The Breaking of Syria’s Rebellion
The civil war in Syria has taken an immense toll from the entire population. Civilians residing in in rebel-held areas, however, have paid an especially high price due to indiscriminate heavy bombings of the Assad regime and Russia, regime sieges, collapse of basic services and insufficient provision of aid. Hundreds of conversations and interviews with civilians, rebels and activists across all rebel-held areas of Syria reveal a broken, traumatized population focused almost solely on survival. Increasingly, this population is willing to accept any solution that will bring an end to the war and will provide some degree of stability, even if it entails the Assad regime staying in power. Wide swaths of the millions residing under rebel control are disillusioned with the Syrian revolution, disgusted with the rebel factions, and dissatisfied with the local opposition government structures and NGOs operating in their region. The inability of foreign journalists to report from rebel-held Syria in addition to the ideological bent of local fixers and citizen journalists have contributed to the underreporting of this phenomenon. The Assad regime is already exploiting this reality to promote surrender deals with minimal to little fighting.
This research demonstrates that even in the case of a civil war that originated in a mass popular uprising, significant diversity of attitudes exists among those who are considered to be the support base of the rebels - rural impoverished Arab Sunnis who have been subjected to incessant war crimes perpetrated by the regime. This research was carried out over the span of 17 months and is based on hundreds of interviews and off-the-record conversations conducted over messaging applications and social media with Syrians inside Syria as well as fieldwork in Turkey. All names of interviewees have been altered to ensure their safety.
Destruction of Daraa city, the birthplace of the Syrian uprising, May 2017
Rural Sunni Syrians - Not a Monolithic Group
My research indicates that a significant share of civilians in rebel-held Syria are not supportive of the rebels, and that this group has grown in recent years due to rebel conduct, war fatigue and changing dynamics of the war. This largely silent group includes both people who never supported the uprising, as well as people who once supported it, participated in anti-regime protests and took up arms as part of rebel groups with the aim of removing Assad from power.
During the first year of the Syrian uprising, despite enormous risks, millions of Syrians took to the streets across the country to call for the downfall of the Assad regime. However, even in areas considered hostile to the regime due to their sectarian makeup, marginalization, and exposure to regime atrocities, many civilians did not support the uprising. Some did this because of fear of instability, or due to a general desire to stay out of any politics, an attitude the regime worked to inculcate in the Syrian populace. Some believed, at least to a certain extent, the narrative offered by the regime. “I did not participate in the revolution from the start because I knew how it would end,” said Ameer, an electrician residing in a border town in Idlib that witnessed large protests in the first years of the uprising. “I saw that the protesters in my town were the ignorant and idiots, not some educated individuals… they wanted the downfall of the country, not the downfall of the regime.” He added “I’m not with the individual Syrian regime, but I am with the regime as a system and a state.”
Many of those who did not support the uprising fled rebel-held territory to neighboring countries or areas under the control of other forces inside Syria. Others continue to reside under rebel control because they do not wish to leave their homes or can not do so. This is especially true in the case of farmers who derive their livelihood from their land. “I am the son of [town name] and lived my whole life here,” said Ameer, the electrician from Idlib. “I am the owner of the land and have a right to it”
Another distinct group is made up of Syrians who supported the uprising and at times took an active role in it, as protesters, activists and rebels, yet gradually became disillusioned with the revolution. For some, the disillusionment occurred even as early as 2011 when the uprising became militarized and rebel groups attracted religious extremists and criminal elements. Others lost their faith in the revolution and rebels later on.
The size of this group is difficult to gauge due to dearth of reliable polling inside Syria and the sensitivity of the matter at hand. However, in a survey conducted among Syrian refugees in Turkey in 2016, most of whom fled rebel-held areas, 28% of respondents stated that they do not feel represented by any of the sides to the conflict in Syria. Interviews I have conducted online with civilians inside rebel-held Syria throughout the war indicate that the level of dissatisfaction has only grown in 2017 and 2018. Several factors, elaborated below, contributed to this growing dislike, fear and even hatred of the rebels.
Hiding in Plain Sight
This large group has largely evaded notice by international and local media outlets. Several factors contributed to this. Due to inability to access rebel-held territory and fear of kidnappings, reporters for international media outlets have rarely ventured into these regions. Even when they do, they are heavily reliant on local fixers who are supporters of the revolution and motivated by the desire to highlight the atrocities perpetrated by the regime and its allies against the population. Even when foreign journalists do not rely on exiled activists and leaders and manage to bypass local fixers, the stratum of the population inside Syria that succeeded in establishing connections with the outside world are mostly local activists, NGO workers and rebels, not the impoverished who can not afford a smartphone. Another factor contributing to their relative invisibility is that unlike activists and rebels, members of this stratum of the population rarely make an effort to build relationships with foreign journalists or researchers. Members of this group are largely quietist, focused on securing a livelihood and generally avoid political actions such as protesting or giving interviews.
Most Syrian opposition media outlets and media activists in rebel-held territories do not strive to offer objective reporting and see themselves as part of the revolutionary struggle against Assad. Pro-opposition and more professional media outlets occasionally report on rebel abuses and corruption, but discussions about how this undermines the legitimacy of the revolution and rebels as a whole is a step too far. As far as this author knows, only a single report published in an opposition outlet, Enab al-Baladi, discussed the phenomena that is the subject of this research. According to Ibrahim, an unemployed man from western Aleppo countryside “the opposition’s channels don’t talk about the negative aspects of the [opposition] commanders, [they cover them] as if they’re angels, although 90% of the people hate the revolution and the commanders.”
Another factor that has reduced coverage of discontent among civilians toward the rebels is journalists’ fear of reporting and civilians fear of complaining about rebel abuses and corruption, as journalists and civilians who have done so have been threatened, attacked, kidnapped and tortured by rebels. In this research, I made an effort to seek out unemployed, impoverished Syrians, without connections to rebel factions, media outlets or activist collectives, while also relying on traditional sources such as interviews with rebels, NGO workers and media activists, as well as monitoring conversations and posts of Syrians online. The names of all interviewees were changed for their safety.
Most of those who have become disillusioned with the uprising, similarly to those who still believe in it but realize that their side will lose, can not afford to leave Syria. All countries neighboring Syria have closed their border to Syrians in 2014 and 2015. Some Syrians continue to cross, but this requires either exorbitant bribes or payments to smugglers. The cheapest smuggling is across the border to Turkey, and even in the least safe form, it costs hundreds of dollars, a sum most Syrians simply can not obtain. The crossing is extremely dangerous, as Turkish border guards fire live ammunition on those crossing. These crossings are often unsuccessful, as Turkish authorities, in violation of international law, routinely detain Syrians caught in the border regions and deport them back to Syria. Smuggling to Jordan from rebel-held Daraa is even more expensive and costs at least $2,000 according to locals. Therefore, these individuals remain inside and largely stay silent. Rebels and well-connected activists manage to come up with the smuggling cost and cross. For example, a large share of activists from eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta quickly crossed to Turkey after they were forcibly displaced from their homes in December 2016 and March-April 2018 respectively, following years of live under bombings and siege. Some of them have publicly expressed their disillusionment, while others express those views only privately.
