It’s a cold December day in Northern Syria, and the sun is about to reach the center of the sky. Nineteen-year-old Becker and I are walking through an empty alley in an ancient market of the Old City of Aleppo. Aleppo has been occupied by humans since 5000 BC. It was once conquered by Alexander the Great. The Old City we walk through was constructed between the 12th and 15th centuries AD. It has been conquered by Mongols and, in more recent history, Ottomans. Now it and its ruins are the site of pitched, block-by-block battles between the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Becker is a fighter for the FSA.
The alley is lit by shrapnel holes in the corrugated metal roof that covers it. Light streams through, and a thick musty smell hangs heavy in the chilled air. Ahead of us we hear only the thud of grenade explosions and the crackling of sporadic machine gun fire. Calmly, Becker ducks his head and turns quickly out of the alley and into an abandoned building, one of the few pathways hidden from snipers. Such “paths” are often knocked through old walls and catacombs of building remains and create the only connections between the front lines. Becker carries an AK-47 that swings on his back as he makes his way through the dark building. He wears no body armor, believing, as do many FSA fighters, that to do so would deny Allah his right to appoint their time and place of death. Becker has made this trip hundreds of times. It is a trail between the small room he sleeps in at night and the front lines.
We cross through another house and then enter a dark alley. It’s blackened bricks are scarred by explosions and fire. At the end of the alley, FSA fighters ready their weapons and don’t notice Becker and me approaching. Many FSA fighters seem to take guarding the back door as strictly optional. “Allah ahkbar” Becker says loudly, alerting the men to our presence. They lift their heads and smile on seeing him. One of the men runs up to us and gives Becker a hug. They are all very happy to see him, patting him on the back and welcoming him to the front. From their greeting and other small signs, it is clear this group of FSA fighters loves Becker like a brother. Some even call him their Prince. Becker speaks calmly to the group leader about what they are about to do. After the conversation, he wraps a red cloth around his head to notify snipers that he’s with the FSA and then hands me one to do the same. Wearing the wrong color can be deadly.
The men were waiting for Becker and are excited to have him join them for the day. As a group they start through the rubble of the final building between them and the front line. Becker taps me on the back and off we head into the darkness. The machine gun fire gets louder.
Becker walked away from high school during his senior year to join those protesting against the Assad regime. While protesting he was arrested and tortured; he doesn’t know why he was chosen to be taken or for what reason he was released. When protests turned to violent rebellion, Becker joined the FSA. He now feels the revolution is his personal responsibility. When asked why, he without hesitation explained that he has a duty to his family and a duty to Islam. Both duties brought him to the FSA. Like most FSA fighters, he holds his religious beliefs seriously and believes not only that he is fighting for Syria, but for God. For a brief period earlier in his life, Becker lived in Romania. He left, he explains, because he noticed the women there seemed to like him, and he returned home to avoid doing anything against Islam.
When Becker is not at the front lines or on patrol, he studies the Quran or cleans his weapon. He looks natural doing both. He still misses playing soccer.
The group of fighters exit the darkness at a jog, single file over the rubble of a destroyed building and into the courtyard of another. The machine gun fire is deafening and constant. Explosions shuddering the very ground we all stand on. There’s a fighter firing through a doorway, and every few seconds a loud crack from a sniper round breaks the air. Becker looks my direction and asks if I’m doing alright. I’m not, but “Yah I’m fine man” comes out. He and another fighter crouch on the ground and strategize. They know Assad’s forces are in the next building but there isn’t an easy way to rout them.
The man firing through the door changes position with a man behind him, letting him take a turn, and comes to stand near me. His eyes are glassy and bare. His hands covered with dust and ash. Pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he hands me one before putting another in his mouth. Becker looks up at me and then the doorway being fired through. He needs to take out a sniper if they’re to have any shot of taking the house, but he doesn’t know if he can. A volley of shouts burst from both sides of the line; Assad’s men are a few meters, away and the FSA scream for them to come join their side while cursing them in the same breath.
Another grenade explosion close by shakes the air, and Becker and the man stand and use a piece of glass to look around the corner of the doorway. The alley is clear but they don’t know exactly how much the enemy can see of it. They have to take the chance or they’ll never capture the next building. They both pop out and I follow as the other fighters pause in their firing. The dust is settling in the alley from where bullets just hit, and Becker turns and asks me to stay where I am for a moment and then continues to the end of the alley with another fighter, weapons raised. I’m crouched against a wall in the alley, and a third fighter comes to watch my back. Becker reaches the end of the alley slowly and aims down his scope a few moments before firing. The loud rifle crack breaks the momentary silence, and then he ducks as some incoming shots are volleyed. He raises again and fires another few rounds. A fighter comes through the door we just came through with a Russian PK and begins blasting through into the adjacent building. As dust and ash begin to choke the alley once more, Becker returns to my side and we retreat back through the courtyard and into the darkness and temporary safety of the buildings.
Away from the front lines, I asked Becker about Syria. He talks about how his Sunni brothers, the majority in Syria, have long been persecuted under Assad’s regime. With a calm seriousness he explains how the Sunni are being slaughtered by the regime army and the Alawites, the minority sect to which Assad belongs.
Becker, like many FSA fighters, believe that by killing Sunnis Assad is attacking Islam itself. This conviction is what brought Becker to Aleppo. He fights for Islam, against the persecution of the Islamic people, by (though he would dispute this) other Islamic people. That is why this 19-year-old former soccer star from the suburbs of Aleppo picked up a machine gun.
At night under the flicker of generator-powered lighting in a small concrete room, Becker tries to explain what he’s seen and been through, while doing his best to ignore the mortar shells that crash randomly into rooms much like the one in which we sit. Becker keeps saying we’re too close to Assad’s troops for them to use mortars on us. In the previous months, many of his closest friends have died in the war. Without a tear, he talks about his best friend from high school that joined the fight with him and was shot to death only a short time ago by regime snipers in Aleppo. He pulls a phone from his pocket and shows a photo of the young man’s dead, burial-prepped body, his eyes closed, his face the cold white blueish cloak of death.
Before the war, Becker’s life sounds like one most teens could relate to. Now, he’s surrounded by fighting, deprivation, and death every day. Through our talks, it becomes apparent that he doesn’t often think about the future. He is a fatalist; he thinks about victory and Islam. He must be, to do what he does. He knows he is fighting an advanced military with all the accoutrement of modern warfare. His army is made of old tribes, modern fanatics, and college students.
Becker also knows his revolution has a weakly united front. Civilian soldiers like himself do what they can, while the most desperate and dangerous fighting is often carried out by the hard-line Islamic front Al-Nusra, which was recently labeled a terrorist organization by the United States government. Despite the slow collapse of Syrian society and the daily news of civilian massacres, Becker still hopes for peace. He dreams about a country ruled by Islam but free for all people, Muslim and Christian, Alawite and Sunni. Such a place is a long way away and he knows it. “Inshallah,” he says. God willing.
That night, we talked about America. When I first met Becker, I told him I was from Chicago and he, listening to tank and mortar shells explode in the distance, asked me in a concerned voice, “Isn’t it very dangerous there?” Becker worries about me and wants me to become a Muslim.
I asked him how his parents felt about him fighting for the FSA. Initially, he said, they were against it. When he explained what he was fighting for, they came around. I asked him why. He spent a moment thinking, trying to convey to me what he explained to his parents. He paused then, trying to translate it into something an American would understand. He just smiled and said, “It’s Jihad, man.”