In the media, we often see stories about people from all around the world joining ISIS, for one reason or another. At the same time, almost nothing is known about those who are fighting this plague. We talked to Michel Mizah, a 25-year-old citizen of Russia and Syria, who recently returned from Damascus, where he fought in the “Shabiha” pro-government paramilitary units.
He told us what the Syrians think about the war, President Bashar Assad, the Islamic state, and the future.
– Why did you decide to go to Syria?
– My father is from Syria, and there we still have a lot of relatives with whom we talk to on a daily basis, basically living in two countries at once. We are Christians. My second cousin is fighting in the Syrian army, my uncle and aunt, civilians, were killed in 2012 in Kalamun.
So, each time I saw the news, I was plagued by vague uneasiness… For three years, I wanted to go there, but something always got in the way – wife, job, etc. Only now, everything came together, and I was able to go.
– When the “Arab Spring” had just begun, how did your family react?
– At first, my family sympathized with the protesters. But then it became obvious that the hardliners among the secular opposition work in the interests of Turkey and the Arab monarchies. Plus the course for Islamization was visible early on, and that was a concern.
Like pretty much all normal people, my family, my friends and everyone I know in Syria are strongly against Wahhabis and religious extremism in general.
In Syria, the war is not against Assad, but against civilization itself. ISIS literally keeps slaves, crucifies people, introduces medieval taxes for Christians and kills Shiites and Alawites on the spot…
Do you, personally, want to live according to Sharia law, where you would be killed for smoking or alcohol, and beaten with sticks in the town square for wearing narrow jeans? Neither do we!
And we know that would happen, if Damascus falls. In Raqqa, it’s already like that, the locals tell us. There are still buses traveling, so we know the alternative to Assad very well.
In Damascus, I met a girl, she was only 20 years old, and she spent the last three months in ISIS slavery. One of their commanders bought her as a concubine, and when he died, she was “inherited” by his successor… Relatives barely managed to buy her back.
– Did you know where you’ll be going to in Damascus, was there someone waiting for you?
– Of course. About two months before departure, through a friend of the family, I got in touch with my future unit commander in “Shabiha”. This is the same “Shabiha”, which the UN in 2012, accused of “crimes against humanity”.
In general, over two months, I told him about myself: Who am I, what can I do, why do I want to come, and so on… And he explained what is going on over there, what I would do, and lots more.
I would have joined the army, but my turn for mobilization comes last, since I am the only breadwinner in the family, and you can’t simply go there for a short time. My cousin is there for three years, and he can’t even see his family, because the frontline is constantly very hot.
– Your militia, did it include only Syrians, or was it an international team?
– People come from Lebanon and Iran, because they understand that if Syria falls, they are next. They send us military advisers and weapons… The whole “Shiite axis of evil” supports us!
As for the rest of the world, I have not seen fighters from there… It seemed to me that the Embassy of Syria in Russia does not approve of such things. Perhaps this is due to the rumors about the so-called “Russian Legion”, which a few years ago was hired by some company in St. Pete to fight for Assad [officially, to guard some pipeline or other – ed.]. But when they arrived in Damascus, the Russian diplomats protested, and the “legionnaires” were sent back home, a few were prosecuted for mercenary activities [– it’s legal by Russian law to fight in a foreign war, but not to make money from it – ed.].
In general, joining the fight for Syria is only possible if one has Syrian citizenship, or there is some agreement between governments. But the Islamists – they flock to attack Syria from all corners of the world.
– What were your impressions of Damascus?
– I arrived at the international airport of Damascus, and the first thing I saw was a great number of soldiers and militiamen. But civil life goes on, in downtown people walk the streets without fear, despite periodic mortar attacks.
In Christian areas, the situation is slightly more complicated, but there stores and such are still working. My squad was based in one such area, in the north-eastern outskirts of Damascus, opposite the opposition-controlled district of Duma, which is entirely occupied by the Islamists. It was always populated by religious radicals, so no one was surprised when it turned out to be a hotbed of militant extremism.
However, by the time I arrived, the area had long been under siege and the enemy had no way to escape, so my war was relatively easy, compared with what is happening in the north of Syria…
– When they say “militia”, one imagines a motley crowd, differently dressed and armed. Is that how “Shabiha” is?
