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What Next for Syria’s Rebels?

A image grab taken from a video uploaded on Youtube by Al-Qusayr Media Centre on May 24, 2013 shows smoke rising from the site of an alleged rocket attack  in the city of Qusayr, in Syria's central Homs province. (AFP PHOTO / AL-QUSAYR MEDIA CENTRE)
A image grab taken from a video uploaded on Youtube by Al-Qusayr Media Centre on May 24, 2013 shows smoke rising from the site of an alleged rocket attack in the city of Qusayr, in Syria’s central Homs province. (AFP PHOTO / AL-QUSAYR MEDIA CENTRE)
Once heralded as the inevitable victors of the Syria conflict, the armed opponents of Bashar Al-Assad have recently found themselves pushed unexpectedly onto the defensive. Fought to a standstill in many areas, and beaten back elsewhere, the disparate columns of Syrian rebel fighters have rarely had it as bad.

The international supply of weapons has, by all accounts, slowed in recent months because of a disagreement involving the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The more extreme Islamist elements fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime—those taking advantage of what began in March 2011 as a fight for dignity and reform—are growing in number and influence.

In Aleppo, where rebels control much of the eastern part of the city, many have resorted to pilfering and warlordism—fighting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime has become an afterthought. It is the availability of cooking gas, fuel, bread and the sorting out of local disputes that occupies many locally-based rebel commanders, not plans to oust regime troops from the city.

Furthermore, a chief reason rebel groups have been unable to overrun major urban areas is because of a lack of unity. And because they are not united, they are unable to convince millions of other Syrians, those living in government-controlled areas, that they present a suitable alternative to the current regime.

In many Damascus suburbs and in Aleppo, where rebels have hold up—areas that were once centers of peaceful dissent during the first year of the revolt—the civilian populations have long since fled, fearing regime shelling and the government’s shabiha (literally “ghosts,” the nickname for loyalist militia). Some civilians curse fighters for drawing the regime’s fire on their homes. Others picked up guns and joined Liwa al-Islam and Jabhat al-Nusra.

By many accounts, the militarization of the uprising and some of the methods employed by rebel groups has been little short of a disaster. By fighting back, the regime’s early maxim that there was no popular uprising, but armed gangs from overseas seeking to destabilize Syria, was proved true. Where rebels once fought solely to overrun checkpoints and military bases, today they are involved in sectarian killings and largely indiscriminate shelling campaigns.

Unsavory allies

Though the government’s atrocities have been documented and decried for over two years, similar actions—though of a far smaller scale—are being carried out with increasing occurrence by rebels today. Images of the infamous flesh-eating ex-Farouk Brigade fighter Abu Sakkar holding the heart of a dead government soldier in one hand and additional organs in the other has brought rebel wrongdoings to a whole new audience.

Appearing in a media-friendly recording justifying his actions, Abu Sakkar, the cannibal rebel fighter said: “I am ready to be held accountable for my actions, on condition that Bashar and his shabiha are tried for crimes they committed against our women and children.”

The incident provided the regime in Damascus and its supporters with a form of ammunition arguably as powerful as its military capabilities. Pro-government social media websites jumped on the video, Syrian Truth, remarking to its 180,000 followers: “Another brutal war crime by the Obama’s heroic insurgents the FSA, eating the heart of the soldier they killed.”

But perhaps the most unfortunate consequence of the video—in all its horribleness—was to draw attention away from the ultimately more serious massacres outside Banyas in the province of Tartous. Only the New York Times sought to investigate the killings of Bayda and Ras al-Nabeh, where video footage purported to be from one of the scenes show “A baby girl, naked from the waist down, stares skyward, tiny hands balled into fists. Her round face is unblemished, but her belly is darkened and her legs and feet are charred into black cinders.”

And last month, over 500 people were reported to have been slaughtered in the Damascus suburb of Jdaydieh Al-Fadel, yet for all the reporters in Damascus on official visas recently, none took the 20-minute drive out to the town to investigate. For rebels looking on, these incidents, and the world’s indifference only serve to increase a sense of injustice and abandonment among their ranks—all the while government militias continue to commit massacres. Incidents such as the execution of three men in Raqqa, reportedly by a Saudi rebel fighter earlier this year, are likely to reoccur.

With weapon supplies to secular rebel groups drying up and the political opposition fighting bravely (though hopelessly) to address the cannibal rebel fallout, the type of conditions sought after by radical Al-Qaeda-aligned elements prosper inside the country.

Yet the Syrian opposition and the moderate rebels it works with can’t afford to take on a competitor like Jabhat al-Nusra. In a frank conversation I had with opposition leader George Sabra in Istanbul this week, he said the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC) is in no position to stand in the way of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. “All groups have the right to fight against the regime. More than 90 percent of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters are Syrians. After we defeat Assad we will sit down and discuss with Jabhat al-Nusra.” He added that the SNC had spoken to some Jabhat al-Nusra elements but had not had any formal discussions.

Losing hearts and minds

Syrians who have yet to side with rebels are unlikely to do so at any point in the future. The regime’s propaganda makes for convincing listening for those who want to hear it. Many residents of central Damascus and western Aleppo, of course, recognize the Assad regime for what it is: a bloodthirsty cabal that will fight at all costs to stay in power. But they are unwilling to risk their lives and the lives of their families to openly support the rebel movement.

Others see the repeated shelling of Mezzah 86 and Jaramana in Damascus by rebel elements, and conclude that the fighters are out to kill Druze, Christians and Alawite civilians, given the large numbers of religious minorities living in those districts. The spread of car bombings—carried out by whomever—contributes to the narrative that everything since March 2011 has been bad, and that life before the war was so much better than it is now.

Over the weekend, opposition figures from the SNC were to vote in a new president and decide on attending the proposed ‘Geneva II’ talks planned for next month (by Monday, May 27, nothing had been agreed on). Were any of the rebels on the ground watching? Do they care if George Sabra or Suhair Atassi or Riad Seif get elected?

Hardly, for those fighting a joint Hezbollah-regime onslaught on the town of Qusair or those struggling to hold on to positions in Harasta, northeast of Damascus, are otherwise engaged. They want weapons and a no fly zone, and see the opposition leadership as being largely incapable of convincing Western governments to assist with this.

Moreover, the push for a diplomatic solution drawn up by Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry means there will be little compulsion to chase international financial and military support for rebels. Most outside supporters – including the Syrian opposition – will likely wait and see if and how the Geneva talks pan out next month before deciding a new round of weapons support for fighters on the ground.

What remains certain is that at some point in the future Assad’s regime will cease to exist, in its current form at least. What’s less certain, and looking more unclear by the day, is when that may occur, and how many more Syrians will die before that happens.

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Stephen Starr
Stephen Starr is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising. Now based in Turkey, he lived in Syria for five years until 2012.

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