Matthew VanDyke is US citizen who spent the past two months embedded with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, he describes himself as “a veteran of the Libyan revolution” and an activist filmmaker – he’s currently making a pro-FSA film to raise money for weapons and ammunition. At times he’s been a controversial figure of the Arab Spring, for his direct engagement in the uprisings.As clear a partisan in the fight, Van Dyke has nonetheless had a front row seat to some of Syria’s fiercest fighting. Below is an excerpt of his interview with Syria Deeply, conducted over email.
SD: Describe your average day.
VanDyke: I wake up, sometimes to the sound of shelling or bombing. I strap on my body armor, grab my gun and camera, and drive to the front line on my motorcycle with an interpreter. I film interviews with FSA fighters and civilians, and occasionally film combat as well.
SD: What’s been the most dangerous moment of your journey so far?
VanDyke: A few days ago a FSA fighter was shot in the head by a sniper about 5 meters away from me. We were preparing to cross that same street where he was killed. Many days I have to run across streets to dodge snipers, in addition to the persistent threat from mortars, artillery, and aerial bombings.
SD: What’s the status of the battle today? How would you describe the situation in Aleppo? Are the rebels holding ground?
VanDyke: The rebels have made significant advances in Aleppo and are holding territory. They are slowly advancing and gaining more of the city, and I expect it to eventually be liberated entirely. This will take several months, however. It is difficult urban combat, made more difficult by a lack of organization and often poor leadership on the ground.
SD: What kind of weapons are the rebels fighting with? What are they up against in terms of armor, airpower and ground forces? What are you missing? Is there enough food and medicine to go around?
VanDyke: The rebels are equipped mostly with just AK-47s, which cost around $1,500 each with bullets selling for $2 each. There are a few RPGs around as well, and the occasional but very rare DShK, 14.5mm, or 23mm anti-aircraft guns. They are outgunned by the regime who have tanks, armored vehicles, heavy weapons, artillery, and worst of all, aircraft. They are a ragtag group of citizen-soldiers fighting a well-supplied army. There is enough food and medicine. What they need are weapons and ammunition.
SD: What can you tell me about the fighters? Are they all Syrian? How would they describe what they are fighting for?
VanDyke: I have not met any fighters who are not Syrian. Nearly all of them lack any real military experience – they are mostly citizen-soldiers. Every fighter I have spoken with has said they are fighting for freedom. It really is as simple as that – this is a righteous, noble cause that should have worldwide support.
SD: What can you tell us about command structure and leadership in this fight?
VanDyke: There is little command structure and generally poor leadership. Orders made at the highest levels of command aren’t always carried out by the time they reach the men on the front lines. Much of the combat is spur of the moment and disorganized. What the rebels lack most is competent leadership, and that is getting a lot of them killed. Some of the katibas are started by men who are not competent leaders but have the money to fund a katiba so they start one, and in other cases the good leaders are already dead. It is truly tragic.
SD: How do you think the battle will play out next? What is the moment or trigger you’re waiting for, that could decide the fight?
VanDyke: The rebels are slowly gaining ground in Aleppo. If they can liberate all of Aleppo and hold it, this will likely encourage more support from the West. Once they take Aleppo the game will change and the Assad regime’s fate will be sealed, it will only be a matter of time. It might take a few more years, but the FSA will win this war if Aleppo can be liberated. Aleppo is the war.
SD: What would you tell people who say you’re nuts for being where you are?
VanDyke: If they’ve never believed in something worth fighting for, then I wouldn’t be able to explain it to them anyway. The only opinion that matters to me is that of the Syrians I am helping.
SD: What are some comparisons you would make between your experiences in Libya
versus you experience in Syria so far?
VanDyke: The Libyan revolution had better morale, better leadership, better weapons, and better help from the outside. The Syrian revolution is an extremely difficult one that will take years unless there is outside help. In Libya they really needed every man they could get to go to the front lines, so I went. In Syria it is going to take a lot more than just men going to the front lines at this point, so I am working on various things in the revolution that will be more effective than me just going to the front lines like I did in Libya. But I will be on the front lines as well.
SD: Would you encourage other Americans to take up arms for the Free Syrian Army?
VanDyke: No. They don’t need more fighters right now. They don’t have enough weapons and ammunition for the men they already have. This war is not going to be won by numbers of men going to the front line – that was the case in Libya but it isn’t the case here. Assad’s forces are far larger and far better equipped than the FSA. It is going to take innovation and some really unconventional thinking to win this, unless there is outside intervention or support.
I have received many emails from Americans and Europeans who want to come to Syria to fight, and many who want me to help them or lead them here. I tell them all the same thing – this isn’t the time for that and they’d probably do more harm than good at this point, and likely just throw their lives away coming here with the situation the way it is right now. Things are serious here and nobody needs adventure seekers, war tourists, or lunatics showing up trying to get into this war.