international analysis and commentary

In Syria, where the rebels’ resistance is fading away


“It makes no sense to keep on this way. Really. It makes no sense.” The dazed man I am standing in front of, a man I’ll call Hadi, is the commander of the al-Qaeda unit I’d like to get back to Syria with. But in Khan Sheikun there’s just been a new gas attack. “Come!,” he told me over the phone. “It’s urgent.” There are rumors of a mass desertion. Many rebels seems to be about to surrender.

I meet Hadi in a hotel lounge of Antakya (the ancient Antioch, now a Turkish city right next to the Syrian border). He looks lost. “I swear it,” he says, “I’ve tried my best. But in the end, it depends on both sides. You try, and try, right? Even though it’s all crumbling. But it’s pointless,” he says. He stares at me. “Perhaps I am wrong. And God will judge. But the priority,” he says, “now are my kids.” Well, actually, I nod. It’s all rubble. And so, what are you gonna do?, I ask. He flops down on the couch. Broken. “We are going to divorce.”

A wounded after the April chemical attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, Syria

The Syrian opposition is on its last legs. Since Russia, in autumn 2015, started bombing everyone and everything, rebels have gradually lost their clarity of thought. In both strategic and military planning. But the knockout hasn’t come from Vladimir Putin: it has rather come from wives. Because at bottom, “radicalization” means to marry a pharmacist, a plumber: and now find yourself with a jihadist around. And quite often, a couple of other wives as well. For us, in Europe, it’s a matter for sociologists and psychologists: here, it’s a matter of family brawls. Six years ago, Hadi was a placid upholsterer. He listened to CĂ©line Dion’s songs, and his two best friends were Alawi. “But if in September we even went to Mecca!,” he grumbles now. “But what the hell does she want? She’s got electricity! She’s got water! She’s got it all”.

Also the bodyguard who is with Hadi is not really focused on Assad. His wife would like to join her sister in a small town of Canada. He would prefer instead to stay in Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels. Or more exactly, of al-Qaeda. So that their children can grow up in an international environment, he says. Where for “international” he means that in Idlib there are now jihadists from all over the world. The Sunni-Shia war has been replaced by the war of the Roses.

The only ones who stubbornly speak of Syria, here, are journalists. We ask of Hezbollah, of Putin, of Erdogan. Of Assad. Of refugees and the UN, of ISIS and ceasefires. But to no avail. Rebels’ mind is elsewhere. Not least because for many of them, it’s time to invest all the earnings of the last years: you ask how it’s going, and they don’t tell you how the war is going, but how is going the shop or the restaurant they have set up in Qatar or in Turkey.

And yet, the war is perhaps in its decisive days. The Geneva peace talks between Assad and the opposition, led by the UN, have been backed up by other negotiations in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan, where Iran, Russia and Turkey, on the 4th of May, have finally agreed over areas of so-called de-escalation. Not only Assad promised to halt his airstrikes, previously excluded by ceasefires, but above all, along the demarcation lines there will be international observers. While at local level, in the meantime, mediators are pursuing truce accords on the model of the Four-city Deal: when fighters and activists from Madaya and Zabadani, two Sunni towns near Damascus, surrendered and moved to Idlib, while fighters and activists from Fuaa and Kafraya, two Shia towns near Idlib, surrendered and moved to Damascus. They look like ceasefires: but they are actually population swaps for a partition of Syria on confessional grounds. As it already happened in Lebanon, in Bosnia, and in Iraq. Three countries where the war was eventually stopped in this way. And that today are all on the verge of political and social bankruptcy.

A while ago, rebels would have shouted that it’s just the usual divide and rule. But now it’s hard even simply to understand who to call for an official statement. In theory, the opposition is still represented by the National Coalition, and still has its HQ here, in Gaziantep, a big Turkish city not far from the border: where for long it’s been famous for keeping the money it received for humanitarian aid, million dollars, in a boxroom. In packs. So far, only two of its employees, Bassam al-Kuwatly and Mohammed Ayoub, have outlined a bit its activity – after quitting their job. “The money was handed over in plastic bags,” they explained. In shoppers. “Someone said: I need 150,000 dollars for this project. And he got 150,000 dollars. Without providing any evidence that they were really needed. Nor, most of all, that the project was really needed.”

