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This article is from New York times 2013/08/06:
They call him the Watchtower, although the nickname does not quite fit. He is the eyes and voice not of one man in one place, but of many men scattered across the northern Syrian countryside. Mudar Abu Ali is his real name, minus his surname, which he said he must withhold to protect his family. Before Syria descended into civil war he was an electrician by trade. Now he is the organizer of one of the many essential functions in an armed guerrilla campaign: He leads a network of spotters in northern Syria who watch roads and military bases, broadcasting warnings about the movement of government forces that the rebels are trying to elude or to kill.
Anyone who has been in the proximity of the rebels in Idlib or Hama Province has probably heard his voice crackling over the ubiquitous two-way radios that opposition fighters carry. It is deep, fast and almost incessant, from early in the morning to night. Virtually every rebel in the region listens for it; many listen intently, in the way of people whose lives can depend on news. The Watchtower — Burj al-Moraqaba or برج المراقبة in Arabic — has become a real-time narrator of Syrian military movements across a large and unpredictable battlefield.
One day a few weeks back, as he sat for an interview, another man’s voice came crackling over the radio. It was a spotter at a distant airfield, notifying Mudar of helicopters that had just left the base, headed generally northeast. Mudar listened with knowing familiarity, then repeated the essentials. “Helicopters are heading to the front now,” he said into a keyed microphone, to everyone and no one in particular. “Two helicopters left Hama air base one minute ago.”
For as long as there has been war there have been pickets, sentries, spotters, signalers and runners — those who keep tabs on foes and relay information to fellow fighters and friends. Mudar is the contemporary version of that role in the Syrian civil war now grinding through its third year. He is busy orchestrating the shadows following President Bashar al-Assad’s conventional forces. Men like Mudar confounded American forces throughout their recent occupation in Iraq, and others still do in Afghanistan, where the steady flow of pro-Taliban spotters fills the air with what soldiers call “Icom chatter.” (Icom is a popular brand of radio that is also favored by Afghan insurgents.)
If such men are loathed by those whose locations they disclose, and are the targets of bounties and late-night raids to silence their voices, Mudar presents an appearance that hardly matches his reputation. He is in his 50s, with a short gray beard that is turning white. He carries no weapon, but like many men in Syria now, he wears a camouflage uniform. His is a desert tan, and is very clean. He strolls down village lanes without attracting special notice. His smile comes easily, only to fade when his radio bursts with new information. Then his face can become a web of creases as he listens to his friends’ voices on the radio. After briefly formulating his summary, he passes the word.
Mudar and the rebels he helps say he has roughly two dozen men who work for him, each watching a specific place or listening in on captured Syrian military radios and then telling him what they can of Syrian Army and Air Force movements. They also watch base entrances, looking for collaborators from local towns or villages who enter and leave government outposts. His spotters, rebels say, sometimes spot a snitch.
Rebels credit him with warning people of dangers and alerting fighters to potential targets. He attributes accuracy not to himself, but to those who help him. “Everyone is in a specific spot,” he said of his spotters. His reputation for missing very little was illustrated by how he arranged to be interviewed. Four rebels traveling with journalists inquired in a few villages about Mudar. They drove from place to place, unable to locate him. But he was watching them all the time.
Eventually, Mudar’s voice boomed over the radio on the dashboard of one of the rebel’s cars: “You men in the two white cars driving up the hill right now: stop there and wait.” A few minutes later an unarmed man wearing a red and white scarf appeared on foot, strolling downhill in an easygoing gait. He looked like any number of aging Syrian men. Then he smiled and spoke; the voice was instantly recognizable. Mudar gestured to a home and invited his visitors onto its porch. A baby cried inside. (“There is no milk,” the child’s father said.) While Mudar explained his work, he continued to manage intermittent streams of radio traffic.
It was a busy hour, with reports of helicopters circling over one town and the pilot of an attack jet announcing he was above another target. The spotters had overheard these things by monitoring a radio captured from a Syrian Air Force base, Mudar said. “Men in Sha’the, pay attention: The fighter jet is heading there,” he said into his radio. “Be careful,” he added. “The fighter jet is coming to you.”In a lull, when his radio was quiet, he said he wondered how a country could be attacked in such ways, by its own military, and not receive more help. “We are surprised why the world is silent about the massacres. Are the Syrian children a Grade C product?” he asked. “What makes us wonder is that if this happened in Israel, and a child or a woman was killed, what would the international reaction be then?” He was not expecting a reply. His radio was busy. Mudar returned to work.
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