– No, of course. On the first day, I was issued standard army gear, got mission briefings, and went to our positions. There is plenty of food, too – well, if you can eat much with all the stress…
The cooking is all local cuisine, meat, beans, various sweets. A pack of cigarettes is given per two days, but they are really strong, so that it is enough. Plus locals brought us food every day, “Shabiha” and the army are their last hope.
Perhaps, in some towns, where the locals have gathered all uniforms and weapons available, contacted the army and said that their unit is now part of the militia, there may be some supply shortages, but in Damascus everything is great in that respect. But the militia are not paid, instead Assad gives all sorts of benefits to their families.
– What is the overall relationship between the army and militia?
– Militia obeys the army. The opposition likes to paint “Shabiha” as barbarians, which the government merely nominally controls, and militia use their status only to rob and rape… This has nothing to do with the truth.
Of course, civilians may be killed by government troops. Unfortunately, that is the reality of fighting in the city. Sometimes such things are unavoidable, especially since Islamists hide behind civilians. But if we really killed everyone who supported the enemy, the Duma district would have been destroyed long ago – simply leveled with tanks in a single day, like some hotheads have been saying for a long time already.
But Assad doesn’t want that – quite the contrary, he even continues to pay salaries to municipal officials in ISIS-controlled towns. Because we don’t want genocide, our task is to reunite the country. Therefore, before each mission, we were told that we should not shoot at civilians under any circumstances. If a civilian dies, there is always an investigation and, if necessary, a court-martial.
– Can you give more detail about the relationship between “Shabiha” and the army?
– Army assigns missions, provides all the necessary intel, support, and so on. Provides us with instructors.
With the permission of Assad, “Hezbollah” is training militias where the army cannot. Perhaps, in remote settlements, militia aren’t always “on call”, but if they do not communicate at all, their unit would not be considered part of the militia.
In other words, the militia is a natural extension of the army. Communication is done via unit commanders. All requests are reviewed by the army and the civil administration, if necessary. Nothing is done on a whim.
For example, if the militia decides that it is necessary to demolish a house for their defense plan, we must first obtain a permit from the city authorities. Of course, occasionally there is no time, but then you have to make a full report after the fact.
As for [the men themselves], my commander fought in the army for 4 years a sergeant, was wounded and went to the militia. In general, the militia is staffed by volunteers, and those who fight with distinction can be transferred to the army.
– How many people were in your unit?
– 21 of us all told. Despite the fact that the units should be formed on from local residents, we had three Christians from Aleppo, two Druze guys who fled to Damascus from ISIS and joined the militia, and one Lebanese volunteer.
There’s a very strong atmosphere of military brotherhood, so we did not have any religious differences, hazing, or anything like that. Everyone knows who our enemy is, and all the anger goes there. Among us, there were a couple people who at the beginning of the “Arab Spring” took part in anti-government demonstrations, but now Assad for them is something like a prophet. And it’s like that everywhere.
Before I went to Syria, I thought all those slogans in Soviet war movies, like “For Motherland! For Stalin!” were just fiction for TV. But in Damascus, I personally saw people charging into battle shouting “God! Syria! Bashar!”, “Our blood and soul for you, Bashar!”, and so on.
[Assad talking to soldiers]
– What is the main problem of the militia?
– The militia did not emerge from great love [for citizen soldiers], but because of the need for something to fill the gaps, when in the early years of the war the army lost most of the men. Now they can maneuver, and we keep the positions taken. For example, we spent a week sit in a building which more or less “wedged” into the Islamist positions. I do not know which organization those extremists were – perhaps ISIS, or maybe some other one. It is not really important, because they are constantly migrating from one organization to another anyway.
– So, you got sent to the frontline on your first day? Did the commander test your abilities?
– Yeah, a funny story happened there… Back in the day, I took [ROTC course] in Syria, where I was designated a sniper. But while we were going to our position, it became clear that I’m not a great shot – I could not hit a can, standing on a barrel about a hundred meters away from me. As a result, I became a common rifleman, or a private, I guess. There are no ranks in small units, you’re either the commander or a private. So yes, in the battle from the very first day, or rather, from the first night, as in the day it heats up to over 40 degrees [Celcius], and it is hard to do anything. Until dark, our main goal was not to let the enemy sleep, so they would not be too active at night. Fighting begins at about 6-7 pm, when the heat begins to subside. However, as my commander told me, even the heaviest fighting in our district is nothing compared with what is happening in northern Syria, where Islamists have heavy artillery, tanks and suicide trucks with explosives. We had 6 people killed in a week, and that was because of their own mistake, and there, 300 people may be killed per night.
