Aleppo Dispatch: The Dark Side of the Syrian Opposition

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.

Presented by

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

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