By Richard Engel
NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent
The Turkish smugglers didn’t know quite what to make of us. Normally they traffic cigarettes across the Turkish-Syrian border. Cigarettes are cheaper in Syria than in Turkey. So are cows. The smugglers told us they had moved plenty of cows from Syria to Turkey across the cornfields and melon patches that cover both sides of the border. It’s easy to traffic a cow, one of the smugglers explained. Just dress like a farmer and, if stopped by a border guard, claim the cow went wandering and you chased after it.
“Sorry officer. Won’t happen again.”
The smuggler said bringing our team into Syria – without visas, without permission – would be much more difficult.
And I had more bad news for him. We also wanted to film the crossing, and stay inside Syria for several days to conduct television interviews with members of the political opposition being hunted by the Syrian security forces.
The Syrian revolution has been one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring. The government and security forces of President Bashar al-Asad have killed more than 3,000 people since protests erupted last March, according to the United Nations. The protesters have been demanding more political freedom. Thousands of demonstrators have been arrested or disappeared. But facts are difficult to verify because few journalists are allowed into Syria. Government officials closely monitor reporters it allows in. Our repeated requests for visas were denied. No reason was given.
The smugglers didn’t like the plan and told us in language that was only somewhat less polite than the grimaces on their faces.
The risk was too high.
I agreed with one of the smugglers. Yes, it would be easier if we were cows. But this wasn’t adventure travel. Syria’s uprising is important and, to understand it, we would need to go inside.
That’s when we called in Mehmet. Mehmet is man who can get things done. Mehmet is also a pseudonym, his name changed to protect his identity. Mehmet knows Turkey and how to talk to people. If you need an interview with a government official at any time of day or night, Mehmet can set it up. If you need a mobile television studio that can fit on an 18-wheeler, Mehmet can have it built. If you lose your keys in Turkey, Mehmet probably has them. I don’t speak Turkish, but I enjoyed watching Mehmet talk to the smugglers. Mehmet has a weathered face, a devilish smile and bright eyes. He laughs easily and often. We were in a restaurant in southern Turkey not far from the Syrian border. Within minutes, Mehmet and one of the smugglers were laughing. They drank tea. They smoked cigarettes. They ate grilled chicken. They drank more tea and, after about an hour, the smugglers agreed not only to take us into Syria, but also to stay with us and find a safe house where we could hide.
We met the smugglers the next day to start the journey. Our team was Mehmet, John Kooistra, one of NBC’s most experienced combat cameramen, and myself. Our producer Karen Russo remained in Turkey in case things went wrong.
The next day, we were met by a new group of smugglers. They were apparently immune to Mehmet’s charms. They seemed deeply suspicious of us. They clearly didn’t like the mission they’d been given.
We climbed into the back seat of the smugglers’ car near a public park in a Turkish town near the border. The smugglers didn’t talk to us. The man sitting shotgun didn’t turn around to introduce himself or make eye contact. The driver drove a few blocks and then ordered us out. Another car picked us up a few minutes later. The second car drove us out of town and then doubled back into town. We switched cars again. The shell game continued for several hours. I assumed they were trying to shake anyone following us, and also to watch how we reacted to the sudden changes. It was a kind of loyalty test.
Eventually, the smugglers took us to a farmhouse. We were told to wait there and not go outside. They didn’t want us to be seen by Turkish authorities. They thought a group of foreigners hanging out near the Syrian border in a poor farming town may look suspicious. They were probably right. We stayed inside the farmhouse for three days. The wait seemed endless. The smugglers barely talked, so we all watched Turkish Music variety shows on a small television. We stared at the television like people watching the numbers in an elevator, trying to avoid uncomfortable eye contact. Although I could not understand the lyrics, the singing – much of it done by children — was awful. The dancing was worse. I think I drank 30 cups of tea.
We were told we’d be crossing into Syria at night. I wore a black scarf, a black fleece jacket and dark blue jeans. Mehmet wore the same. John always wears black anyway. He lives in New York City.
After the long wait, and jittery from the tea, things developed quickly. There was activity in the farmhouse. They turned off the variety shows. The smugglers worked with a network of spotters and informants. The spotters watched the border. They tracked the guards, shift changes and patrols. The spotters had found an opening. The smugglers loaded us into a car, but remained typically tight-lipped. I assumed we were being taken to yet another safe house. I was wrong. The car stopped by the side of the road next to a field of tall grass.
“Get out,” we were told. “This is it.”
The field of grass was where we’d begin our journey across.
NBC News cameraman John Kooistra, pictured. Photo by Richard Engel.
But weren’t we supposed to go at night?
It was three in the afternoon – broad daylight.
We were carrying backpacks.
We were dressed in black.
