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Lawlessness Spreading in Rebel-held Syria

Free Syrian Army fighters carry the body of their comrade who died during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Qusair town near Homs, March 25, 2013.
Free Syrian Army fighters carry the body of their comrade who died during clashes with forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Qusair town near Homs, March 25, 2013.
Public order is breaking down in rebel-held areas of Syria, with widespread looting, crime running rampant and rebel factions fighting among themselves, according to refugees escaping to Lebanon.

The refugees paint a bleak picture of mounting violence and lawlessness as civilians scramble to overcome shortages of food, water and fuel.

The looting and infighting among rebel units is adding to the misery of civilians who managed to survive during two years of civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 Syrians have been killed and millions more left homeless since the rebels began their insurrection to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his government.

“We couldn’t stay any longer,” says 34-year-old Samr, a mother of three from the Syrian city of Homs. “We had nothing and with the constant fear of air strikes, I just realized we had to leave.”

She and her children are now at least safe from air strikes and predatory thieves, but prospects for the family are far from good in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli, where she lives with a dozen or so refugee families in a shell of an unfinished apartment building.

Lebanon under stress

Lebanon is straining to cope with a huge refugee influx that is stoking sectarian tensions in the country and has triggered sporadic fighting between Lebanese groups loyal to opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.

And the sporadic fighting in Lebanon is adding to the lawlessness across the border in Syria. In recent days, several clashes have been reported in northern and eastern Syria between fighters with the Jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra and militiamen from the Farouq Battalions. The Obama administration considers al-Nusra a terrorist organization because of links with al-Qaida.

On Sunday, March 26, fighting in the town of Tal Abyad on the border with Turkey left four people dead and the Farouq commander, Mohammad al Daher, severely wounded from a grenade blast.

Farouq commanders describe the feuding as between Jihadists and more secular-minded fighters, but other rebel commanders say the strife appears to be as much a power struggle over control of the lucrative border crossings into Turkey at Tal Abyad and Bab al Hawa. Both crossings are overseen by the Farouq Battalions.

Many of the Farouq fighters, especially those in northern brigades, have reputations for smuggling, looting and extortion. Civilians in villages in Idlib and Aleppo provinces spoke of their mistrust of Farouq fighters earlier this year to VOA, accusing them of corruption and robbery.

Hussein, a 45-year-old father of four from Tal Rifat, complained they failed to share war spoils from captured Syrian army bases. “They are out for themselves,” he said.

Commanders with other Free Syrian Army militias say that fighters from Farouq Battalions demand high payments for goods and weapons transported through their checkpoints.

Rebel infighting on the increase

Infighting among the rebel has been on the increase since Jihadists gunned down Farouq commander Thaer al-Waqqas in January. Al-Nusra insisted it was not responsible for the killing, claiming another allied Jihadist group was and offered to broker a ceasefire.

Mounting disorder in the rebel-held territories poses serious challenges for Western and Gulf nations that have stepped up supplies and training for rebels and urging them to organize under a unified command.

Those efforts received a major setback last weekend when Mouaz al-Khatib, leader of a U.S. and Gulf-backed rebel coalition, abruptly resigned, citing what he said was insufficient international support of the opposition cause.

Opposition disarray

Disarray within the Syrian National Coalition increased shortly after Khatib’s resignation when the head of the rebel group’s own military branch, the Free Syrian Army, indicated he would not obey an interim prime minister elected at the insistence of Western and Gulf countries to oversee rebel-held territories in Syria.

Gen. Salim Idris said he would only recognize a prime minister able to represent a broad swathe of rebel groups.

But it isn’t clear who can do that as rifts between rebel groups widen over everything from territory and spoils of war to what kind of state should replace the Assad region – a strict Islamic state or a more secular one.

European diplomats based in Turkey warn that the divisions between rebel units on the ground in Syria and their disconnect with opposition politicians backed by the West and Gulf nations could seriously undermine the Syrian National Coalition.

“This isn’t looking good at the moment,” says one an Istanbul-based envoy.

Since the uprising against Assad erupted there have been several foreign-inspired bids to encourage the rebels to form “joint leaderships” and alliances. But so far, all those efforts have fizzled out, breaking down amid recriminations and disputes.