A trip through horror, confusion and contradictions in Syria

What happens when you hit the road in Syria, headed toward the capital of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate? A lot, it turns out.

In a world of increasing conflict, one country stands out as a sad emblem of misery: Syria.

The country’s 6-year-old civil war has sent 11 million people — half the population — fleeing their homes. Some 5 million people have left the country altogether. Those who remain face a nightmare of bombings, artillery attacks and a reign of terror wrought by the militant group Islamic State after it established its self-declared caliphate across a broad swath of Iraq and Syria in 2014. It was headquartered in Raqqah, an ancient city on the banks of the Euphrates River, 230 miles northeast of Damascus, that was once Syria’s sixth-largest city.

Much of what’s going on in this land of ancient fortresses and once-bustling commerce is a mystery. The government generally prohibits U.S. reporters from entering the country, and those granted visas can travel only under close supervision. Venturing outside government-controlled areas carries the risk of kidnapping, or worse, by Islamic State militants or other extremists.

U.S.-backed forces on Monday announced that they have now largely recaptured Raqqah, yet it is hard to know how much of the hard-core Islamic State leadership is even there anymore. Other questions persist. What has happened to civilians during the battles? What about Syrian government troops — are they loyal to President Bashar Assad? What role is Iran playing on the ground?

We decided to try to find out. With special permission from Kurdish forces who control the gateways into eastern Syria from northern Iraq, I set out over the summer on my own — accompanied by a Kurdish interpreter, Kamiran Sadoun, and driver, Dijwar Ibrahim — on a trip across the Syrian countryside, traversing towns whose names of late were known mainly for the vicious battles that have unfolded there.

Loaded up with water bottles, bullet-proof vests, medical supplies, snack bars, extra batteries, a satellite telephone and a device that allowed my editors in Los Angeles to track my location, we crossed by boat into Syria from northern Iraq, and headed for Raqqah.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

The road trip would show the horror, confusion and contradictions that make up eastern Syria. But along with the sights and sounds of devastation there were moments of classic Middle Eastern hospitality — that much still survives — and kindness.

The terrain we crossed varied from barren desert to fields full of crops and massive, aquamarine lake in the Tabqa area. There were villages with sleepy central squares and mid-sized cities with bustling main streets full of open-air markets and shops selling Syrian kebab, spices and pastries.

We didn’t bother with hotels, usually located far from the front lines; we opted to stay closer to the action, in houses with Syrian workers and soldiers.

The weeklong journey was full of bizarre contrasts: troops billeted in lavish homes once seized by militants.

A suspected suicide bomber dressed like a woman.

American volunteers fighting not with the U.S. forces, but with Syrian militias.

Families living amid ruins.

A deserting Syrian soldier who tried to hitch a ride with us from the front line.

All along the way, we would be stopping to file stories — our way of helping the world understand what was unfolding across the Syrian border.


We enter Syria

Our initial crossing into Syria had been by boat, a short ride across the Tigris River. Farther south, the same river divides Mosul, another longtime Islamic State stronghold that, at the time of our journey over the summer, was about to be declared free by Iraqi commanders after nine months of hard fighting.

As we sped across the river, we passed a number of Syrian families traveling by boat the other way, heading to Iraq with large suitcases in tow.

We landed and hit the road in a white 2006 Hyundai Santa Fe SUV. One of the first things we saw was a massive shop with a sign advertising “Duty Free.” At first, it looked like it was open for business. On closer inspection, we saw that, like so much in eastern Syria, it wasn’t what it appeared. The store was just an empty shell, a well-preserved remnant of days past.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

The political geography of Syria, it soon becomes clear, is far more complicated than the road map. The embattled Assad government controls much of western Syria, and reporters can enter government-controlled areas only by starting off in Damascus. Kurdish forces aligned with Iraq, however, control eastern portions of Syria, and through them we obtained permission to enter the country from the east.

Islamic State, or ISIS, had lost significant territory in Iraq over the summer, but as of the time we set off on our trip, it still controlled several major cities in Syria, including Raqqah, which it had designated as its capital. Since then, as the battle over Raqqah has raged, much of Islamic State’s leadership is thought to have relocated to the city of Dair Alzour, where U.S.-backed forces are expected to wage their final fight against the miltiant group.

Our goal was to skirt Islamic State territory — it was too dangerous — and spend time with U.S.-backed troops and families displaced by the fighting.


Welcome to Rojava — home of the Kurds

This portion of Syria is known as Rojava. Assad’s government has a small presence here — troops we saw were stationed on a few street corners, near signs bearing the president’s image and that of his father, the former president and strongman Hafez Assad.

