northern Syria - Dona died because of “friendly” fire although the shelling that killed him was unleashed by the enemy. Militant re­bels in the Damascus suburb of Daraya suspended fighting for two days to mourn the death of the Syr­ian Army private.
On the numerous front lines of the Syrian conflict, contacts and occasional friendships have devel­oped between antagonists battling on opposite sides of the war. Dona had become friends with gunmen from the Martyrs of Islam Bri­gade group on the opposite side of Daraya’s front line.
Mohamad Fadel, a former col­league of Dona who asked to be identified by this name, served for five years in the army, includ­ing two in Daraya, before deserting at the beginning of the year. “The front line separating us from the fighters of the Martyrs of Islam was not wider than 50 metres. Some­times it was just a building that separated us. Despite apprehen­sions, especially from sniper fire, a relationship developed between us which in certain cases became a friendship,” Fadel said.
Dona, whose real name was Ali Ahmad, was a “close friend of the gunmen”, Fadel said. “The rela­tionship started when rebels re­frained from sniping him. Dona said he was surprised and asked why they did not shoot him. He was told: ‘We know that you are forced to be in that place (with the army).’”
“In the beginning, he (Dona) used to smuggle bread, tea and vegetables to the gunmen. The re­lationship developed and direct contact was established in which we used to stay up all night chat­ting, of course secretly without the knowledge of the officers. One day, a gunman asked me to deliver $800 to his family in Damascus and I did so more than once,” Fadel added.
While Syrian fighters tried to spare their compatriots in the army, it was not the case with for­eign fighters backing the regime, including Iranians, Iraqis and Leb­anon’s Hezbollah, who constituted a main target for Daraya’s snipers.
“When we became very close with the fighters of the Martyrs of Islam Brigade they told us that al­though they spotted us they did not open fire because they believe the soldiers were helpless and compelled to serve in the army,” Fadel said.
“More than once, they told the officers through radio communica­tions: ‘Remove your soldiers from the battleground. Our problem is not with them. These are our brethren… Our enemies are the mercenaries from Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah.’”
The Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar has some of Syria’s most overlapping fronts, with a single wall separating the enemies in some places.
A former soldier who was re­leased from the army after being seriously injured described how contact is established, usually at the closest points of engagement.
“It often starts with exchange of insults such as ‘You are (Syrian President Bashar) Assad’s dogs’ or ‘Iran’s bastards’. To which soldiers retort: ‘You are the hounds of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and (Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip) Erdogan,’” said the ex-soldier who spoke on condi­tion of anonymity.
“After the first hostile verbal ex­changes, the antagonists exchange phone numbers. It is usually the gunmen who initiate the contact and start communicating with the soldiers through social media and WhatsApp.”
In one instance, soldiers were captured in a rebel ambush and the gunman who caught them hap­pened to be a friend of one of the new prisoners.
“When he recognised his ‘soldier friend’, the gunman showed them the way out to regain their post,” the ex-soldier said. “Since then a strong friendship developed be­tween the gunman and all the three soldiers. Even during battles they would alert each other about im­minent shelling. They would say: ‘Don’t go in that direction because there is a plan to attack that side.’”
In Aleppo, rebels have been tap­ping army radio and connecting with soldiers to encourage them to desert.
“We infiltrated their radio com­munications and talked to them di­rectly but the soldiers were afraid that the frequencies could be under surveillance. Some soldiers agreed to desert and we would then stage a battle to help them move to the other side, while many refuse to leave fearing for their families liv­ing in regime-controlled territory,” said an opposition fighter in Alep­po who declined to be identified.
“We became friends with many soldiers,” he said. “In one instance a gunman offered $300 to a friend of his in the armed forces to help the soldier’s family, which is dis­placed in Hama, to pay rent.”
In many besieged areas in Syr­ia, where blockades have been in place for more than a year, friend­ships have developed between the besiegers and the besieged. In some cases, deserters keep their friendship with former comrades and extend those links to their “new comrades” in rebel ranks.
Mohamad Issa, a fighter from Jaysh al-Fatah in the northern province of Idlib, had a comrade who had deserted from the army but maintained relations with a friend in the besieged military camp of Armid.
“Before my comrade died in the fighting, he asked me to keep con­tact with his soldier friend and look after him,” Issa said. “We then be­came buddies and when the soldier was imprisoned by our brethren in Ahrar al-Sham, I asked the com­mander to let him go for the sake of our martyred comrade. He agreed and then I transported the soldier to the closest point under army control.”