Too Many, Too Late
Syria’s beleaguered moderate rebels have been begging for U.S. airstrikes for years. Now that the bombs are falling, they wish Washington would send its planes back home.
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Ahmed Abu Khalaf will never forget the time that his interrogator from the Islamic State quoted George W. Bush to him. It was mid-August, and Abu Khalaf, a powerful rebel commander in the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, was locked up by the jihadist group as part of its bid to secure control over the city. The interrogator, an Iraqi, was condemning Abu Khalaf for refusing to leave his Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated brigade to join the Islamic State. "You’re either with us or you’re against us," the interrogator said.
In the early days of Syria’s revolt, Abu Khalaf gained prominence as the leader of the Abbas Brigades, a collection of civilians who picked up guns to protect protesters from attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. As the protests turned to civil war, the Abbas Brigades seized most of Deir Ezzor from the regime’s control. In the past year, however, Abu Khalaf has seen that all stripped away: The Islamic State has swept over most of Deir Ezzor, vastly surpassing the FSA-affiliated forces in weapons and wealth.
Abu Khalaf was arrested a month and a half ago as the jihadists tightened their grip on the provincial capital. His interrogators, he said, simultaneously accused him of working with the CIA and implored him to join the jihad. The Islamic State kept Abu Khalaf for 10 days, after which it expelled him from the areas under its control. He now bides his time in Turkey, nursing his grievances toward the group responsible for his fall from grace. "Daesh [a derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State] is a strategic partner of the Assad regime," he said.
But Abu Khalaf’s hatred of the Islamic State doesn’t mean he supports the U.S.-led airstrikes targeting the group. He is scathing in discussing U.S. strategy in Syria: The Islamic State fighters, he says, have hidden in civilian areas, meaning that the American air attacks are only liable to bring another tragedy for the Syrian people.
"Did you see what they did, hitting the grain silo?" he asked, referring to an alleged attack in Aleppo province. "They are just making another tragedy for civilians. Shame on them."
Deir Ezzor, in northeast Syria, has been a prime target since the U.S.-led airstrikes on the Islamic State began on Sept. 22. The strikes have been focused on the oil facilities in the province, which provide the Islamic State with much of its funds.
America’s most plausible allies on the ground in Deir Ezzor, however, remain critical of the international effort. Foreign Policy interviewed six FSA commanders from the province who are currently exiled by the Islamic State and hiding out in southeastern Turkey. All of them were arrested at some point by the jihadist group; some were tortured. They all agree that the U.S. airstrikes in their home country are a bad idea.
FSA fighters and commanders complained to Foreign Policy that they have received no increase in support since the international effort to combat the Islamic State began, despite promises from the Obama administration that the United States would begin supplying arms to the rebels. The FSA fighters also disparaged the airstrikes, saying they would mainly kill civilians and give the Assad regime a chance to gain ground.
Anti-Assad Syrian civilians have echoed this opposition. While Islamists have seized on the attacks to brand U.S. President Barack Obama as an "enemy of God," even the traditionally secular protesters in the town of Kafr Anbel held a poster blasting the coalition for killing civilians.
Shuja al-Nuweiji, the commander of al-Muhajireen ela Allah Brigade, was one of the FSA leaders beaten by the Islamic State. After the jihadists arrested some of his fighters in the city of Raqqa, he tried to play hardball, arresting some of Islamic State fighters in Deir Ezzor. When he fell into the group’s hands earlier this year, they suspended him by his wrists from the ceiling and beat him with pipes.
Nuweiji helped form one of the first FSA brigades to protect civilian demonstrators, back in 2011 when protests were the favorite weapon of the anti-Assad movement. He ruefully recalls the time when the jihadist presence in Deir Ezzor was no more than 15 fighters based in the town of al-Shahil. His first encounter with them, he remembers, was when he visited the town and started smoking a cigarette in a public place. "Some of them came, and told me it was forbidden," he said. "I said, ‘You can’t tell me that — go away.’"
By summer 2013 Nuweiji could no longer be so dismissive toward the Islamic State. He became scared of the jihadists’ growing power. The group had seized the oil refineries and factories ringing Deir Ezzor, and had seemingly endless supplies of money and weapons at just the time that the FSA brigades’ support was drying up.
Since Nuweiji’s first attempt at confronting the Islamic State ended in failure, the group has only tightened its grip on Deir Ezzor. His brigade still occupies the neighborhood in the city where it is based, he says, but they are badly outgunned by the Islamic State’s fighters, who demand that they hand over any weapons or ammunition they receive, which will then be parceled out as the jihadists see fit.
Exiled to Turkey after his second arrest by the Islamic State, Nuweiji has held endless meetings with fellow FSA commanders in Gaziantep to try to organize an offensive back in Deir Ezzor. However, he says, all their efforts continue to run up against one unavoidable fact: If they don’t receive more weapons, they can’t accomplish anything.
"If the United States doesn’t support the brigades, it’s just useless," he said. "It won’t work without support on the ground."
The United States has said that it will increase its training of Syrian rebels, and has deployed a military assessment team to Saudi Arabia to do so. But U.S. leaders don’t seem to be in any great hurry: As Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey put it, "We have to do it right, not fast."
What’s more, Nuweiji fears that by striking the Islamic State, the international coalition is giving the regime in Damascus another lease on life. "Every day, Assad tries to take another place," he said. "Every day after the airstrikes started."
For many of the FSA-affiliated rebels now in Turkey, life is slow. With their brigades decimated and no support on the horizon, many former rebels stay up long into the night drinking coffee or playing cards with their friends. In the eastern city of Urfa, one of those fighters is Bashar al-Harba. In 2013 he was a local commander for Ahfad al-Rasoul, a Qatar-funded group that was destroyed in fighting with the Islamic State earlier this year. Harba himself was placed under house arrest by the jihadist group, and only managed to dodge an imprisonment he feared would end in his execution by escaping to Turkey.
"We have more than 50 people here," he said, referring to his comrades in Urfa. "We are ready to go inside [Syria] when we find any organization to support us."
The search for supporters, however, has so far been fruitless. Harba contrasts his life of near-poverty in this backwater Turkish city with that of the fighters who relented and joined the Islamic State. The leaders of the brigades that joined the group, he says, are showered with money to distribute among their fighters, while the foreign fighters receive $500 per month, a good wage for Syrian fighters.
Harba is still on the fence about the U.S.-led air campaign. If he can find the money and the weapons to go to war against the Islamic State, he promises to be on the front lines. "We just want to fight the Islamic State; we don’t want to fight the regime right now," he said. "It’s the only goal for us — kill the Islamic State."
But at the same time he fears that the U.S.-led air campaign will simply kill civilians without denting the Islamic State’s grip on the province. With Deir Ezzor already racked by violence between the regime and the jihadists, that’s the last thing his hometown needs. As he puts it, "We care more about the civilians than we care about the Islamic State."