Syrian Rebels Move Underground, Turn To Tunnel Warfare

Rebel fighters are no match for Bashar al-Assad's superior military might. But underground, they use tunnels to travel safely and plant bombs close to the president's seats of power.

A Member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) carries a homemade rocket in Aleppo.
A Member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) carries a homemade rocket in Aleppo.
Mohammed al-Khatieb

ALEPPO In this city, where battles to control each square block are often fought hand-to-hand, rebel factions are reverting to one of the oldest means of strategic warfare: underground tunnels. Above ground, rebels are exposed to the superior military power of President Bashar al-Assad"s forces. But in the tunnels, they say they are safe and can travel through them freely, without fear of regime bombs and snipers.

During the course of Syria's conflict, tunnels have been used strategically in a range of scenarios. They helped the rebels of Homs survive the regime’s two-year siege of the city. They used the narrow, dark crawl spaces to transport food and medical aid into the old city. In time, the tunnels were discovered and sealed off by the regime.

Now, rebels in Aleppo have adopted them as a military tool — with a bang, not a whimper. On March 18, a major explosion rocked Aleppo's old city — the result of a bomb planted in a tunnel dug under the Court of Justice, a temporary Assad military base that was one of the president's best-fortified buildings in the area. Residents described an earthquake-like blast that shook a wide swath of Aleppo, with plumes of dust filling the sky. In its immediate wake, clashes broke out between the rebels and forces loyal to Assad.

Minutes before the explosion, Sami, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army, ran through a maze of alleys in old Aleppo. The streets were empty, and ahead were larger buildings controlled by the Syrian regime.

When the explosion hit at the designated hour, Sami conveyed it to his friends over a walkie-talkie. “Target hit. The building is destroyed,” he said. When the dust settled, the building became visible. Half of it had been leveled. In the chaotic aftermath, rebel groups led by Jabhat al-Nusra, which maintains control over chunks of Aleppo, set up military checkpoints near its husk.

The building itself had been a major obstacle facing the rebels’ plan to advance against regime forces in the old city, housing the well-trained snipers the Assad forces had stationed at its windows. Destroying the building meant rebels could now control whatever was left. The momentum led them to take over military checkpoints in that area and further tighten the noose on the Syrian forces patroling the Aleppo Citadel.

Portrait of a tunnel digger

Sami, known as Abu Ahmad to his friends, had been one of the men who dug the tunnel, starting on a nearby street. “It took a long time and a lot of effort,” he says. “We took turns digging, another 11 men and me. We worked all day and all night to reach the Court of Justice.” The longest tunnels can reach up to 850 meters (930 yards) long, taking months to finish.

Sami says discretion is the main component of a successful underground operation. Diggers are carefully selected by senior rebels. “A lot of my brigade mates didn’t even know about the tunnel,” he says. “It was extremely secretive to ensure its success. I also know that my friends were digging other tunnels, but I didn’t know where they led to.” The bombs are planted and later detonated remotely.

Operations like Sami's have become commonplace, part of a rebel campaign launched March 14 and dubbed “the Aleppo Earthquake.” The title is in reference to the underground tunnel explosions, which reverberate like a series of smaller quakes.

Since then, the Hanono army base, the Carlton Hotel and the Chamber of Industry have all been targets of underground bombings. All had served as headquarters for Assad forces, and all had been targeted in a similar manner as the Court of Justice. Tunnels were dug and bombs were remotely detonated. “Even if they have air power, we are good at digging,” Sami says of the regime, which has waged an intense barrel bombing offensive on opposition-held areas of the city since last December. “And we will come to them ... from where they don’t anticipate.”

Digging these tunnels, Sami says, doesn’t require much experience beyond basic engineering and ancient warfare. A compass and a yardstick often get the builders to their target, while depth is measured against water and sewage pipes.

On June 2, the FSA's Fajr al-Hurriah brigade tunneled to and destroyed three buildings controlled by Assad forces on the front lines of the al-Midan neighborhood. “We only had diggers and a few explosives,” says Amer Hassan, the brigade's media director. “It’s not a complicated matter. No one helped us dig these tunnels.”

On a recent day near another of Aleppo's front lines, five FSA fighters were hunched over, digging a tunnel. Their tools were primitive: a compass, a meter, a spade, a pick axe and a cart to move the dirt. No powered machines were used, because, Sami says, “they make loud sounds and vibrations. We would be easily discovered if we used them."

Regime forces in the city are now more alert to the possibility of tunnels being dug below them. To prevent their success, Assad forces themselves have started digging, setting up deep trenches both along the Nile Street to Maysalon Bridge front line and around their army bases. They are working to prevent rebels from attacking from underneath their feet.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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