Daniel Etter: Witnessing Syria’s Descent Into War
During the last 15 months I have traveled to Syria again and again. I witnessed a small glimpse of the country’s descent from a largely peaceful uprising into a full-scale civil war.
What seemed to me at first a hopeful struggle for change has turned into a violent deadlock. August was the bloodiest month in Syria so far. With more than 4,000 civilians dead, the human toll exceeded that of the deadliest month of the war in Iraq, which was already ten times higher than the deadliest month in Afghanistan.
A morning airstrike—lacking an obvious noncivilian target—hit a neighborhood in Aleppo, on August 23. Here, Syrians in the Shaar section of the city watch the attack.
The rebels fight with Kalashnikovs, rocket propelled grenades and home made bombs against the government’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets. What the rebels lack in firepower, they have in manpower, courage, motivation and sometimes a disregard for their own physical safety. Neither side seems to have the power to decisively turn the tide against the other.
With every passing day, the conflict has become increasingly sectarian. Except for a very small number, the rebels are Sunni Muslims from Syria’s poor and disadvantaged countryside. Religion serves as a unifier and was the only hope that promised justice under a corrupt regime.
In the Tareeq al Bab area of Aleppo on August 24, election posters of Baath Party members have been torn.
Today, even more secular rebel outfits use religious symbols. They grow beards and fly the black flag of jihad to attract money from conservative Muslim donor states. Jihadists from the United Kingdom, Libya and Pakistan have joined the ranks of the fighters. Though relatively few, they play into the government’s narrative of a foreign, Islamist conspiracy against Syria.
On the other side you have Alawites, Shiites, Christians and countless other minorities that side with the Syrian regime—not necessarily because they support it, but because they fear what might come if the rebels win. President Bashar al Assad has projected an image of himself as a protector of minorities and interreligious peace. Partly because the largely Sunni opposition has failed to reach minorities, for many Syrians he has become exactly that.
Working as a journalist in this environment has proven difficult and dangerous. Many of our colleagues lost their lives. Some were foreign reporters, but most were Syrian. One of the last was Tamer al Awam, who I met in Syria in a makeshift refugee camp close to the broder with Turkey in June 2011. We spent some time working alongside, and we connected because we both called Germany one of our homes. I was not aware that he started working in Syria as a filmmaker until activists changed their profile pictures on Facebook to his portrait and announced his death in Aleppo. According to activists, he was hit by shrapnel during sustained army shelling of opposition forces.
Aleppo has been one of the most challenging stories I have covered so far, frontlines shift within minutes and jets strike anywhere in the city no matter if there are military targets or not. There is no secure place for civilians in the parts of the city held by the rebels. The government’s message seems to be that you either fight on their side or you pay the price for the rebel’s actions.
A family walks through the Tareeq region of Aleppo on August 25, 2012.
But it is not only the security situation that proves increasingly challenging. The opposition was in the past desperate for journalists to cover their plight, but with critical reporting on their actions, such as human rights abuses and religious radicalization, they are slowly becoming unwelcoming towards reporters.
A school in the Aleppo region shelters approximately 150 refugees who have fled local violence. Here, a mother holds her newborn infant on August 13, 2012.
If I as a photographer had to choose one of my images to sum up the conflict, it would be the tattooed rebel prisoner. He has the ruling Assad family inked on his chest like a holy trinity. The late Hafez al Assad in the middle, his two sons Basil and Bashar on the side. For the prisoner, an alleged government militiaman, they used to be the only legitimate rulers of Syria. When the rebels entered Aleppo, he surrendered, screaming “I give my blood for the Free Syrian Army!” and cut the Assads’ images out of his chest with a dirty razor knife.
He told his story under the watchful eyes of a prison ward, so there is no way to be sure that he did not make it up so not to anger his jailers. But no matter who inflicted the cuts in his chest and tried to erase the Assads, the wounds might get infected, they might heal—but they will be visible as long as he lives. The bloody conflict continues. I do not see an easy end to it. But hopefully, a future generation will overcome the pain and the hate that the wounds cutting through Syria inflicted.
— Daniel Etter
View more from Daniel Etter’s Witnessing Syria’s Descent Into War at The Daily Beast.