Today the National Coalition is chaired by Riad Seif. A businessman who’s been always in the front row against Assad. But he is the sixth president in five years. You can’t even ask for an interview, here, that they have been already fired and replaced.

But because when we say “Syrians”, in the end, what do we say, now? Not only 5 million Syrians are abroad: but all the best activists and commanders have been killed. The only ones left, here, are those like a beefy thirty-something that I’ll call Adli, who has been recommended to me by a European diplomat. I have been told he is “our reference point”. He kisses my hand, and he says chivalrously: “But you’ve got wonderful eyes… You are worth at least 10 million dollars!” – my stock price as prospective hostage. Before the war, he was a used cars dealer. That is, a smuggler. But are you interested in ruins, too?, he asks me as I explain which areas of Syria I’d like to reach. No, I say. I would prefer to meet people. “Anyway, in case,” he says, “I have some great stuff from Apamea”. Pieces of Roman tombs.

These are now our “Syrians”. The Syrians through whom we try to understand Syria. A bit like if Arabs tried to understand Italy through mafia drug dealers.

Donald Trump has halted the CIA program, that for a couple of years has trained, equipped and variously funded the last remnants of the Free Army. Basically, the only ones who are still fighting are the jihadists of Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham. That is, of al-Qaeda. Of Jabhat al-Nusra. When Russia stepped in, in fact, and rebels started retreating, Jabhat al-Nusra split from al-Qaeda to try to form the largest alliance possible, and rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. Later on, when the destroyed Aleppo fell back into Assad’s hands, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in turn rebranded itself as Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham, merging with all the other major groups.

The only ones outside the alliance were the jihadists of the Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed instead by Turkey, and so it is outside, basically, of the influence of al-Qaeda. The Ahrar al-Sham has always been fighting only for Syria and in Syria. But above all, exactly because it is backed by Turkey, it has always been controlling the busy border crossing of Bab al-Hawa, a hub of all sorts of traffic: and that’s why, in the end, it has been targeted by Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham. And swept away. With a victory that might actually prove to be a defeat: because unlike the Ahrar al-Sham, which even sits at the Geneva table, Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham is blacklisted as a terrorist organization. And is out of the truce. For Idlib, the Ahrar al-Sham was a kind of shield: now Assad can bomb it freely. Erase it from the map like Aleppo. In a few months. When all his opponents will have been gathered there.

At least, it could look like the end of this war. An end by exhaustion. The issue, yet, is that Assad is as in trouble as rebels are. What we refer to as “the army of Assad”, in fact, is rather an unlikely array of Russian jets, Hezbollah fighters, Iranian fighters, mercenaries of all sorts Afghan refugees forced into combat. They are all foreigners: and some day, they will go home. While the economy, in the meantime, is dominated by businessmen like Abu Ayman al-Manfush, the lord of Ghouta, a city which has been under siege for years, completely cut off from the world, a city with one of the highest rates of deaths from hunger: but Abu Ayman al-Manfush goes back and forth from Damascus with his trucks. He sells food and fuel, buys milk and cheese. And makes about 10,000 euro per day: in Ghouta a kilo of rice is 18 euro. Besides the salaries of his own employees, he pays the salaries of man state employess. He is not simply “a man of the regime”: in Ghouta, Abu Ayman al-Manfush is the regime.

And across the frontline, it’s quite the same. Because rebels didn’t win, it’s true. But they didn’t lose either: they can still prevent Assad from governing. We’ll turn to guerrilla tactics, Hadi says. “And actually, what else should I do?”, he says. A while ago, he would have said: I’d be killed by Assad. Now he says: “I bought a house here in Antakya. And I still have to pay for it.”