Shelly Kittleson

It was the more than one hundred bodies of young men found in the Queiq river nearby in early 2013 that induced former rebel commander Abu Jaafar to focus again on what he had been trained for under the regime: forensic pathology. 

Many of the dead were found with bullet wounds to their heads, hands tied behind their backs and tape covering their mouths, leading Human Rights Watch to conclude they had likely been detained and then executed. Many of the families that HRW spoke to said the men had last been seen in government areas, or had been planning on crossing into them for work. 

‘’Most of the bodies were found further upstream,’’ Abu Jaafar notes during a recent conversation in his office, located in a former primary school building. In the hallway are cartoon faces of children shown studying, the images mostly blacked out by the Islamic State (ISIS) when the extremist group briefly had this part of the city. 

The bodies had floated down to the opposition-held Bastan Al-Qasr area after presumably being dumped in a government-held area over a period of several weeks. They were found when the high winter waters resided in late January. Several more bodies were found in the river each day after that, until around mid-March, when Aleppo’s opposition authorities lowered the water level to prevent it from carrying more bodies downstream. 

The courtyard outside Abu Jaafar’s office is marked with the insignia of the Ahrar Al-Sham Islamist rebel group. A donated ambulance stands nearby, waiting to bring in more corpses. A bullet-riddled Toyota pick-up with a mount for an anti-aircraft gun is parked as well.   

The grey-bearded, 55-year-old forensic pathologist had commanded a small battalion of Ahrar Al-Sham fighters before handing it over to one of his sons in order to dedicate his time to documenting the deaths, since he ‘’realized how important it is for our revolution.” He now has an official position in the Aleppo opposition-held city council’s health directorate.

Abu Jaafar estimates that some 2,000 bodies have passed through his morgue since the uprising began, but added that most people just bury their dead without taking them to a coroner.

The river lies not far away, on the other side of a graveyard for foreign fighters that had been fighting with regime troops.  Abu Jaafar has identified the 15 bodies buried here as Afghans or Iranians on the basis of their features, tattoos and objects found on them. A number of Afghans fighting with the regime have also been captured in recent months near Aleppo (two of whom I had been able to meet with in previous days). 

Abu Jaafar keeps photographs of the bodies’ Persian-lettered tattoos, their dog tags and other personal objects to be used as documentation when the war ends. 

The makeshift graveyard sits just outside a wall, above small fields on lower-lying areas near the waterway. It was planned to be temporary, the bodies to be reinterred elsewhere after the war. Regime areas can be glimpsed from here, but as Abu Jaafar and I make our way towards the river, he assures me that snipers would not be able to hit a target this far away.  We pass a sheep herd, prodded down the street by an elderly woman, past mounds of uncollected trash. Several buildings in the area collapsed during regime barrel bomb attacks. Others have gaping holes, dangling concrete and shorn sides, conditions that are commonplace in Syria today.

Ahrar Al-Sham: “Different in the country and the city” 
The forensics of discerning between the living, particularly the multitude of militias active in Syria today, can be harder than contending with the dead. 

Ahrar Al-Sham, Abu Jaafar’s group, is widely viewed as being one of the more extremist in the spectrum of major opposition factions fighting both the regime and ISIS in Syria, considered second only to Jabhat Al-Nusra in its hardline view of Islam. 

However, the ideological differences between the various Islamist factions – and even within factions – are far more complex than is typically understood, says Abu Jaafar. He points to differences between Ahrar Al-Sham in Aleppo and its battalions in the Idlib province further west, where the group was initially created.

‘’In Idlib, they’re ‘harder’ people,’’ Abu Jaafar says. ‘’In Aleppo, Ahrar Al-Sham are educated people. Professionals. Lawyers, doctors and teachers. They’re from the city.’’

In Aleppo, he notes, Ahrar Al-Sham is not allied with Nusra. The ideology is different, he claims. For example, Abu Jaafar says he has no problem with women working, but that they ‘’should be protected from hard work,’’ and when they travel, they must have a male guardian to ensure nothing bad happens to them.

He would also like to see an Islamic community in which ‘’professionals” vote, but not those without education.

