5 Years On, Syria's Moderate Rebels Are Exhausted And Sidelined

Mar 1, 2016
Originally published on March 1, 2016 8:58 am

At a rehabilitation center in Turkey, just over the border from Syria, Bassam Farouh raises and lowers leg weights, wincing and holding onto a rail.

The gray-haired Farouh is a Syrian rebel fighter who battled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army for years, until he was wounded in a Russian airstrike on his hometown across the border two months ago.

"It wasn't a war at first, it was a revolution against the system," he says. "We were trying to take a stance against the system and that led us here."

Farouh says the sweetest days were the early ones, when the uprising against Assad began in 2011, before other countries began funding their chosen factions in Syria. Before the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

His brigade still calls itself part of the Free Syrian Army, but they're a much weaker faction now. His town, Marea, is now facing three frontlines – the Islamic State, the Syrian government and Kurdish-led fighters. All are better-funded and organized than his group of home-grown fighters trying to hold onto their land.

From the first days of their uprising, the U.S. sided with the opposition to Assad. I ask what American support his men have received.

"Frankly, the Americans were supporting us, but just for appearance's sake," he says. "But it's not about the support. What the Americans had to do was take a decision."

Critical Of The U.S.

He believes, despite what officials say, the U.S. never truly wanted Assad out as Syria's leader. Thanks to American military and CIA programs, and U.S. cooperation with other Arab states, some weapons and training were sent to the rebels. But it's never been enough to tip the balance.

The result has been that groups like the Free Syrian Army have lost ground to extreme Islamist groups and to Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran.

Russia is a forceful ally of Assad, and rebels have watched the American-Russian cooperation with alarm.

"I believe the Americans for the thousandth time are sending the message that they don't want anything to do with the situation in our area or with the people there," says Bassam Haji Moustafa, a representative of a rebel brigade.

The U.S. and Russia led international efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities in Syria that took effect on Saturday. While some shooting continues, the overall level of combat has tapered off substantially.

Peace talks between Syrian factions are supposed to begin again next week. But after a series of victories by the Syrian regime last month, the opposition will be negotiating from a position of weakness.

"We feel our situation as rebels is really bad," Moustafa says. "The global community is actually portraying us as terrorists, extremist Islamists."

While the U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State since the summer of 2014, many in Washington see extremists dominating the battlefield in Syria, and there's little sign the U.S. will ramp up assistance to rebel forces.

Extremist Groups Dominate

One rebel commander says he thinks the great mistake of the uprising was that the extremists have always been more organized than the moderates. That includes the Islamic State, which holds much of eastern Syria, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate active in northern Syria.

But commanders and ordinary people insist there are still men fighting only to defend their homes from Assad's regime. They're still receiving support from the U.S. and its allies.

In the Turkish border town of Kilis, I meet a slight man named Abdulmoneim Mohammad, who fled his home after Russian airstrikes cranked up earlier this year.

He says he never fought against the Syrian army, but when they started employing foreign fighters from Iran, Lebanon and even Afghanistan, he felt it was his duty. Now, with Russian air support, the Syrian regime and its allies have taken his village. He's too afraid of them to go back.

Unless President Obama decides to intervene on our side, he says, "it will be over in a year." He thinks maybe an Afghan family will live in his house. And, he says, it seems the international community is OK with that.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Syria's civil war goes into its sixth year this month, and it's a complicated mess of local factions and international supporters. It began with a small uprising, and the U.S. supported those rebels. NPR's Alice Fordham reports that now they feel abandoned.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: With slow, heavy steps, a young man walks a treadmill in a physical therapy center in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. Next to him, a gray-haired man raises leg weights. His name is Bassam Farouh.

BASSAM FAROUH: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says it was Russian airstrikes that wounded him - strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad. Farouh's been fighting against Assad for years.

FAROUH: (Through interpreter) It wasn't a war at first. It was a revolution against the regime.

FORDHAM: Farouh's brigade still calls itself part of the Free Syrian Army. But that's a much weaker faction now. His town is facing three front lines - ISIS, the regime and Kurdish-led fighters. I asked what American support his men got.

FAROUH: (Through interpreter) They're supporting us just for appearance's sake. But it's not about the support. What the Americans had to do was make a decision.

FORDHAM: He believes the U.S. never truly wanted Assad out of power, even though that's what officials still say. American military and CIA programs and U.S. cooperation with other Arab states still see some weapons and training sent to the rebels. But it's never been enough to tip the balance. Last month, the U.S. and Russia led international efforts to broker a cease-fire in Syria. As Russia is a forceful ally of Assad, rebels have watched the American-Russian cooperation with alarm. Here's a representative of a rebel brigade, Bassam Haji Moustafa.

BASSAM HAJI MOUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) I believe the Americans, for the thousandth time, are sending the message that they don't want anything to do with the situation in our region.

FORDHAM: Peace talks between Syrian factions are meant to begin again next week. But after a series of victories by the regime, the opposition will be negotiating from a position of weakness. Here's Moustafa again.

MOUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) We feel our situation as rebels is really bad. The global community is actually portraying us as terrorists - extremist Islamists.

FORDHAM: Indeed, the rebellion in Syria has become steadily more and more extreme. And the U.S. does back some factions to battle ISIS. But commanders say there are still ordinary, moderate people fighting Assad's regime, and they say the weapons and support they get from the U.S. and their allies have not been enough. In the Turkish town of Kilis, I meet a slight man named Abdulmoneim Mohammad, who fled his home after regime forces advanced there. I ask if he was a fighter.

ABDULMONEIM MOHAMMAD: Ya'ani.

FORDHAM: Sort of.

MOHAMMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: He says he actually didn't take up arms until he saw Assad's forces getting real, on-the-ground help from their foreign allies, including Iranians, Lebanese and even Afghans.

MOHAMMAD: (Speaking Arabic).

FORDHAM: "Unless Obama decides to intervene on our side," he says, "it will be over in a year." He thinks maybe an Afghan family will live in his house, and says it seems to him the international community would be OK with that. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Kilis, Southern Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.