international analysis and commentary

Who are the rebels in Syria?

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We are pleased to offer you this unique article by Francesca Borri in English. Borri is an Italian journalist who has covered the war in Syria. The original piece was written in Italian and published on October 15, 2013.

They spend their first days in Atmeh, 2,000 people just beyond the border with Turkey, getting trained. They don’t learn how to fight, yet. For now, they learn how to communicate with each other. Because they arrive here from Tunisia, Afghanistan, Libya, as well as London, Marseille and our suburbs, the most spoken language on the frontlines isn’t Arabic, it’s English.

They are the muhajiroun, the immigrants: the foreign fighters, who are not always Islamists, without whom the rebels in Syria would have been crushed by the army – and most of all, by the air force. Many of them, and especially the Chechens, are veterans of thousands of battles, recruited by Saudi Arabia and Qatar because they are deemed to be the best fighters of the world. And actually, they have quickly changed the balance of the war, and avoided a defeat that seemed sure. But it’s because of them that the US, and Europe, have refrained from stepping in, in Syria, and continue to stand by watching: because no one has any clue about what their true goals are. It isn’t gas; it’s the ghost of Islamists, the most powerful weapon of Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal.

The Free Army appeared in July 2011 when the regime opted for a violent crackdown on demonstrations, and Syrians, ordered to open fire on fellow Syrians, started to defect and go home bringing with them their Kalashnikovs. Youths who simply defended their own village, their own neighborhood: that’s how everything started – whilst day by day tear gas was being replaced by live ammunition, and live ammunition by shelling, shelling by Scud missiles. They are grouped in scattered units, and they have but the few dollars they receive from abroad, from Syrians born in the same area. You meet them everywhere, here, while they are inventing their makeshift weapons with scraps of sheet metal, the poles of traffic signs. Tuna cans. You meet them while they are shooting to their left to drive out a sniper hidden on their right, while homemade grenades explode by mistake in their hands. Sometimes journalists are the most experienced in town: it happens that you, the journalist, have to explain to them, the rebels, how to use a mortar. And they don’t call anymore for more ammo, now they just ask for food – they are hungry.

But besides the guys with Kalashnikovs and flip-flops, who number about 50,000, other Syrians have established larger, better equipped groups. Like the Liwa al-Tawhid, the Brigade of Unity, Aleppo’s strongest, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Or the Farouq Battalions, at the forefront of the toughest revolt, the revolt of Homs; and the Suqour al-Sham, the Hawks of the Levant, which also has a special branch for humanitarian aid. The Ahrar al-Sham instead, the Free Men of the Levant, is the major moderate Islamic force: in September 2013, the assassination of its commander by Al-Qaeda triggered the infighting between rebels that is currently ongoing. Different from the hard core groups, indeed, that didn’t join the Free Army, groups like the Ahrar al-Sham claim a wider role for shari’a law when thinking of post-Assad Syria, but still within the context of a secular and pluralistic state. Even though it isn’t easy to get the truth. The only thing I am sure of is that I was left under mortar fire one day because the only shelter was occupied by their men, and I had no veil under my helmet. As for the rest, jihadists simply don’t speak with journalists: “And don’t write that we don’t know what democracy is. Transparency. If you have questions, everything is on our Facebook page.”

The Free Army is only a synonym, loosely, of resistance: it has never succeeded in including all the rebels, nor has it ever been able to coordinate them – or to select priorities, or to develop a strategy. There is a variety of reasons for this. The first, and foremost, is that for a long time it has been led from Turkey: by General Riad al-Assad, famous for issuing instructions via Skype. But most of all, the Free Army is undermined by the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who try to set foot in Syria’s future by buying the loyalty of brigades with money. The last attempt at restructuring it dates back to December 2012. The newly established Supreme Command of General Salim Idriss is now at the service of the National Coalition, the equally loser civilian component of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. The cooperation among the brigades improved, and a strategy was even agreed upon: to hit airports, artillery platforms and missile batteries, since the regime enjoys air superiority, in order then to focus on the assault on Damascus, rather than advancing city by city, from north to south and involving civilians in the war, the tragic mistake of Aleppo which resulted in the loss of popular support. The point at issue, however, is that brigades still maintain their own channels for raising money and collecting weapons, and furthermore, fighters still identify with the brigades they belong to, not with the army itself. And the outcome is that there is no chain of command and crimes and abuses go unpunished – not only lootings: not even Abu Sakkar, filmed while feasting on the heart of a dead loyalist, has ever been dismissed.

Against such a background, recently 13 brigades (about 80% of rebels) rejected any affiliation with the National Coalition; they won’t recognize its government in exile, rather they would like to build a Syria based on shari’a law. But what looks like a face-off between secular and Islamist factions is actually a mere struggle for power – the National Coalition is also close to the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s just that it’s absent from the ground. Busy with feuds, it proved unable to obtain external support and weapons for the rebels, unable to provide assistance to the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), and unable to administer the liberated territories – a burden now shouldered by the rebels themselves. Who, like all combatants, now are unwilling to transfer a power paid with their own blood to those who have been drinking tea comfortably abroad.

And so, twisted by hunger and epidemics, decimated by missiles, bemused Syrians observe the Free Army wrangling with the National Coalition, and more seriously, they observe the Free Army clashing with Islamists. Every time you return to Syria these days you discover that the old bad guys are now the good guys; because in the meantime somebody even more hard core has arrived. And if the Ahrar al-Sham, that scared us one year ago, later started to protect us from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Front of Support, the group which launched the practice of suicide attacks and was labeled as a terrorist group by the UN, it is now Jabhat al-Nusra that protects us from the ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant: the Al-Qaeda branch established in Iraq in 2004 to wipe out not only Americans, but also Shia, and whose goal is not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, but to conquer slices of Syria to revive the ancient caliphate. They are all foreigners, most of them are Saudi. And they got stronger in July, with the assault on the Abu Ghraib prison and the escape of all the major Al-Qaeda leaders. These days, rebels are fighting all together against the ISIS, which for now prevails, and controls the border crossings – that is, crucially, the supply lines with Turkey. Accounts from ISIS flying checkpoints are monotonous: arbitrary executions of whoever is deemed to be an infidel. But it’s impossible to double-check such accounts. Now that the time has come to write about the crimes of the rebels, not only of the regime, journalists have started to disappear. Sixteen of us are currently missing.

However, it’s possible to get an overall idea of what’s going on by looking at Raqqa, 220,000 residents, 800,000 if you count the IDPs, the first provincial capital to fall under rebel control. Power was never returned to citizens. Nor did reconstruction ever begin. Pillages, extortions, arrests. Tortures. Today, Raqqa is being ruled by ISIS alone, which razed the HQ of the local unit of the Free Army to the ground with four car bombs. And paradoxically, the most famous name in the city is that of Jimmy Shihinian, 25, an ethnic Armenian Christian: a member of those very minorities Bashar al-Assad claims to be supported by, and who leads the revolution. “The vast majority here is against an Islamic state, and more than half are more than just against it, they are outraged. But we cannot do anything,” he explains. “They have the weapons.”

The same words were heard in Damascus two years ago. Only, they were referred to the regime.