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.
As his brother spread out blankets on the porch, the businessman stared up at the night sky and smoked his last cigarette of the day.
“This is not a revolution against a regime anymore, this is a civil war,” he said.
The next day, in a sparsely furnished living room with thinly whitewashed walls and bare wires sprouting from electrical sockets, the smuggler and the businessman sat on sofas and argued about a missing shipment of rockets. The smuggler had worked the secret routes across the Lebanese border from the age of 11; he was shot at for the first time aged 12 and ran his own network when he was barely 17. He is proud never to have owned an ID card or a passport in his life. He fidgeted and moved constantly, tapping on his smartphone, buying weapons, selling rockets, importing cars and arranging the schooling of his many nephews and nieces.
He opened Google Earth on his phone, zooming in closer and closer until the screen showed a small grey square: the house where his family used to live.
“Before, all my family was in Syria and I worried about them. Now, they’ve got out, but I have lost my land. I have reached a point of despair,” he said.
“I feel I can’t breathe. I have 20 people to look after — to feed them and school them — and it’s not a matter of months, but years. I was in the revolution at the beginning and I used to think that was going to be progress — but now we have lost everything. We don’t talk about military plans and hitting the regime — now the plotting is against each other,” he said.
The third man worked as a shepherd as a child, spending long weeks trekking alone with his sheep in the arid hills of southern Syria. School was a 3km hike; like many young Bedouins from his region, he joined the military as soon as he graduated from high school. He eventually became a lieutenant.
Soon after the revolution began in early 2011, he defected, joining other rebel officers in the north. He made his reputation when his unit attacked an army base and captured several tanks, and became the commander of one of the rebel forces’ first armored battalions.
In those days, he was lean and tense, with a wispy Che Guevara beard; his looks and his heroism inspired devotion in his men. He read history books and drew lessons from the tactics of the Russian partisans in World War II.
Like most Bedouins, he spoke rarely, and when he did open his mouth, he was frank to the point of rudeness. However, amid the chaos of civil war, he was keen to impose discipline: Every morning he would drive around his base, inspecting his men’s clothes and weapons.
“How do you impose discipline?” he asked. “There is nothing that can make your fighters do things if they didn’t want to. There is no military order; I don’t pay them money and I can’t put them in jail. The bond between you and your men comes from battle: If they respect you as a fighter, they will follow you.”
After traveling into Syria, the businessman and the smuggler arrived where the lieutenant was staying with some of his men. They found him sitting on the floor, absorbed with his iPad, which was emitting a stream of battle sounds and explosive sound effects. Briefly, he raised his head to greet the other two, then returned to his computer game.
Dressed in a dirty white vest and combat trousers, he seemed much older.
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.
“For example we have problem with Dawla Isis, but they won’t come and attack us directly — that would be too costly for them and they don’t have an excuse. What they do is attack the weaker units on the pretext that their commander is a bandit or a looter — they only fight one force at a time,” he said. “I don’t want to give them a pretext to kill me, because I can’t stand against them on my own.”
The lieutenant’s men had been attacking a government outpost in a farmhouse on the eastern plains of Hama with tanks and few heavy artillery pieces. The rebel unit had moved down to Hama Province in an attempt to open a new front — partly to break the stalemate at the front and partly in an attempt to capture fresh supplies from government outposts. Some of the loot would be sold to feed the men — the rest would be added to the unit’s armory.
After three days, the house was reduced to rubble, but the troops inside were still holding out. The lieutenant was getting agitated that the operation was taking so long and on the third day, he ordered his most prized weapon — a T72 Russian tank — into battle.
For five hours the tank ground along a narrow road through pine forests and scattered villages of small houses and ancient Roman ruins. The straight lines of the Roman remains stood in contrast to meek and ugly village houses. Sometimes the two architectures mixed: A Roman archway became part of a cowshed, a delicate column supported a crude balcony of breeze blocks and metal sheets.
In a car following the tank, the lieutenant considered his options.
“Wherever you turn, your choices are difficult,” he said. “Do I sell my tanks and artillery, and give the money to my men? Do I lose my weapons to the Islamists in the coming war? Do I destroy them?”
“We have reached the end of the line: If we don’t get support, we will lose. Soon it will be, either you give allegiance to the Islamists or are killed,” he said.
We drove down from the hills onto the Hama plains. Passing through a small market town, the massive tank negotiated a narrow lane between pickups piled high with red peppers and aubergines. The car radio was tuned to a government station playing the Lebanese singer Fairuz, who sang about love and loss, before a news bulletin came on and the presenter described how all “terrorists” had been cleared from Hama Province.
“Oh you terrorists, you will be defeated! Defeated! Defeated!” the presenter said.
Silence fell in the car.
Ancient Russian tanks — rebel and loyalist — were lobbing shells at each other across a pistachio grove like street children throwing stones in an alleyway. The explosions sent orange columns of dust into the haze of the setting sun. Near the outpost, a government tank was smoldering and a young girl lay dead, hit by shrapnel. A group of rebels crawled through the fields for almost 2km until they reached the edge of the outpost.
