Middle East

Syria’s war, documented in detail

A Syrian rebel directs regime forces as they surrender in the city of Maaret al-Nauman. (AP/Ugarit News via AP video)

BEIRUT: “It was the worst day of my life ... ” This is what a Syrian army officer, posted in the country’s embattled northwest, told another officer by telephone as they commiserated over their disappearing comrades-in-arms and the situation they had found themselves in.

It appears in an audio recording posted on YouTube during the last week of November – one that has attracted more than 40,000 hits.

Is it genuine? And if so, was it secured by the rebels during a recent victory, or was it in fact manufactured by the regime in a bid to mislead enemies by portraying an army on the brink of collapse?

Hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of videos, written documents and audio recordings that portray aspects of the war in Syria emerge every day, circulating on specialized websites, Facebook pages and other social media. An activist group might produce dozen of videos on a given day, from only one province of the country. Compared to the total volume, a relatively small number are relayed via traditional mass media, where they are seen, heard or read by millions of people. There are the “hits,” with wide viewership, and the many lesser-known items of fact and propaganda out there.

Due to the sheer number of visual items produced – footage of battles, fighters on duty, defections of soldiers, confessions of prisoners, formation of rebel units, field hospitals, rescues of wounded people, funerals, demonstrations, activist campaigns, general destruction, damning evidence of either side committing atrocities, etc. – the majority appear to reflect some aspect of what is taking place.

The phone conversation described is around 11 minutes long. An army operator makes a brief appearance at the beginning, to put the call through to a Lt. Mohammad.

The two officers then engage in a back-and-forth conversation whose staccato pace signals that they know each other well. Their accents indicate they are Alawites, although that sect is not mentioned, and neither are the civilian casualties, or any political aspects of the war.

The caller passes on holiday greetings for the Eid al-Adha, indicating that the conversation took place at the end of October. He immediately senses that the officer, possibly a relative, is either upset or in pain.

“What’s the matter, you’re not doing well?” the caller asks, generating the weary response: “It was the worst day of my life.”

At first the two avoid discussing the details of battles and other military operations; they complain about the lack of opportunities to make telephone calls using either land lines or cellphones due to poor network coverage.

They move to the news that a friend or acquaintance has been killed in battle; the word “martyred” is used, which is common in Arab armies.

They debate when exactly, and from whom, they heard the news. The two men spend time discussing several such cases of friends lost, and the caller notes sadly how their graduating class is becoming depleted. He goes on to mention how he has now lost two commanding officers, and laughs nervously.

They talk about where mutual acquaintances are posted, and what they know of conditions in these places. In answer to a question, the caller says he is stationed in Maaret al-Numan, probably meaning in or near the largely rebel-held town, while the other man is in Saraqeb, a town in Idlib 30 kilometers to the north.

The caller describes the constant rebel attacks on army checkpoints in the Idlib area and the many regime troops who have been killed.

In response to a question about his duties in Maaret al-Numan, the caller says he commands a unit responsible for guarding a nearby depot in Wadi Daif, the airbase that has been under siege by rebels since October.

“What’s in the depot?” the officer in Saraqeb asks.

“There’s fuel – 5,000 liters of gasoline. Enough to blow Maaret al-Numan and Kafranbel to smithereens,” he says.

“So blow it up, and get out of there,” the officer responds.

The caller is amused by the idea and quickly dismisses it. This doesn’t prevent his friend from repeating the suggestion over the next few minutes, in a tone that manages to be both playful, and serious.

They both complain about the lack of support from other units, the inability to use many roads – “you just get blown up if you do” – and the isolation.

Throughout the rest of the conversation they make several brief references to the state of the war and the regime’s prospects for victory.

The caller talks about being a “strike force” in the area while the second man, who is markedly demoralized, rejects the idea, based on the steady, bloody attrition.

“No ... no ... we’re not a strike force,” he insists, before asking: “What’s the point of being out here?”

The caller tries repeatedly to boost his friend’s morale but at one point blurts out: “There’s no solution.”