Syrians have shown immense resiliency when dealing with the ramifications of war and when attempting to maintain a degree of human agency, even when faced with immense obstacles. At the same time, conversations with Syrians in rebel-held Syria reveal a deeply traumatized society, in which a sense of hopelessness and helplessness are pervasive. Unemployed civilians, activists and senior rebel leaders have all expressed to me a sense of being pawns in a game of foreign powers. The trauma due to witnessing atrocities, losing relatives, in addition to feeling trapped inside Syria while being deeply dissatisfied with life there, the loss of faith in leaders, ideals and humanity itself are all contributing to immense mental anguish. A particular painful subject raised again and again by Syrians is the sense that their life is devalued by outsiders who have not done anything to protect them in Syria, while preventing them from seeking asylum outside of Syria. In my conversations with Syrians, this pain oftentimes manifested itself with expressions of desire for death and discussion of suicide. Anecdotal evidence suggests that suicide, due to being a cultural taboo, is underreported in Syria. Another form of escape from this mental suffering is use of drugs, and in particular the widely available Tramadol.
Living Conditions in Rebel-Controlled Areas
About four million Syrians reside in areas under the control of various the Syrian rebel groups: in Idlib governorate and abutting sections of Hama and Aleppo governorates (2.9 million - 3.3 million); and in northern Aleppo and Efrin (800,000 - 1.49 million in mid-2018 according to a senior official with the local Stabilization Committee), an area controlled by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army factions. Thousands more are expected to reach Idlib in July after displacement from southern Syria as the area falls under regime control. Idlib, Hama, Daraa, eastern Ghouta, Homs and western and southern Aleppo governorate suffered great levels of destruction due to years of shelling and bombings by the Assad regime and Russia. Many villages and towns have been almost entirely emptied of civilians. Regime and Russian bombings have disrupted the operation of essential institutions such as hospitals, schools, bakeries and courts. The disarray of the local economy and the mass uprooting of populations contributed to widespread unemployment and dependence of aid for survival.
In this incredibly challenging environment, activists, local councils, the interim opposition government in exile, NGOs and rebel factions stepped up to provide aid, services and law and order. These efforts prevented the mass starvation of civilians, and many activists, local councils and NGOs have carried out essential work that has made life a little more tolerable for civilians inside Syria. At the same time, some rebel factions, NGOs and local councils exploited the chaos of the war to enrich themselves and benefit people close to them. Local courts and police forces established by rebel factions and local councils often avoid taking cases involving powerful individuals or rebels, or issue unfair verdicts, thus creating fertile ground for greater rebel abuses. This conduct created a two-tier system in most areas across rebel-held Syria, in which civilians without connections to armed groups, NGOs and local government structures or ones who cannot bribe judges can expect little aid and no recourse if harmed, while the powerful, and especially armed men, enjoy near-total impunity. These “second class” civilians along with some current and former activists and rebels are disillusioned with the rebel factions and at times with the revolution as a whole.
Rebel Abuses and Lawlessness
Throughout the war, rebels have engaged in looting, notably in eastern Aleppo city in 2012, Idlib city in 2015, Naseeb crossing in Daraa in 2015, al-Bab in northern Aleppo in late 2016 and Efrin in March 2018. While the phenomenon of looting by regime forces is much more systematic, this conduct by the rebels has angered many civilians who remained under the rule of the forces who looted their homes, businesses and factories.
Conversations with civilians across all rebel-held areas of Syria indicate that they are largely perceived as incompetent and abusive rulers, who fail to provide civilians with basic necessities, services and law-and-order and exploit their power advantage for their personal benefit. Naturally, constant regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling of these region makes any governance challenging, and much of popular anger, naturally, is directed at the regime. Some failings of local governance can be attributed to regime bombings and policies, mismanagement, lack of funding for aid and services. Many other problems stem from corruption, nepotism and wanton disregard for the lives of civilians.
Temporary ceasefires and “de-escalations” (more on them below) concluded between the backers of the regime and the opposition since 2016 have made the failing of rebel governance much more obvious in the eyes of the populace under rebel control. In areas where regime and Russian jets are (temporarily) not bombing, the main threats to civilians’ safety and livelihood stem from criminal gangs and rebel themselves. Phenomena of exorbitant transit fees, robbery, assassinations, carjackings, kidnappings for ransom, and murder are incredibly common across rebel-held Syria. In some cases the perpetrators are clearly rebels: for example in the collection of “taxes” in the rebel checkpoints, attacks on and robbing of NGOs, confiscation of private and public property, armed confrontation over minor issues, kidnappings and torture of suspected opponents and random unlucky civilians. Foreign donors invested heavily in setting up civilian-managed courts and “Free Police” departments, but civilians abused by rebels or criminal elements usually can not find recourse with the local courts or police, due to their ineptness, corruption, and dependence and subservience to the rebels, who are oftentimes the aggressors. One manifestation of rebels’ impunity is the habit of some rebel factions, and in particular Hayat Tahrir a-Sham, to wear balaclavas when interacting with the population under their control, enabling them to avoid identification, public opprobrium and justice. Rebels further undermine the civilian courts by operating a parallel “justice” system, in which the rebels serve as judges and executioners without proper proceedings.
Hossam, a medical worker in Daraa told me “most civilians here hate the rebels”, due to abuses against civilians, in particular kidnappings for ransom and of people who voice opposition to them. Raed, an activist in western Aleppo said that rebels kidnap “anyone who disagrees with them or says anything bad about them, civilian or rebel.”
In early 2017, a former Hayat Tahrir a-Sham fighter from Aleppo city who paid hundreds of dollars to smuggle himself into Turkey decided to return to Idlib after his cousin was kidnapped for ransom and executed because the family could not come up with the large sum ($14,000). The man described to me how he reconnected with his former brothers in arms to hunt down the kidnappers, who turned out to be members of Ahrar a-Sham. Through his connections, the young man was able to ensure that the kidnappers he and his comrades handed over for trial were executed. If the man had stayed in Turkey or did not have the necessary connections, the kidnappers would probably still be at large today.
Somewhat paradoxically, the lawlessness characterizing rebel rule is coupled with authoritarianism. All rebel-held areas have witnessed arrests, torture, disappearances and murder of those speaking out or posting on social media against the rebels’ conduct and ideology. At times, those involved in personal conflicts with faction members receive the same treatment. The degrees of authoritarianism varied by group and over time, with locals sensing that it got worse over time. In southern Syria, for example, media activists told me in 2018 that they are no longer able to post anything related to military or political affairs that is not within the generally approved guidelines of the factions, unless they are willing to face harassment and detention. While criticism of factions received such treatment in the past as well, gradually activists were no longer able to post anything that does not adhere to the official line of the factions. Eastern Ghouta witnessed particularly harsh repression by the two major factions, Jaysh al-Islam and Faylaq al-Rahman. Jaysh al-Islam operated at least six prisons in which detainees were routinely tortured and executed. Faylaq al-Rahman operated three central prisons in addition to small detention facilities in each town under their rule.