– And how did those 6 people die?
– On the second day of my stay, they went to help a neighboring unit, which seized a house from the Islamists. They entered the building after the militants had already fled. All the instructions say the engineers go first, because the Islamists always mine buildings before they leave… They forgot, made a mistake, and blew up.
– Did you know where are your enemies were from?
– On the night of the third day we captured one militant, he was a Syrian from Aleppo, who admitted that he was with ISIS. In the neighboring district, he killed one Armenian family – a woman and her four-year old daughter, cut their throats. He climbed into their apartment when he was running from militia. Then he apparently tried to flee to the Duma district, but as he wasn’t local, he simply got lost and came to our positions. If someone is worried about his fate – he is alive, we handed him over to the military police.
– And how did you know that he was from Aleppo?
– Accent. Arabic is something like the Latin of the Middle East. It is understood by all, but all speak in their local dialects. And when the man talks in proper, pure Arabic, he is either highly educated, or no Syrian or Arab at all, and knows the language from Koran. That’s how I identified the immigrants from the post-Soviet countries and North Caucasus among the militants… There are quite a lot, and they are the most brutal.
– Charge into machineguns in the open?
– That too…. The night after we took that prisoner, the Islamists tried to take our house. It was those guys from post-Soviet countries, yelling “Allahu Akbar” and something about the prowess of Islamic warriors, running across the open into our gunfire. Maybe they were drunk or on drugs, but general in the caliphate does not approve of either, punishes it up to death penalty. That day we were attacked by 30-40 militants, of whom we have killed about a dozen.
– Was it scary?
– Mostly, I was scared on arrival. Or rather, you do not feel fear, but some desolate excitement. All the senses are blocked, and you just sit there like a deaf man. But when shooting begins, there is no time to be afraid. However, occasionally there are people who only understand they are not capable of fighting once on the frontline. During the battle, they go into complete stupor, unable to do anything, not hearing anyone… They are immediately sent to the rear, so that they help, for example, in the hospital. This is not a big deal, the main thing is that one had the courage to come and help in the first place.
– What were you doing to keep your composure?
– Tried to talk about what I’m doing, silently or aloud, it helps to focus. For example, I say to myself: “Here is a running enemy. It is necessary to check the safety, aim and shoot… The battle is over, I need to report to commander.” This greatly helped, and after the fight I had the come-down – smoked a lot, and my hands were shaking. And in the very first night, when I first arrived, I even started to panic, because the militants hit our house with an RPG, and my shoulder got hit by a brick that flew off the wall. I started screaming that I was wounded, the entire squad started running around… That’s how I learned the Arabic version of the Russian proverb “lies like Trotsky.” I still have the bruise from that hit.
– In general, were there moments when you were not on edge?
– A whole day and a half. Then, on the fifth day, I learned about the tunnel war. It turns out that while we were defending our house, the Islamists were digging an underpass right under our noses. I do not know how long it took them – maybe a month or more – but one “sunny” day, we found that the Islamists emerged behind us and captured a four-story building, the tallest in the area, as all the rest were two or three floors. Of course, there were a sniper and machine gunners in there, and we all ended up in a small encirclement. If desired, one could run 200 meters through gunfire to get out, but no one wanted to. Instead, we got in touch with the army HQ, and were told they would find a solution. It took them a day and a half, and then they brought a BMP [armored vehicle], an assault team, and two more militia squads like ours. First, the building was turned into Swiss cheese for two hours with a heavy machine gun, and then we charged in from all sides. As a result, our commander had a finger on his hand shot off, and we killed eight Islamists. There were more of them in the building, but the smarter ones fled back into the tunnel. And then my military exploits ended, because it was time to go home…
– Good you got rescued in time. The locals you managed to talk to – what do they think about the war?