When the caller asks about defections, the demoralized officer’s response is: “No, there haven’t been any defections ... there’s just ... disgust.”

Neither man presumes to predict how or when the war will end.

Since it is the Eid, the caller asks his friend if sweets, baklava, were offered at the base to mark the holiday.

“No, they didn’t bring me anything,” the demoralized officer responds immediately, before adding: “They brought me worries.”

While the authenticity of the conversation cannot be claimed with 100 percent certainty, it is extremely difficult to stage a rapid back-and-forth discussion in a “one-take” acting job lasting more than 10 minutes. The background noise sounds like a telephone exchange, and a few low conversations are also audible.

The individual who posted it previously submitted two dozen videos, detailing military and civilian rebel activities in the village of Talmenes, which is near Maaret al-Numan.

The likeliest explanation is that the conversation was recorded, possibly as a part of the regime’s surveillance of its officers, and then seized when Base 46 near Maaret al-Numan was taken by the rebels, several weeks after the Eid.

Regime positions at Saraqeb were overrun right after the purported conversation took place.

A Syrian Alawite familiar with military culture described the men’s dialect as impeccable and their conversation as natural.

“If they’re actors, they’re geniuses,” he said.

The post is one of many items that some say fall within the realm of the “media war,” or psy-ops, the attempt to influence the other side in a conflict through planted, or false information.

It comes as Syrian websites and websites about Syria are full of daily doses of “scoops” and rumors, especially as the second battle for Damascus rages and rebel advances continue apace in the north and east of the country, in places such as Idlib.

Several articles or snippets of information circulating on social networks claim that the regime’s army and other forces are retreating. The Iranians, or someone else, depending on the story, have convinced Assad and his team to pull their troops back to the capital for a possible last stand, because they are wasting resources by trying to hold the rest of the country.

Other tales maintain that the regime is retreating proactively and feigning weakness to lure the rebels into a trap.

The surfacing of an audio recording of two officers complaining about human losses and poor military capabilities fits perfectly – into either one of these narratives.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, declined to answer directly about the authenticity of the recording.

“There’s always a chance it could be faked,” he said. “There are earlier examples, where, for example, there was a video about an Alawite who defected from the army, and it turned out he was a prisoner of the rebels.”

Col. Malek al-Kurdi, the deputy head of the rebel Free Syrian Army, based in Turkey, acknowledged that both the regime and the rebels are engaged in psy-ops, but at a relatively unsophisticated level, adding that he doubted the former would fabricate such a conversation.

“The regime doesn’t engage in this kind of propaganda. It has always used the method of showing that it is strong, not weak,” Kurdi said.

While there is the possibility that the conversation is somehow a fake, the daily stream of material has rendered the war in Syria one of the world’s most minutely documented violent conflicts.

The accuracy and objectivity of much of the material can be questioned but clear forgeries are a small minority, and when suspicious material emerges, there are legions of people who might try to expose the fraud, and succeed.

In the comments section, over 100 posts fail to seriously raise the possibility that the recording is a fabrication. Several people express their surprise that the officers do not use blasphemous expressions at any point in the conversation, as Alawites are seen as one of the communities most prone to using such language, and there is the usual racist, sectarian language against Alawites.

The speakers appear to be “traditional,” in that they regularly use phrases that refer to God, such as “with God’s protection,” without this necessarily being religious in any meaningful way.

Whatever the material’s origin, it mirrors recent media and other reports about the morale of the Syrian military.

In many cases, units are overstretched, undersupplied and cut off from the outside world. Most ominously for the officers and soldiers, the casualty rate has become markedly high. A notorious pro-regime pundit, Sharif Shehadeh, recently caused a furor among Assad supporters when he ranted during a talk show appearance that the army had suffered 100,000 fatalities in the war. While this is an exaggeration, the earlier figure this year of approximately 8,000 military casualties appears to have grown substantially.

As the caller laments a few times during the conversation, “There’s no one left from our graduating class.”

Link to the audio conversation:

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 06, 2012, on page 8.




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