After the fall of eastern Ghouta, residents of these towns who decided to be forcibly displaced to the rebel-held north rather than live under regime control felt safer to express their views of the factions that ruled over them. Faysal, a media activist from Douma, explained in July 2018 while living in northern Syria why he was careful about clearly stating his opposition to Jaysh al-Islam while under their rule: “I spoke up and they threatened me online or though messages passed to my friends. Anyone against this Salafi-Jihadist thinking [of Jaysh al-Islam] was jailed. It’s the same behavior as the Assad regime: killing other thoughts, jailing people who disagree with their ideas and dirty project. Their sheikh accused us of secularism for holding the Revolution’s flag. During the sermons on Friday prayer they would say: ‘the mujhaideen, their shoes are better than your heads. They are defending your women and children.’” Resistance was particularly challenging: “We couldn’t [publicly] resist Jaysh al-Islam because we were in a small besieged area with this dictatorship of Jaysh al-Islam and if one of us opened his mouth, he would be immediately in jail or shot, or would have an accident at night.”
On top of the lawlessness and authoritarianism, life in rebel-held Syria is miserable. Civilians struggle to find work and survive on aid, support of relatives and friends (inside Syria and outside of it), selling whatever possessions they still have and going into debt. Although numerous local councils and NGOs operate across opposition-controlled Syria, and as mentioned, they get a share of the blame in the eyes of Syrians, many civilians hold the rebels ultimately responsible due to their outsized role in managing many aspects of life in areas under their military control.
Ibrahim, an unemployed man from western Aleppo, said: “The Free Army did not provide anything for the people to love it. There’s no security, the food became expensive, no jobs. The salaries of fighters in the [Free] Army are not enough for a fighter alone, [even] without a family.” Mustafa, an unemployed resident of Idlib told me: “The factions are unable to secure salaries for teachers and [local government] employees. They’re unable to provide financing, food, electricity, water and fuel. And it is the people who lost the most. If we had known that the world would not intervene, we would not have revolted and maybe we would have thought about another way to get rid of Assad.”
Hatem, a humanitarian worker in Quneitra described a growing distance between civilians and the rebel factions, which according to him emerged during 2016. “The situation is horrible, and the civilians are helpless. They are the ones dying and being displaced and they are the ones carrying the burden of the failures of the commanders and the ignorance of the armed factions. The civilians lost everything and are struggling to survive.” Mahmoud, an unemployed young man from al-Ghab plain: “The opposition isn’t qualified to lead a single village. No one is working to build a state, everyone is working for their own personal goals. Now, with money you can form your own militia, as long as you have money, and fight whomever you want.”
Adham, a commander with a Free Syrian Army faction in eastern Daraa told me in March 2017 that “unfortunately, because of greed for money of some, some rode the wave of the revolution for their personal interests – commercial and economic interests and personal gain - and established entities and military bodies that serve their interests.” He added that these people “follow the same policy as Bashar from injustice to oppression, devouring rights and violating [people’s] honor. The people are helpless. They are ruled by force and fear. All are afraid for their lives and the lives of their children.” He reflected that “A gap has emerged between the people and the revolutionaries… compared to the first two years of the revolution when there were no disagreements or discord. Civilians adopt a policy of distancing themselves [from the revolutionaries] because of some of the cases of injustice that have occurred. All are sick of the revolution because of the policies of the factions and aspire to the ending of the crisis.”
In part due to a desire to curb rebel abuses in northern Aleppo, Turkey trained and deployed a military police force to the area. Izar, an Arab resident of Aleppo governorate who serves in the military police, discussed with me in June 2018 efforts by some of the factions to spread a conservative version of Islam among Efrin’s Kurdish residents. Referring to the rebels, he said: “They are atheists. They do not fast [on Ramadan]. They drink alcohol that they stole from stores in Efrin. Don’t believe anything they say about being pious.” He added: “Those [displaced] from Ghouta who entered Efrin, most of them are thieves. They have no moral principles. There is a general [popular] stance against them. Most are members of the factions who engaged in theft in Ghouta.”
Abuses and Exploitation in Besieged Regions
Several pockets under rebel-control survived under regime siege for years until their violent takeovers by regime forces in 2015-2018. In these areas, rebels (along with regime officials and traders) exploited the acute needs of the besieged population for profit. After regime forces laid siege to Aleppo, some rebel groups began confiscating aid, stockpiling food and distributing it unequally - mostly to family members and those with connections to them.
In the besieged area in the northern Homs countryside, several large factions controlled unofficial and official crossings into regime areas and taxed traders who move goods through them, as well as civilians who wished to escape the enclave. According to a teacher in Rastan, the largest town in the besieged area, this has created a great deal of anger among the population toward those rebel groups, while smaller local groups continued to enjoy people’s support. In eastern Ghouta, the Jaysh al-Islam rebel group taxed goods that enter through the Wafideen crossing, and other rebel groups profited from taxes on goods that were smuggled in tunnels they constructed linking eastern Ghouta to neighborhoods in Damascus city under ceasefire deals with the regime. Civilians who wanted to be smuggled out had to pay exorbitant fees to be allowed to cross to Damascus. At the same time, hungry children who were caught stealing food to survive have been sentenced to jail and hard labor by Jaysh al-Islam’s courts. The early 2018, negotiations for surrender of Harasta, one of the towns in the besieged eastern Ghouta under the control of Ahrar al-Sham and local profiteers, were reportedly delayed due to the insistence of the rebels to take with them civilian goods that they have smuggled from Damascus and hoarded in underground storage.
Several locals in eastern Ghouta have told me that only members of the rebel factions, who benefitted financially from the groups, support them. A 2015 study by the London School of Economics found that “Relations between armed groups and residents are highly strained” in eastern Ghouta. “Citizens told us that they are fed up with the armed groups who coerced the population by manipulating aid and food supplies in a situation of near starvation. There was widespread resentment at the armed groups who have enough to feed themselves during a siege, enriching themselves while civilians suffer. This is being expressed overtly through protests. Not one participant expressed sympathy with the main armed groups of Ghouta, although all the participants were very clearly against the government and many had participated in the early days of the revolution.” Tamer, a displaced man residing in eastern Ghouta and wanted by the regime told me in late 2016, as he was recovering from a severe injury due to a regime airstrike, “I hope the regime retakes control of all the area [of eastern Ghouta]. These FSA groups are worse than the regime.”
Common Perception of Corruption in the Ranks of NGOs and Local Councils
Civilians in rebel-held areas do not blame the rebels alone for the poor governance and poor living conditions in their localities. Even if exaggerated and unjustified at times, the perception that aid NGOs and local councils are corrupt and distribute aid unevenly is widespread among civilians in rebel-held Syria. At least in some cases, external monitoring and investigations by donors confirmed these suspicions. Farouq, a displaced father who works as a mechanic with several rebel groups in Quneitra told me in July 2017: “Since the Quneitra governor Dirar al-Bashir assumed his office seven months ago, not a single organization distributed assistance to us. Any organization that wants to distribute, he forces them to go through him and takes a bribe to himself. He appointed a local council to benefit from this. We elected a council more than once and he rejected it and only [accepts] people he wants for the council.” Several interlocutors in Quneitra have complained to me about the endemic corruption in al-Bashir’s office.
