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Short of Allies, Syria's Rebels Down, But Not Out

  • Associated Press

FILE - Free Syrian Army fighters give the victory sign, in Jarablus, Syria. Veteran Syrian rebels who have fought Assad for years are struggling to find a place in a bewildering battlefield where several wars are all being waged at once by international powers, Aug. 31, 2016.

They are veteran Syrian rebels who for years tried to bring down President Bashar Assad. These days they're doing little fighting with his forces as they struggle to find a place in Syria's bewildering battlefield, where several wars are being waged at once.

Battered by defeats and divisions, the rebels reel around trying to find allies they can trust as international powers look after their own alliances and agendas.

Their options are limited — one is to line up behind Turkey, which is recruiting groups to fight its own war in Syria, primarily against Syrian Kurds but also Islamic State militants.

Another option is to ally with al-Qaida's affiliate, the strongest opposition faction. Despite differences with Washington, all of them hope for support from the United States. But they feel it has abandoned them, throwing its weight behind the Syrian Kurds.

The Associated Press spoke to several veteran rebels who move between Syria and Turkey and found them desperate for resources and support but intent on fighting for years to come.

In this March 20, 2017, photo, Syrian Tarek Muharram, 39, who quit his banking job to return home and join the Syrian rebellion in 2012, poses for a photo in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, where he now lives.
In this March 20, 2017, photo, Syrian Tarek Muharram, 39, who quit his banking job to return home and join the Syrian rebellion in 2012, poses for a photo in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, where he now lives.

The tattooed fighter

Nothing blurs Tarek Muharram's determination to fight Assad. Not the loss of his beloved city of Aleppo to government forces. 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.

He 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.

The fall of Aleppo was a watershed moment. It cost the rebels there their strongest base, their resources, their homes.

“We had reached a dead end,” said the 39-year-old Muharram.

Now he and his group, Noureddine el-Zinki, have now joined the alliance led by the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The move caused many of his group to break away. But for Muharram, anything else would have required too many concessions, including accepting a role for Assad.

Muharram says he has his personal differences with al-Qaida — he doesn't always pray, for example, and he smokes. He sports a wolf-head tattoo on his arm, something militants frown upon.

But he said the al-Qaida-led alliance has kept its weapons pointed in the right direction, against Assad, and has resources and support. He and the 50 men he commands would drop their guns rather than be pushed to fight it.

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.”

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, Capt. Saeed al-Nokrashi and the 700 men in his faction, Shuhada al-Islam, part of the U.S-backed Free Syrian Army umbrella, were forcibly displaced north to Idlib province.

Idlib's al-Qaida-linked overlords immediately kidnapped some of his best fighters.

“This was to pressure us to join them,” 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.

These days, al-Nokrashi's fighters languish in Idlib, struggling to make ends meet and focused on their families: some have opened food shops, bringing the Damascus area's cuisine to Idlib. A few joined the al-Qaida-linked group.

Al-Nokrashi tried turning to diplomacy and attended one session of the Russia-backed talks in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana, where rebel commanders sat briefly in the same room as the government delegation. He became disillusioned and boycotted the following meeting.

But in recent weeks, the United States, 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.

In this March 18, 2017, photo, Syrian Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, center, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13 uses his mobile phone in a Syrian restaurant surrounded by aides and bodyguards, in Iskenderun, southern Turkey.
In this March 18, 2017, photo, Syrian Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud, center, commander of the U.S.-backed Division 13 uses his mobile phone in a Syrian restaurant surrounded by aides and bodyguards, in Iskenderun, southern Turkey.


The al-Qaida hunter

Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saoud drives around the Turkish seaside city of Iskenderun with another car of Syrian bodyguards and aides behind him.

He has been living almost permanently in Turkey since al-Qaida's affiliate attacked him and his group, the U.S.-backed Division 13, in Syria last year. When he tried to return home in April, an ambush was waiting for him. He survived, but one of his commanders was killed.

A defector from Assad's military, al-Saoud has received Western aid from the start. His fight against the extremists, who tried to gain a foothold in his Idlib hometown of Maaret Numan has been relentless.

But he feels let down now that the U.S. is throwing its weight behind Syrian 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.

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.

Al-Saoud also has joined the Northern Front Operation Room. But he is skeptical of its Islamist leadership which would minimize the role of more secular groups like his; and also deny him direct contacts with the Americans.

“My aim is a Syria free of Assad and of terrorism,” he said.

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