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Complexity of the Syrian rebel front

Many of the fighters are Islamists and though they may not share the jihadist ideology, they consider the Damascus regime the terrorist and Al Nusrah the ally

Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News
Gulf News

There are two kinds of revolutionaries in Syria, say the people in opposition-controlled areas of the country: Those of the fanadek (hotels) and those of the khanadek (trenches). People rail at fanadek rebels, the politicians who tour the world, meeting foreign backers in five-star hotels, begging for support, but often returning empty-handed. The khanadek rebels garner more respect because they fight with limited means to oust Bashar Al Assad’s murderous regime, dodging bombs, missiles and, probably, chemical attacks.

The two kinds of revolutionaries have never quite connected because many of the politicians in the opposition front, the western-backed Syrian National Coalition, have lived abroad for years, while the fighters and activists have been under the tyrannical rule of the Al Assad family.

As Colonel Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, the head of the Aleppo military revolutionary council, told me a few days ago from one of his bases near Syria’s border with Turkey, the hotel rebels “live outside the reality. We live inside the reality”.

More than two years into the revolt, and after 70,000 lives have been lost, four million rendered homeless and more than one million refugees, the divide between the two kinds of rebels is widening. And the consequences of this are worrying — for Syria and its foreign backers.

Though embraced by the West, the hotel rebels have not won enough support from abroad to endear them to the people and the fighters on the ground. The trench rebels are frustrated — and part of their anger is directed at the West. They see US and European hesitance to back them with deeds, not just words, as a plot to destroy Syria.

In the town of Suran, near the Turkish border, one official told me that among the lies uttered by the Syrian dictator was an unfortunate truth — his claim of an international conspiracy. “But the conspiracy is not against him, as he says, it’s against all of Syria — to break it as a nation,” he said.

That the US has dithered on whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria — first playing down British, French and Israeli claims and then admitting that there was some tentative evidence of sarin gas — will only confirm suspicions about western intentions. If the world fails to react to the use of chemical weapons, which the US has set as a red line, then what message is it sending to Al Assad?

Once you cross the border into Syria’s rebel-held areas, the disillusionment is overwhelming. In these impoverished and scarred farming communities, Syrians protest angrily at the world’s apparent lack of interest. Few have heard of the money the US is giving the opposition or the extra $123 million (Dh452.39 million) pledged a week ago at the so-called Friends of Syria conference in Istanbul. Time and again, people ask how governments can stand by and watch the slaughter of civilians.

Ordinary people want, above all, a no-fly zone to protect them against the regime’s onslaught. Those engaged in the fighting, meanwhile, want advanced weapons so they can change the balance of power on the ground in their favour. However, neither has found satisfaction. And without western backing, Syria’s political opposition will lose its legitimacy. After all, it exists to lobby for outside support. If it cannot deliver, then why should anyone listen to it or believe in it? A lack of support can mean a future Syria will be more anti-western than the Al Assad regime. The coalition has already suffered its first big casualty: Muath Al Khatib, the former Damascus preacher who has been its leader, followed through with his threat to quit. His frustration is understandable, though his decision to resign is regrettable.

More popular than most other opposition figures, Al Khatib was sensitive to popular sentiment and his allies say his resignation is, at least in part, a protest against the coalition’s failure to mobilise western backing for the revolt. His last act was to attend last week’s Friends of Syria conference, where the coalition issued principles that pleased western foreign ministers but for now at least, had no particular relevance to people inside Syria.

Consider, for example, the declaration’s denunciation of “radical/extremist elements in Syria which follow an agenda of their own”, wording designed to underline rejection of Jabhat Al Nusrah, the Al Qaida-linked group that is one of the most effective forces ranged against the Al Assad regime. Many of the rebels are Islamists and though they may not share the jihadist ideology, they consider the Damascus regime the terrorist and Al Nusrah the ally.

“They’re good guys and good fighters,” says a young member of Liwaa Al Tawhid, one of the large rebel groups in the Aleppo countryside, explaining that on the battlefront, all groups cooperate. Even Colonel Akaidi, the military defector now heading the Aleppo military council, says the US wants to turn people like him into the Sahwa, the tribal group in Iraq that was enlisted by the US to fight Al Qaida. “If they [the US] help us so that we kill each other, then we don’t want their help,” he says.

Rebels and civilians in liberated areas have no understanding of the constraints on western powers nor of the White House’s anxiousness to get out of Middle East wars rather than into new ones. Nor are they convinced that Gulf states that have been providing them with some weapons have been doing so for the benefit of Syria rather than their own regional agendas.

Western aid is beginning to flow, but painfully slowly and all of it non-lethal. Evidence of sarin gas use may change the calculation and provoke an intervention. Barring that, though, the funding will alleviate some of the humanitarian sufferings even as the number of victims of Al Assad’s war increases. There is, sadly, some truth in the rebels’ complaint that they are getting enough assistance to continue fighting, prolonging the war, but never enough to win it and end the bloodshed.

— Financial Times