Adnan, a Civil Defense employee living in Daraa told me: “unfortunately, the people in charge of NGOs, many of them are thieves. One of them became a millionaire.” adding “the people support my view that the members of the [local] councils are thieves. All of them are thieves. The local councils are the ones that receive assistance for us and they oversee its distribution, and they distribute it to people close to them and sell the rest. Civilians buy the assistance although it was given for free.” Adnan’s words have been confirmed to me by several locals in southern Syria who reported buying aid that was originally provided for free by NGOs and the Israeli government. Adnan added: “All the local councils are the same in all areas. Some NGOs are to be trusted, while others adopt the policy of theft as well.”
Abdul Qader, an activist residing in Idlib with years of experience in monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian NGOs inside Syria told me that all factions take a small share of the aid baskets intended for civilians “not just Hayat Tahrir a-Sham, but also Ahrar [a-Sham], Faylaq [a-Sham] and the Free Army.” The factions also force NGOs to provide a share of the job opportunities to their cadres, using this to “encourage capable people to join their ranks so they can work in NGOs.” Positions in NGOs are extremely lucrative as they pay much more than other positions in Syria and are not physically exhausting like construction or agriculture and less dangerous than joining a rebel group. According to Abdul Qader, this manner of staffing NGOs contributes to conflicts between NGOs who become associated with different rebel groups.
The Effects of Loses and Ceasefires
Several factors contributed to the disillusionment of the uprising’s supporters, and these factors became significantly more pronounced in the last three years of the war. The Russian intervention in late 2015 and subsequent shifts in the policies of the countries backing the opposition altered the balance of power in the civil war in favor of the regime. Many inside rebel-held areas understand that the rebels are on the losing and that this trend is unlikely to change. Thus, some see no point in continuing to pay a high price for resisting the regime when it is futile. Muneer, an unemployed man residing in besieged southern Damascus told me in 2017: “Civilians here have differing opinions regarding the revolution, and the advances of the regime in the war have increased those differences. Some are sure that the regime is strong and will remain, and the international community is not taking any steps to stop him, so they just want to keep their property and be safe.”
Despite the regime’s gains, it continues to suffer from a severe manpower shortage, only partially ameliorated by the dispatch of tens of thousands of foreign Shia fighters by Iran to Syria. To partially address this shortage, starting in 2016, the regime, Russia and rebels and opposition backers struck a series of ceasefire or “de-escalation” deals with the rebels, which allowed the regime and its backers to withdraw much-needed fighters from some fronts and dispatch them to other fronts against the rebels or ISIS. The rebels have been forced to largely abide by these ceasefires due to their relative weakness and pressure by their foreign backers, namely Jordan in the south and Turkey in the north. This reduction in fighting in 2016-2018 in southern Syria and in 2016-2017 in northern Syria has had significant and at times contradictory effects on public opinion in rebel-held Syria.
Rebels and Foreign Tools
Among ardent opponents of Assad, the decision of the rebels to participate in futile negotiations with the regime and abide by ceasefires while the regime does not negotiate in good faith and violates the ceasefires is seen as a capitulation to foreign pressure. Across rebel-held Syria, civilians, rebels and activists reported that the rebels are increasingly viewed as foreign agents or mercenaries. Omar, an unemployed and disabled former fighter with the jihadist Jund al-Aqsa Brigade who lives in the countryside of Aleppo stated: “unfortunately, the revolution (“thawra”) became [all about] wealth (“tharwa”). The souls of people changed. They’ve turned to love being [foreign] agents.”
This view was especially pronounced in southern Syria, where the rebels have rarely launched offensives against the regime since mid-2015, and in northern Aleppo, where the rebels are under direct control of the Turkish military and intelligence service since Turkey intervened directly in the war in August 2016 to carry out “Operation Euphrates Shield”, which prevented the Syrian affiliate of the PKK from forming a continuous autonomous area. Abdullah, a former clothes salesman in northern Aleppo countryside explained to me why he quit the Free Syrian Army: “Everyone follows foreign agendas. There is nothing called “revolution” left here. Everyone here is looking for money, no one cares if there’s a revolution or not. Now we are under greater oppression than under Bashar al-Assad because of the [opposition] commanders we have here. Here in Jarablus and Azaz, the Free Army robs the people, most of them are thieves. They steal cars, kidnap people to take [ransom] money. People miss the first days of the revolution.” Unable to find other employment, Abdullah rejoined the FSA several months later.
Mouaz, an Aleppan now residing in the northern Aleppo countryside reaffirmed Abdullah’s words when explaining why he also decided to quit the FSA: “the young men who are arriving now from Turkey [to join the FSA] and those inside the areas of Euphrates Shield only care about dollars. As long as there are dollars, they will be in the Euphrates Shield [factions], if the dollars stop, Euphrates Shield will stop too.” After months of unemployment, Mouaz rejoined the rebels’ ranks due to an inability to find any other form of employment. His view that the Euphrates Shield factions are Turkey’s contractors has not changed, but after being displaced from Aleppo city, got married and now has a young child to support.
In January 2018, as rebels were rapidly losing control over eastern Idlib to a regime blitz attack backed by the Russian air force, resulting in the displacement of over 200,000 civilians, the “Euphrates Shield” factions continued to adhere to their unofficial ceasefire with the regime. Later that month, these factions, augmented by thousands of newly trained fighters and Turkish soldiers, launched an operation against the Syrian affiliate of the PKK in Efrin. The timing of the offensive against the Kurdish militia angered many in rebel-held Syria. Social media posts from January derogatorily labeled the “Euphrates Shield” factions as “Erdogan’s Shield”, “the Shield of the Cross” [Christians], “the Dollars’ Shield” (a common label in Syrian circles for these factions) and “the Shield of the Traitors.”
Ibrahim, an unemployed man residing in the western countryside of Aleppo explained why he decided to quit his FSA group: “We are only fighting amongst ourselves now. All of the FSA is corrupt. There are no battles without foreign orders from countries abroad.” The commanders of the rebel factions, according to him, “became businessmen exploiting the blood of the people.”
Ismail, a photographer from Daraa, said that “the civilians are disappointed with the Free Army [factions] that fight in the western region [against ISIS] because they’re not fighting, just pretending. During the day, there’s fighting, and during the night, they bring in weapons and explosives to those they fight.” According to him, corruption was much less of a problem among rebel leaders before 2013, but that changed due to “policies of the supporting countries, corruption of military leaders… every faction has many goals before achieving the goal of the revolution, which is bringing down the regime.”
