Turkish–Syrian border, Asharq Al-Awsat—The young man sat up in his hospital bed, his head shaved and his eyes furious.
“They are blood merchants,” he said, and then he paused to find the right words to express the depth of his disdain. “They are playing with the blood of the people.”
And this was what he thought of his leaders. What he thought of his enemies was far worse.
In a rehabilitation center in southern Turkey, a group of fighters discussed their revolution, their war and their futures. Their injuries were horrific. Half of Abu Jabal’s nose had been sliced off, and an exploding rocket had shattered his teeth. A sniper’s bullet had passed right through Mothana’s torso, from the right side to the left. Shrapnel had shredded Qatayba’s intestines.
Yet they all said that they wanted to carry on fighting. Abu Jabal wanted to fight again because he felt loyalty to his brigade. Mothana wanted to return to fight alongside his brothers and his friends. Qatayba said that he would fight again for Allah.
None of them said that they were fighting for Syria’s rebel commanders or its political opposition—the people who claim to be the figureheads of the revolution and the civilian leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The young man in the bed spoke for them all.
Syria’s military opposition is shattering into a mess of factions and alliances as the conflict creeps into its fourth year. The growth of the extremist groups in Syria has dealt a crippling blow to the moderate opposition. In the northwestern part of the country, two newly formed rebel alliances—the Islamic Front and the Syria Revolutionaries Front—have successfully stemmed and then reversed the advance of the most hardline extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But in many areas, the FSA has been reduced to little more than a rump organization, virtually powerless beside the large and well-funded Islamic factions.
That is perhaps one of the reasons why four FSA leaders have defected back to the regime in the past month. Brig. Gen. Abu Zaid, a former president of the Military Court in Aleppo, Col. Marwan Nahila, leader of the Military Council in Homs, and Col. Abu Al-Wafa, leader of the Military Council in Damascus, were all members of the regime army before defecting to the FSA at the start of the revolution. The fourth defector, Sgt. Fadi Deeb, was based in Latakia, and defected at the start of the offensive on Kasab—an operation led by the jihadist Al-Nusra Front.
The fighters in the hospital were from Deir Ezzor, a besieged city in the eastern deserts of Syria. It was one of the first cities to rise up against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, and it has been punished hard for it. Much of the city has been destroyed, and many of the civilians who have stayed there are living in basements to escape the constant shelling and bombing.
Deir Ezzor is different to the rebel-held areas in the northwest of the country because the FSA there has not yet been swallowed up into a larger alliance. In other ways, it is facing the same problems as the FSA in Aleppo and Idlib—its patchwork of FSA brigades is becoming increasingly overshadowed by foreign-backed jihadist groups.
ISIS made inroads in Deir Ezzor, just as it did in most other rebel-controlled areas in the north of Syria, but it has been pushed out of the city by the FSA and the Al-Nusra Front. “We worked together and kicked them out about two months ago,” said Hussein, the leader of an FSA brigade called Jaysh Al-Qasas.
While relations between the FSA and the Al-Nusra Front in Deir Ezzor are apparently cordial, many young men who started out fighting for the moderate opposition have switched to join the larger, better-funded—and more radical—Al-Nusra Front.
“The issue is that groups like mine can’t find a sponsor, but the Al-Nusra Front is rich,” said Hussein. “They pay a good salary, around 100 dollars per month, but we can’t give our fighters salaries because we have no money. So the fighters, they want to fight the regime, but in the FSA groups they can’t do that because they have no weapons, no bullets and no money.”
The fighters in the center insisted that they would carry on fighting the regime, but they were angry about the lack of support they had received when they were injured.
Qatayba described himself as a freelance fighter—he had his own Kalashnikov, so he went to fight with whichever FSA brigade needed his help on the frontline. But when he was wounded he discovered that none of the people he was fighting for could help him. “No one looked after me,” he said. “The brigade didn’t give me any money and the political opposition in Istanbul didn’t help me.” He was forced to sell his weapon to come to Turkey and get the treatment he needed.
Others said they felt betrayed by their leaders. “After my injuries I saw the facts,” said Firas, the fighter who described the heads of the opposition as “blood merchants.” He continued: “These people started the revolution in Syria, and then after that they ran away to Turkey to get money. They didn’t give any of that money to the fighters.”
As the war has dragged on, some of Deir Ezzor’s FSA brigades have been virtually wiped out. Amjad and Zain are brothers who joined a brigade made up of their relatives and close friends. At the beginning of the revolution there were 35 fighters in their group; now there are just six men left. “Most of them have been killed and the others have been injured,” said Amjad.
The fighters who refuse to leave the FSA are left in a difficult position. With little support from their leaders and a growing stream of their comrades leaving to join the stronger Islamist groups, all that keeps them fighting with their groups are their bonds of loyalty—to their friends, their families and their faith. “I will go back to my group because they are my brothers and my friends,” said Mothana.
But despite his conviction, his predictions for the future were gloomy. “I think if we stay like this, in the next six months the FSA will disappear.”