Syrian Rebels Wage War Even As Arms And Ammunition Run Dry

In the Jabal al-Akrad mountains, the Free Syrian Army rebels are fighting an uneven war against Bashar al-Assad’s army: with outdated weapons, depleting ammunition and barely a doctor to be found.

Syrian rebel fighters, short on weapons, plant a bomb to target a government tank (Freedom House2)
Syrian rebel fighters, short on weapons, plant a bomb to target a government tank (Freedom House2)
Boris Mabillard

JABAL AL-AKRAD - Hussein delicately displays the treasure he's been hiding in a sock: fifteen cartridges. He checks each one of them carefully and puts them back in their provisional container. As for his weapon, he has none, but borrows a Kalashnikov from his fellow fighters when he needs one. In Hussein's unit, or "katiba," 100 rebel soldiers share 80 weapons. This includes outdated shotguns, buckshot rifles and some pistols.

Here in the Jabal al-Akrad region in the northwest of Syria, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) rules over the countryside and mountains. Its ambition: to resist and eventually challenge the country's dominant military force, the Syrian Army. This requires getting organized, gaining some field experience and above all, acquiring weapons and equipment.

In wartime Syria, the price of weapons has gone through the roof. An old Kalashnikov is now worth $2,000 – much more for a recent model in good condition. Cartridges are sold five dollars a piece. Which means that during shooting practice, there's not a lot of actual shooting. Captain Ahmed displays bottles and cans on tree stumps --anything that can serve as target. Today, each fighter gets two shots. Ahmed, a deserter from the army, hits the can, true to his reputation of being the sharpest shooter in the Jabal al-Akrad. Nasser, a young volunteer, too young for the country's compulsory military service, misses. The aspiring sniper has only fired eight times in his entire life. Hurt in his pride, he blames the faulty weapon: "The scope is broken, the weapon is obsolete." The training will resume tomorrow –provided that things remain as calm as today.

Back to the group's headquarters, an isolated building in the middle of an olive plantation, Captain Ahmed's fighters divide daily chores among themselves: keeping lookout, guarding the place and cooking on a wood fire outside. They usually lead a simple life, but today Abu Ramadan, the highest-ranking officer in the Jabal al-Akrad, is visiting --which requires some additional preparation.

Abu Ramadan was a colonel in Bashar al-Assad's army. He deserted a few months ago and fled to Turkey before returning in April to his native Jebel to head five katibas.

Bad weapons, bad ammo

As soon as he arrives, the small congregation stands up as one. Things are bad: in spite of promises made by the leaders of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey, the Syrian National Council (SNC) and Qatar, there are no weapons. And although the regime's security forces have not led any major operation in the Jebel for the past three weeks, troop movements in the area are raising fears of an impending strike. "When they attacked the villages of Akko and Kabani, we were powerless against their helicopters and heavy weapons. Even our rocket launchers proved ineffective against their tanks," Abu Ramadan laments. A fighter blames his RPG7, an anti-tank rocket launcher made ​​in Russia: "I aimed at the tank, but the rocket fizzled against the tank's armor --it didn't have an explosive charge." Abu Ramadan weighs a rocket that seems a bit light to his taste. "The last batch we purchased was worthless."

Fewer and fewer weapons come from Turkey, where the army is relentlessly fighting against arms smuggling to prevent the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey) from getting its hands on more firepower. Weapons are available in Lebanon, but prices have increased greatly and it would be almost impossible to smuggle them from the Lebanese border to the Jebel Akrad, through the Homs Governorate. So the only solution left for the FSA is to buy its weapons from corrupt officers of the regular army, says Adil, a rookie who has just witnessed a major transaction: "A truck loaded with Kalashnikovs and ammunition arrived; we had $ 100,000 in cash. We were hoping it would not be a trap. But the deal was done in no time. "

Yasin, 14, would join the ranks of the FSA in a heartbeat, and like all kids his age in the Jebel, he dreams of having his own Kalashnikov. Which drives his great uncle crazy: "He can't even hold a pen properly and he wants to fight. How ridiculous! That's nonsense! Thankfully, the rebels don't have any weapons for them, so they can't enroll these silly kids."

Abu Hani calls an emergency meeting with his men. Weapons have just been purchased from an Alawi officer posted in the Idlib region. The biggest part of the stock will go to rebels in the Jabal al-Haffeh, and Abu Hani's katiba has been asked to convey the weapons up to the town of Selma. Another group will then take over –and so on, until destination is reached. Coordination is the hardest part: Syria's communication networks are all monitored, and using them is out of the question. To get around this they have to rely on Turkish networks when possible: "One of our katibas in charge of the delivery is not answering, but the weapons are already on their way. It's risky," says Abu Hani.

Something has gone wrong in Selma. The al-Haffeh katiba has fallen into a trap. In the noisy hullabaloo that ensues, several men hop on their motorcycles and go to their rescue, together with two cars and a van. A worried crowd gathers on the central square: all the ambushed fighters were born in this village.

No doctors, no hospitals

After a while, a motorcycle comes back: There are casualties. The surviving rebels follow in a van: "Abu Mazen and Noureddine have been wounded!" The news causes much agitation and screaming. They were in a motorcycle accident --nothing serious. There are no doctors in the Jabal; a 15 year-old rebel serves as first aid attendant. He's equipped with a kit that contains drugs he's never heard of. Abu Hani sums up what happened in Selma: "Four of our men were injured in three motorcycle accidents. Unfortunately, the al-Haffeh katiba has lost two men in the fighting." It's a grim outcome for this intrepid yet amateur army.

The next day, Abu Ramadan, Ahmed and Abu Hani try to understand what can be learned from the mission: "At least the weapons were safely delivered." But the lack of appropriate means of transportation and the general lack of organization have taken their toll: "We can't afford to keep waiting for the equipment to arrive, we have to take it from the enemy," says Captain Ahmed.

The Aleppo-Latakia motorway runs along part of the Jabal Akrad. Many military convoys drive down this road, which means a lot of weapons and vehicles can be potentially stolen –a true godsend. But the army keeps a close eye on this strategic passage; military camps have been placed at regular intervals all along the way. Ambushed in the forest that overlooks the road near the Chilif village, the fighters are waiting for the signal. The rain begins to fall. Quick as a flash, the troops manage to escape with their loot before back-up forces arrive.

Although the most recent operations have been successful, Abu Hani remains taciturn and anxious: "Today, the convoy was only preceded by light tanks that fired randomly on both sides of the road. It won't be easy to do it again."

Abu Ramadan admits that the FSA still needs to get organized and to strengthen links and communication between the different katibas. "As it stands, even if we received weapons, it wouldn't be sufficient to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. The victory against the regime can only come from an outside intervention."

Read the original story in French

Photo – FreedomHouse 2

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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