Another factor often cited by the disillusioned is rebel infighting, which increased in frequency following the conclusion of ceasefires due to the receding threat of the regime. The political differences over the ceasefires and ongoing negotiations with the regime along with the temporary receding of the common enemy, the Assad regime and its allies, contributed to the eruption of the fiercest rounds of infighting across rebel-held Syria in 2017 and 2018. This infighting is extremely unpopular among civilians, and is often perceived as contests over financial resources and control and not over ideology or combatting of corruption, which is how rebel groups frame their attacks. The infighting causes significant disruptions to daily lives due to road closures and checkpoints and oftentimes results in the death of civilians caught in the cross-fire.
A Syrian activist forcibly displaced from Darayya commented on rebel infighting in northwestern Syria in April 2018, addressing the two quarrelling factions, Jabhat Tahrir Suriya (Syrian Liberation Front) and Hayat Tahrir a-Sham: “All that is asked of them is not to include in their future statements any intonation or any words related to the revolution, religion or the interests of the people. Their statements should only inform us that the infighting is for personal interests, far removed from the general interests [of the population].”
Commenting on rebel infighting in July 2017, the popular Facebook page “Corruption in the Idlib Governorate” echoed a view I have heard from many interlocutors in Syria: “Everyone are following and witnessing what is happening and we are unable to do anything as a people [civilians]. We have no dog in this fight and it is always the people who is the sole loser from any problem that occurs in our midst… As for the factions, in my view all of them became one of the same and they do not offer anything new to the arena except disagreements and declarations that gives us a headache and every faction among them tries to show the people the extent of their innocence and concern for the welfare of the people.”
During another episode of infighting across Idlib and Aleppo governorates in February-March 2018, civilians once again had to hide in their homes and Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) clashed against the newly formed Syrian Liberation Front, a coalition made up of two Islamist rebel factions, Nour a-Din a-Zenki and Ahrar a-Sham. While revolutionary activists were pleased with the collapse of HTS across the northwest, many civilians were angry about the infighting and saw it as a threat to their safety. Numerous local councils formally adopted a neutral stance and locals in several towns such as Saraqeb and Mastouma protested and attempted to block the entrance of any faction into their town. Mustafa, an unemployed man residing in a border town in Idlib told me in February 2018: “the [supporting] countries are fighting each other in Idlib, their agendas and interests. Everyone wants to take control and supports the different sides [to achieve this]: Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and it’s the Syrian people who are the victims.” A resident of Maarat al-Numan commented on the infighting: “May God guide their fire [ensure it’s accurate]” adding “God, protect the civilians and that’s it.” In April 2018, the “Corruption in Idlib Governorate” Facebook page commented on the ongoing infighting: “May God bleed them out and replace them with honest ones. #Factions_Of_Hypocrisy”
Abuses Under the Rule of Hayat Tahrir a-Sham
Hayat Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), the current reincarnation of the former al-Qaeda Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, gradually consolidated its control over northwestern Syria and became the dominant force in Idlib and northern Hama after a round of infighting with other Islamist factions in 2017.
In Idlib and the southern and western Aleppo countryside, following HTS’ takeover of the area in August 2017, residents voiced fear that they will become “a second Mosul,” meaning, face great devastation because the jihadist HTS now has near complete control over the region. Some HTS members do not seem to care about the possible ramifications for civilians of their monopolization of power. Hameed, an HTS member residing in the western countryside of Aleppo told me: “Even if Idlib becomes second Mosul and they destroy Islam in it, men will come and liberate the land, and no one will be able to stop them.” When asked about whether he is concerned about the millions of civilians residing in the Idlib area, he replied “No, because God promised them heaven, by His grace, if they are patient. They are in the land of ribat (frontlines) and God willing, will die as martyrs. The highest dream for a Muslim is martyrdom. And these [dead] civilians will expose the truth about the West, that they are the real terrorists. The goal of the West and the foreign countries is clear to exterminate the Sunnis.” Not all HTS fighters are this callous. Sayf, an HTS fighter residing in Idlib told me that while his group will never support a ceasefire with the regime, he personally would agree to it “for the sake of the people. Because enough with the destruction and strikes and devastation. By God, the people have lost a lot.”
As detailed above, civilians not affiliated with factions perceive all major rebel groups in Syria to be involved in criminality, corruption, kidnapping and threats to opponents and diversion of aid. HTS’ rule stands out in the extent of its abuses and efforts to control and police civilian behavior and aid organizations. This aggressiveness stems from several factors: HTS is more ideologically rigid compared to other factions; the jihadist faction has a greater ability to enforce its rule without facing a backlash that would threaten its power due to its dominant positions; and possibly also due to the greater need to extract resources from the population and aid organization in the absence of a foreign sponsor.
Most rebel groups have applied some form of Sharia law in areas under their control, eliciting anger from a share of the population. The most aggressive enforces have been Hayat Tahrir a-Sham, the former Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda. HTS’ Sharia enforcers intervene in the workings of local businesses, educational institutions, NGOS, and mosques, levying fines that many Syrians can not afford. In 2017, when Hayat Tahrir a-Sham announced they’ll ban smoking in Idlib city, civilians grumbled. “People in Idlib city have reached the point where they’re disgusted with life under the rule of rebel factions,” stated a resident of the city in an interview to Syria Direct.
Photo taken in a shop in Idlib, August 2017.
“The prohibited and permissible in Idlib:
Hookah – Forbidden
Smoking – Permissible
Thinking – Forbidden
Killing - Permissible
Kidnapping – Permissible
Looting – Permissible
Stealing – Permissible
Weapons – Permissible
Explosions – Permissible
Chaos – Permissible
Poverty – Permissible
With greetings from a displaced person under the poverty line”
Ghassan, an NGO employee from Idlib, was kidnapped and tortured by HTS for three days along with three of his friends who are not involved in politics or combat. His sisters wanted him to file a complaint in court against his torturers, but he said “there’s no point. It’s better if we stay silent.” According to him, the court “has no rule over them. It cannot retaliate against them.” He went on to add: “Nusra [the original name of HTS, when it was officially an arm of al-Qaeda in Syria] say that they came to help the people of a-Sham [the Levant], but they are killing the people of a-Sham. At times, some civilians blame themselves for going out and revolting because now these people came to rule us. But the spirit of the revolution will remain in all of us.” Several months later, after he took a photo with the flag of the revolution in his town, Ghassan received direct threats from HTS and fled to Turkey where he now toils at a sweatshop.
In Idlib, the determination of Hayat Tahrir a-Sham to take over civilian administration, by forming the “Syrian Salvation Government” in November 2017 threatens to lead to defunding of civil society and local governance initiatives by foreign donors wary of supporting an entity linked to a jihadist groups. The takeover of different bodies by the “Salvation Government”, at times violently carried out by HTS cadres, was met with public opposition, in particular from students of the Free Aleppo University, but HTS’ military dominance and control of all major trade routes appears to have ultimately forced many towns to submit to the rule of the “Salvation Government”.