– All are very tired of it, but they support Assad, because they understand that if the Islamists win, they will have a hard time. ISIS take no prisoners – if they surround you, you do not think about giving up, only about taking as many of them as you can with you. Even secular opposition groups are now using the [government] amnesty offer, to be saved from the Islamists. Only the poorest of the poor are still on the side of the religious extremists. The majority of the refugees, in spite of the latest news, remain in Syria. The government is trying to avoid creating camps, and settles them in administrative buildings instead. The richest refugees travel to Iran and Lebanon, to continue their business there, and those that are poorer tend to go to the European Union. Despite the huge debt and total collapse of the economy, Syria allocates large sums of money for the social sector. Builds children’s centers, schools, hospitals and so on. Salaries are paid even to those officials who were working in ISIS-controlled towns. Wahhabis are building their own state, but due to lack of their own professionals they have to rely on Syrian officials to maintain occupied cities. Some officials are cunning enough to draw salaries from both Damascus and Raqqa. In general, Assad is doing everything to prove that Syria, unlike the terrorists, takes care of its citizens.
– You’re talking about ISIS, but in fact there are many different groups – don’t locals make that distinction?
– And what difference does it make who cuts your head off? The military keep track of it, because it is important for them to know with whom they enter into a temporary truce. Also historians and scientists, for their research… Well, there is also Free Syrian Army, but they are no more than a tenth of the rebel forces. Locals don’t want much to do with them either. All their demands are being gradually met as it is. To counter the Islamists, Assad already needs to establish dialogue with the people. And FSA demand the resignation of al-Assad – why, if everyone knows that he will win any sort of a fair election?
– Do the locals make the distinction between local and foreign Islamists?
– Yes, that one is important. Foreigners spit on local custom. It went so far that even the Bedouin tribes near Raqqa, who at first invited ISIS in, now run to Assad, as they cannot live under the new regime. But the main flow of refugees starts when Islamists take over new settlements. The militiamen that I spoke to believe that our mission in life is to cleanse the world from the big pile of shit that got gathered in our homeland. They only regret that it came to Syria, and not to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States, who finance them.
– What is the general attitude toward the Saudis?
– Even before the war, no one of the Gulf liked them because of their medieval way of life… In Latakia, for example, there is one café with a sign: “Dogs and Saudis not allowed.” Saudi Arabia is disliked for its savagery, backwardness and barbarism, as well as cultureless pride based on vast oil reserves. In turn, the Syrians consider themselves the heirs of ancient civilizations.
– And what do they think about Russia?
– Supporters of Assad thought well of Russia since the Soviet times, and now even more so. But if ISIS know you’re a Slav or you have a Slavic wife, then you will be killed for sure, because after the war in Chechnya Russia is considered one of the main enemies of radical Islam.
– I see… Was it hard to say goodbye to the squad?
– I was ashamed. I have somewhere else to go, and they do not. I became friends with all of them already. Next year, I want to make another trip. When I went there, I thought the enemy will be like an immortal horde. It turned out that the capabilities of Islamists are exaggerated. They die like everyone else.
– Do you think the war will not stop in a year?
– Of course not. To stop it, the state needs to take control of the Turkish border, and the Jordanian border by the Golan Heights… If the influx of Islamists is stopped, we will quickly deal with the ones in country. All Syrians know that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US are helping the Islamists with weapons and money, buy their oil. Supposedly, they help only the “secular opposition”, but everyone understands that all of the supply goes into a common pool, and FSA distributes those weapons to other groups. [Some FSA units have been described as “mostly consisting of a warehouse on Turkish border, getting rich on re-selling CIA weapons” – ed.]At the same time, Syria can lose only if a no-fly zone is established, Turkey openly supports the Islamists, and “anti-ISIS” coalition openly attacks Syria.
– Do you feel the change, coming back to Russia?
– I do not understand how you live here so normally. Sleep quietly and dream normally – over there, one can only go to sleep when absolutely exhausted. I hate those that throw firecrackers now. And always look where I step, looking for landmines. But anyway – I could not just sit and not make even a small contribution to the fight against ISIS. Cousin says that in the north, every day is like “Saving Private Ryan”. Huge losses on both sides, no pity for each other, we do not always take prisoners, the sides even cut off ears from dead enemies for souvenirs…
– Would you like to say something for your colleagues, or to the Islamists?
– For the militia and soldiers: all normal people support you guys. And for the militants… I guess it’s a bad thing to end the interview by saying “You will all be killed?”. Well, one needs to be a complete moron to fight on the side of the Caliphate…
I guess I can tell a joke. The soldiers catch an Islamist. He asks to shoot him at 13.00. They ask why at this time? He says that he needs to make it to lunch with Prophet Muhammad and the martyrs. The officer says shoot him at 14.15. They ask: Why? He says: just in time to wash all the dishes.
P.S. Michel refused to be photographed – he said he does not want to be identified by extremists.