However, before they managed to scale the fortifications they were spotted — a shell landed nearby and machine-gun fire broke out, pinning them down. Two fighters kicked the dirt with their heels trying to make a shallow trench. Bullets whistled through the trees shredding leaves and tree trunks. Rebel mortars landed nearby; some of the fighters dropped their guns and withdrew. On the other side of the berm, government troops fired at the rebels from hatches in the ruined outpost.
“If they all fight like this, this army won’t give up until Bashar [al-Assad] is dead,” the commander of the rebel attackers said.
However, by early evening the government troops abandoned their position, falling back under cover of heavy shelling. The rebels packed the ruined outpost with explosives and blew it up. The attack had cost the rebels one life and 11 wounded. The unit had used ammunition worth ￡43,000 (US$69,362) and the only salvageable government weapon was a machine gun.
“For three days I’ve been attacking this checkpoint,” the lieutenant said. “I ask myself why, but I don’t know. Maybe because I can. Maybe because I need to keep my men busy, but honestly, I don’t know the purpose of all this. In Syria, everyone has lost. No one is winning.”
As we drove back to the rebel base, the road was lit by a full moon and Fairuz was on the radio again — this time singing an old musical set in a Lebanese mountain village transformed into a battlefield by two feuding families.
The lieutenant listened for a while and then said: “After almost three years of war, we’ve discovered that we are good fighters — but bad politicians. We know how to carry a rifle, but we don’t know who is benefitting from this.”
The next day, the lieutenant decided he needed a break from war.
A few days later, the smuggler, the lieutenant and another rebel officer were walking through an Istanbul shopping mall packed with Arab tourists. After two-and-a-half years of war, the two men said they had finally decided to leave Syria and the war for good.
They stopped at a Starbucks where they sat laughing at each other’s jokes. They had Nike shopping bags and new jeans, and the smuggler was — as usual — fidgeting with his phone.
“I don’t know what are we doing here,” he said. “Back home, the world is collapsing.”
Later, in the food court upstairs, the smuggler and the lieutenant ate lunch with another man, a people-smuggler, who told them how they could be spirited across the border into Greece and from there into Italy, where they could start a new life with their families.
By the end of the meal, they had agreed on a plan. The man told them to be ready to leave the next day. US$2,000 would be deposited with a colleague, to be handed over when they reached Italy.
After their contact had left, the smuggler turned to the lieutenant and asked him: “Do you trust him?”
“I don’t trust anyone,” he answered.
They headed downstairs to Zara, where they could buy clothes for the trip.
The businessman arrived in Istanbul the next day and drove to a large hotel for a conference of center-right Islamists who had gathered to express support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The lobby was filled with preachers and religious dignitaries from around the Arab world, Syrian rebel commanders and a group of Kuwaiti politicians. On one side, a Sudanese man in extravagant headgear held court. Further on, an Emirati sheikh chatted amiably with an Iraqi MP wanted on charges of terrorism. The mix felt like the crowd in the Star Wars bar.
In the midst of this walked in the businessman. He was wearing the same cheap trainers he wore in Syria, khaki trousers and a T-shirt, and struggled to keep a straight face as he walked between the small circles of men speaking in grandiose terms about the glory of Islam, Western conspiracies and the Syrian tragedy.
“We kept telling them if you keep supporting the jihadis you will destroy the revolution. That Kuwaiti MP who now talks of moderation was the same one who sent the money to the jihadis,” the businessman said.
In his room, he lit a cigarette and gestured at his surroundings. The room’s luxury stood in contrast to his simple clothes and filthy shoes.
“This room costs 200 euros [US$270] a night. This whole conference could have armed a battalion for months of fighting. [However] I have to find money, otherwise we might lose the lieutenant: I know he wants to leave — not because he’s scared, but because he is running from his debts,” the businessman said.
One afternoon a few days later, the lieutenant, the smuggler and the other commander went out for a walk in the warm sunshine. Children chased pigeons; tourists posed for pictures. Overhead, a plane was coming in to land. The commander pulled the collar of his shirt, speaking into an imaginary microphone: “Air defense! Air defense!”
“Airplane approaching! You could bring it down with a heavy machine gun,” the lieutenant said.
The commander made a finger pistol and took aim — but the two men stopped their macabre game when they realized they were enjoying it too much.
By now, the excitement of being in Istanbul had waned: The three men walked the streets aimlessly and sat for hours in cafes. The lieutenant was adamant that he wanted to leave the war, but every time the people smuggler called, he postponed the trip a few more days. One evening, he admitted that he had tried to leave once before: He had stayed away for 25 days, but found he could not live in the world of peace. He missed the excitement, the combat, the camaraderie.
“While I’m here, I’m laughing and smiling, but I choke with tears every time I remember the men I have left behind — men who fought with me, men who were injured for me,” he said. “I could sell my tanks and artillery for US$4 million and go live in Canada — but people died for these tanks.”
He was sitting in a cafe perched on a hill, with the lights of oil tankers and ferries blinking from the Bosphorus below.
“If I go, they will accuse me of treason — but I am fed up with this life. I cannot attack the regime while I’m being attacked by jihadis from behind,” he said.
The lieutenant left the cafe and there was no news of him for weeks. Nobody knew if he was still in Turkey, or if he had gone with the people smuggler and made his way to Italy.
When he finally called, he sounded relieved and almost cheerful.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I couldn’t leave, I went back to Syria, to fight.”