Our plan felt like it was unraveling. But at least now we were on our way.
A smuggler carved a trail through the grass, which reached well above our heads. The grass was so thick in patches we had to push it down, and climb over it. Crushing and moving the dry grass was noisy, but it provided excellent cover. There was no way we could have been seen except from an airplane.
But then the grass ended, and we were given another surprising nugget from our smuggler-guide. We’d now have to leave the dense grass, cross an open field, climb a barbed wire fence and then cross another field. The first field was still in Turkey. The barbed wire fence was the actual border. The last field was in Syria. Guard towers dotted the terrain. There were periodic armed patrols.
“What?” I remember asking, although I may have added another short word for emphasis.
The smuggler laid it out again.
Out of the grass.
Across a field.
Over a fence.
Across another field.
The distance was two miles from end to end.
Oh yeah, and we’d have to run.
“You didn’t say anything about running,” John joked. His dry humor was deeply appreciated.
I could see a Syrian guard tower about 200 yards away. The smuggler thought it was empty.
If we were caught in Syria, as Americans, carrying cameras, dressed like ninjas, we would likely be accused of spying.
Needless to say we ran as fast as we could through the grass, across the Turkish field and over the barbed wire fence. Once inside Syria, we threw ourselves into a ditch in the field. Panting from the sprint and nerves, we tried to stay as flat as possible. We caught our breath in the ditch as the smuggler made a call. His contacts were supposed to meet us on a dirt road at the edge of the farmland in Syria. There was still about a mile-and-a-half to go. We moved foward, running and then diving into other ditches. Finally, we reached the lonely and empty dirt road.
The car wasn’t there.
The smuggler’s contacts were late.
We stood aimlessly by the side of the road as if we’d been stood up by our dates.
I remember thinking that these smugglers were not reliable people.
We waited by that dirt road for an hour, three foreigners with backpacks standing by a Syrian country road. Finally, the car showed up. We climbed in the back. Two new smugglers were up front. The car’s radio was blaring Syrian pop songs. They were singing along with the tunes. I think they were a little drunk. They didn’t seem the slightest bit worried as they sang and smoked (with the windows rolled up) and drove to a small Syrian city.
In the back of the car, John pushed his handheld camera against the window to film as we entered the city. The glass was tinted. But if someone took a good look, he could see inside. John put his camera down as we passed Syrian police and undercover agents called ‘Shabiha.’ The Shabiha are relatively easy to pick out. They are usually young men, often carrying sticks, lingering on street corners. They look like bullies waiting for a fight after school.
True to their word, the smugglers had arranged a safe house in Syria. We pulled up in front of an apartment building, waited for other cars to pass and then briskly – but without running – moved from the car to the apartment building. Once we opened the door, it was clear what the safe house really was. The kitchen was full of empty beer bottles. There was graffiti on walls. Mattresses covered the floors. A lone mirrored bed dominated one of the bedrooms. It was a brothel. Our hosts asked if we wanted any female companions. The smugglers were also pimps. Our confidence in our only lifeline in Syria was dwindling rapidly.
We declined their offer for company, and set out to find the opposition who were risking their lives to demand more political freedom.
It took us a full day to find anyone willing to talk. People were terrified of speaking out against the regime. They worried about the Shabiha and being arrested. They worried about disappearing. Eventually, we spoke to one pro-democracy activist by cell phone. He agreed to come to our safe house after dark for an interview.
I apologized to Gwan Yousif, a human rights lawyer, for the condition of our filthy dwelling when he arrived for the interview. He brushed it off. He told me he was living in a similar situation, on the run from Syrian authorities, moving from house to house. Many of his temporary shelters were equally squalid. Yousif was also moving with his wife. I asked his how she was holding up.
“I promised her this would only be for one year,” he said with a laugh. He said they’d mentally budgeted a year of living on the run until Bashar al-Asad was driven from power. Then, Yousif hoped, he’d go back to being a lawyer.
“There’s unbelievable abuse against the people who are protesting,” Yousif said. “Torture has become the norm rather than the exception.”
“They start hitting you on the way to the jail. There have been some cases where they cut your hands and cut your private areas and poke your eyes and cut your tongue,” he said.
“The governments in Tunisia and Egypt didn’t use these kinds of unbelievably abusive methods against protesters. Here the government doesn’t even allow people to congregate.”
Yousif said the brutality was only the most obvious form of repression. Even worse, he accused Bashar al-Asad of trying to trigger a civil war.
“They’re putting in people’s heads that if the government falls, there will be civil war,” he said.
