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Jihadi Fighters Win Hearts And Minds By Easing Syria's Bread Crisis

A man makes bread as residents, background, stand in line in front of a bakery during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 4, 2012.
Narciso Contreras
Associated Press
A man makes bread as residents, background, stand in line in front of a bakery during heavy fighting between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria, on Dec. 4, 2012.

In Syria, the staple of most meals is a thin, round, flat bread that we would probably call pita.

Back in November, as fierce fighting raged across Syria, people started to run out of this bread. Government forces were attacking bakeries in rebel-held areas and cutting off electricity so mills couldn't grind flour. By late last year, Syrians were desperate.

But now, the crisis has been somewhat alleviated — by Aleppo's transitional revolutionary council, a group the U.S. government has designated as a terrorist organization. It's basically a group of civilian leaders trying to solve Aleppo's problems.

Raafat al Rifai is a journalist, but he's also on the council. He has taken up residence in an abandoned bank on the outskirts of the city. There's no electricity. It's dark and cold. All he has are cigarettes.

Pretty soon after we sit down, some guys come to the door. They tell Raafat they need bread.

There are four main grain compounds in Aleppo province, Raafat tells me. These compounds grind grain into flour and store the flour in silos. Back in November, they all shut down.

Rebel fighters, known as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, along with civilian leaders, went and persuaded the two of compounds to reopen, Raafat says. With aid money they'd collected, the council helped the compounds get fuel for generators. And they offered protection.

Flour made it to some of Aleppo's bakeries, and the bread crisis started to ease.

Still, though, in neighborhoods like this one, a woman waiting in a long line says she waits for days to get bread. Rebels in the FSA get to jump to the front of the line.

"It's been three days that I have been coming," the woman says in Arabic. "Wait till you see the FSA coming, they just get the bread, they get what they want, and they just leave. And we tell them, give us some bread, we are the same as you."

People all over the city have been getting frustrated with the FSA rebels. Then about a month ago, armed Islamist fighters with a group called Jabhat al Nusra took over all four grain compounds. They provided fuel and protection. More bakeries opened.

When the group was first formed about a year ago, Jabhat al Nusra said its aim was to create an Islamic state in Syria. Back then it carried out al-Qaida-style suicide attacks on Syrian government interests.

Then the group changed tactics and began fighting alongside FSA rebels on the ground. It's thought the well-trained and well-equipped Jabhat al Nusra is why rebels have succeeded in taking government military bases.

A Syrian boy carries a pile of bread as people crowd outside a bakery in the Salaheddin district of Aleppo, on Oct. 25, 2012.
Philippe Desmazes / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
A Syrian boy carries a pile of bread as people crowd outside a bakery in the Salaheddin district of Aleppo, on Oct. 25, 2012.

And now, Jabhat al Nusra is all about winning hearts and minds.

I visited one bakery at about noon. Bread is usually sold early in the morning, and the few people gathered outside the closed gate are late.

The guys who have bread carry guns and wear black headbands with an Islamic creed written in white.

The fighters invite us inside, then immediately disappear. The customers keep knocking on the gate. We're taken upstairs to meet the bakery's owner, Abu Kamel.

Abu Kamel says Jabhat al Nusra fighters came to him about a month ago, to sell him flour. They helped him get fuel for the generator and offered him protection.

His bakery used to make pastries. But he switched to bread when the fighting got heavy. He says Jabhat al Nusra saved his business.

Few journalists have been granted extensive access to Jabhat al Nusra, but Raafat was able to meet the group several hours a day, several days in a row. Western journalists are almost always denied access to the group.

Raafat says because Syrians see so little support from the international community — and because FSA rebels are seen as corrupt and disorganized — Jabhat al Nusra is filling the gap.

"Jabhat al Nusra is not only providing a religious alternative, it is trying to provide an alternative for the government, an alternative for the transitional revolutionary council, and also an alternative for the international community," he says through an interpreter.

But not everyone in Aleppo is happy with how the group is doing.

In Aleppo's Bustan al Qasr neighborhood, people marched past Jabhat al Nusra's base demanding electricity and flour. We later saw people arguing with a Jabhat al Nusra fighter. Requests at the door were referred to another office.

And in that same neighborhood, civilians are trying to work with the FSA rebels to clean up their act.

Mohammad Aoun al Maarouf is a former physical education teacher who now heads a kind of community policing center in a building that used to be a kindergarten. Maarouf says he runs a unit of about 32 men who police the neighborhood. If they see FSA rebels abusing people at checkpoints or bakeries or looting, they detain them and call them in for questioning. If there's enough evidence, they send them to a civil court.

Maarouf is tight-lipped when asked about Jabhat al Nusra. Our work is separate from them, he says.

His group has received its own donations of flour, he says, and is giving it directly to the people.

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Corrected: January 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
During the original production of the audio for this piece, a number of elements were inadvertently placed in the wrong sequence. The incorrect audio version has been replaced with one that is accurate.
Kelly McEvers
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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