Aleppo Dispatch: The Dark Side of the Syrian Opposition

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Why civilians are turning from the Free Syrian Army -- and into the arms of Islamist groups.

RTR3CFUV-615.jpgResidents inspect destroyed buildings in Taftanaz, near Idlib, Syria (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters).

Ibrahim al-Halabi was confused by my questions. He could neither tell me how he landed himself in a makeshift prison cell nor respond to even simple queries, like what job he held. The 27-year-old had been picked up at a routine checkpoint in the city of Aleppo by rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the Syrian regime. When he could not provide identification papers, they arrested him.

My broken Egyptian Arabic was probably not to blame for the troubled communication, because another inmate offered logical responses to the same routine questions. But with Ibrahim, they only elicited a bewildered gaze.

On the rare occasion when he did speak, Ibrahim provided contradictory responses. At times he said he worked in a textile factory. Other times he said he was unemployed. Once he even admitted that he had worked for the regime's paramilitary, known as the shabiha, albeit for only two days. Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking. Red spots on his forehead and nose covered the marks where his captors had beaten him. When Ibrahim refused to speak, a fighter yelled at him "Liar! Shabih! Dog!" before intensifying his pain with several slaps to the face.

After a fruitless hour, I gave up trying to talk with Ibrahim, concluding that the man the rebels accused of iniquitous deeds was a harmless patsy who likely suffered from a mental illness that impeded his ability to communicate with any precision. The handicaps that hinder interacting with others probably rendered FSA fighters suspicious and accounted for his unfortunate incarceration, for Ibrahim did not appear to know how to hold a Kalashnikov let alone even use one.

Ibrahim was clearly scared. His left hand never stopped shaking.

Ibrahim's plight is indicative of the growing anarchy gripping Syria's liberated areas. In a country where the rule of law is vanishing as the state increasingly recedes, every fighter is policeman and prosecutor. Some have embraced their newfound powers judiciously. Most, however, have abused it. This exploitation of the war has reduced support for nationalist FSA units. Instead, Syrians are increasingly backing Islamists who largely eschew the material spoils of war.

One man who has enriched himself is Ahmad Afash, leader of the Free Syria Brigade from the village of Anadan, just north of Aleppo. At the mention of his name, rebels from neighboring hamlets either curse it or fall silent out of embarrassment. "Afash steals everything from grain to cars," an FSA fighter says. "He justifies this by saying no one wants to give him money to fund his battalion."

Rebels lament that men like Afash have taken up arms for spoils and glory rather than a national duty to topple the regime bombarding civilian areas daily. His name has become notorious for the FSA's excesses, tarnishing its image throughout the province of Aleppo.

When fighting was confined to the countryside, far from the city of Aleppo, local resident Hamdi Kaka was not sure which side to support. But when the FSA inched closer to the town, he heard stories of how Afash fleeced unfortunate civilians who ventured into his territory. "Why don't I support the FSA?" the 34-year-old household fixtures salesman asks rhetorically. "One name - Afash." With each new story of FSA excesses, the group's stock slides further in Kaka's eyes.

Afash is doing far more damage to the war effort than merely exploiting civilians. He is frustrating the FSA's military strategy as well. For months, the province's largest brigade, al-Tawhid, was focused on liberating urban areas in Aleppo that were still under regime control in order to ease the strains on the civilian population. But Afash was instead bent on taking the Air Force Intelligence base on its northern outskirts. "He wanted to take the base for media publicity, so that the people funding the war would give him more money," explains a fighter on the military council of a neighboring village. "To get money, you need to carry out operations and then put them on the internet."

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Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs.

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