The Last of the Syrian Good-Guy Rebels

Their ranks torn by infighting, their U.S. support long gone, their leadership coopted by the Turks, fighters who once thought they’d overthrow Assad have no hope left.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Following weeks of battles and bombardment, the Syrian opposition forces in the city of Daraa and surrounding countryside agreed to withdraw and surrender their weapons to the Assad regime at the end of June. The birthplace of the Syrian war, Daraa was both symbolically and, because of its proximity to the Jordanian border, strategically important.

Raed Al Sheikh watched the situation unfold on Twitter from his home in Atareb, a town between Aleppo and Idlib, about 275 miles north of Daraa. “The war is over,” he wrote to me on on WhatsApp. “I need to leave Syria. I need to leave soon.”

Indeed, the war is winding down, and some of the biggest losers are the rebels the Americans once thought of as, relatively speaking, the good guys. These were the men fighting the Assad regime while remaining hostile to the burgeoning local al Qaeda affiliate and the so-called Islamic State.

Raed is one of thousands of opposition fighters in northwestern Syria mulling his future as the Russian and Iranian-backed forces of Bashar al-Assad capture opposition-held territory piece by piece. He is currently with the Syrian Liberation Front, although he’s bounced around among several groups over the years. 

The whole world has left us alone. And the media doesn’t care anymore.
Syrian media activist Raed Al Sheikh

For most of the war, he’s served as a “media activist,” filming battles in the besieged areas international journalists largely stopped visiting in 2013. Throughout the war he has been able to sell some of his footage to foreign news outlets, but says interest in the plight of the Syrian opposition has waned over time. “The whole world has left us alone,” he said. “And the media doesn’t care anymore.”

Raed says he considered the war to be lost even before Aleppo was retaken by the Assad regime in late 2016. He blames years of continuous infighting among the various opposition groups. “If the factions are fighting one another, how are they supposed to fight the regime?” 

Raed believes Syria’s former al Qaeda affiliate, previously called Jabhat al-Nusra and now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has caused much of the internal conflict. When the group captured Idlib from the Assad regime in 2015, it began to exert influence over the FSA factions in the surrounding villages. Those that didn’t fully cooperate with HTS were attacked and their weapons seized. “They destroyed groups,” Al Sheikh said. “My old group, Jaish al-Mujahideen, is gone now because of HTS.”

Ziad Ibrahim, another fighter with the Syrian Liberation Front in Atareb, remembers when HTS was initially welcomed into his town. “First, they came here and gave food to the civilians. And people thought they were good, especially compared to ISIS. But we quickly realized that [HTS] wasn’t much better than ISIS. They made small camps … they called them Islamic education centers … but they were places to brainwash us. Just like ISIS did in Raqqa, only nicer.”  

Ziad watched many of his fellow fighters change their appearance and habits. Spiky hair and western clothing were traded for long beards and long robes. Many stopped smoking, a vice beloved by many FSA soldiers but outlawed by the strict brand of Sharia law enforced by HTS. Women were more likely to wear a niqab, the veil covering the entire face, rather than just a hijab, or headscarf, previously the norm in his town. Female-specific education centers sponsored by HTS appeared, which seemed to exist primarily to hand out niqabs to neighborhood women. 

“They have had so much influence over our young people,” Ziad said. “But what’s worse is they harmed the opposition."

Abdullah Hassan, now 20 years old, was only 14 when he began to fight for the Jaish al-Mujahideen FSA faction in Kafr Halab, a village in the Western countryside of Aleppo. “At first, for about a year, I was just manning the checkpoints, which wasn’t very difficult or scary,” he said. “I entered my first battle at 15. I will never forget that feeling. I was afraid, of course… but I was also so happy.” 

Adbullah’s Facebook pictures show his transformation from child to jihadi fighter. A 13-year-old Abdullah rides a horse in a t-shirt and jeans, while a 16-year-old Abdullah wields an AK-47, wears a long robe, and holds his index finger to the sky in the sign of the tawhid, the oneness of God. 

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Interviewed in late 2016, Abdullah vowed to never stop fighting and never leave Syria. “I will fight until my country and my people are free,” he said. 

I felt like a hired murderer, nothing else.
Ziad Ibrahim, an SLF fighter, after taking part in Turkish-led operation

Among a long list of obstacles causing disillusionment among the remaining Syrian opposition, infighting is just one. In January of this year, Raed and Ziad were summoned by their FSA commanders to join “Operation Olive Branch.” That Turkish-led offensive targeted Afrin, a Syrian border city mostly inhabited by Kurds and controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are closely allied to the United States in anti-ISIS operations in other parts of the country. The Turkish government’s highest priority is the fight against Kurdish rebels inside and outside Turkey’s borders, not against Assad or ISIS.

Soon after the offensive was underway, reports of widespread looting by the Turkish-backed FSA rebels emerged.

The men corroborated these reports, although they deny that they participated personally. “What our groups did there was wrong,” Ziad said. “I saw them stealing clothes, stealing cars, stealing homes. At that point in the war, I felt like a hired murderer, nothing else. We weren’t fighting for our revolution in Afrin.” 

Raed says the lingering Turkish presence will do little to help the Syrian opposition in the long run. “Turkey has helped [the opposition] in different ways, but not in the important ways. They didn’t give us the weapons we would need to fight Assad, and they aren’t trying to fight Assad. They are just using us to try to remove the Kurds from the border. And when this finishes, they will abandon us, too.”

To Raed and Ziad, the war’s end and the opposition's loss seem a foregone conclusion. Raed estimated that more than 30 percent of his fellow fighters have simply put down their guns. Some of them search for work in Syria, picking up odd jobs when they can to survive. Many who could afford to have gone to Turkey. 

Abdullah, who’d previously vowed to remain in Syria forever, is one such example. “There was so much infighting,” he said. “[HTS] destroyed Jaish al-Mujahideen, and after this, I didn’t want to join another group. Also, my family needed my help.” 

Abdullah's family, which had been upper middle class before the war, was struggling to eke out a living. “I had to make money for them. So I decided it was time to go to Turkey.” 

Abdullah found a job doing telephone marketing in Istanbul. His Instagram shows him transformed yet again, hair cropped close, posing in front of Istanbul’s monuments in a polo shirt and khaki pants.

We were so certain that we would win this war. That these children would grow up in a peaceful country with no Assad. We were wrong.
Raed Al Sheikh, father of three

Raed says he regrets many of his decisions. A single man when the war began, he’s since married and had three children. “I wouldn’t have had these children now if I knew this is where we would be in 2018,” he said. “We were so certain that we would win this war. That these children would grow up in a peaceful country with no Assad. We were wrong. If I could go back in time, I would have left Syria in 2015.” 

He is scrambling to save enough money to move his family to Turkey. He believes that ultimate victory for Assad will mean brutal retaliation against the men who fought him. “Even if there is some amnesty agreement, it is all lies. Like every ceasefire the regime agreed to and then broke over these years. Assad is a liar, and he will take every revenge he can against us.”

Ziad, newly married with a child, feels the same way. “I want to stay, but I feel the war is over. I want my family to be safe."

As for the civilians in the remaining opposition areas, Raed says that, as hard as it is for him to admit, he believes most are ready to accept a Syria ruled by the Assad regime. “These people aren’t fighters. They have lived in hell for seven years. They are tired of this war. They are tired of living with bombs and fear. This is no life.”