There has recently been a small stir in the American media, as media organizations from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Associated Press have finally gotten around to acknowledging a “presence” of al-Qaeda and like-minded jihadist groups among the Syrian rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
It is difficult to see what the cause of the excitement is. After all, such a presence has been blindingly obvious for many months: whether as a result of the dozens of suicide attacks that have plagued Syria or the numerous videos that have emerged showing rebel forces or supporters proudly displaying the distinctive black flag of al-Qaeda.
But observations made by German journalist Daniel Etter during a recent visit to rebel-controlled towns near the embattled city of Aleppo suggest that there is no mere “presence” of jihadists among the rebels: religiously-inspired mujahideen is what the rebels are. The real question is whether there is a presence of anything else. Etter’s report, which appeared in the leading German daily Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, also provides evidence that rebel authorities are subjecting civilians to arbitrary detention and torture and summarily executing captured members of the regular Syrian armed forces.
In the town of Maraa, north of Aleppo, Etter saw some 120 prisoners, apparently civilians, “herded into a large classroom” in what had previously been a school. Many of the prisoners showed signs of abuse. The prison director, whom Etter identifies only as “Jumbo,” refused to allow Etter to speak with them alone. Etter notes that Jumbo “looks like his name.” “Jumbo is not someone with whom you would like to pick a fight,” Etter writes:
[N]ot someone whom as a prisoner you would like to have as your jail keeper. Thus the detainees say that their wounds and bruises are the product of falls or shrapnel. They say how well they are treated here, and they swear loyalty to the Free Syrian Army. Much of what they say is not credible.
The most gruesome wounds that Etter describes involve a certain “Tamer” from Aleppo: until recently an enthusiastic supporter of Assad – so enthusiastic that he had a portrait of the Syrian president tattooed on his chest. In the meanwhile, the tattoo has been excised from Tamer’s body with a razor blade. Tamer insists that he did the deed himself after rebel forces entered Aleppo. He says that he ran to the rebels’ headquarters and sliced at the tattoo while yelling, “I give my blood for the Free Syrian Army!”
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