Common Positions of this “Silent” Group
While the worldview and attitude of each Syrian is different, including members of this largely silent group, some common themes emerge in conversations with them. This group tends to be nostalgic about the pre-war days, some of them repeating the expression “kunna ‘ayishin” (we used to be living), and express regret about the eruption of the uprising. In early 2017, Iyad, an unemployed man residing in a town that at the time was under a ceasefire agreement with the regime in Daraa and since then “reconciled” said: “Syria was blessed and there was safety and security and suddenly this blessing disappeared. Fuck the events that deprived us of security in Syria.” A former NGO director from Aleppo city described to me how some of the older aid recipients would feel anger toward the NGO employees, who were all revolutionaries, accusing them of being the cause of their suffering and their dependency on aid.
Members of this group are not regime supporters, yet many of them prefer to live under it as it would end bombings, provide them with greater stability and may lead to restoration of services. They oppose the launch of new offensives by rebels as they lead to intensified regime bombings, disruption of their daily lives, mass displacement and death. Mahmoud, an unemployed man residing in the al-Ghab plain in Hama told me: “Honestly, the people are simple and just want to live, but the disagreements in world politics is what destroyed the Syrian people. The civilians do not wish for the opening of a new battle, but the matter is out of their hands.” Referring to a battle in northern Hama launched by the rebels in March 2017 that led to the displacement of thousands of civilians he said: “most of the [frontline] villages were in a ceasefire with the regime, but when the battle started the ceasefire was over and they were displaced.” Yamen, an unemployed disabled former FSA fighter residing in Khan Sheikhoun, in the southern Idlib countryside, discussed the rebel offensive in northern Hama in September 2017: “most civilians are against launching the offensive. They are afraid of being displaced [due to regime bombings], as the winter season is approaching and living conditions are a little difficult. They would love for the quiet to remain.”
In July 2018, Hayat Tahrir a-Sham ordered the residents of towns and villages in northern Hama to evacuate so that the organization could launch an offensive against regime forces, in solidarity with the people of Daraa, who are enduring a regime offensive. Two days later, locals in 15 towns and villages bordering regime areas issued a statement refusing to evacuate, explaining that a new offensive would only bring destruction and displacement. Instead, they called on HTS to launch an attack on the besieged Shia villages of Fua and Kefraya in Idlib or Alawi villages in Lattakia.
Probably the most common feeling expressed by this group, but Syrians inside Syria in general is tiredness of the war, the suffering and the destruction. Ameer the electrician from Idlib told me: “Most people want the end of the war. They no longer care about whether the regime remains or goes. They care about their children’s education… and living with security.” Farouq from Quneitra echoed his words in saying: “Every home [family] here has been afflicted and every home want to end this to ensure that his family remains alive.”
The presence of this large group of people concerned primarily with survival and stability has far-reaching consequences regarding jihadist recruitment. Many pro-opposition Syrians, civilians are rebels alike, perceive the jihadist factions, chief among them Hayat Tahrir a-Sham, as the only force still seeking the overthrow of the regime and avenge the death of hundreds of thousands of people. This gives the jihadists legitimacy among the “revolutionary” population and ensures that they will be able to continue to find young Syrians to recruit as long as they are able to function. However, as far as the “silent” group is concerned, the insistence of the jihadist factions to keep fighting a losing battle against the regime only begets greater destruction and instability. Thus, while members of this group largely detest all factions, they are particularly displeased with HTS, especially since the regime and Russia often use HTS’ presence in an area as a pretext to attack it. This anger was pronounced in eastern Ghouta, where some areas were included in a temporary ceasefire in August 2017, while others were excluded, supposedly due to HTS’ presence there.
Ramifications of Dissatisfaction with Rebel Rule
Regime’s Strategy to Widen the Gap between Civilians and Rebels
This group of disaffected and silent Syrians largely made up of powerless individuals, yet its existence matters. First, members of this group include current rebel fighters and harboring such sentiments affects their willingness to fight the regime. The sense of disappointment and disgust with the opposition has also led some former rebels to lay down their arms, as documented above and elsewhere. The decision of activists to disengage from the revolutionary endeavor, oftentimes by leaving the country or shifting their focus to humanitarian aid provision alone, has knock-on effects on their communities’ willingness to continue resisting the regime.
Arguably the most important effect of these undercurrents has been the ability of the regime and its Russian backers to advance “reconciliation” deals with Syrians communities in rebel-held areas. The presence of a large group of people not interested in fighting the regime, coupled with local leaders interested in “reconciliation” (at times present inside but usually outside rebel-held territory) allowed Damascus to reach agreements to pacify or regain control of towns and communities with comparatively smaller employment of violence and expenditure of much-needed manpower.
Until 2018, depending on the relative strength of the rebels inside the town, the regime either demanded complete surrender under these deals and the displacement of those who refuse to live under regime rule, or it offered local rebel groups to maintain at least some control of their town or neighborhood, while prohibiting attacks against the regime. Many “reconciliation” cases to date were reached with communities that were subjected to a prolonged siege by the regime, which at times led to the death by starvation of civilians, and in particular children and the elderly. In other cases, however, such deals were reached with communities residing close to the frontlines, such as Rankous near the Lebanese border, Ibta’ and Sanamein in Daraa, Helfaya in Hama and Jaba in Quneitra. These deals allowed the regime to regain at control over these towns and prevent attacks on its forces from those locations. In some of these deals, local men had to join the armed forces or pro-regime militias. In exchange for “reconciliation”, towns and neighborhoods are spared from regime and Russian bombings and some basic services are provided, as well as UN-financed aid, which the regime consistently uses as a tool to compel surrender of populations across Syria. In 2017 and increasingly in 2018, as Assad’s forces and their allies decisively overpowered the opposition, all “reconciliation” deals essentially involved full surrender and lacked guarantees for local autonomy. Towns and neighborhoods that were previously allowed to maintain some autonomy, such as Barzeh and Qaboun in Damascus and Dmeir near Damascus, were forced to surrender it.
Rebels and civilians alike perceive attacks by the regime, sieges and negotiations as an effort to drive a wedge between the rebels, activists and the civilian population. Muneer, an unemployed man who at the time of the interview (early 2017) resided in besieged southern Damascus, asserted that the regime bombs civilian areas away from the frontlines, attacks that result in mass civilian casualties, to create a sense among civilians that the rebels are endangering them instead of protecting them. Yamen, the Khan Sheikhoun resident who survived the chemical attack on his town in April 2017, told me that he thinks the attack was intended to create tensions between rebels and civilians, since the town was used as a major transit hub for rebels and a reservoir of opposition fighters, who at the time launched an offensive against the regime south of Khan Sheikhoun.
One of the effects of the sieges imposed by the regime was the growing distance between the rebels and civilians. The sieges disproportionately affected civilians, since rebel groups are the ones with a monopoly over smuggling routes and their fighters have a source of income, unlike the majority of the civilians, who are unemployed. Muneer, who had survived the siege on the Yarmouk Camp, described the regime’s policy: “The regime wanted the civilians to submit and hate the rebels. The civilians noticed that the rebels, who continued to receive support from many sources, were not affected by the siege as much as they did.” Civilians resorted to eating grass and when the grass ran out, they approached the frontlines to try and pick anything edible but were shot by the regime. Civilians began dying in Yarmouk Camp due to starvation in late 2013. Residents protested the siege and tried to approach the frontlines and were shot again. In their desperation, civilians tried to show their willingness to submit to the regime. Muneer describes the scene “civilians continued to demonstrate for their right to live and eat. They raised the regime’s flag and approached the frontlines. Regime soldiers just watched.”
