MESOP REPORT : Embedded in Syria — on the Road With the Russian Military

By Juri Rescheto –  Deutsche Welle – 18 April 2016 -It is black, dark and loud. Emergency lights and searchlights are switched off. Cell phones and laptops are prohibited. We are speeding toward the ground, in a steep, winding trajectory. In the end, we land softly as a feather. “The Russians know what they’re doing,” goes through my mind, and the thought alleviates my initial fear.

It is an exceptional journey through Syria, because participation is by invitation of the Russian military only. Let me be frank: If you agree to go on such a trip, then you are aware of the fact that the Russian military will show only what it wants to show. After all, the Russian army is actively participating in the war and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. Yet the opportunity to gain such a unique perspective does not often arise for a reporter. That is why I have accepted the invitation.Russia’s Hemeimeem air base in western Syria looks like a maximum security unit. Even when you need to use the bathroom, you go in small groups accompanied by a polite sharpshooter. We do not stay there for long. After a sleepless night full of uncertainty during the long flight from Russia to Syria, we already move on again in the early hours of the morning, headed for the next military airport . This time, a two-hour helicopter flight takes me through central Syria over areas controlled by the jihadists: “Islamic State” (IS), al-Nusra and al Qaeda. We fly very low, sometimes only 20 meters (66 feet) above the ground, as we see on the aircraft flight instruments. I feel as though it is even lower: as though we are about to touch the desert at any moment.

Chief witnesses to Russian aid

“The helicopter is agile and quick, but also an easy target for the enemy, if it is discovered, of course. You can hide better between the hills,” explains Igor Konashenkov, the Russian defense ministry spokesman, to the droning roar of the rotor.

The ancient city of Palmyra is our first stop and the most spectacular one. During its year in the hands of IS, the world-famous ruins faced destruction. Now, a dozen Western journalists “embedded” like me with the Russian army will see what the Russians are doing here. From the Russian perspective, they are doing nothing but good. With reconnaissance work, training and technological consulting, they have helped Assad’s troops recapture Palmyra from IS. Now they are clearing mines, the deadly traps left behind everywhere by IS: in walls and ceilings, behind columns and even in the ground under the asphalt. When we arrive, a mine-clearing team consisting of around a dozen people is already there. Centimeter by centimeter, they scan the ground. We are allowed to watch them working as long as necessary. The images are to speak for themselves; they will be seen around the world.

Guarded by sharpshooters

The journey continues in a so-called pod: That is what armored passenger vehicles are called here. It is stuffy and cramped; you can see everything outside through small round holes the size of tennis balls.We reach Qaryatain, a small town in the desert that was still held by the terrorist group IS just four days before. The city must have once been beautiful, but not much is left of this beauty. Qaryatain, which means “two villages,” looks like a ghost town today. A year ago, 14,000 people lived here, most of them Sunnis and Syrian Christians. One night in August last year, IS terrorists arrived, abducted 250 people and occupied the city.Now a handful of Western reporters, guarded by a handful of Russian snipers, are walking around here.

Symbolic gestures

Whether coincidentally or not, aid packages from a Russian military truck have arrived at the market square and are being handed out when we arrive. Around 100 people, mostly men, stand patiently in line. They look exhausted. Russians have already supplied the needy with 15 tons of food, according to their own accounts. “Russia is with you!” says a Russian officer and shows me a bag. “That’s what’s written on it in both Russian and Arabic. Everyone gets two kilos of rice, two cans of beef, two cans of fish, sardines and two kilos of sugar.” Two flags fly over the truck, a Russian one and a Syrian one. The image is symbolic and memorable.The Syrians we speak to express their gratitude to Assad’s troops and the Russian army. They see both parties as their liberators. “I came back immediately when I found out that IS is gone,” says 72-year-old Abdurahim Abdalla. The jihadists took control of Qaryatain in August 2015. Mr. Abdalla is wearing a Bedouin scarf on his head and has a single visible tooth in his mouth. He left his home town and moved to Damascus to stay with relatives. Many of the 14,000 residents did the same. Those who stayed because they could not escape had to pay IS. “Those who could not pay were kidnapped, tortured and killed,” recounts Father Jack Murat, a priest of the Syrian Catholic Church in Qaryatain.

Syrian mosaic

The Syrian flag now flies above the entrance to the church to show visitors who is in charge. Up until four days ago, IS had its command center at this Christian site. That is probably the only reason why the church in Al-Qaryatain remained largely unscathed, with the exception of the altar and the adjacent graveyard.

Right now, a church service is unthinkable, but at least the scriptures are still there. They are lying on the floor and in bookshelves. Candles are burning and there is a withered rose. Our arrival was much awaited, and people are delighted. A high-ranking clergyman speaks of a new beginning and of hope. His words sound melodramatic, but his joy is genuine. What effect do the crimes of IS terrorists acting in the name of Islam have on the co-existence of Christians and Muslims? That is what I ask a petite woman praying quietly in the back of the church. “We in Syria have always lived together,” she replies. “I cannot imagine anything else. Syria is like a mosaic and we are all its stones. If one of these stones is eliminated, the whole mosaic will be affected.”

Torture chamber in the church

Many stones are lying around in the back rooms of the church. They come from the large hole in the wall that was probably made when Syrian troops recaptured the town. And there are shoes, many shoes. “They come from the terrorists,” says Father Jack. IS militiamen probably used the dusty kettles, dishes and water containers scattered on the ground. IS set up a prison and a torture chamber in the catacombs of the church. “The church is the most peaceful place in the world,” sighs Father Jack quietly. “It radiates nothing but goodness. But knowing what has been done here, of all places, my heart bleeds.”

Accompanied by the Russian special forces, we leave Qaryatain. I am glad to have their protection, because the ceasefire is broken every day. We all notice this when we suddenly hear gunfire. Black smoke rises. “We have to hurry,” says General Konashenkov. The return trip to the Hemeimeem air base is faster. Night vision devices are used on our flight back to the Russian maximum security unit – in the middle of Syria.