10:07 a.m. April 2, 2013

The War Nerd: Syria’s Bloodiest Home Videos

I saw two prisoners stood up against a wall and shot last week. The strangest thing is that the wall they were shot against had a big painting of SpongeBob SquarePants, or as the painter captioned it, “Spongbob Squarbants."

It was a typical Arab street—the literal kind, not the “Arab Street" pundits talk about. And that means every house has a good thick concrete wall around it. It also means lots of kids, so those walls get painted with kiddie pictures. Every Middle Eastern town I've seen had weirdly accurate paintings of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and occasionally something more up to date, like SpongeBob. Even the misspelling, “Squarbants," took me back. You can't convince Arabic speakers that there's a difference between “b" and “p," or for that matter “d" and “t." So “pants" turns into “bants," because they have a “b" but no “p."

So there was the wall with the nice kiddie picture, and sitting up against it were two SAA (Syrian Arab Army) prisoners, Alawites probably, soldiers of Assad's army. They'd been captured by some “rebel" group, which is to say Sunni militia, and they were going to be killed. These two had already been beaten pretty thoroughly and had that meaty, dazed look you see in people who are moving along the track from terror to oblivion. Thanks to YouTube and the Syrian nightmare, you can now see real footage of prisoners about to be executed, wounded men, troops under air and artillery attack, sniper fights, tank dashboard-cams, and all the ruined cities you could want. For a hundred years, cameras were tricky and expensive enough that the professionals had a monopoly on war footage. That changed a little in the 2003 Iraq war, but it's only now, with the Syrian war, that you can see it all, and play it back as many times as you want.

In fact, there's now a great site, Syriavideo.net, that lets you map every video you see so you can see where the action's hot. Syria has a very complicated demographic map, so it's very useful to be able to see where the day's massacres are happening. (Hat-tip: Joshua Landis and Sultan al Qassemi)

And it is massacres, mostly. That's standard for civil and sectarian wars like this, but it's still pretty creepy. But memorable. It's the videos of prisoners about to be killed that I seem to watch over and over. It's something you always wonder about if you're interested in war: what would it be like to stand against that pockmarked wall?

What you learn from these Syrian videos is that it's pretty depressing. Which may seem obvious, but isn't, not to everybody, not if you've watched too many movies like me, grown up on famous last words, stories about refusing a last cigarette while you face the firing squad.

Those stories always feature somebody important—a leading man, in movie terms. In movies about brave doomed prisoners, you know the backstory, and this last act is all part of the glory. It doesn't work that way in these blurred cellphone cam clips from Syria. It probably never worked that way, except in the movies.

In the clip I saw from Aleppo, the one with the SpongeBob painting, the two men who were going to be shot just sat there in the dust (there's always plenty of dust on those streets, dust and walls) staring at the men who were going to kill them. They weren't having any profound last thoughts, as far as you could see, and they didn't have any last words. They just stared, and then the beefy neighborhood guys with AKs finally got tired of yelling at them and fired a few bursts into them. You could see the bullets kicking dust from the ground and concrete chips from the wall. And that was it.

One typical execution video from Aleppo contains all the trademark scenes. There's the ritual humiliation of the victims before they get shot. Usually that's mostly taunting, but this time they bring one of the older men in with no shirt. Arabs can't stand being naked, which is one reason the Lebanese in Australia don't get along very well with the locals—that Oz “beach culture" doesn't work too well when you're in black from head to toe. So ripping this guy's shirt off means he's already shamed. You can see he's been beaten pretty thoroughly too. They pull him down the stairs and shove him up against the wall with some of his kin. None of the doomed men try any Rambo nonsense. That's only in the movies. They just stare out like they just woke up. The Sunni who've captured them are joyful, with everybody trying to get a cellphone cam shot of the soon-to-be-dead.

And then, at about the one-minute point, they start shooting. And keep shooting. I actually timed this one the video, and the shots go on for 40 seconds, at full automatic. 40 seconds from two or three AKs on full auto… I'm no math whiz, but an AK on auto fires 600 rounds per minute, so these men get hit with something like a thousand bullets. So, we can safely assume that ammo is not in short supply with the FSA forces in Aleppo. And it shows you something else, too: These prisoner-killings are a public celebration, a chance to take a little payback for all the weeks of being shelled from a distance. Assad's side has almost all the heavy weapons, so the FSA/Sunni/"rebels" take the chance to do a little overkill of their own.

The identity of the victims here may also have something to do with the overkill. These are the men of the Berri family, a big clan with deep roots in the Shia/Alawite world. If you remember back to the days when Amal was the big Shia militia in Lebanon and Hezbollah was the upstart, you'll remember the name “Nabih Berri" — the Amal honcho. Were these prisoners from his clan? I'm not sure, but it seems likely.

You can't see Donald Duck and SpongeBob very well on that video, but there's another where the paintings of both show up clearly at the 1:45 point, as the dead men are being walked to their execution site.

