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11 December 2014updated 17 Dec 2014 3:09pm

Project Martyr: the British doctor who went to work in Syria

In 2011, Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester, flew to Syria. Since then, he has watched the revolution against Bashar al-Assad fall apart – but he won’t give up.

By Martin Fletcher

Rami Habib in his field hospital. Photo: Tom Pilston


In early 2011, Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester, flew to his native Syria because his father had suffered a stroke. It was a tumultuous time in the Arab world. The peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were rising up against their repressive rulers. Habib cheered them on, though he never imagined that his countrymen would do the same. When protests first reached his home town of Jableh, on the Mediterranean coast in the north-west of the country, he was too fearful to join in. After a few weeks, he became convinced that the revolution might be the only chance for Syrians to conduct their lives with dignity and freedom. Ignoring his parents’ entreaties, Habib took to the streets with hundreds of his fellow townsfolk. “The people of Syria want the regime to go,” they shouted.

For Habib, it was one of the most exhilarating moments of his life. “I thought I was dreaming,” he says. “A year before, we’d have been killed for chanting that.”

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Those early protests were peaceful. They had nothing to do with Islam, he says, though the demonstrators were mostly Sunnis who felt oppressed by the regime. The protesters demanded democracy, free speech, economic opportunity, an end to corruption. Habib naively envisaged a Syria more like Britain, France or Germany. He could not think of returning to Leicester and his wife at such a momentous time. It was his “holy duty” to his country to stay.

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That summer, the regime’s security ­forces opened fire on the protesters in Jableh, occupied the central square and erected checkpoints. Paramilitary thugs called shabiha toured Sunni districts in pick-ups, firing AK-47s into the air to keep people indoors. Habib moved his parents and youngest brother, who has Down’s syndrome, to an apartment he owned in Salma, a ­mountain resort 20 miles inland, with views of the Mediterranean. It was a town to which Syrians would go each summer to escape the heat. Habib and his family had spent many happy holidays there, picnicking in the surrounding forests, barbecuing, ­promenading, watching the sun set over the ­distant sea.

Salma was still peaceful then, although it was filling with Sunni refugees from coastal areas controlled by those from the same Alawite religious group, a heterodox Shia sect, as President Bashar al-Assad. Habib’s father died that November. The protests reached Salma shortly afterwards.

As in Jableh, the government cracked down. Eventually, in June 2012, after a night of ferocious fighting, the loose alliance of rebel civilians and military defectors called the Free Syrian Army (FSA) seized Salma. Habib rejoiced. He joined the rebels and set up a field hospital in Salma’s main mosque. Across the country, soldiers and officials were deserting a regime that appeared tantalisingly close to collapse. In three or four months, it would all be over, Habib thought.

Two years on, the revolution appears further than ever from achieving its aims. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have been killed, according to the UN, and ten million have fled their homes. Salma has been reduced to ruins. Its few remaining inhabitants, Habib among them, are attacked daily by a resurgent military. The FSA’s hopes of ousting ­Assad have evaporated. And the rise of the jihadist group Isis (also known as Islamic State) has dramatically changed the conflict. In the eyes of many outside Syria, it has become a war between savage Islamic zealots and a brutal dictator, with Assad the lesser of two evils. The US-led coalition is bombing not Assad but his enemies, making his survival all the more likely.

“Isis has hijacked the revolution, destroyed the image of the rebel movement and thrown a lifeline to Assad,” Habib says when we meet in October in Antakya, the modern-day Antioch, a Turkish city near the border that is home to thousands of Syrian refugees, including, now, Habib’s mother and brother. The original mainstream rebels, those fighting for freedom and democracy, feel betrayed, abandoned and forgotten, he says. “It’s an appalling situation. It shows that the west simply doesn’t care about stopping Assad or saving ordinary Syrians from his barbarity.”

It has become too dangerous for ­western journalists to enter Syria, so Habib had to drive across the border to see me, using his doctor’s pass to enter Turkey. We spent a day talking in coffee houses or on park benches in the warm autumn sun. He was casually dressed in a blue T-shirt and jeans but had aged since I first visited him in Salma early last year; his beard is turning grey, his waistline expanding. Though a doctor, he smoked heavily and said that even in Antakya he did not feel safe from Syrian government agents. He is soft-­spoken, articulate and thoughtful – certainly no extremist.

