In Aleppo, rebels keep a tight grip on their image with embedded cameramen

Screen grab from a video published by the Aleppo rebels' communications bureau, in which Free Syrian Army fighters shoot at an airplane belonging to the Assad regime. 
 
In Aleppo, the “mother of all battles” — in the words of the Syrian opposition – is currently underway. This battle is being filmed up close by amateur cameramen carefully selected by the Free Syrian Army to follow its rebel fighters (deserters from the regular army) into combat. This new form of media coverage is entirely controlled by the rebel army's “military communications bureaus.”
 
The high stakes in the battle for Aleppo, the country's economic capital, have forced the opposition to organise itself as efficiently as possible. First, on the military front: most of the militias in Aleppo and its surrounding villages have chosen to unite under the same banner, the “Unification Brigade,” which is part of the Free Syrian Army.  Secondly, on the communications front: now more than ever, the Free Syrian Army is working hard to control its image and to wage its own  war against the official state media. To do this, it has put in place military communications bureaus which assign people to film the battles, while others focus on answering queries from the foreign media.
 
Aleppo has 2.5 million inhabitants. According to the latest UN report, at least 200,000 of them have already fled the fighting. Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog group, puts the toll of those killed in Syria since the beginning of the uprising at 20,000. On July 30 alone, the group reported that 93 people - 41 civilians, 19 rebels, and 33 soldiers - were killed.
 
This video, which was published by the Aleppo rebels' communications bureau, shows the Free Syrian Army fighting in the neigbhourhood of Mash'had.
Contributors

“We must not forget that this war is also a media war”

Bachir el Hajji is the spokesperson for the military communications bureau in Aleppo.
 
The military communications bureau is similar to the communications bureau that sprang up in several Syrian cities at the beginning of the rebellion. However, it is unique in that its citizen journalists are solely tasked with shadowing the members of the Free Syrian Army to cover their field operations.
 
This special bureau exists because it is more dangerous to follow the Free Syrian Army's operations than to film a simple demonstration, as many amateurs had been doing before. Furthermore, we must be careful about what information can be released. The videos must not show the areas where the Free Syrian Army is based, nor the weapons it has, aside from small arms. Likewise, we are careful about the timing of our broadcasts. The person who films an operation does not post the the videos: the cameramen give us the footage and we post it once we're certain that the operation was successful, that the zone has been secured, and that the unit that was filmed is no longer in any danger. However, this does not mean that we censor the videos. We always broadcast the totality of what was filmed, even if the footage shows dead bodies of regular army soldiers or even burnt corpses. After all, we are acting within our rights and we are fighting for our country.
 
“We must be careful about the information that is released. We must not show our positions or our weapons”
 
We are very careful with recruiting. We rely on trustworthy individuals that we know very well and who were some of the first activists to go out in the field to film demonstrations at the beginning of the rebellion. Some of our “reporters” carry weapons, but for the most part they are civilians who only carry cameras.
 
We closely follow reports from the state media in order to counter their accusations with our own footage. The goal of our coverage is certainly to inform about the Free Syrian Army's operations, but we must also not forget that this war is also a media war. We will not allow the regime's media to tarnish our image without reacting.
 
Free Syrian Army fighters bomb a building where they say pro-regime militiamen are hiding out.

“The soldiers show me a place from which to film the operation as it unfolds. One of them is in charge of protecting me”

Abou Malek films for Aleppo's Unification Brigade. He agreed to speak to us despite the military communications bureau's reluctance to put us in touch with an amateur cameraman, a reluctance which stems from the fact that only the bureau is supposed to engage in external communications regarding the brigade.
 
I live in the same building as the unit that I regularly follow. Before each operation, the members of the brigade inform me of the date, location, and nature of the operation. I prepare my camera and go off with them. We ride in the same vehicles. During the ride, we discuss the nature of the operation and the challenges we will face. The fact that it is always the same cameraman travelling with a given unit enhances the trust and camaraderie between us.
 
“I only film; it is the bureau that chooses what footage to put online”
 
Once we have arrived at our destination, the soldiers show me a place from which to film the operation as it unfolds. One of them is in charge of protecting me. That said, I am allowed to move around and choose the angle I want, so long as I don't get in the way of the operation.
 
I have been filming for the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo for five months now. Prior to that, I was filming the demonstrations. One day, one of my friends, who was a soldier in the regular army, deserted and joined the Free Syrian Army. He suggested that I come work for them, and I accepted. On the footage that I film, I try to explain what the soldiers are doing by providing commentary. I only film; it is the bureau that chooses what footage to put online, but I think this is normal for a military unit. There must be a minimum of discipline to maintain order.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.

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