GAZIANTEP, Turkey (AP) — They are veterans of Syria’s rebellion, trying for years to bring down President Bashar Assad. But these days they’re doing little fighting with his military. They’re struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers.
Syria’s civil war has become a madhouse of forces from Turkey, the United States, Syrian Kurds, the Islamic State group, al-Qaida as well as Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias — all with their own alliances and agendas.
Syrian rebel factions, battered by defeats and as divided as ever, reel around trying to find allies they can trust who will ensure their survival.
“We have become political dwarfs, fragmented groups which hardly have control over the closest checkpoint, let alone each other,” said Tarek Muharram, who quit his banking job in the Gulf to return home and join the rebellion in 2011.
Over the years he fought alongside several different rebel groups, including ones backed by the United States. Now he has now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Rebel leaders have limited options — none of them good. They can line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting factions to fight its own war in Syria against Syrian Kurds primarily, as well as Islamic State militants.
Or they can ally themselves with al-Qaida’s affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. It leads a coalition that is still battling Assad and dominates the largest cohesive rebel territory, encompassing the northwestern province of Idlib and nearby areas.
Or they can try to go it alone.
Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them after deciding to arm and finance Kurdish-led militias to fight IS.
They see an enemy in IS but also potentially in the Kurds, who have carved out their own territory across northern Syria. Now in the fight against IS, the Kurds could capture Sunni Arab-majority regions like Raqqa and Deir el-Zour, to the alarm of the mainly Sunni Arab rebels.
The Associated Press spoke to a series of veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.
THE TATTOOED FIGHTER
Nothing blurs Muharram’s vision and determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved Aleppo. Not the hours he and his comrades now spend in a small apartment in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, watching TV and smoking, waiting for the next battle.
The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes. Uprooted, they needed new allies.
“We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram. So he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, which was once backed by the U.S., joined al-Qaida’s alliance.
The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions. Turning to Turkey or US would mean becoming “a mercenary fighting whomever the sponsor wants, whatever the dollar dictates.” He would have had to take part in Russian-backed negotiations, “giving up the revolution’s principles … and accepting Assad for a longer period,” he said.
Muharram said he has his personal differences with al-Qaida. He pointed out that he doesn’t always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown on.
But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it.
The alliance has financial clout and can provide services in its territory. It has the resources of Idlib’s and neighboring rural parts of Aleppo province to sustain the fight without relying on outsiders — farmland, water wells, supplies of fuel and weapons. Its fighters are mainly locals and well-disciplined, and the few foreign fighters including Afghans and Chinese don’t interfere in residents’ affairs, unlike the foreign jihadis of IS.
Both Turkey and the Kurds so far avoid a fight with al-Qaida-linked militants. But if Turkey is tempted to move against the alliance, Muharram said, it has pressure cards, including a border crossing with Turkey and territory near a Kurdish enclave, a potential thorn in Ankara’s side.
The fight to remove Assad is far from over, he said.
“The revolution will end with a ballot box. There is no legitimacy for a new Syria without elections.”
THE REBEL WITHOUT A LAND
He defended his hometown of Daraya outside Damascus for years under a bloody, destructive siege by Assad’s troops. But finally resistance collapsed, and last summer he and his fellow fighters were forcibly displaced north to Idlib.
It was a humiliating and disorienting move for Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella.
Idlib was strange territory, and dangerous — not because of Assad’s forces or airstrikes, but because of Idlib’s overlords, the al-Qaida-linked group.
The militants immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters.
“This was to pressure us to join them, and if we do, they will protect us,” al-Nokrashi said, speaking at his home in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli and holding his 6-year-old son, born during the Daraya fighting.
The fighters were eventually freed. But the incident highlighted the more complicated world they were in.
“We were insulated in Daraya,” he said. “Our confrontation was only with the regime. Now the choices are many.”
The threats are, too. The Islamic State group is a concern, as are the Syrian Kurdish forces, who he said are trying to “create a separate state in the north.” Then there are pro-Assad Iran and Shiite militias.
“Syria can’t be one unified state except by expelling all those parties,” al-Nokrashi said.
His fighters are languishing in Idlib. They struggle to make ends meet and are focused on their families, reunited after long separations during the siege. Some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area’s cuisine to Idlib.
A few of his fighters joined al-Qaida-linked group. The others have to deal with its pervasive security agencies that monitor all factions closely — “just like the regime’s security agencies,” said al-Nokrashi, a former Syrian army officer.
Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy. He attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana, where rebel commanders were received with much fanfare and sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.
But he may have found his refuge. In recent weeks, the U.S., Turkey and Western and Gulf countries backed a new attempt at a coalition against Assad known as the Northern Front Operation Room. So far, 17 factions have joined, al-Nokrashi said.
The alliance has yet to fight a battle, but he’s hopeful.
“I feel there are lessons learned … from previous mistakes.”
THE AL-QAIDA HUNTER
He drives around Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind, fearing attack even here.
Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13, has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida’s affiliate attacked him and his group in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush by the group’s fighters was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.
Al-Saoud’s claim to fame has been his relentless fight against the radical group, which has tried to gain a foothold in his hometown, Maaret Numan, in Idlib. His anti-extremist stance got him arrested by IS in 2013, until protests forced the militants to release him — a sign of his support base in the area.
Al-Saoud, a defector from Assad’s military, has received Western aid from the start. He feels let down that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Kurdish militias.
“We can’t be temporary allies for a certain stage and then they drop or back me as they please,” al-Saoud said.
What particularly miffed him, he said, is when U.S. troops deployed to create a buffer between Kurdish fighters and Turkish troops in northern Syria. “Aren’t we worthy of defending?” he said.
He fears U.S. support will only deepen the Kurds’ determination for self-rule, leading to the division of Syria, in the process boosting support among Sunni Arabs for al-Qaida.
During a recent AP visit to his home in Turkey, al-Saoud was constantly on the phone with his commanders back home, who in his absence are trying to understand shifting alliances and battlegrounds.
In one call, he reassured a commander bewildered by the Americans working with the Kurds. Another complained how hard it is to negotiate with Islamist factions, which are also trying out alliances to counter the power of al-Qaida.
Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical.
It is led by Islamist factions, minimizing the role of more secular groups like his. He fears the coalition will cost him his direct contact with the Americans and his independence, pull him from the fight against al-Qaida and diminish his prestige — his “charisma,” as he puts it.
Moreover, he sees it as imposed by outside powers that can’t agree among themselves, dooming it to fail. “Unify your vision, then pick a leader for a unified (rebel) front,” he said.
“My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said. “We will remain the popular face of this fight.”