Syrian Rebel Leader Keeps Order On The Border
The Bab al-Salam border crossing, on Syria's northern border with Turkey, has settled into an orderly routine.
Back in July, rebel brigades wrested this border post in Syria's strategic Aleppo province from President Bashar Assad's army in a fierce battle. Now, passports are stamped and cars inspected by the rebels — polite, young, bearded men who wear mismatched military uniforms or civilian clothes.
While the military confrontation was a joint operation, bringing together many rebel brigades, the Northern Storm brigade retains exclusive control of the border post.
It's a tightly run organization. The rebels manage thousands of displaced Syrians camped out in abandoned customs inspection sheds and anywhere else they can find that offers some protection from the burning heat. They wait for a chance to cross the border and find a place in one of Turkey's freshly built tent camps.
A Charismatic Rebel Commander
The calm that prevails can be attributed to Ammar Ibrahim Dadikhi, the commander of the Northern Storm brigade who travels in a late-model, black BMW with a newly designed "revolution'" license plate.
His entourage includes four armed body guards. The younger rebels call him Abu Ibrahim and describe him as a charismatic leader.
He's from the border town of Azaz, and while he has said he was a fruit seller before the revolution, residents of Azaz say he was a successful cigarette smuggler. Now he heads the most powerful brigade on this part of Syria's northern border.
Abu Ibrahim is a burly man in his early 40s with a light beard and a slight limp from a snipers bullet that hit his foot. He agreed to a rare interview after arriving at the border post where I was waiting to cross into Turkey.
I had been on a three-day trip to Azaz. The border town has been the target of nightly shelling since rebel brigades, including the Northern Storm, drove the Syrian army out on July 19.
Airstrike On A Border Town
A month after rebels declared Azaz a "liberated town," Syrian air force jets swooped low over a densely packed neighborhood and dropped two bombs that killed at least 50 people, flattening more than 15 houses and sending thousands of residents to the Turkish border in what is now described as a refugee crisis.
Abu Ibrahim says the devastating airstrike was revenge for the rebel victory in Azaz. The Syrian army lost at least a dozen tanks in the prolonged street battle.
But many people in Azaz link the airstrike to the kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in May. Abu Ibrahim acknowledges that there is a connection. He was in charge of a rebel checkpoint when two buses were stopped outside Azaz.
"We saw two buses coming through the border. They thought we were from the government," Abu Ibrahim said with a slight smile. The young rebels in the room snicker at the joke.
He explained that two men in cars accompanying the tour buses approached him, extended hands in greeting, and said they were military experts from Hezbollah, the militant Shiite group in Lebanon that is a close ally of the Assad regime.
The Lebanese government maintains that the passengers were religious pilgrims on a tour of religious sites in Iran and Turkey and had crossed into Syria on the way to the Lebanese border.
A Dispute With Hezbollah
Abu Ibrahim let most of the passengers go, but held 11 men.
"We refer to them as guests," he said. The rebel leader was convinced that the 11 were high-ranking Hezbollah officials.
His condition for their release was an apology from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for supporting the Assad regime. The kidnapping set off a crisis in Lebanon, including a series of revenge kidnappings in Beirut.
Negotiators from Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon scurried to find a solution. The Syrian government sent a more powerful message. Military jets bombed Azaz as the negotiators tried to strike a deal.
Ten days after the bombing, on Aug. 27, Abu Ibrahim said, he released one of the Lebanese hostages "as a sign of goodwill" after talks with an adviser to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
While the release was hailed as a sign that the crisis was coming to an end, Abu Ibrahim says "there will be a delay" in the release of the 10 Lebanese men still in his custody.
Abu Ibrahim said he has no further demands and will refer the 10 prisoners to civilian courts that have been set up in rebel-held areas. He dismissed a question about charges against the Lebanese "guests." He repeated, pointedly, that Hezbollah was supporting the Assad regime.
According to the opposition, an estimated 2,000 Hezbollah men are in Syria, including many snipers, Abu Ibrahim said by way of explaining the holdup in negotiations for a further hostage release. But the more compelling reason for delay may be close to home.
"They dropped the two bombs, and you've seen the numbers now," he says bitterly. The population of Azaz had swelled to more than 70,000 in the month following the rebel victory.
Many cleared out within hours of the air force attack, running in fear. Only about 10,000 residents remain in a town that now has no electricity or running water and is ghostly quiet at night, except for the thud of mortar and artillery shells that continue to land on empty houses and streets.
Now many of the residents are camped out at the Bab al-Salam border crossing. Abu Ibrahim and his young rebel brigade keep order until the refugees can cross into Turkey.