Akçakale, Asharq Al-Awsat—You could chart the path of the Syrian conflict through the wounds on Abdul Latif’s legs. The right one was studded with a series of pink depressions that climbed up from his ankle to his kneecap. “They are shrapnel wounds. I got them when I was fighting against the regime in Raqqa and Ras Al-Ain,” he said. The left one was swathed in a blood-dotted bandage that gleamed white in the bright winter sunshine. “Here I was hit by a sniper bullet,” he explained, “as I was fighting against the Islamic State.”
As he sat in his plastic chair on a pavement in the Turkish border town of Akçakale, Abdul Latif could hear the sporadic bursts of his enemies’ celebratory gunfire. A tiny border crossing and a few yards of no man’s land separate Akçakale from his Syrian hometown, Tell Abayad. In August his brigade, Ahrar Al-Sham, pushed the Kurdish militia known as the People’s Protection Units out and took control of both the town of Tell Abayad and its strategic border crossing.
A week and a half ago, it changed hands once again. Now ,Tell Abayad has fallen to the foreign mujahideen fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda-linked group that entered the Syrian conflict late in the spring of 2013. Over the following months, as ISIS’s strength and numbers grew, it became a feared and hated player in the conflict, infamous for enforcing strict and merciless Islamic law in the towns it controlled. Finally, in the first days of January, ISIS slipped into outright conflict with the Islamic Front, a coalition of opposition brigades including Ahrar Al-Sham. In a fierce battle that started on January 11 and lasted for three days, ISIS pushed Ahrar Al-Sham’s fighters—most of them local men like Abdul Latif—out of Tell Abayad and into Turkey.
When Abdul Latif began fighting for the Syrian opposition, the battle lines were clear. He was a rebel, and he was fighting against the regime. At the beginning he had joined the Farouq Brigades, once one of the strongest and best-known Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups. Seven months ago, he left the Farouq and joined Ahrar Al-Sham, a brigade with an Islamist ideological flavor and a fearsome frontline reputation. He explained his defection by saying that “there is no Farouq anymore,” although underneath his sweatshirt he was still wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with their logo.
But now, as the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising approaches, the conflict has turned into a quagmire. Rebels are fighting against rebels and Islamists are fighting against Islamists. The Islamist rebels of Ahrar Al-Sham fought the Kurdish rebels of the YPG. Five months later, the Islamist ISIS were fighting the Islamist rebels of Ahrar Al-Sham. “Even before the fighting they [ISIS] were saying that that the Ahrar Al-Sham fighters were kuffar [infidel], and that they should kill us,” he said.
The Ahrar Al-Sham fighters who used to control Tell Abayad have been pushed out of their town and left stranded in Akçakale, so close to their homes that they can watch as their enemies loot them. Every day, Abu Hussein climbs to the top of a gravel bank that runs parallel to the barbed wire border fence and checks on his house, which is less than 218 yards (200 meters) away. “There, it is that yellow one, with the offices underneath it,” he told us. A minute later he pointed to two small figures as they came round the corner next to it. “Look, there are the ISIS fighters,” he said. “We know it’s them because they are wearing Pakistani-style clothes and they are dressed all in black.”
Abu Hussein used to man the Ahrar Al-Sham checkpoint at the Tell Abayad border. Now that very same border crossing is closed to him: the Turkish government shut it when the fighting broke out, and it only opens occasionally to allow refugees out into Turkey. Sometimes he crosses the border illegally, climbing through the barbed wire fence to spend a few precious minutes on his home soil. But even then he can’t go into his house, because it is surrounded by ISIS fighters. They executed dozens of Ahrar Al-Sham fighters when they took Tell Abayad, and Abu Hussein knows that he would face the same fate if they caught him. When he worked at the checkpoint he was responsible for checking names against the rebels’ blacklist of wanted regime fighters. In just ten days, the whole situation has changed. “Now it’s me on the blacklist,” he laughed.
The streets of Akçakale are full of men who were fighters ten days ago and who have now become refugees. With his pale complexion and bright red hair, Mahmoud cut a distinctive dash amongst his comrades. He defected from the Syrian regime’s army in March 2011 and, like Abu Latif, joined the Farouq Brigade before switching to Ahrar Al-Sham. Now he is sleeping on the streets in Akçakale because he has nowhere else to go. “What can we do?” he said. “Now ISIS will blow up our homes, and who is going to give us new houses?”
He described the battle for Tell Abayad in a voiced riddled with anger. “We could have defeated ISIS, but our commanders had a policy not to do that,” he said. He believed that the fighters of Ahrar Al-Sham in Tell Abayad were sold out by their leaders. “They were just giving us orders to withdraw without fighting,” he said. “At first we refused, but in the end we were surrounded and we had to.”
The men on the streets of Akçakale carried on fighting even as the whole landscape of the war changed around them. At first their enemy was the regime, and now it is ISIS. They have been tossed about on the tide of the conflict’s ever-shifting dynamics, and finally they have been washed up here—confused, angry, and unsure of what the future will hold. But their old loyalties remain unbroken. Even after all that has happened in Tell Abayad, they have never thought of themselves as anything other than rebels.
“I am Jaysh Hurr [Free Syrian Army]!” Abdul Latif said, as he insisted that he was still fighting for the revolutionary ideals that now feel so distant in Syria. “I want democracy, and I want freedom.”
We asked him which of his wounds hurt the most.
“The ISIS one hurts me the most,” he said.