After two days of such protests, Muneer reports, the regime offered to negotiate and called on civilians to form a negotiation’s committee. These negotiations resulted in a deal under which the regime allowed the UN to deliver food in areas under its control on the outskirts of the besieged Yarmouk Camp in return for the departure of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters from the camp. According to the deal, which was never fully implemented, other fighters were to reconcile with the regime, and the camp would be declared as neutral. The deliveries of aid by UNRWA in January 2014 produced one of the most iconic images of the civil war in Syria, showing thousands of hungry civilians waiting to receive food parcels. Video from that aid distribution in January 2014 and subsequent aid distributions in February show the flag of the Assad regime, responsible for the starvation of civilians, foisted above the hungry crowds, signaling their submission to the regime.
In March 2018, as regime forces were advancing in eastern Ghouta, thousands of residents of towns still under rebel control at the time, Hamouriya, Kafr Batna and Saqba, came out in protests carrying the regime’s flag with (somewhat subversive) chants such as “we no longer want freedom, we want national unity.” Others hoisted the flag of the regime over their homes. In one such protest in Kafr Batna, the rebel faction Faylaq al-Rahman opened fire on the protesters, killing one of them. Similar scenes repeated themselves during the regime’s offensive on Daraa in June and July 2018, with pro-regime chants and flags being raised in multiple towns in eastern and western Daraa. Regime supporters online doubted the sincerity of such displays of loyalty to the regime during the eastern Ghouta assault, with one remarking “they used to chant ‘death over humiliation’ and now they call ‘humiliation over death.’” Conversations with civilians in Ghouta and Daraa indicate that while the skepticism of regime supporters is warranted, such protests do demonstrate the effectiveness of regime strategy of causing splits between the population and the rebels, splits that are exploited by local reconciliation committees, or individual leaders and clans supportive of surrendering to the regime.
Protesters in Jassem, western Daraa, chant “God, Syria, Assad and that’s it,” in late June 2018, when the town was still under rebel control as regime forces were advancing in the south. During the 2011 revolution, protesters changed this chant to “God, Syria, freedom and that’s it.”
A prominent activist residing in Douma, the largest city in eastern Ghouta, described in March 2018 the feelings among the 200 civilians with whom she shared an underground shelter (to which most residents fled due to non-stop regime and Russian strikes): “Everyone wants an end to this situation a day before tomorrow. Everyone is tired of the bombing and siege. Everyone does not like the statements about steadfastness that are going to give the regime more time to kill more people among us… in the front, there are righteous youths… we pray for them day and night, all of them are our children and our people, but unfortunately, the regime gathered massive reinforcements, and no matter how much the youths are able to take back, the regime is now able to advance. They think to themselves that they are protecting their honor and dignity, and this is increasing the hatred of the regime its maltreatment of civilians after it gains control of any new town… They want to hold their ground and fight the regime until the last drop of blood… On whose behalf do you want to remain steadfast???!!! For our sake… but we are tired and we want a realistic solution that will stop the bloodshed.. We can not deny that there are people in Ghouta who want to settle their cases [reconcile with the Assad regime]… those people did not participate in the revolution, and at the same time they did not harm us [revolutionaries]… They remained patient and carried the burden with us in Ghouta… And we can not deny that many people participated in the revolution, but have grown tired… And this is something many are afraid to proclaim… They are afraid to say we are tired and no longer able to continue our life in this way… To the cheerleaders of the factions who are speaking on our behalf abroad… Those [people] don’t have a drop of conscience... They live on top of a spring of money and their children are registered in the best schools and universities abroad… They do not lack anything, and on top of this they look down on us... Even the commanders, unfortunately, in their last speech, destroyed the morale of the people instead of lifting it… “
An LSE study from 2014 found that the presence of a large number of civilians per combatant increased the likelihood that an area would “reconcile” with the regime, due to civilian pressure on rebels. In 2015, as the regime regained control around Damascus, several besieged communities accepted “reconciliation” deals. The most common pattern of these deals involved a separation of the besieged community into revolutionaries – rebels, local opposition administrators, activists and their relatives – and civilians willing to be subjected to Assad’s rule. The revolutionaries would be displaced while the civilians remained under regime rule. In all these deals, the majority of residents chose to remain under Assad’s control. This is not an indication of support for the regime, but it demonstrates the prioritization of survival and maintaining one’s property over revolutionary ideals. Even in the forcible displacement deals concerning Daraya and Wadi Barada, in which the regime insisted on displacing all residents, probably due to the strategic location of those towns near military installation, most residents moved to camps for the displaced in areas under regime control
Farouq, a nurse in Douma, told me in late February 2018, as the regime escalated its attack on the besieged eastern Ghouta, “the people are hungry and tired.” He explained that their two possible options are terrible – displacement or remaining in their homes but under Assad control. He correctly anticipated that most people will choose to remain in Douma. “The people are willing to accept anything, but they won’t accept forcible displacement. They are ready to die rather than be displaced.” Personally, he added “I will not leave. I stayed throughout it all not to then leave to regions that are possibly suffering from the same thing my region endured.” When I asked him to clarify what specifically he meant by “suffering”, he said: “All the factions are the same in their tactics.” Notably, he did not mention regime bombings of rebel-held areas.
The regime and Russia, through its base in Hmeimin, Lattakia, are promoting “reconciliation” deals as the solution to the “crisis.” Russian forces on the ground have made an effort to convince members of “reconciling” communities to remain in their homes and in the case of Daraa, even attempted to force rebels to remain and surrender, without the option of displacement for most factions. The men among those who decided to remain under Damascus’ control are drafted into the regime’s army or militias, thus benefitting the war effort. Several militias have been formed out of former rebels and those wanted for military service in former rebel-held areas such as the “Hermon regiment,” the “Qalamoun Shield,” and the “Capital’s Shield” while other rebel militias simply switched to the regime’s side under their former leadership. Civilians of conscription age and those called up for reserve duty have been forcibly recruited from “reconciled” towns such as al-Tal, Wadi Barada and al-Qudsiya and from eastern Aleppo, which fell under regime control in December 2016.
The purpose of the “reconciliation” deals is to ensure that regions under regime control are inhabited solely by regime supporters and people sufficiently terrorized into submission. Those who acquiesce to the rule of the regime can remain in their homes, and in some cases return to their homes after the initial displacement. Assad expressed this goal when referring to the Syrian populace under regime control as “healthier and more homogenous society.” Since areas under regime control are religiously diverse, the homogeneity he is referring to is ideological – those residing under regime control have signaled their willingness to be obedient subjects.
