Rebels face hard choices after evacuation to Idlib

Thousands of rebel fighters from towns across Syria have left for opposition-held territory in the country’s north in recent months after surrendering to the Syrian regime.

The rebels board buses, alongside their families and other civilians wishing to leave, and are driven to Idlib province in the northwest. There, powerful Islamist factions dominate the scene, most prominent among them Ahrar a-Sham and the more stringent Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), a rebel coalition that includes former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah a-Sham.

After disembarking from the buses, the fighters face a choice. Do they carry on fighting, merging with local brigades, or return to civilian life?

This month, Syria Direct’s Noura Hourani spoke with two rebels who were evacuated from the al-Qaboun district in eastern Damascus to Idlib. Each chose a different path upon arrival to Idlib in the middle of May.

Majd a-Dimashqi fought with the Free Syrian Army’s Failaq a-Rahman in al-Qaboun for two years. After leaving for Idlib with his wife and family, he plans to join Ahrar a-Sham, he says, because “they are the least bad option."

 Civilians and rebels evacuated from al-Qaboun arrive at a temporary camp in Idlib on May 15, 2017. Photo courtesy of Ibrahim Yasouf/AFP.

But for former Ahrar a-Sham fighter Abu Qatadah, the loss of al-Qaboun and what he calls abandonment by other rebel factions near the capital have left him in “despair” and led him to lay down arms permanently.

For both, whether they choose to keep fighting or go back to civilian life, the specter of rebel infighting—whether east of Damascus or in northwest Idlib province—is a constant source of concern and frustration.

“Everyone is looking for power,” says Failaq fighter a-Dimashqi. “Every faction loves itself and believes that it is the only one in the right.”

Majd a-Dimashqi, a fighter with the Free Syrian Army brigade Failaq a-Rahman. He joined the faction two years ago, and was evacuated to Idlib province alongside other rebels from the al-Qaboun district of Damascus last month. He is currently living in Binnish, in Idlib, alongside his family.

Q: Will you continue fighting in northern Syria?

I will continue fighting. Most likely, I am going to join Ahrar a-Sham.

There are only 60 of us Failaq a-Rahman fighters who came from the al-Qaboun district, from a single brigade. Currently we’re all scattered, split between those who prefer civilian life now and those who will join other factions. A good number have already joined Ahrar.

Q: Why join Ahrar a-Sham in particular?

The way I see it, Ahrar are not extremists like Nusra [Ed.: A reference to Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate]. Nusra considers us secularists. That’s what they call us.

Ahrar is closest to us, ideologically. They are the least bad option. They are also strong, and we know many people with them.

Q: Would it be possible not to merge with anyone? That is, for you to fight alongside other groups without joining them?

This is not possible. We have to join a faction here in order to get weapons and funding. Failaq does not have a presence in the north. Beyond that, we have no clue about how to fight in open spaces. The nature of this area is different for us [compared to the urban warfare we were used to].

Q: Is there pressure from local factions for the evacuated fighters to merge with them?

No, but they try to attract fighters and work with them.

Of course, this is not true of all the factions. For example, there is some harassment from Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, and they give us a hard time at their checkpoints.

[Ed.: Jabhat Fatah a-Sham, formerly Nusra, is the main component of the HTS rebel coalition.]

HTS considers us to be compromised by the regime, because most of us are defectors. We don’t have personal identification documents in any accurate sense, and they don’t trust us.  

Q: What about Failaq itself? Isn’t the leadership responsible for you, even after you left al-Qaboun? Are they still paying your salary?

Failaq leadership abandoned us as soon as the situation became difficult in al-Qaboun.

Q: Why have the fighters scattered now that you’re in Idlib?

The most important reason is the frustration that Failaq fighters feel as a result of the infighting in Ghouta. This has driven many to abandon military work entirely.

Q: Have you sensed any difference between the organization and operations of the factions between al-Qaboun and Idlib? Or are the disagreements and infighting the same in the north as in East Ghouta?

There is no difference. Everyone is looking for power. Every faction loves itself and believes that it is the only one in the right, while the rest are wrong.

Disunity will destroy the revolution.

**

Abu Qatadah, formerly a fighter with Ahrar a-Sham in al-Qaboun. After being evacuated to Idlib with his family, he abandoned fighting and went to Turkey. There, he works in manufacturing to support his family in Syria.

Q: Ahrar a-Sham is strong in Idlib, and the north generally. Why did you choose to abandon fighting?

I abandoned fighting for good because I despaired after everyone abandoned us in al-Qaboun, before we left.

In Idlib, there are many fighters, who have sold their weapons so that they can live off the money and get their affairs in order. This is especially true for those, such as myself, who have chosen not to fight.

Another reason is the constant infighting between the factions in the north. These rivalries are enough to disgust a fighter and make him hesitate about carrying on.

Q: Talk about what it’s like as someone from the Damascus area now living in Syria’s north.

About 400–500 of us left al-Qaboun. There are many who have since abandoned fighting.

Currently, the commander of our brigade, Abu Rashid, is gathering the evacuated fighters together because they have been displaced to different parts of Idlib. He’s restructuring the brigade and merging it with Ahrar a-Sham in the north.

Q: What differences and difficulties have Ahrar fighters who were evacuated from al-Qaboun to the north faced?

There is a big difference. The fighters in Damascus and Outer Damascus are trained in urban warfare, street fighting. In the north, the fighting is different, and they need training before getting involved in battles in open areas.

The faction’s strength is different, too. Ahrar is strong in the north, but was weak in al-Qaboun. The kinds of weapons and support are different. In al-Qaboun we were paid every three months, if there was money available, because of the siege. In Idlib, fighters will be paid every month.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Yazan Torko

Yazan studied interior design at Damascus university. In 2012, Yazan moved to Jordan where he volunteered with Syrian refugees. He is passionate about theater and previously developed YouTube videos for NGOs and small news outlets.

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.