There are many tales of war, of sacrifice, of cruelty, of death and of survival. Some are lies, some are propaganda and some are truth. Who amongst us all really knows which is which.
A Gunnery Sergeant in Aleppo
“We need to meet.”
A man’s voice, a rich baritone, with only the faintest hint of strain. Certainly no hint of desperation. A white American accent from the Deep South as far as I could tell.
“I have a story for you.”
People do of course ring me from time to time with a story they wish to tell. Mostly the story is blown up by their own misconceptions. They rarely give their name in the original phone call and not always later. But they have never before rung at two thirty in the morning. In Aleppo.
“When did you have in mind?”
“Now. I’m just down the street from your hotel. You must come alone, no bodyguard.”
The sound of heavy artillery and light arm fire had stopped outside, but it was still Aleppo. There could still be isolated so called rebels with nothing to loose. It was still dangerous and nobody went anywhere on their own in the dark unless their life depended on it. If it did not it might well.
Should I just hang up and turn the phone off, I asked myself? Was someone out to kill me? Or was there a chance that this time there really was a story?
“I take it you know how ridiculous that soundstage ?”
“Rasunah, if I may call you that, we have not met. In a few hours I will probably be dead. Perhaps less. I’m a US marine gunnery sergeant fighting under cover for the rebels. On US military orders. There are a few hundred of us, not advising or even training any more, fighting. I’m AOL, if the CIA or military intel find me, or rather when they find me, they’ll shoot me on sight. I have a story to tell before I die. I think it’s important and you are one the few journalists in the world who is likely to publish it.“
I would have to be crazy to believe him. On the other hand, I had to be crazy to be here in the first place.
“Go out the back hotel door. Turn right and then after around fifty metres, left down an alley. I’ll join you about twenty meters along the alley.”
“I’ll be there in five.”
Quickly I got into my working clothes, good quality hiking shoes, hiking pants, Merino polo with long sleeves. I put the fishing jacket with the light reflecting word Press in large capital letters on inside out. This was not a time to be easily noticed. My phone, writing pad, two biros and two pencils and a Leatherman Wave knife went into the fishing jacket pockets, plus two energy bars. Who knew how long this would take?
Getting out of the hotel without being seen was easy at that time of night. Turn right and walk fifty meters. I wished my heart was not making so much noise, anyone would be able to hear it.
The waning moon was a week past full, but there was still sufficient light to walk, though the alley was a bit harder.
The man stood in the doorway of a house that seemed to be more intact than most. “There’s a fully closed room inside. We can talk without being heard and see what we are doing. Mind now, there’s not too much rubble.”
I moved by feeling the walls until a glow came from his led torch. “Sit.”
I sat down on an oblong chunk of concrete which I guessed he must have brought in from somewhere. There was certainly no shortage. He sat down leaning against the opposite wall with the torch on the floor between us. His uniform was nondescript, certainly not obviously American, but the boots were good quality and so was the flack jacket. He rested what looked like a MI6 against the wall next to him.
I glanced at the weapon, raising an eyebrow.
“There are plenty of US weapons and ammunition in Syria, no matter who’s side you’re on”, he drawled.
“Do you mind if I take shorthand?”
He smiled. “Just a tad old fashioned.”
“The batteries in the pencil don’t give up at the wrong time.”
His story and my questions took just over two hours. “What will you do now?”
“I’ll try to convince the Syrians to let me join them. They’re short of trained fighters so there’s some chance they will agree. Otherwise it’s just a matter of choosing who shoots me. Just get the story out, Rasunah, it’s more important than what happens to me.”
I spent most of the morning persuading the Syrian major who was my contact to organise transport to Damascus. In between he let me charge up my iPad on the make shift twelve volt outlet in his truck. I started to turn my notes into a story. The gist of it went like this.
There is a rush on in US military circles to do as much as possible before President Elect Donald Trump is inaugurated in January. In the Middle East, the Syrian objective is still to overthrow Bashir al Assad and split the country into sections that would be preoccupied with fighting among themselves for power. In Russia the plan was to destabilise Putin to such an extent that he lost power; that had become much more urgent. In the Far East the objective was to map deep sea submarine routes so that they could hide until needed if China tried to interfere with shipping in the South China Sea.
That latter objective was secret, or at least it had been. But China had just seized an underwater drone belonging to the so called oceanographic survey vessel the USNS Bowditch. The vessel unclassified, just looking at the ocean bed out of our interest.
As normal in military matters, civilian propaganda formed an integral part of the strategy. Widespread articles describing how Putin (never President Putin) was personally responsible for hacking and undermining the election process were as much an attempt to destabilise Putin as to destabilise Trump.
It was in the Middle East though that propaganda reached it’s full depths of deceit. Syria and Russia were accused of every possible violation during their attempt to free Aleppo. The reality was that al Nursa and other equally violent groups had committed untold atrocities on the civilians there. Aided and abetted by the lies of the English White Helmet outfit and totally false tweets of a so-called seven year old, ordinary people were simply being mislead. And aided and abetted by US forces on the ground.
The US had of course set up ISIS in the beginning and supplied them with money and equipment. They had allowed the lucrative oil smuggling through Turkey to continue for well over a year, and even then it was only stopped by the Russians targeting all of their tankers.
Now however the tactics were changing. The US forces in Syria had received orders to train ISIS in military strategy and to provide them with satellite, drone and other intelligence so that they could become a much more coordinated and effective fighting force. US marines would accompany ISIS on specific sorties to advise them on the ground during firefights.
That was how IS had been so successful in reoccupying Palmyra.
Meanwhile Israel was being persuaded to invade Syria via the Golan Heights and establish what was to be called a buffer zone.
Even now discussions were being held with Turkey to persuade them to attack Aleppo with US air cover.
The marine gunnery sergeant had not been so upset at the propaganda itself, as at the killing and maiming of civilians. But what really upset him was the continuous support of ISIS and the part he had been ordered to play in that. He had been ordered to accompany ISIS on their assault on Palmyra. That he could not bring himself to do despite all his years of training in the Marines. It was not a question of whether the objective in Syria was correct or not. That was simply politics.
It was the fact that ISIS was beyond politics. They were a brutal abomination. That they fought on the same side as the US was acceptable. But to fight side by side with them was not.
A week or so later, when the story was written and published I tried the phone number the gunnery sergeant had used. It was disconnected of course. I thought of using my Syrian contacts to see if he had survived, but did not. If he had died it was too late, and if he had not I would simply increase the risk that he soon would.
The story was important, even though it was simply another lone voice that could easily be drowned out by the cacophony of deliberate false news. It would earn me few friends and yet more enemies. The gunnery sergeant was but one casualty amongst millions. He was no doubt suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. I could not let his sacrifice pass me by.