KILIS, Turkey — The border gate was a bustling mass of human comings-and-goings—of trucks unloading bags of cement, piping and corrugated iron for no-doubt doomed efforts repairing battle damage in what many here believe is a war fated to be endless. There was a two-way traffic in combatants, with haggard Syrian rebels coming out hugged by buddies relieved to see them alive, and fresher replacements going in.
There were dazed refugees clutching what they had salvaged from ruined homes stuffed into battered suitcases and plastic bags, fleeing the madness and violence. Kids dragged, parents pulled. And then there were others relinquishing temporarily the safety of Turkey and returning to war-wracked Syria to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the big Muslim feast honoring the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son on the orders of a demanding God.
“Isn’t it foolhardy to go back?” I asked a disheveled father wearing a stained brown jacket as he stood amid the crowd with two of his children near the border gate at Kilis in southern Turkey. He was smoking nervously and his kids looked beat. He shrugged. A sour-looking Turkish policeman shoved lingering refugees out of the way with the irritation of a shepherd guiding an unruly flock.
“My daughter and her husband are still there and I want to celebrate Eid with her,” he responded fatalistically. I wondered whether he and his children would be this Eid’s sacrifice. They were making for the small town of Tal Rifaat just north of Aleppo, which was hit consecutively on Wednesday by Assad’s warplanes dropping barrel bombs and by a jihadist suicide bomber from the self-styled Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) or as ISIL.
Rebels later showed me on their cellphones a gruesome photograph of one of the bomber’s legs that had settled at a surreal distance from the blast.
All that Tal Rifaat, once a quiet rural town of farmers and olive trees, would have needed to complete the horror would have been an airstrike from the U.S.-led coalition’s warplanes, but thankfully it was spared that.
On the border there is little gratitude for the American intervention in Syria after more than three long years of civil war. Refugees and fighters alike say they harbor few hopes that America’s belated entrance will do anything but make matters worse. They suspect it will ensure that Syria’s cry for freedom is turned into the Levant’s equivalent in the 21st century of Europe’s Thirty Years War in the 17th.
Kurdish fighters in Iraq and northeast Syria might be cheering the thump of allied ordnance pounding the positions of Islamic State militants, but there is no applause here for the Tomahawks and F-15s.
While the Kurds see the American intervention as one that can be parlayed into their independence, the Sunni Muslims of northern Syria express deep anger towards America. They see themselves being set up as a sacrifice for a U.S. policy meant to prop up Iraq. They are furious with what they view as the cynical U.S. decision to enter this war not with President Bashar Assad as the target—not to help topple a dictator whose refusal to permit reforms triggered a conflict that has left nearly 200,000 dead—but to focus instead on ISIS alone.
Across the dizzying, fragmented spectrum of rebel factions—from moderates to Islamists—commanders insist that since the start of the U.S.-led coalition’s air offensive on September 23 Assad has increased the tempo of his own airstrikes on rebel positions, reassured that he is not the butt of American rage and is now free to let the U.S. deal with ISIS.
A colonel with the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), an Islamist brigade that has fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate also targeted by American warplanes, reels off a list of towns and the number of airstrikes they have suffered from the Syrian air force in recent days. He sounds like a talking gazetteer. “Assad is seizing the opportunity to target us,” says the colonel, who defected from the Syrian army 3½ years ago when ordered by superiors to kill protesters. He asks not to be named for this article. “I have family in a town controlled by ISIS,” he adds.
With Assad left out of the military equation by President Barack Obama, wild conspiracy theories abound about what is in the mind of the Americans and what designs they have for Syria. (These military men find it hard to conceive that there might be no real policy at all.) The colonel outlines his conspiratorial view of what’s happening: Obama wanted to attract all the jihadists in one place to have the chance to wipe them out, and he is doing this in collusion with Assad.
While the notion may be fantastic, the colonel has a valid point, surely, when he says that despite Pentagon and White House denials some coordination with the forces of the Syrian dictator must be taking place. “The American and Syrian warplanes are flying in the same airspace,” he expounds incredulously. “There has to be some communication for them to avoid each other!” Curiously, U.S. officials have been very specific in their denials, saying there has been no military-to-military or government-to-government communication—but what about the U.S. and Syrian intelligence services?