Syria does have a potentially explosive ethnic and religious mix. About 75 percent of the population is Sunni Arab. Yet Syria is ruled by Alawite Shiites who make up only 15 percent of the people. The rest of Syrians are predominantly Christians and ethnic Kurds. The religious and ethnic divisions are important. Syria is the flip side of Iraq. Iraq has a majority Shiite population who, under Saddam Hussein, were ruled by Sunnis, with Kurds and Christians making up the difference.
The opposition in Syria is strongest among Sunnis, especially in the cities of Homs and Hama. They opposed Bashar al-Asad and Alawite domination. Mosques are rallying points. The Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamic group based in Egypt, has traditional bases in Syria’s Sunni heartland. In Hama in 1982, Bashar al-Asad’s father Hafez carried out a notorious massacre, killing, according to some estimates, 20,000 people in a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Bashar Al-Asad’s government claims – in fact adamantly insists — that the current protesters are not students and dissidents who want more freedom, but Sunni fanatics and terrorists determined to wipe out Alawites and Christians. Al-Asad, who runs a secular government, presents himself as a kind of Alawite and Christian savior. He says his government, because it is intolerant of dissent, is the only thing preventing a civil war. Syrians know the horrors of religious-ethnic war. Iraq is just next door. More than a million Iraqis sought refuge in Syria to escape the carnage in Baghdad, Falujah and Mosul. It is with a degree of tragic irony that many of those Iraqis are now escaping Syria and returning home.
Many Syrian Christians and Alawites share al-Asad’s fears about civil war. Their concerns are not completely unfounded. Reshuffling the ethnic balance of power in Syria – even to bring a more just and democratic system – does have the potential to tear the country apart. Replacing the Alawite-led regime with a Sunni one would also send shockwaves across the region.
Potential consequences could include:
Ethnic Reprisals/Civil War
There could be reprisal attacks against Alawites and Christians who backed al-Asad’s regime. Many senior Syrian military officers are Alawites. They will fight to defend their communities and have the tools and training to do it. A civil war could break out.
Renewed fighting in Lebanon
Syria is a major sponsor of Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group that dominates neighboring Lebanon. Syria is Hezbollah’s supply line, especially for weapons. A Sunni-led regime in Syria would likely be less accommodating to Hezbollah. Hezbollah could react to the loss of its supply line by becoming weaker and more pliable. Or, perhaps even more likely, Hezbollah could become more aggressive as it rivals, especially Sunni groups in Lebanon, sense weakness and try to challenge it.
Syria has a strategic partnership with Iran. Western diplomats say Iran is helping Syria crack down on the opposition. Iran stopped its own democratic “Green Revolution” by force. American officials and defectors from the Syrian security forces claim Iran is teaching Syria the same tools of repression it used. Syria does seem to be applying the Iranian model of mass arrests, restricting the Internet and using a violent plain-clothed militia. The loss of Syria as a partner/client would weaken Iran. The impact would be similar to Hezbollah. Iran could either accept the loss and become more cautious, or grow more aggressive.
A boost for Arab revolutionaries
If Syria goes, so may another regime or two. So far, the regimes to fall to the Arab Spring – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — have all been in North Africa. Yemen has also nearly collapsed. But Yemen has long been considered a borderline failed state anyway — isolated, poor and largely undeveloped on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula. I have a personal fondness for Yemen and its people. Perhaps it’s because of the country’s extraordinarily fine honey, its exquisite old medinas, the warmth of its people and the island of Socotra with its fantastic Dragonblood trees and unrivaled biodiversity. But few people in the Middle East have been surprised that Yemen is collapsing. It was collapsing before the Arab Spring. Syria is different. Syria is a major Arab country in the heart of the region. Just a few years ago, Damascus was touted as a new tourist hot spot. If Syria’s regime falls, the Arab Spring movement will be given a new jolt of energy. More regimes could go. Fear of the ripple effect seems explain why many Arab regimes have thus far been cautious in their criticism of Syria’s crackdown.
Al-Asad’s regime opposes Israel and backs Hezbollah (which is violently anti-Israel), but has chosen to avoid direct confrontation. Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel in the 1967 war. Syria wants the Golan returned in exchange for a peace deal. There have been attempts at negotiations, but all have failed. Yet the Syrian border has remained mostly quiet. After the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and an ominous attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo, Israel has become deeply concerned about its position in the region. For Israelis, al-Asad may be the preferred devil they know.
President Al-Asad seems fully aware of the regional concerns and unknown consequences of regime change in Syria. In an interview with the British Sunday Telegraph newspaper last week he said Western powers risked causing an “earthquake” that would burn the Middle East if they intervened in Syria.
But geopolitics do not erase the piles of bodies rising in Syria or the thousands of demonstrators who continue to be arrested and tortured.
