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."

When fighters from an al-Tawhid reconnaissance platoon scoped out the base several months ago, Afash's men briefly skirmished with them, marking their territory. "They don't want anyone else to get credit for its capture," says an al-Tawhid member.

Afash's antics have exasperated fighters from his home village as well. Last month, rival rebels there created the Anadan Brigade in hopes of peeling off disgruntled members of his unit and thus weakening his grip on power.

Creating new brigades is increasingly becoming the preferred option to weed out corrupt rebels, even in respected units such as al-Tawhid. "There are too many people who joined us for the wrong reason," explains Abu Dharr, a member of the brigade's military council who is trying to form his own detachment. "We need to focus on those fighters whose motives are pure."

The problem goes far beyond dubious buccaneers such as Afash. Provincial FSA commanders complain that when the battle began tipping their way this summer with their entry into Aleppo, pro-regime elements joined their units, thus diluting both the caliber and motives of their fighters. "It's tough to tell the good guys from the bad ones," Abu Dharr laments. In private conversations with his staff, al-Tawhid leader Abd al-Qadir Salih has estimated that up to 25 percent of FSA fighters are rotten apples.

It is these rebels who are increasingly sullying the FSA's reputation. After a fighter slapped a doctor at the Dar al-Shifa hospital several months ago, the medical staff decided to cease providing care for a day.

Such troubled encounters explain why Syrians are increasingly gravitating toward Islamist brigades, such as Jabhat al-Nusra. "Before only a few people here supported them," explains a village council chief known locally by his patronymic Abu Umar. "But all the problems with the FSA have made them very popular."

The United States recently labeled Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization, claiming that it is a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq. But if Washington hoped the move would persuade other FSA units to distance themselves from the group, it grossly miscalculated. For in the Arab world, whatever America thinks is bad must be good. During my time in Aleppo, I was accosted daily by fighters and civilians demanding to know why the United States has blacklisted an organization that has done so much good in society.

When I shared these experiences with Abu al-Hassan, a Jabha fighter, he smiled approvingly. "Civilians are fed up with the FSA. There is lots of stealing, lots of bad treatment of civilians," he said. Abu al-Hassan then listed off the reasons why his organization is so popular. One stood out among his litany. "The FSA just accuses people of being shabiha and takes them away without proof. We require two witnesses."

The organization did not haphazardly choose the number. Islamic law requires two able-bodied male witnesses to prosecute someone, in order to protect innocent people from being wrongly accused for personal or financial motives.

Islamic justice would likely have spared Ibrahim, the mentally challenged prisoner I interviewed, his anguish in the room across the hall from me. Though his captors offered me no proof of his crimes, during the night they continuously humiliated him to the point of tears. Behind thick steel doors the sounds of a grown man crying were all I could make out. And his torment has left Ibrahim just one more Syrian whom the FSA lost from their dwindling role of supporters.

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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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