Sitting in a ramshackle rented house in the southern Turkish town of Nizip, the colonel, a slight, clean-shaven man, and another burly SRF commander ask why there are Americans and Britons among the ranks of Daʻesh, a disdainful Arabic acronym for ISIS. Both wear plaid shirts—the colonel’s is reddish in hue, Abdullah, the larger of the two, sports blue plaid.
“I suspect they are FBI agents,” Abdullah says. When told that is unlikely (has the bureau enough Arab speakers?) he asks in astonishment why Americans and other Europeans are allowed to travel to join Daʻesh, smelling a sinister plot in the failure of Western governments to prevent the flow of jihadists.
Abdullah, who spends most of his time fighting Da’esh rather than Assad at the moment, says he hears lots of English spoken in ISIS walkie-talkie traffic the rebels intercept. He says most of the Da’esh field commanders, though, are Chechen and Gulf Arabs. Has he captured foreign fighters and what does he do with them? His look of disdain at my question lingers as he pronounces laconically: “We kill them.” He adds: “Before, they tell us they are fighting us because we are Unbelievers.” He snorts.
What is the difference between Da’esh and the fighters in al Nusra that he counts as his allies? Abdullah says al Nusra is made up 80 percent of Syrians; foreign fighters dominate ISIS. “Al Nusra stood with the Syrian people in their fight with Assad and they have been the best of fighters. They have not given an inch. You can smoke and swear in front of them and they won’t object. They agree to disagree and we can discuss our differences. If you are different from Da’esh, they behead you.”
“We are fighting two wars, against Da’esh and against Assad,” says Abdul Rahman, a top commander in the 3,000-strong Jaysh al-Mujahedeen or Army of Mujahedeen, an Islamist-leaning brigade that emerged from the villages and towns of the Aleppo hinterland. Abdul Rahman, a former factory owner with a ready smile from the town of Al Bab northeast of the city of Aleppo, says Da’esh is hard to fight. They are well-equipped thanks to the modern weaponry and tanks the ISIS fighters captured from the Iraqi army. “When Da’esh starts to attack us, we pull back,” he says.
There are two reasons. First they are stronger. And second, “They hold many of our people and friends as hostages.” The fear is that Da’esh will execute them. “We need weapons,” says Abdul Rahman. He lists them starting with modern sniper rifles going all the way up to anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. He has asked the Americans for armed drones and in the absence of them is trying to manufacture homemade ones with the help of a Turkish engineer.
As with other rebel commanders Abdul Rahman doesn’t welcome the Da’esh- focused airstrikes, saying Assad should be the priority. And he says none of the field commanders in the Army of Mujahedeen he has spoken with, or those from other Free Syrian Army battalions, favors the American proposal to vet 5,000 rebels and take them off to Saudi Arabia for training. “Why do we need training—we have been fighting for three years?” He says there are discussions with U.S. officials about the proposal but there is deep suspicion. “What do they want? To create a force that is loyal to them and not us?”
Later, Mohammad, a 25-year-old fighter with the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade, tells me that “Assad is the head of the snake and if he is cut off, some of the madness will stop and Da’esh will lose support and we will be able to focus on them solely.” He adds: “The Americans have no clear strategy towards the rebels inside Syria. We have been begging for three years for arms—all we get are occasional and insufficient resupplies.”
Forlornly he stirs his tea in a pastry shop in Kilis. The town has doubled in size thanks to the refugees and fighters and now there are about equal numbers of Turks and Syrians. As some Turks nearby pretend to be uninterested in the conversation, Mummad says in a low voice, “We are losing ground now, both to ISIS and Assad.” He has lost 25 family members and relatives in the war. Like most rebels he is keen to demonstrate the sacrifice made in the war against Assad by showing grisly cellphone photographs of dead relatives—pictures of babies and toddlers and women and men and their ghastly wounds.
“You have to understand,” he says. “We stopped trusting Obama when last year he failed to enforce his ‘red line’ against Assad for using chemical weapons. There was a deal [with Assad] under the table.” Now the rebels suspect another underhand deal is being made, that keeping Iraq together is Obama’s priority, and that if that means sacrificing the Syrian rebels, even embracing Assad, Washington eventually will be willing to do that. “Who are the vetted rebels trained in Saudi Arabia meant to fight?” asks Muhammad. “Not Assad, but Da’esh.”