In our safe house, we were still having problems with the smugglers. The one who crossed with us from Turkey through the grasses was solid. He stayed with us. He seemed reliable. He spoke little, but he made the best of the situation, cleaning up the brothel. He even managed to make tea by hooking up a leaky propane tank.
The two Syrian smuggler/pimps who picked us up inside – showing up late – were complete yahoos. One had a dark scab across his nose and forehead. He claimed he fell down when he was drunk. I think he was in a fight and lost. Either way, the scab said something altogether unimpressive about his character.
It was just after 2 a.m. John, Mehmet and I were sleeping in the safe house when suddenly he heard loud bangs on the door. Someone was knocking and pushing the doorbell repeatedly and urgently. I was awake immediately. Mehmet opened the door. The smuggler with the scab pushed in past him. Breathlessly, he told us the safe house was surrounded by police.
I swallowed hard.
“Stay here,” he said. I could smell the beer on his breath. He wasn’t standing straight. His head was cocked to the side, his shoulder crooked. The Syrian fixer spoke Arabic, which I also speak. “I’ll go out and talk to the police. Stay here,” he said, and stumbled back into the street.
An impossibly short time later, he returned.
“I fixed it. I sent them away,” he said proudly. Then he put out his hand for a reward.
Mehmet was less than impressed. We didn’t want to be too rude or aggressive – we were still dependent on the smugglers – but we also didn’t want to show weakness and stupidity. Mehmet told him, firmly, to go to bed and sleep it off. The smuggler left without any money. He was dejected. He was actually hanging his head as he left. Drunks are not hard to read. We later learned he’d been gambling that night and lost his money. He wanted to get back into a card game. He figured he would try to shake us down, get a few bucks with a petty hustle, and then return to the cards.
Luckily, the protesters we met were much more serious. In fact, they were intellectuals.
A protester picked us up at the safe house and drove us to an apartment. It was a modest but neat family home with clean towels and new soap in the bathroom. We left our shoes by the door. We were greeted like guests.
Inside, we met a journalism student, a law student and the apartment’s owner, a writer and poet. The owner had two children with him. The children were well behaved. The younger boy played on pillows in the living room. His older sister helped his mother bring us water, tea and strong sweet coffee. These didn’t seem like the Islamic fanatics or terrorists the Syrian government claimed they were. They were nice people with all the graces and hospitality that make Syrians wonderful.
The poet agreed with Yousif. Al-Asad was playing on the Syrians’ very real fear of a civil war. The government would never relinquish power, he said, and was prepared to plunge the country into ethnic violence to hold on.
“If you ask for the right to eat and live, the government will give it to you. But it will give you nothing if you ask for freedom,” the poet said, his son sitting in his lap playing with a cell phone.
He said Alawites had become convinced that they’d be slaughtered without al-Asad. I remember thinking that the threat of civil war is real, but by playing into that fear and exacerbating it, the government could trigger a wider conflict.
On our way to the apartment, we drove past a small demonstration. It was ending as we arrived. The security forces and Shabiha had broken it up with tear gas and by blocking off several streets. There were no serious injuries.
The demonstrators had recorded the protest on cell phones. In the apartment, we watched the journalism student upload the videos of the demonstration to the Internet. He was a leading cyber-activist in the area. With most foreign journalists denied access to Syria, cyber-activism has become critical to keep the revolution alive.
The student told me he worked with a media team of ten other activists.
The law student in the apartment was a young woman. She told truly horrific stories of rape and abuse. She had not witnessed the atrocities personally, but had seen video evidence online. She told me about Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who had his penis cut off in Syrian custody and gunshots in his limbs. A video of Al-Khatib’s disfigured body has been widely distributed on the Internet. He has become one of the symbols ofSyria’s revolution. She told us of about a singer, Ibrahim Qashoush, who had his voice box cut out for opposing the regime. There is also video of Qashoush’s severed throat.
This is the type of brutality that comes out in the religious-ethnic war or, more conspiratorially, it is the kind of savagery that can start a sectarian war. I’d seen similar brutality in Iraq. I’ll never forget it.
As we were leaving the apartment, the activists suggested I travel to interview one of Syria’s most prominent opposition politicians, Mishaal Timo. I’d heard of Timo before, but never met him. Timo was well known internationally as an opponent of Al-Asad’s regime long before the current revolt. We were told Timo wouldn’t mind showing his face on camera and would speak openly. It was a great opportunity, but it also made me nervous. Surely Timo’s house and office would be under surveillance. I didn’t want to bring attention to him or attract attention to us. I declined the invitation.
Mishaal Timo was gunned down in his home two days later. Activists blamed the government for the attack. Witnesses say Syrian security forces shot dead two mourners at Timo’s funeral.
Editor’s note: Richard Engel’s full broadcast report can be seen tonight at 10pm/9ct on NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams”.
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