ALEPPO, Syria — When I first met Nidal a few years ago, he was an amiable and unassuming guy. He worked afternoons at a private company to make ends meet, just like most chronically underpaid civil servants in Syria. There was nothing exceptional or extraordinary about him; he was just another casual acquaintance. Fast forward to today, what a remarkable difference a few years and a civil war can make. Sitting across from me in a trendy café in west Aleppo in May, he told me of his rise to prominent commander in the Baath Brigades and boasted of his exploits, battles and victories.
The Baath Brigades are basically a militia of loyal Baath Party members, an all-volunteer force. They were set up in Aleppo a short time after the rebels stormed the city and took most of the eastern half. They were initially deployed to guard government buildings and vital installations, but their role would become more prominent as their numbers and strength grew.