Some nights, after another ­gruelling day treating Assad’s victims, he says he feels close to despair. Lying on his mattress in the basement of a ruined apartment block, he wonders if the uprising has been worth the cost and if he should return to his wife. “I say, ‘Hey, Rami, isn’t it enough for you now – three years in this revolution? You should go back to the UK and lead a normal life.’”

Those moods seldom survive the night, however. In the morning he realises that his skills are needed far more here than in Leicester, that Salma’s rebels and civilians depend on him. Above all, he understands how the regime’s brutality makes its eventual overthrow imperative. “The whole of my life I’ve thought these are not the right people to rule my country,” he says. “But when the regime started to hit civilians and kill them indiscriminately, that gave me proof that the regime should be kicked out – even though we might die in the process.”

Habib was one of eight children of a prosperous metalworker from Jableh, a medium-sized town with an old Roman ­amphitheatre, a small port and many citrus and vegetable farmers. He had a happy childhood – swimming, fishing, playing by the sea – but he grew up in a country where Sunnis, who account for nearly three-quarters of the 22 million Syrians, were treated as second-class citizens. Children were taught from infancy that walls have ears and bribes were required to secure telephones, electricity and passports. When he was 11, the then president, Hafez al-Assad – Bashar’s father – sent the military into the city of Hama to crush a protracted revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular Ba’athist regime. Some 20,000 Sunnis were massacred as much of the old city was destroyed by tanks and bombs. Later, Habib watched as the regime sought to reduce Jableh’s Sunni majority by giving Alawites from the surrounding villages land and cheap apartments. He hated the Assads, both the father and the son who succeeded him in 2000.

“We felt this was not our country,” Habib says. After studying medicine in Aleppo, he left to work in Saudi Arabia – not least to avoid military service. There he met Rachel, a Filipino nurse, and, when she was offered work in Britain in 2004, he followed and married her. They lived near the old Filbert Street football stadium in Leicester, a multi­cultural city in which he immediately felt at ease. He enjoyed the order and freedom: “You could discuss any issue without feeling you would be arrested at the end of the day,” he says. He and his wife had holidays in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. He grew to love the UK and still considers it home. He trained as a paediatrician, working at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, Leicester General and Glenfield hospitals.

The medicine he practises today bears scant resemblance to that. Days after the FSA seized Salma in 2012, the regime launched a counteroffensive with helicopter gunships and a barrage of Russian-made Grad rockets, which scatter widely and kill indiscriminately. “The whole town was shaking. It was deafening. I could not believe the regime would do this to its own people,” Habib says.

Habib and his team of four doctors and eight nurses worked through the nights, amputating, stitching, dressing, using the little medicine and equipment they had. They sent the most seriously injured to Turkey, 30 miles to the north, but some died en route or while waiting several hours to cross the border.

“It was a sea of blood,” Habib says. “I never saw anything like this in Leicester, only in the movies. A few times I cried, when women and children were cut dead. Too many died in front of me.” At one point he was filmed ­denouncing the regime in a burst of fury. The video was posted on YouTube, making him a marked man.

Salma found itself right on the front line of the territory of north-western Syria held by the FSA, a disparate and disorganised collection of ex-soldiers, idealistic former civilians and a few Islamists with a lot of spirit but too few weapons. Eager for revenge and determined to stop other towns defecting, the regime has scarcely let up since the initial bombardment. First, it cut Salma’s water and electricity. Then, in August 2012, it began pounding the town with tanks and heavy artillery from “the Tower” – a new military base it built on a mountaintop a mile across a plunging ­valley and clearly visible from Salma. Today it routinely attacks Salma with missiles fired from MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets but the most terrifying weapons of all are the barrel bombs dropped from the heli­copters that circle above the town ­almost every day.

The bombs are packed with explosives as well as nuts, bolts, lengths of iron rod, engine parts and tank shell casings. Soldiers light the fuses with their cigarettes before pushing the steel barrels from the helicopters. They fall for ten to 15 seconds with a loud whistling sound, causing Salma’s residents to run for shelter. Sometimes the bombs explode in the air, sometimes when they hit the ground. The shrapnel destroys buildings, vehicles, trees, people – anything within a 200-yard radius. In a single day, the regime may drop ten or more on Salma. ­Habib has to patch up the victims’ faces, mutilated limbs and shredded abdomens in his makeshift hospital. “They kill utterly indiscriminately: fighters and civilians, women and children, occasionally whole families,” he says.

