Muhammad Ali is a Syrian correspondent for PBS’s “Frontline.” This week, he debuted a piece called “Syria: Arming the Rebels,” which follows a group of Free Syrian Army fighters returning from a U.S.-led training mission to Qatar.
The fighters he spoke with are some of the first on the ground to describe the training and military assistance provided by the Americans. Moderate rebels have long maintained that they cannot beat the Syrian army without MANPADs and other anti-aircraft weapons, and Ali says the returnees were disappointed by the lack of training on such weapons.
Syria Deeply: How did you prepare for this story?
Ali: I prepared for eight months, and I started filming last October with an Idlib-based moderate rebel group. We spent a long time tracking the story and making sure that everything was clear, checking these guys’ information. What I was trying to do when I went to Syria was to prepare with the fighters who were going to Qatar for training.
I did spend time with them, then I had to wait for them [to come back from Qatar]. The commanders told me they were going to stay in Qatar for three weeks. So we were just waiting for them, and then they came back and we met them at the [Turkish] border and continued to their base, following them when they went to pick up a shipment of weapons and ammunition. They went to Qatar, but [before they went] they didn’t know exactly where they were going to train them – they thought maybe Turkey. They spent a month out of Syria.
I was staying on their base and had their permission to film. I couldn’t move without permission from them. They needed to know about my history, my work.
Syria Deeply: How did they feel about the training? Were they excited? Skeptical?
Ali: They were happy before they went because they were expecting to get anti-aircraft training and weapons, which is their main concern. They were thinking that the Americans would give them weapons they said they needed to fight the regime.
I was one of the first to meet them after they came back. They said their trainers were American, although they told the guys they were from the Qatari Army. They were disappointed that the Americans hadn’t trained them how to use anti-aircraft weapons. They thought they were going to get training on those specific weapons, and would get ammunition, and they came back without any of it.
They were telling me, “We were expecting that [the officials] were going to deliver it to us, but they still say they need the approval of the [Obama] administration.” Basically that the administration [is the final decision maker] and that they shouldn’t ask about it anymore.
One of the things the fighters told me was that they asked the trainers in Qatar, “Can’t you at least train us how to use the anti-aircraft weapons [on our own?]” They told the fighters that the concern was that they would hit normal airplanes, like [aid] transportation planes. The guys told them that in two years there have been no flights to Syria. Eventually the officials said that if the administration does agree, they can send the guys back there for training for two days. Overall they were very disappointed by this point because it was their main aim.
Syria Deeply: How do the fighters feel about the west? Do they feel let down?
Ali: They believed that [rebel aid] was in the hands of Barack Obama and that other countries are just followers, obeying the orders. They understand the situation around them and they know each country has some benefit [from involvement in Syria.] They said the Saudis and Qataris were using Syria to fight each other. At the end, they told me they didn’t think [Syria] was a big issue for Obama.
The fighters were telling me the Americans don’t understand how bad their situation is and that they are losing the battle, and that their aid doesn’t matter much because the regime is winning due to airpower. They told me they would not stop fighting the regime until the last man standing. They said that if moderate fighters like them left, ISIS and the extremists would control the rebel areas. So they understand that it’s important not just to defeat Assad but to stop the extremists.
Syria Deeply: Did you have any close calls?
Ali: There was shelling and air strikes. it was very dangerous because the regime is bombing day and night. We were driving on the highway at night, shooting [film]. At night, a car is a very simple target. Three times I had to drive at night, with the fighters. And they were driving without lights on. It’s a risk, because if some car comes up from behind you, it might hit you.