Some signs were defaced.

Assad’s government was mostly forced out of the area in 2012 by Kurdish troops. Kurdish officials have governed since, backed by militias, the largest being the People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, their Kurdish initials. We constantly ran into reminders of their presence.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

They’re instantly recognizable by the traditional flowered scarves they often wear with their uniforms, a nod to their Kurdish roots.

Pictures of fallen YPG fighters appear on street signs, cars and in public squares, including some volunteers from the U.S.

In eastern Syria, where graffiti and billboards are often indicators of political sympathies, the YPG’s motto is inscribed on walls: “We will not leave.”

The YPG follow the political philosophy of Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, a charismatic leader arrested with U.S. help and jailed by Turkey. Kurds have been trying to win a homeland in Turkey, and the Turkish government considers Ocalan a traitor. Ocalan has been linked to the left-wing Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey.

Women’s Protection Units, the female wing of the YPG, serve in combat and have died on the front line fighting Islamic State. They often wear floral scarves, as do male YPG fighters. This unit is pictured in Raqqah.

Ocalan advocates a type of local government called democratic confederalism that includes equal rights for women; that theme is extolled in graffiti and billboards across Rojava.

Women have their own militia that fights alongside the YPG, and we would meet several female military commanders on the front line.

We would also be bombarded with Ocalan’s image, plastered across the region: on soldier’s uniforms, trucks, government offices and checkpoints. Despite the YPG’s egalitarian ethos, power clearly remained concentrated in the hands of Ocalan and his military leaders.


Making our way toward Dair Alzour

From Rojava, we headed as far south as we could toward the Islamic State stronghold of Dair Alzour, which could soon be a powder keg. President Assad's army was already fighting Islamic State there, with Russian and Iranian support. That battle would send tens of thousands of displaced people to nearby camps, which are already overwhelmed.

We visited one such camp that had opened a month earlier on the shores of Arishah Lake.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

More than 3,000 people lived there without toilets, a steady supply of food or water (they are not supposed to drink from the lake, although they bathe in it). Many of those living here still have family in Dair Alzour and didn’t want to be photographed for fear militants would target them.


From here, many militias are fighting for Syria's future


As we headed farther south, we saw what appeared to be U.S. military vehicles leading convoys. They don’t allow reporters to embed with them. So we went to see the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces outside Dair Alzour instead.

What would happen if those U.S.-backed troops turned their attention from the fight against Islamic State and clashed with Assad’s forces, or the Russians? It’s a question we posed again and again. Some militia forces said that they considered Assad’s government oppressive and that they would fight them. Others said they would follow the lead of the coalition, which has said it is not there to overturn Assad.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

Heading toward Dair Alzour, we passed through lots of open country, where the war seemed far away. In the desert we spied camels grazing, oil derricks pumping, villagers emerging from homes built of mud and thatch.

In the Euphrates River valley, we passed lush fields.

North of Dair Alzour, we found U.S.-backed militias living on hilltop bases, surrounded by deep dirt trenches spanned by temporary log bridges that could be quickly removed in case of an attack.

YPG Commander Dilsoz Derek, 32, confers with fighters after spotting what he believed to be Islamic State militants riding motorcycles near their base north of Dair Alzour.

As we watched, a commander spotted what he said were Islamic State fighters entering a nearby village on motorcycles. Small groups of the militants had approached in recent days. Militia fighters, some from Dair Alzour, were preparing to fight Islamic State for the city.


We begin meeting some who’ve fled the fighting in Raqqah

Farther west, at a camp in the town of Ain Issa, we met some of the tens of thousands displaced by the fighting in and around Raqqah.

We stayed with YPG troops at an abandoned house. The town had been freed from militants two years ago, but even the local council building next door still didn’t have running water or electricity.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

Soldiers shared their quarters with a group of visiting wheat merchants, who took a shine to us. When the water tank ran low, they let us use their shower. When the temperature spiked, over 90 degrees even at night, they shared their homemade swamp cooler. When the electricity went out and even the cooler didn’t work, they made sure we slept in the coolest parts of the house, sometimes on the roof.

Each night when we returned from a day of reporting, the men — almost all fathers, some graying grandfathers — prepared hearty meals of stew and pasta. Meals were followed by tea, card games and questions. What do Americans think about Syria? Will President Trump support the Kurds? Who will run the country after Islamic State is gone? Is there still a mafia in the U.S. and if so, can Trump get rid of it? There was also, of course, Kurdish dancing.