The Hmeimin center is in talks with delegations from communities across rebel-held Syria, much to the chagrin of pro-revolutionary activists and rebels. Abdullah, a resident of southern Idlib, expressed a common view among fellow activists, labeling reconciliation as “a betrayal of the thousands of martyrs and detainees” while acknowledging that “many have exploited and stolen the revolution.” These delegations, however, enjoy the support of the silent group. Iyad, from Daraa, told me: “the people prefer reconciliation with the regime as it provides them with quiet. Fuck the opposition and fuck the regime. I want to live in peace and quiet and that’s it.” He claimed that “99% of people think like me. We’re tired.” While this estimate is clearly exaggerated, a 2016 survey conducted by The Day After, an anti-regime Syrian initiative, found that most residents of “reconciled” towns and neighborhoods were pleased with the reconciliation, as it stopped the bombings, allowed for freedom of movement and restoration of some public services.
In August 2017, when the union of opposition Sharia courts in southern Syria, the “House of Justice,” re-published on their Facebook page a statement voicing opposition to any reconciliation, the statement was ridiculed by commenters. One wrote: “Gather the thieves, criminals and extremists first and then go around showing you’re tough to the world”, another commented: “It’s best if you keep your mouth shut… We’re suffering from the situation and you’re philosophizing about reconciliations”. One simply wrote: “Lick my ass.”
The vehement opposition of the revolutionaries to the reconciliations and the support they enjoy among a segment of the population stems in part from the differing consequences of reconciliation deals for these two groups: while the revolutionaries would be displaced from their homes, the silent group would be able to stay in their towns, live without air raids and hope to see services restored and standards of living improved. Said, an artist residing in Daraa told me: “The reconciliations will not apply to those who are activists or armed men in the Free Army, only on the regular people who do not have a connection to the revolution. The regime takes into account what people wrote publicly on Facebook.” The UN has documented detention of civilians in 37% of “reconciled” areas, but the majority of those who surrendered to the regime have been spared, thus far. “Reconciliations” entail returning to live under a brutal police state, but Syrian citizens have decades of experience of living in fear, keeping their mouth shut and trying to stay out of trouble.
To prevent “reconciliation” deals, rebels have threatened, arrested and assassinated those negotiating with the regime. The researcher Aymenn al-Tamimi documented several decisions and statements by the Sharia Committee in the partially besieged Beit Jann pocket in the western Damascus countryside against individuals involved in reconciliation talks with the regime. The residents of the pocket eventually “reconciled” with the regime in December 2017, with most residents and rebels deciding to remain under regime control. in In September 2017, the Daraa “House of Justice” arrested a delegation that was negotiating a “reconciliation” deal for the town of Sheikh Miskin. The deal would allow residents of the town who fled it when the regime recaptured it in January 2016 to return, probably in exchange for forcible recruitment into the regime’s militias or army. This move by the “House of Justice” was met with anger by commenters on Facebook. One former resident of Sheikh Miskeen commented “we want to reconcile and return to Sheikh Miskeen… To all those thugs who want to examine us and make themselves out to be our guardians, they destroyed the country. Nothing came out of you except theft, destruction and displacement of the world.” He further accused the opposition’s leadership of preventing the rebels from liberating Sheikh Miskeen due to Jordanian instructions. Since mid-2015, Jordan has indeed threatened to cut off salaries of fighters who take offensive actions against the regime. Another commented “when we left and slept in the streets and our homes were stolen, where was the House of Justice? The House of Justice are liars.”
The group supporting reconciliations has developed a narrative that is counter-revolutionary (supporting reconciliation with the regime) but at the same time defiant. According to this narrative, staying under regime control or returning to live under it and clinging to one’s land and home, thus thwarting the regime’s effort to displace Sunni Syrians from their homes, is the honorable act. A former fighter who surrendered to the regime in Barzeh, Damascus city, told Syria Direct: “We lived through humiliation and dishonor. We’re disgusted by this life and just want to be done with everything. There isn’t anything that can be called a “revolution” in Syria anymore. Rather, there are only those who sell the blood of their fellow Syrians. The fighters who left to Idlib are not honorable—they left their homes and revolutionary morals behind.”
Hadi al-Munjed, a reporter with the opposition TV channel Orient News in eastern Ghouta, explained his decision to cross to regime-held Damascus in a Facebook post (on an account taken down since): “I don’t want to leave Ghouta, I don’t want to be displaced. I don’t want to leave the scent of the soil of Ghouta, where I grew up and lived in. How can I leave my mother and sister and my family. I did not betray the revolution, but when I see those who are now calling for a revolution, saying that I will defend you, fleeing before me… The people of Ghouta, you are my family and people. Daraa sold us, [we got statements of] patriotisms and words, [but] we didn’t see anything [real] from it. Our commander sold us [too] and we lost everything. There’s nothing else to lose except the scent of the soil of Ghouta, by sisters and my family. The people of Ghouta, where are you going to go? To Efrin which is under the control of mercenaries that protect [Turkey’s] borders?”
Support for Foreign Rule
In the few areas remaining outside of regime control, the need for protection from Russian and regime airstrikes as well as rebel misrule created the desire or at least acquiescence to foreign military rule. Northern Syria is divided between areas under direct Turkish control (northern Aleppo and Efrin) and areas with presence of Turkish observation posts (Idlib, northern Hama, southern and western Aleppo). In areas under direct Turkish control, the Syrian factions are made up of locals and displaced Syrians trained, financed, armed and organized by Turkey. Due to widespread abuses of these factions, including robberies, kidnappings, extortion and infighting that harms civilians, some Syrian civilians in the area wish for greater direct Turkish control over their areas. Conversations with residents of the area indicate that the rebels are seen as renegades who can only be constrained by a powerful Turkish presence.
Wael, an unemployed resident of ‘Azaz, northern Aleppo, told me in July 2018 that residents of the area are interested in “direct Turkish supervision with participation of the residents of the area” because residents are tired of the lawlessness they are experiencing. This would entail placing the rebel factions under direct Turkish command, removing the factions from cities and preventing their interference in the governance of the area, which would fall under the control of local Syrian councils and Turkey. Other residents of the area are not interested even in civilian opposition control due to perceptions of their mismanagement and corruption, and prefer full direct Turkish control. Even in the Kurdish region of Efrin, residents prefer dealing with the Turkish military, which has a bloodied history with the Kurds, rather than factions made up of fellow Syrians. Kurdish residents of the region told me that the Turkish soldiers are less corrupt and abusive and sometimes tried to intervene to prevent abuses of the Syrian factions.
Across Syria, civilians and combatants alike are tired of the war and many who have previously dared to dream of a different Syria have been broken by seven years of war and deprivation. Many Syrians are willing to submit themselves to Assad’s police state once again in exchange for safety from bombings and the provision of basic services. Damascus is winning the war in Syria not simply by regaining territory, but also by breaking the spirit and willingness to resist the regime in areas under its control and areas still outside of it.
The regime currently requires manpower to retake rebel-held areas, and therefore has the incentive to continue pursuing a policy of ideological engineering by absorbing Sunni population without their rebellious elements. The regime, however, is fully aware that many of those residing under its control resent the regime and may rise up against it once again. As long as the war continues, the regime’s focus is on the battlefield. As the war winds down, the regime may turn to dealing with those disloyal elements.