As fronts cool and hardline Islamists take over, three FSA fighters return to civilian life in northwestern Syria

AMMAN: Ali al-Ghafar went to prison as a demonstrator in 2012. Two years later, he came out a fighter.

A 22-year-old computer programmer in Homs city when anti-government protests began in 2011, al-Ghafar says he aligned himself with the revolution immediately, quitting his job to devote more time to demonstrations.

Because of his activities, he says, government security forces picked him up in 2012 in the Baba Amr district of Homs and took him to the Air Force Intelligence Branch in Kafr Souseh, near Damascus.

After two years of beatings and deprivation in detention, al-Ghafar was released in the west Aleppo countryside in a 2014 deal between the Syrian government and the opposition Free Syrian Army. He could barely walk “as a result of torture,” al-Ghafar told Syria Direct.

Although al-Ghafar was left without proper use of both his feet, he wanted to fight. He signed on as a sniper for an FSA brigade in west Aleppo.

Joining the rebels “wasn’t about revenge,” he told Syria Direct. “It was about the oppression that I knew any civilian in [regime] hands would suffer, and the injustice I witnessed in prison.” 


Free Syrian Army fighters in northeastern Aleppo in January 2017. Photo by Nazeer al-Khatib/AFP.

Al-Ghafar fought for three years but today is a civilian once more, living in the west Aleppo countryside town of Atareb. The Assad regime remains firmly in place, but al-Ghafar laid down his gun two months ago, citing infighting and a hardline Islamist faction’s domination of northwestern Syria as the main reasons. “Matters nobody could bear,” he said.

Syria Direct spoke to three former FSA fighters living in the west Aleppo countryside this month who have given up the fight and returned to civilian life. They all say they joined the FSA as a response—to years of torture, to being ordered to suppress demonstrations, to the arrest and disappearance of a brother. All three now say they left the FSA due to infighting, stagnant fronts and the dominance of hardline Islamist faction Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) in northwestern Syria.

The three men’s experiences in the FSA—and reasons for leaving it—mirror the broader rise and subsequent marginalization of relatively moderate factions in Syria’s rebel northwest.

Upon the request of the sources interviewed for this report, all names are pseudonyms, not only because those interviewed have family members living in government-held territory but also because of the danger of speaking out against powerful local factions.

One of the last remaining opposition strongholds in Syria spans western Aleppo province, Idlib and parts of Hama. There, most real military and political power lies in the hands of one faction: Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).

Formed in 2017, HTS is a coalition of Islamist brigades led by Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra. In recent years and months, Nusra—and later Fatah a-Sham and HTS—steadily consolidated power in northwestern Syria, first by proving its fighting prowess and then increasingly by crushing and subordinating any rival factions.

HTS defeated its main rival—the powerful Islamist Ahrar a-Sham faction—in Idlib this past summer, taking over dozens of towns, villages, border crossings and the provincial capital of Idlib city. Today, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham and the other constituent members of HTS are the dominant rebel power in much of northwestern Syria, where the faction enforces a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

While FSA brigades and other rebel groups such as Ahrar a-Sham retain a presence in southern Idlib and neighboring Hama and Aleppo, HTS remains dominant.

“You either join HTS or you sit at home,” al-Ghafar told Syria Direct from his residence in Atareb, where he has resumed work as a computer programmer. “They don’t want anyone to compete with them for control over the liberated areas.”

One former FSA fighter who repeatedly learned that lesson is Muhammad Ziad. Originally from Hama city, Ziad defected from the Syrian Army in 2013 after he was deployed to put down demonstrations in Aleppo city’s al-Sakhour district.

“The oppression and cruelty that civilians were subjected to was unimaginable,” he recalled. “So I chose to defect and join the FSA.” Ziad, who is unmarried, left his parents and family behind him in government-held Hama.

During Ziad’s more than two years with the FSA, he fought both government forces and the Islamic State in northwestern Syria, was injured twice, and received months of treatment in Turkey. But what put an end to his involvement as a fighter was rebel infighting.

The FSA faction that Ziad first joined became part of Harakat Hazm, an alliance of FSA groups in northwestern Syria. Harakat Hazm reportedly received TOW anti-tank weapons within a CIA program to supply “vetted” moderate Syrian opposition groups. Jabhat a-Nusra—then affiliated with Al-Qaeda—repeatedly attacked the FSA alliance in both Idlib and Aleppo, causing it to disband in 2015.

When Harakat Hazm ceased to exist, Ziad joined Jaish al-Mujahideen, a coalition of loosely Islamist-identified FSA groups, some of whom had also received TOW weapons. In late 2016 and early 2017, Jabhat Fatah a-Sham—the new name for Jabhat a-Nusra—attacked Jaish al-Mujahideen as well, possibly in retaliation for the group’s participation in international negotiations in Kazakhstan, Syria Direct reported. The group largely dissolved and its members joined Ahrar a-Sham.

Repeated internal rebel conflict “led me to give up fighting,” Ziad told Syria Direct in Atareb. “It was a hard choice, but circumstances can be crueler than a person imagines.” Another factor in Ziad’s decision, he says, is the relative stagnation of frontlines with the Assad regime. By the time he left the FSA, much of the fighting was between the factions themselves.

Today, Ziad works at a garage in Atareb for a weekly salary, aiming to achieve what he called “some kind of stability.”

In the same town, another former fighter is now a baker, making and selling muajanat and fatayer—savory pastries and flatbreads with a host of fillings and toppings—at his own shop. Alaa al-Asi, 26, learned the trade from his father in the al-Midan district of Damascus starting from the time he was 10.

“I planned to go back to making muajanat after the regime fell,” al-Asi told Syria Direct. “But everything was much bigger than we imagined.”

Al-Asi was completing the mandatory military service required of all adult males in Syria when his brother was arrested by regime security forces and vanished without a trace in 2013. When that happened, he coordinated with the FSA brigade Ansar Allah and defected with five other soldiers, he says.

Until 2015, al-Asi fought against government forces in southwestern Aleppo province. But “when it changed from fighting the regime to fighting each other, I decided to leave,” he recalled.

After saving money for two years, al-Asi opened his own muajanat shop in Atareb this past August.

“Civilian life is entirely different, but it’s much better,” he told Syria Direct. “It’s about stability, building a family.”

As the fight against Assad continued, “things got mixed up,” said the former fighter. “Great nations intervened and many of the FSA factions in the liberated areas disappeared.”

“The goals were lost.”

With reporting by Muhammad a-Shafai.

This report is part of Syria Direct’s month-long coverage of northwestern Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.