Habib was nearly killed by one. He had moved his hospital out of the mosque, after it was hit by two dozen rockets in one day, and into the basement of an abandoned apartment block. Early one morning, the building was hit by a barrel bomb. Habib, who was sleeping on the first floor, heard the third, fourth and fifth floors collapsing above him. He began reciting the shahada, the prayer Muslims say before death. Though covered in debris and shattered glass, Habib survived. He has no doubt the regime knew where the hospital was and targeted it deliberately. The rebels have caught and executed at least ten informers in Salma – “fair treatment for betrayers”, Habib says.

The town today bears no resemblance to the bustling resort it once was and it is hard to imagine it ever will again. Even last year, when I stayed for two days, it resembled a scene from Armageddon. The forests had been set ablaze by shells. Elegant apartment blocks and the town’s mosques lay in ruins. Scarcely a building was undamaged, or windowpane unshattered. The shops and restaurants had been abandoned and looted. The streets were strewn with rubble, fallen trees and toppled street lights. The electricity cables had been sold for their copper in Turkey. Gutters were clogged with bushes and weeds. I saw some bearded fighters chopping wood outside the buildings they had commandeered for bases but hardly anyone else. The only movements were of curtains flapping in gaping windows, the occasional feral dog, or a battered FSA pick-up speeding down a deserted street.

“Anyone who knew Salma before the revolution would cry if he roamed around it now,” says Habib, who has not visited his own ruined apartment in more than a
year because he finds it too painful. “It used to be a beautiful place. Now it’s tragic.” Hundreds of fighters and civilians have been killed in the town and nearby villages and thousands injured. Several ambulances have been destroyed.

The rebels managed briefly to break out in August last year, capturing the Tower and a dozen Alawite villages, but were soon beaten back. They, in turn, have thwarted several regime offensives. Asked how many friends he has lost, Habib replies “too many” and reels off their names. Occasionally, he has found himself treating captured soldiers, even as regime shells were falling around him. “As patients, I have to treat them, though I hate them,” he says.

Fewer than 2,000 people remain in a town that once had a summertime population of perhaps 50,000. Most are rebel fighters. Some are Salma residents who cannot afford to move to Turkey or would rather take their chances in their homes than a refugee camp. A few are families who have fled from government-held territory and occupied abandoned apartments. Somehow this tiny, residual population adapts and survives. A hosepipe brings water from a spring two miles away. Charred tree trunks from the forests provide firewood during the bitterly cold winters. People sandbag their doors and windows, run across any open space visible from the Tower and drive without headlights at night. The ­children attend two rudimentary schools. Even the youngest can distinguish between the sounds of mortars, rockets, shells and barrel bombs and know to take shelter without being told. The only good thing about the MiG attacks is that their rockets hit before you even hear the jets, Habib says. “By the time you see them, you are safe.” A cloudy day brings a little relief, since the helicopters with their cargoes of barrel bombs cannot fly.

Habib has a generator for his hospital, where he treats cases of hepatitis A and typhoid, diseases seldom seen in peacetime. He has assembled a proper operating theatre and built a reinforced-concrete safe room for his staff. His self-styled Salma Field Hospital Foundation, which is supported by western donors and NGOs, runs a bakery, brings in essential supplies from Turkey and distributes blankets, clothes and food parcels. He recently repaired a bulldozer and created a new dirt track into Salma because the existing road was in full view of the Tower. He mediates between the diverse groups that fight under the banner of the FSA but often squabble among themselves – usually over access to ammunition. “Some people call me the mayor of Salma,” he says, laughing.

Other rebel-held towns and cities have suffered even worse than Salma. The Assad regime has systematically destroyed great swaths of its own capital, Damascus, and of Aleppo and Homs. The government has used chemical weapons and has fired Scud missiles and dropped cluster bombs. It has used shabiha to ethnically cleanse Sunni villages and kill women and children. It has used rape, torture, abductions, firing squads and mass executions as weapons of war. It has bombed schools, hospitals and bakeries.

Seared by the experience of the Iraq and Afghan wars and wary of being sucked into another Middle East quagmire, the US, Britain and their allies have demanded Assad’s removal but withheld the means. They have threatened air strikes after the Syrian army unleashed sarin gas against the rebels, killing hundreds, but then backed off. They have imposed some largely ineffective sanctions but rebuffed the rebels’ appeals for no-fly zones, safe havens and humanitarian corridors. With Iran and Russia backing and emboldening Assad, attempts at diplomatic solutions have failed and two UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, have quit in frustration. Both the Syrian National Council and Syrian National Coalition have been promoted by the west, though both consisted largely of exiles with few links to the rebels on the ground. “They were
irrelevant. I heard of them only through the media,” Habib says.