In that video, the men waiting to be killed wave away the Jihadi screaming “Allahu Akbar" at them. They're not interested. They don't beg, because that would be stupid. They know it's not a movie. They know they're gonna die.

This is why the CIA interrogation manuals warn you against threatening to kill people you're questioning. Once people know they're going to die, they go blank, going through those five stages of death in record time. They don't really have the time to worry about what you're yelling at them.

In another video making the rounds from Hala, near Aleppo, it's much more painful because a poor fat guy in the tracksuit just runs into a Sunni patrol, tries to beg, tries to run, and gets shot down in the dust anyway. There's no dignity in it — not that he was likely to be worried about his dignity at that moment.

Before the war, there were scare stories that the Sunni majority was going to wipe out all the Alawites if they won. They have a saying, “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard." It was hard to know if that was just woofing or if they meant it. It's pretty clear now that some of the “rebel" groups mean every word of it, at least as far as the Alawites are concerned.

Killing prisoners is standard practice for pure guerrilla forces, groups that have no safe havens. They don't have any other options. But it's been a while since the FSA has been that kind of army. They could take prisoners if they wanted to, exchange them for some of their own. But this is pure sectarian war now, and every Alawite is a legitimate target.

The two sides have very different movie characters, if you can put it that way. One quick way to tell is noise level. If the people making the video are yelling “Allahu Akbar!" about a million frickin' times before they get around to the action, you're watching a video from the “rebels," the Sunni militias.

Another way to tell quickly which side made the video is the soundtrack. Wahhabi have this thing about music, like it's evil unless it's a capella male voices singing something holy. So if the soundtrack to the video is all voice, no instruments, you're probably watching a Sunni/"rebel" video. If there's music, it's probably Assad/Alawite. And Lord, do those Alawites have a thing for action-movie style music. Some of their clips sound like old episodes of “Starsky and Hutch."

If you're watching Kurdish fighters, there won't be much yelling at all. In one story I read about Kurds and Sunni fighting together against Assad's loyalists in the North, the reporter described the Arab shouting “Allahu Akbar!" every time he fired at the enemy. The Kurd, sick of all the noise, tried to tell him, “They can't hear you" — but the yelling didn't stop.

That fits with what I remember about Kurds and Sunni Arabs. Kurds are quiet, determined people, the get'er done type. The Sunni militias believe in keeping up morale with these epideictic displays, like birds calling at dawn to convince themselves they're still around.

The Alawites are much quieter. Very quiet. That might be a bad sign, morale dropping. When they yell in these videos, it's usually at the end of a patrol, and I can't understand what they yell except that it's not “Allahu Akbar." Everybody seems to understand that that's a Sunni/Jihadist slogan. Assad's army is in a very confused place, ideologically. It's supposed to be a secular, Ba'athist force, a socialist pan-Arab army, but all the magic has gone out of socialism and “pan-Arab" would be a stretch, since Assad's only real friends are Iran and Russia, non-Arab states. Among the Arabs, only the Shi'ites in Hezbollah back him, and Hezbollah looks to Iran too. So Assad's people can't stress the socialism, or the Arab identity. The truth is, they're a last-ditch Alawite militia, with some help from the other scared minorities like the Christians and the Kurds.

So their propaganda, their movie-making, aims to show two things: That they're still strong, and that they're the enlightened, Western group fighting against the Wahhabi fanatics. The best, scariest Assad video showing the power of the regime's forces is this clip. It's only 41 seconds, so watch carefully. You see a Sunni force, with a good infantry screen (unlike Assad's armor), moving down the road and suddenly getting obliterated by an air attack. One bomb hits the front of the convoy, and right at the end of the video, a second one destroys what's left. After you'd been through a few attacks like that, without any air force of your own to strike back, you'd probably want to shoot your prisoners a few hundred times yourself.

To prove that they're still strong, Assad's YouTube troops rebroadcast a lot of FSA videos showing the FSA getting hit by Assad's forces. One of the most dramatic shows a Sunni unit using an old double 23-mm ZSU style AA cannon to fire at Alawite troops across a field. This one is distributed by something calling itself (in English) “Syria Tube," with the motto “God bless Syria Al Assad," also in English. The producers even thoughtfully subtitle the chatter you hear from their enemies, the “Battalion of the Free of Derat Ezza," as they ease their big truck through a walled gate and get it into position to fire.

Naturally, there's a lot of “Allahu Akbar!" and backseat driving as everybody tries to tell the cannoneer how to aim. But after he's gotten a couple of bursts off, a bomb or artillery shell hits to the right of his truck. To make sure you get the full enjoyment out of that moment, the Assad people making this video rerun the moment of impact four times. Then they show you the Sunni who got hit with shrapnel, bleeding out pretty quickly as they shove him into a truck.

A lot of Assad videos have this same angle: Look how many of the enemy we killed! It's not a good sign. That gets you drawn into a body-count war, and that means you have no strategy beyond holding on and trying to kill enough of the enemy to discourage them.

