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Disillusioned Fighters Abandon Frontlines as Syria’s Revolution Goes Awry

Syrian rebels make victory signs in the town of Tal Abyad near the border with Turkey. Photo: AFP
Syrian rebels make victory signs in the town of Tal Abyad near the border with Turkey. Photo: AFP

By Glen Johnson

MERSIN, Turkey – Zigga and his seven companions, fighters with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo’s scorched Old City, have given up their arms, selling them to another militia. They packed a few possessions and drove past checkpoints manned by bearded al-Qaeda loyalists, out into Turkey.

“Our revolution is finished,” says Zigga. “Now, it is just thieves remaining.”

Syria’s fractured opposition is imploding as the country continues to be carved up by warlords and extremists, enriching themselves in the areas they control.

Scores of fighters have reportedly taken the general amnesty offered by President Bashar al-Assad. Others, like Zigga and his companions, are abandoning the frontlines, disillusioned with a revolution gone awry. It has been hijacked by armies of jihadists fighting for groups loyal to al-Qaeda.

“If they want a car, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take it. If they want a wife, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take her,” Zigga says. “This is not Islamic and it is not what we were fighting for.”

Since sweeping into Aleppo in July last year, Syria’s insurgents – overwhelmingly the conservative, rural poor – exacted a terrible toll on the city’s wealthy business classes, imbuing the rebellion with heavy shades of class war.

  If they want a car, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take it. If they want a wife, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take her, 

Insurgent groups have long fought over the spoils of war – looting and pillaging – while profiteering from smuggling operations and a booming kidnap market.

But as rebel groups carved their fiefs into a dying land, battling over resources, the opposition frayed, decomposing into around 1,500 different groups, each out for itself. 

Rival rebel factions recently battled in Azaz for control of the strategic frontier town. Fighting for northeastern Hasakah province’s oil reserves spiked earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, austere Islamic extremism flourished as an ideological counter to the Arab nationalism of the regime.

“All the scum bubbled to the surface. In wars like this the worst people tend to become the most powerful,” says a security advisor working in Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “And Syria is twisted: If you had told me six months ago that Assad would use sarin gas and this would improve his position, I would have said ‘you’re mad.’”

The fracturing of the opposition has been accelerated by: The FSA’s failure to bring in the country’s Kurdish minority, which is now heavily penetrated by the regime; the arrival of many thousands of foreign fighters -- ruthless hardliners who see everyone as the enemy and are flush with cash from private donors in Gulf Arab countries; and the West’s aversion to imposing a no-fly zone; instead, the United States and its allies provided arms and other material support through diffuse channels, accelerating the fracture even more.

Amid this disarray, Assad’s forces now creep, scoring a string of fairly modest battlefield victories. In Aleppo, where the war had ground to a festering stalemate between snipers barely meters apart, the tide has swung in favor of the regime, which may now controls around 60 percent of the city.

  All the scum bubbled to the surface. In wars like this the worst people tend to become the most powerful, 

A potentially decisive battle will likely focus on Aleppo’s Industrial City, experts note.

Attack choppers and fighter jets have begun their presence over the area, which is firmly under the control of opposition factions and links the city with other key rebel positions throughout Aleppo’s countryside, notably al-Bab. That is a key opposition garrison town where around 50 people were killed over the weekend by regime “barrel bombs” that targeted a market.

Industrial City is also the high ground from which the regime can pressurize rebels surrounding Aleppo prison, stocked with around 500 regime loyalists. That is much needed manpower that Assad could use elsewhere, since about 40 percent of Syria’s 120,000 dead have been regime forces and paramilitary allies.

With neither side able to score an outright victory, experts note Assad is likely seeking to hasten the splintering of the opposition while piling on military pressure. Shelling in Aleppo has increased, driving up disillusionment and hastening its collapse.

“We are seeing a sharp increase in regime activity in Aleppo,” says the security advisor.

However, the collapse of the opposition, if it indeed happens, does not entail Assad’s survival.

  Now, we ask, are you Alawaite, are you Christian? If someone is Alawite we kill them, 

“It (the jihadist presence) has crippled the opposition,” said William Harris, a Syria expert and author of four books on the Levant, during a recent visit to southern Turkey. “We could see a mid-term military outcome (in favor of regime forces) in the crisis. But the regime is seriously degraded, it is not sustainable (in the long-run).

Zigga and his companions say they stayed as long as they could. They lament a revolution in decline and think back to the days before the uprising nearly three years ago.

“I think Assad was very good. We used to have all the sects living together: Alawite, Christian, Yazidi, Druze,” remembers Hassan, one of Zigga’s companions who had been fighting the regime until a few days ago.

“Now, we ask, are you Alawaite, are you Christian? If someone is Alawite we kill them,” Hassan says, while running a finger across his throat.


Qaraman | 6/12/2013
I couldn't help laugh at the irony, the "opposition" scum would not even be bothered to consider Kurds a year ago, I remember the only Kurdish demand (including from PYD) was such a simple basic thing as recognition of the Kurdish identity in the new constitution to join the opposition, how did the opposition respond? they laughed down at Kurds with contempt. Some naively say that it was only because of Turkish pressure but it was much more because of the Arab nature and mentality, that's how they behave when they're on top. Who is the "opposition"? former baathsts, war lords, criminals and Islamist, and they all hate Kurds. Now on the verge of collapse realizing that Turkey sold them to Assad they are begging for Kurdish support, sorry too late. Even Turkmen who were attacking YPG a few month ago with Islamists are asking the same YPG for protection from the same Islamists now, just imagine the irony! Turkmen asking PKK (according to them) instead of Turkey to save them! I hope that YPG doesn't wast one drop of Kurdish blood to protect those filth, let them be annihilated by the Islamists, you play with fire you get burned.
Raven | 6/12/2013
Qaraman: Very true, and nicely said bro! They say every cloud has a silver lining. We have been a victim of Arab ignorance but now their ignorance and stupidity is becoming a blessing for us. Let FSA, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Al-Assad and Al-shit finish each other off. I couldn't care less.
alan qadir | 6/12/2013
you seems repeating your sentences, we heard you first time. man I can't stand these stupid Islamic law and dirty Arabs, all Kurdish parties should be united in situation like this and fck the Arab bustard, if any kurds goes to Syria for jihad don't let them come bk to Kurdistan shot him on the border before they bring their bag of shit with them n kill those who support them
Alf | 6/12/2013
Not impresseds Glen, you quoting some gun-for-hire who slanders the Syrain Arab Army ofr sarin attacks. You must be the last person on earth who hasn't worked out it was the 'rebels' who carried out the chemical attacks. There was involvement by Turkish military, Bandar bin bononbo, and at least 2 US intelligence guys on the ground, whose loose talk may cost them their marriages! Wake up. Assad is not going anywhere, unless it's a fully-democratic vote into another presidency next year. God save the heroic Syrian Arab Army.
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