As we traveled farther west, we passed numerous checkpoints and local militias training. Sometimes we stopped to talk.

One Syrian opposition commander told us his 33 soldiers had just volunteered that week and were marching through a field freshly cleared of mines. He warned us to stay away from one corner of the field, where some mines remained.

As we got closer to Raqqah, we sometimes we traveled with soldiers, both Arab and Kurdish. They made no attempt to dictate where we went or what we covered. But they did often control the playlist on the car stereo, which meant the soundtrack of our trip through war zones included lots of upbeat Kurdish rock — and also Shakira, beloved in part because of her Middle Eastern heritage.


Finally: At the gates of Raqqah

We finally reached east Raqqah, where we met a YPG commander who drove us to the front line in the Senaa neighborhood.

Streets were choked with charred rubble, nearly impassable in places; many buildings were bombed ruins. Most civilians were long gone.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

The area had changed hands several times in recent days. Kurdish forces, with U.S. support, had finally broken through an ancient wall around the area. The commander drove us to his post in an abandoned house where we could see fighting near the remains of the wall.

Syrian Democratic Forces troops walk by the burned remains of their command post in East Raqqah.

Sitting on a dusty staircase, the commander used his iPad to show us on a map covered with colored dots indicating the positions of allied forces, as well as Islamic State snipers.

We darted outside to get a glimpse of the city, keeping our heads down.

The streets were silent except for the crack of gunfire. A few streets away, we saw a rising cloud of smoke — a mortar.

Inside, the commander’s radio chirped. Unfolding was an incident that highlighted the fragility of the alliance among the various militias, each with its own history and agenda. Members of the Free Syrian Army, another militia made up of Arabs, had drawn sniper fire. The FSA soldiers said they were withdrawing from the area. The Kurdish commander told them to stay. The Arabs refused.

A Free Syrian Army commander arrived at the staircase, and argued with his Kurdish counterpart. The Arab commander left in a huff.

Syrian Democratic Forces commander Haval Bilind, left, tries to reason with allied Syrian Free Army forces threatening to abandon their posts in east Raqqah.

The Kurdish commander drove us out soon after. As we were leaving, a deserting Arab fighter tried to hitch a ride in his truck. The Kurdish commander declined.

Along the way, we also met a Free Syrian Army spokesman who went by the name of Abu Imad.

He showed us how his truck had been damaged by the fighting.

He insisted his troops would not only stay and fight, but take the battle farther south to his native Dair Alzour.


Fighting for Syria: An ex-U.S. Marine from San Francisco

Syrian opposition fighters have attracted foreign volunteers, including Americans, and we went to see some of them fighting with an Assyrian Christian militia in west Raqqah. Militia members drove us close to the sniper post they’d set up; we had to cross the last few blocks on foot.

As we began walking, the fighters told us that Islamic State snipers had holed up in an apartment building opposite and were deploying armed drones. We listened for their buzz as we darted across each open street.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

At the post, we met some U.S. volunteers from California. They said they had come to fight not just against Islamic State, but for the freedom of Syria’s Christians and other religious minorities. One of them, Kevin Howard (who during the fighting often went by the name Kane Harlly) was a former Marine from San Francisco who relished the freedom of fighting a guerrilla war, but acknowledged the risks.

He showed us his very basic de-mining equipment: a ball of string and a rudimentary bomb supplied by the militia. When he finds explosives, he affixes a string, which he yanks from a distance to set off an explosion. Failing that, he uses his own simple bomb to detonate and destroy the explosive.

Syriac Military Council fighters, from left to right, Hasan Abja, Kevin Howard and Taylor Hudson display a rudimentary homemade bomb and string they are issued to use in demining at their west Raqqah outpost.
Kevin Howard, 28, is part of a small group of western volunteers who traveled legally to Syria to help local forces fight Islamic State. Howard was raised in a San Francisco orphanage. At age 17, the scrappy, buzz cut blond went straight into the Marines - infantry. Stationed at Twentynine Palms, he served for five years, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq at the height of American deployments there.

“Smell that,” he said, holding out the bomb, which looked like a Saran-wrapped gray stone with a fuse sticking out of it. It felt heavy, and had a chemical stench. “It smells dangerous,” he said. “And I have to carry that in my pack.”

One of the volunteers we talked to would be injured days later by a bomb dropped by an Islamic State drone. The same month, another volunteer from California, a 28-year-old father, Robert Grodt, would be killed in Raqqah by a roadside bomb.

