Syria: One man and his spy army guide rebels

People gather around a crater at the scene of an explosion in northern Syria. Picture: Getty
People gather around a crater at the scene of an explosion in northern Syria. Picture: Getty
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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 organiser of one of the many essential divisions of 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 provinces has probably heard his voice crackling over the 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 the news. The Watchtower – Burj al-Moraqaba in Arabic – has ­become a real-time narrator of Syrian military movements across a large and unpredictable battlefield.

One day a few weeks ago, 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 north-east. 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.”

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 said he has roughly two dozen men who worked 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 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.

While being interviewed, Mudar managed 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.

“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, he said he wondered how a country could be attacked in such ways, by its own military, and not receive more help.

He said: “We are surprised why the world is silent about the massacres.”