The businessman and the smuggler sat down beside him, and a lunch of boiled potatoes in watery soup and rice was served. The lieutenant ate in silence and turned back to his iPad before finally addressing his two friends.
“I am now in an impossible situation. The army is ahead of me and they are surrounding me from behind,” he said.
“They” were the al-Qaeda-linked group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which is directly linked to the main al-Qaeda group in Iraq.
Not only is the group recognized as a ferocious fighting force, it has also won a reputation for efficiency and governance in the areas it runs — a fact reflected in the other name locals use for the faction: “Dawla” — the Arabic word for the state.
“I can’t defeat them and the army. I am about to collapse. I can hold out for a month or two at most. Isis are expanding in a fearful way,” the lieutenant said.
He described how Isis gained territory by co-opting local rebel battalions, then replacing them with more loyal jihadi units.
“I tell other commanders: ‘Let’s make a deal, let’s unite against the jihadis. If we take over the northern border strip we can strangle them,’” he said.
He flashed a bitter smile before continuing: “But we can’t even decide to unite against Bashar [al-Assad] — how can we unite against Islamists?”
The three men drove down to the battalion base. The lieutenant pointed at a town of low-rise buildings. This was al-Dana, the jihadi capital of the region.
“They control cities: Once you control a town you control the surrounding villages,” the lieutenant said. “Within a month they will control this area and you won’t be able to move without passing through their checkpoints. And then they will try to control the region from here to the Turkish border.”
When they reached the base, the lieutenant sank down in a corner. He seemed weary.
“I have been fighting for two years and a half. Tell me: what have I achieved? All I think about is attacking this checkpoint, getting that tank — maybe using the tank to attack another checkpoint. In all this time, did I ever think of establishing governance? Did I consider working with the civilians in the areas under my control to get electricity or provide anything? The jihadis are better at providing governance. In two-and-a-half years, I have built nothing,” he said.
“Kill me and my battalion collapses. Kill the jihadis and the institutions they have founded will survive,” he added.
“I feel bogged down in gossip. I want to get away from here and forget the absurdity of war. The liberated areas are in chaos: There is more purity on the frontlines,” he said.
The businessman was heading out to arrange a truce with a local jihadi commander.
“The collision with them is already happening, but I need time to get support. You can’t stop their project, but you can reduce the harm: Instead of fighting all the jihadis, we’ll fight just a couple of factions,” the businessman said.
As a young man, he spent years watching his father and other clan elders solving problems by building up local alliances. Now he tries the same methods in the midst of a war.
“I don’t fear the military factions — they are just gunmen: You buy their weapons or kill their commanders. I fear the tribes and the Islamists: The tribal fighters are only loyal to their tribe and the Islamists are only loyal to their dogmas,” he said.