The international community has provided some humanitarian assistance to the rebels but Habib calls it “a sticking plaster that merely keeps us alive”. The best aid, he argues, would have been weapons to finish the war back in 2012 when the regime was reeling. He does admit that the fragmented, disordered and occasionally brutal FSA could have done more to win the west’s confidence – not least by guaranteeing protection for Syria’s many religious and ethnic minorities in a post-Assad Syria – but concludes, “In my opinion, Assad has had a licence to kill.”

The US and its allies, including Middle Eastern countries, have now intervened militarily but not to help the rebels. Instead, the campaign is a desperate attempt to contain Isis, a group of mostly foreign jihadists that grew out of al-Qaeda’s resistance to the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003. It gained a foothold in north-eastern Syria last year and uses terror to suppress local populations – beheading opponents, raping and enslaving women and massacring so-called infidels as it seeks to establish an Islamic ­caliphate across Syria and Iraq. The trigger for foreign action was Isis’s advance towards Baghdad but its very public execution of five British and American hostages, most likely in Syria, also rendered continued passivity politically impossible.

To Habib, the US-led air strikes suggest that America cares more about a few of its own citizens than the tens of thousands of dead Syrians. They suggest it considers Isis’s atrocities worse than Assad’s. By targeting Assad’s enemies, they are manifestly helping the regime, which scarcely disguises its pleasure. “The US military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria,” one Syrian diplomat was quoted as saying in a ­Damascus newspaper in September. Alongside the air strikes, Barack Obama has promised to train and equip several thousand moderate rebels but primarily so they can fight Isis, not Assad. Habib is sceptical, though he firmly believes that strengthening the FSA is the only way forward. “Why have they waited three years?” he says.

The rise of Isis helps Assad in other ways, too, by changing western perceptions of what began, as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as a people’s revolution. “It was rebels against the regime. Now it’s the regime against extremists. The international coalition is together with the regime against the extremists,” Habib argues. “Where are the rebels in this picture? They’re forgotten . . . Isis has destroyed the image of the whole rebel movement.”

Isis has lent a spurious credence to the Syrian government’s claim that the uprising was inspired from the outset by foreign ­jihadists. It prevents western journalists ­entering Syria to report on the regime’s atrocities. And, while world attention is ­focused on Isis, Habib says that Assad’s forces have quietly stepped up their assaults on Salma and other rebels strongholds. “Isis is the most effective weapon the regime has,” he says.

Particularly galling was the US decision to bomb Jabhat al-Nusra as well as Isis, after it claimed that it was shielding senior operatives who were planning attacks on western targets. Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the strongest rebel groups, is an al-Qaeda affiliate that – like Isis – wants eventually to establish an Islamic caliphate. But its immediate priority is removing Assad and moderate rebels ­consider it an invaluable ally in that quest.

Around 150 members of Jabhat al-Nusra fight alongside the FSA in Salma. Most are Syrians and last year they helped eject from the town dozens of their colleagues who had defected to Isis. “We love them [Jabhat al-Nusra], so long as they don’t interfere with our lives,” says ­Habib, who complained only that they try to stop him smoking because they consider it un-­Islamic.

“They are very strong, very sincere and willing to die to achieve any mission given to them. They have good weapons and ­ammunition and they’re stronger than the FSA. You can’t win any military operation without Jabhat al-Nusra,” says Habib. His great fear is that the air strikes will encourage Jabhat al-Nusra to join forces with Isis against the US.

In one other way Isis has complicated ­Habib’s life. It has rendered any British citizen who travels to Syria suspect – even a doctor. He says the police have already quizzed friends in Britain about him and that donors to his foundation fear they will be accused of funding terrorism. He has not returned to Britain since the uprising began but, if he tried to do so, “I would, of course, be questioned. They would need to know I’m not a threat to the UK.”

Habib has no intention of returning, however, even though he cannot envisage an end to the conflict any time soon. His long-suffering wife remains in Britain, sees him only occasionally in Turkey and frets about him constantly. His mother begs him to leave and Habib is the only member of his family left in Syria. But he gambled everything on the revolution succeeding and still clings to the belief that somehow it will. “Obviously, anybody in this area can die at any moment but we remain committed to the cause,” he said. “That’s why we call this ‘Project Martyr’.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times