The best video of actual urban warfare I've seen from the Assad side is a three-part story called The Road to Maysaloun, Maysaloun being one of the neighborhoods of Aleppo. It's a very slow video, because urban warfare, as played by cautious armies like the ones on both sides here, is a slow business, like fighting in a coral reef. The story follows a team of Assad soldiers trying to find and neutralize some “rebel" snipers who've been picking them off, and it's weirdly relaxing. Notice above all how quiet the Assad soldiers are. (Maybe a Syrian can tell me what that means. Are Alawites quiet people? Or is the quiet a sign of failing morale?)

The other point the pro-Assad movies want to make is that they're the pro-feminist side—which they are, at least by comparison. I mean, it's not hard to be more feminist than hardline Sunni Islamists, which some—not all—of the rebel groups are. So Assad's producers send women reporters to do frontline stories. Not just any women, either: incredibly beautiful women. So if you see a beautiful unveiled lady in a helmet interviewing uniformed men, you're watching a story from the Assad side. And they make a point of sending these female war reporters out unveiled, like saying, “See? We're the pro-women side here!" [Here's a cache of 16 stories from Assad's TV producers, with the one cued up featuring a typically fantastic-looking woman reporting on a Sunni massacre in Deraa.]

Of course there are plenty of combat videos for the pure conventional-war enthusiast, too—especially the tank-cam videos. These tank dashboard-cam clips all seem to be made, or at least narrated, by Russian war nerds. It's like some kind of rule: where there's a Russian, there's a dashboard cam, whether it's commuters catching a falling meteorite in Chelyabinsk on their dash cams or a clip showing a T-72 maneuvering through the ruins of Deraa to mop up snipers. That's a fantastic clip, but you have to keep watching it, because it starts slow, like a video game set for “absolute beginner." But at around the 4:06 point, one of the other tanks, just out of frame, gets hit with a AT missile and blows up. You don't get to see a T-72's turret blown clean off very often.

The reaction by the surviving tanks shows you why Assad's forces are losing, even though they have the monopoly on heavy weapons. Without infantry protection, the tank can't do a thing, and it ends up firing blind, blasting more rubble that's already been bombarded for weeks. While you watch this video, see if you can spot a single civilian car left on the roads. I couldn't find one, not even a squashed chassis. This city is absolutely dead, except for snipers. The difference is that snipers can now use very effective shoulder-fired AT weapons. Infantry will decide the war, and it looks like Assad is running out of infantry. His forces seem to be sending their tanks down narrow ruined streets like PacMan power pellets, and he doesn't have an infinite supply of T-72s. What happens when the last one has been blasted?

To find out what the Sunni have planned for their Alawite neighbors, have a look at the French documentary, “One Week with the FSA." It gives a good look at one of the more moderate, neighborhood-defense oriented militias, the Farouk Brigade. These are popular guys in the neighborhood, like a lot of irregular urban fighters are, and not especially fanatical. In fact, their militia has been involved in tit-for-tat killings against the biggest, baddest Jihadi group, Jabhat al Nusra.

So the French/Muslim woman reporting from the neighborhood shows you lots of happy shots of kids chanting the militia slogans, and spends time with the decent-seeming guy in charge. Like most neighborhood-defense militias, this one is very defensive-minded: really bad at attacking, unwilling to take casualties to storm the enemy neighborhood across the road. That's part of what makes them so nice, so moderate, such a good interview—and a willingness to take casualties in the attack is what makes Jabhat al Nusra, the “extremist" Jihadi faction, by far the most effective unit in the Sunni coalition. Moderates tend to be moderate about getting killed, whereas extremists tend to be willing, if not eager to die. Which is why extremists end up calling the shots in military coalitions composed of both types.

The French have clearly decided they're going to go with the Sunni, which is why this French woman is focusing on the Farouk Brigade, these nice local boys. So she's telling you all about them, and everything's nice and bright and happy until a truck full of obvious Jihadis—shaved heads, pale skin, big beards—drives by and out of sight as fast as they can get. The Frenchwoman is a little nervous about this, but she doesn't get really nervous until she films a demonstration cheering for Adnan al Aroor, a Salafist Syrian preacher who's living in Saudi Arabia, broadcasting his sick shit with the full support of our allies, the Sauds. This part starts at 7:34 of Part 2, and at 8:32 you can hear his simple plan for every Alawite who sided with Assad: “They will be chopped up and fed to the dogs."

Of course, clergymen everywhere say a lot of stuff they don't mean. But this time, it doesn't seem like woofing. There have been plenty of massacres already, and if you want to see a Salafist preacher proving that he's not just talking when he preaches about chopping Alawites up, there's the video of a Shaykh, a sort of chaplain, from Jabhat al Nusra, preaching over the decapitated head of an SAA officer, while SUVs honk their horns in celebration.

I have a feeling it's videos like this, and the prisoner-killing clips, that will turn out to be real home movies of this war. To quote the Shaykh's sermon, “This is their fate; They get their heads chopped off and stepped on."