(Last week, Howard fled to northern Iraq, burned out and disillusioned. Friends posted photos and video of him at the same river crossing where I had entered Syria. After that, he disappeared. Days later, another California volunteer I had met in Raqqah, Taylor Hudson of Pasadena—who used the name Paul Hetfield in the field—also fled to Iraq, for similar reasons.


A gorgeous aquamarine lake at Tabqa, and a tragedy

From Raqqah, we headed farther west past a massive lake and dam to Tabqa, where we found widespread destruction.

At a large displaced persons camp near the lake, we saw families, some injured by airstrikes, living without tents, sheltering under scrubby pines in fields worn down to dirt. They were trying to avoid the yellow scorpions that plagued the area until they were allowed to rejoin family members in other parts of the country. Many had fled Dair Alzour, where they said airstrikes were unrelenting.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

In Tabqa, one large airstrike appeared to target militants hiding in a family’s house. The militants survived and fled, but the couple who lived there said their three daughters died in the strike.

When we visited the site of the razed house, the mother was still combing the ruins for her daughters’ school books and other keepsakes.


We reach Mansoura, reeling from bombs and airstrikes

In nearby Mansoura, the front line seemed as chaotic as it had been in Raqqah. We met militia fighters stationed at a water tower who complained that Assad’s soldiers had been shelling them, even though they are supposed to be fighting together against Islamic State. Should the Syrian army try to take the water tower, the militia fighters warned, they would fight back.

(Raoul Ranoa / Los Angeles Times)

Nearby towns had supposedly been freed of Islamic State. But signs with the militants’ telltale black-and-white insignias still abounded. Soldiers, residents and police warned us about Islamic State tunnels and sleeper cells.

As we drove through the busy business district of Mansoura, we spotted police arresting a suspected Islamic State militant. He was dressed as a woman, which is not uncommon. As we watched, officers fired shots in the air and shouted, “He has a suicide belt!”

Kurdish police in Mansoura catch a man disguised as a woman in a busy market. They suspected that he was an Islamic State spy or fighter.

We backed off. It turned out the suspect was not armed with explosives. But officers told us they had encountered other suicide bombers in recent months, and they had learned to warn the crowd, just in case.

We visited a local sheik who had also been attacked. He showed us the Bedouin tent where he greets visitors. The tent was new, replacing one that was destroyed by a remote-control bomb just a week earlier. The explosion killed his brother.

The sheik’s truck was scarred by debris from the explosion. He suspected Islamic State had targeted him because he had worked with the U.S.-led coalition to broker the militants’ withdrawal from the area a few weeks before.

The sheik also explained how airstrikes — by all of the forces fighting Islamic State — had decimated the area, often killing civilians whom the militants had used as human shields. One strike hit an Islamic State prison, and displaced families living nearby showed us a charred car bomb, the suicide bomber dead inside, in the ruins.

A man and a boy explore in the rubble of a former Islamic State jail in Mansoura.

Another airstrike had killed hundreds of civilians sheltering at a nearby school where armed militants had lurked. Called to the scene, the sheik said he could see people trapped between collapsed floors of the building. They screamed for two days, he said. Then the building fell silent. Neighbors showed us where militants had buried the victims’ bodies in a nearby field.

People walk past a mass grave near the site of an airstrike at a school in Mansoura.

While we were visiting the area, we stayed with Kurdish troops in a house they had captured from an Islamic State leader and outfitted with a generator and WiFi. It was a bizarre setting, simultaneously lavish and austere: We slept on an ornate carpet, decorative sofa cushions for pillows, next to a marble fireplace, under crystal chandeliers. Yet there was no air conditioning or running water.

The soldiers told us about their time on the front line, and made sure we ate well.


The end of the road

We left Syria as we came, by boat, full of uncertainty, which remains. U.S.-backed troops have largely recaptured Raqqah, but it isn’t clear what role they will play afterward. Assad is still officially president, yet Kurdish forces clearly control much of the east, and their influence, at least in Syria, is growing. (In neighboring Iraq, by contrast, government troops have begun clashing with Kurdish forces over the last week to capture some of the territory the Kurds control.) Every day, more displaced families arrive at camps struggling to support them. Soldiers maintain on watch on the front line, unsure whom they will end up fighting with, or against. There is still a long fight ahead.

Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske spent a week and a half reporting from Syria earlier this month with translator Kamiran Sadoun.

Credits: Photos and video by Molly Hennessy-Fiske. Videos edited by Robert Meeks and Mark Potts. Digital design and development by Sean Greene.