“National army needed to save Syria from Iran”
I join the coroner for lunch. A large round pan of fatteh, a Syrian dish of chickpeas and bread, is put out for communal eating back at Abu Jaafar’s office. Orient TV, the UAE-based satellite channel, plays on a television in the corner. A parody of the Islamic State briefly catches the attention of four or five Ahrar Al-Sham fighters in the room, provoking laughter from the militants.

Abu Jaafar tells me that he had also worked as a journalist part-time, and was a local Ba’ath Party leader for a period prior to the uprising. He had once been taken in by security forces and interrogated by the regime, he says, for lowering a poster with Syrian President  Bashar al-Assad’s picture to the floor during a broadcast for technical reasons.

‘’I was interrogated for an hour,’’ along with some of his colleagues, he recalls. ‘’They kept telling me that I knew what I had done, but I had no idea. They then put us in a room together and we tried to figure out why – what exactly we had done.’’

‘’Luckily,’’ he says, ‘’some of my relatives had been alerted when they took me in, and they got me out…Had it had been anyone else, though, I don’t think you would have ever heard from me ever again.’’

Abu Jaafar’s mother is from a prominent Alawite family. 

The uprising has taken on a starkly sectarian hue. There are almost no Alawites left in opposition-held areas of Aleppo, but Abu Jaafar tells me that there is one remaining Alawite in the area; he fixes computers for a living, but keeps a low profile. I was able to meet with some Christians staying in rebel-held Aleppo as well, though the minority is generally seen as being staunchly pro-regime.

The coroner tells me he had chosen to get involved in the uprising when he saw that al-Assad ‘’can’t decide anything and is just a puppet in the hands of Iran...Now people die and buildings are destroyed, but if we hadn’t started this revolution,’’ he adds, ‘’we would be broken as a people. Controlled by Iran.’’

Iran’s influence in country prior to the uprising, and its deep involvement in the conflict, has been well documented – a dynamic considered by many Syrians to be a form of colonization as equally abhorrent as the intrusion of foreign jihadist Tunisians, Egyptians, Chechens and Iraqis now populating the ranks of ISIS.

It is also frequently pointed out that the regime and Iranian militiamen fighting side by side in Syria have avoided direct conflict with ISIS as much as possible, and that a symbiotic relationship exists.

Several people I spoke to in Aleppo mentioned friends and family members who had chosen to live in ISIS territory, as it is typically safer from regime airstrikes and barrel bombs than opposition-held areas. 

Abu Jaafar’s 23-year-old nephew enters and joins the discussion. A former soldier in the regime army, he defected early in the uprising and is now a commander of a brigade in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) group Failaq Al-Sham. Short, thin, bespectacled and wearing an olive green tactical vest and black scarf, the young man nevertheless seems less a commander than a university student, which he ‘’might have been if the fighting hadn’t started,’’ he says. 

Adding yet another layer, Abu Jaafar says that his wife’s son and cousin are allied, instead, with the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Al-Nusra. 

The largest alliance in the area, however, is Jabhat Al-Shamiya, formed by the Islamic Front and a number of other rebel groups in December.

Harakat Hazm, created in January 2014 and known for receiving TOW anti-tank missiles from the United States (and for being chased out of its Idlib province headquarters by Jabhat Al-Nusra late last year), has joined the group as well in recent weeks, after minor fighting began with the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Aleppo. 

Having such a bewildering array of groups on the ground, with so many shifting alliances, is clearly counterproductive, says Abu Jaafar. 

‘’We need to get rid of small groups and build a true national army,’’ he says, admitting the bar may be simply too high. 

“We’re simple people,’’ he says, with the resignation of someone who has grown accustomed to dragging bodies from the river, conducting autopsies and burying victims of barrel bombs, missiles and snipers. ‘’We think with our hearts, not our heads.’’

For many here, the particulars of any one group’s ideology matters less at the moment than the barrage of building-destroying barrels falling from the air and the bodies that come floating down river. 

Shelly Kittleson is a US-born freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and Afghanistan. She has made several trips into rebel-held Syria since late 2012 and had her work published in US, international and Italian publications. Twitter @shellykittleson

Photograph courtesy ©Shelly Kittleson