For three men in northern Syria, the second civil war started shortly after the first staggered into a quagmire of sectarian violence. The goals of the first war — freedom, Islam, social equality of some sort — were replaced by betrayal, defeat and anger towards rival militias, jihadis and foreign powers fighting in Syria.
Like many others, the three men are bewildered at what has become of their war. Their alliances — and their goals — are shifting. The regime is far away, the jihadis are near — and seem unstoppable. Their resources are dwindling, their families are shattered. Their villages and farm lands are lost to regime militias. Their allies are at best unreliable and, at worst, actively conspiring against them.
The three are a businessman, a smuggler and an army defector who became respectively the political officer, treasurer and military commander of a once-formidable battalion in northern Syria.
The businessman is the shrewdest: a tall, wide-shouldered man with a square head and thinning hair. A devout Salafi, he was once a rich man in Homs, but after two-and-a-half years of war, most of his fortune has been spent on weapons and ammunition. What remains of his wealth is being slowly drained by the families of his dead, injured and missing relatives, many of them languishing in refugee camps.
On a cold autumn evening he sat in the courtyard of a newly built concrete house on the Turkish side of the Syrian border — the latest in a string of temporary homes since his house was razed by the Syrian government in the early days of the revolution.
“I need [Syrian President] Bashar [al-Assad] to last for two more years,” the businessman said. “It would be a disaster if the regime fell now: We would split into mini-states that would fight among each other. We’ll be massacring each other, tribes, Islamists and battalions.”
“Maybe if the regime lasts for a few more years we can agree on the shape of the new Syria. At least then we might end up with three states rather than 10,” he said.
Meanwhile, the killings and massacres will continue until sectarian cleansing has been carried out in all of Syria’s cities and regions, he added.
“There will be either Allawites or Sunnis. Either them or us. Maybe in 10 years we will all be bored with fighting and learn how to coexist,” he said.
After a pause, he added: “In 10 years maybe, not now.”
The battalion that the three men were part of was once the darling of the rebels’ foreign backers: Qatari royalty, Saudi preachers and Kuwaiti MPs all donated money and funneled weapons into Syria. The businessman held regular meetings with Turkish military intelligence officers on the border who guaranteed the safety of his arms shipments from Mediterranean ports.
However, as jihadi influence grew among the opposition forces, the battalion’s position came under threat. A clash — as much about resources as it was about ideology — was inevitable. A jihadi leader was assassinated and the battalion was forced from its footholds in the oil-rich east. Further divisions within the battalion followed and some of its men left to join other factions or set up their own.
Gulf dignitaries accused the three men of sowing dissent in the Muslim community and financial backers switched their support to other battalions with a stricter Islamic outlook.