Presidents ISIS Strategy Continues to Fail – Free Syrian Army Rebels Leaving the Battlefield Pursued by ISIS

Vanguard of Syria’s Uprising, Now on the Run From ISIS, Weighs a Bleak Future

Source: New York Times – Anne Barnard (01/02/2015

isis-army-700x430ANTAKYA, Turkey — The cigarette smoke in the hotel room grew as thick as the cottony fog outside in this Turkish border town, as Syrian men, night after night, told their war stories. Their memories veered from exhilaration to black humor to terror, but mostly they told of what they had lost: Friends. A fiancée. An arm. A country. None were out of their mid-20s.

Three were insurgents, or had been. One had helped capture an army tank; another had hidden in tall grass as tank fire killed his raiding party. They told of abandoning one insurgent group after another, finding commanders too violent, too corrupt, too disorganized, too pious, not pious enough.

Three others, civilian antigovernment activists who broadcast war news on social media, were on the run from Islamic State extremists. For them, the fog was a comfort, shrouding their movements as they drove to the hotel. They had trekked for days from the remote Syrian provincial capital of Deir al-Zour, holding their breath at Islamic State checkpoints, hoping to find safety here in southernTurkey.

But they still felt hunted, sure that the group had eyes and ears everywhere, among bearded strangers in Syrian-run cafes or in hotels welcoming foreign fighters. They did not tell friends where they were staying, and they did not know when or whether they could go home.

Not long ago, these men would have felt secure here. Early in the Syrian conflict Antakya, long a sleepy provincial town, became the high-octane hub of an insurgency that thought it was winning. Back then, young fighters and activists, including some of those recently huddling in the hotel room, filled cafes to brainstorm, dreaming of new power and new freedoms.

But some of those flocking to Antakya would later become their enemies. The city was becoming a way station for foreign jihadists, who spent lavishly, even spurring a market for Taliban-style dress. They ultimately transformed Syria’s battlefield, many of them coalescing into the radical Islamic State group, which routed or co-opted other insurgents and shifted the West’s focus from ousting President Bashar al-Assad to countering the extremist group’s momentum. Now, the group has turned violently against any Assad opponents who fail to flock to its banner — like the young men in the hotel room.

Those men are part of what is looming as a lost generation of young Syrians. They are marooned in southern Turkey, unsure how to envision their future, and their hopes are deflating as rapidly as Antakya’s wartime boom.

The small sample of men who filed through the hotel room to talk discreetly to reporters were from Syria’s north, east and south, some of them old friends, like the three from Deir al-Zour, others meeting for the first time. Yet all but one, a hard-line Islamist, had reached the point of wondering whether armed revolt — or even the civil protest movement that preceded it — had been a mistake.

“I regret,” said one civilian from Deir al-Zour, a web designer and English literature graduate with a narrow, angular face and an intense gaze. “The best people in my country, they have been killed in this revolution. The worst people have controlled the country. And the goal of our revolution is not accomplished.”

“My best friends are dead,” he went on. “We lost things.”

His black ski jacket concealed the stump of his left arm. He was hit by shrapnel while filming a battle, and drove to four hospitals in the desert province before finding one with doctors and supplies; by then, his arm was unsalvageable. Later, when the Islamic State took over his town, he said, the extremists gave him a choice: Put his media skills to work for them, or die.

“I cannot see my family,” he said, like most of the others, requesting anonymity for his safety. “Besides, our beautiful country was destroyed.”

One of his friends, who gave only a first name, Hazem, said that some things he could never regret, like the thrill of his first protest, when his girlfriend whispered in his ear her excitement at defying the authorities. (She later married someone else because Hazem’s activities were too risky.)

He long brushed away doubts, not wanting to betray his cause. But what brought him to regret, he said, was the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, because it divided the rebellion, pitting brother against brother in battling other insurgents.

Listening from the scratchy carpet was Tarek Fares, who had played a more direct role, fighting on the front lines. But he flatly called the shift from protests to armed revolt a mistake. It allowed the government to cast itself as fighting terrorism, he said, and sowed divisions among insurgents over arms and money.

The man who lost an arm shot back that, with security forces shooting protesters, “we could not have won peacefully either.”

A first sergeant in Air Force intelligence from southern Syria, Mr. Fares defected in 2011 and fled to Turkey. He made his way back to the Damascus suburbs with arms for Ahfad al-Rasoul, part of the loose-knit, Western-allied Free Syrian Army. But that group accused him of treachery for coordinating with other insurgents, their putative allies.

He and some friends switched to an Islamist group. But its leader, he said, was more interested in forcing them to pray than in fighting, and scolded them for dancing to “Gangnam Style” in their makeshift barracks.

Mr. Fares started his own group. But because he and his fighters were not from the area, no one would sell them scarce food. He disbanded the group, he said, after he could scrounge only a few pounds of lentils to feed 50 fighters.

Now he belongs to no group (he has worked occasionally as a guide for New York Times reporters), and misses the lights and nightclubs of Damascus.

The lone true believer — the only one still taking part in battles — belonged to a hard-line Islamist (but anti-Islamic State) group, Ahrar al-Sham. While he condemned the Islamic State’s leadership, he said its fighters embodied true jihad.

Given this landscape, the other men said, many anti-Assad Syrians are willing to hear out a proposed peace initiative from Moscow, even though it could leave Mr. Assad or much of his government in power.

“A wide spectrum” would accept a deal if “he goes but his regime stays,” Hazem, from Deir al-Zour, said. “Syrians are bored of this humiliation and displacement.”

Such views have surprised some officials in the exile opposition coalition, who have dismissed Moscow’s proposal.

Hazem’s injured colleague said he expected little from Moscow or the world. Asked how the war would end, he said simply, “It will not end.”