Hundreds of fatigued Syrian rebels give up the fight
For two years, Emad Fa’aas was a devoted rebel fighter. In the early days when Syrian rebels took up arms against the government of President Bashar Assad, he joined other fighters in attacking military checkpoints, sometimes traveling to neighboring provinces.
When the fighting spread into his city of Aleppo he spent long stretches fighting on the front lines, at times separated from his family for an entire month.
These days his hands are stained red, from cherry ice cream.
The front lines are not far away, but now he holds an ice cream scoop rather than a gun. Gone are his fighting days, replaced with working at the nameless shop, with a commercial coffee maker but otherwise bare shelves, that he recently opened to support his family.
“I left because I no longer had the ability to feed my kids,” said Fa’aas, 39, who has a wife, two sons and a young daughter. “My jihad now is for my family.”
He joins the ranks of hundreds, if not thousands, of exhausted and disillusioned Syrian rebel fighters who have left the armed opposition to rejoin civilian life and resurrect a semblance of their former lives even as the country around them continues to crumble.
More than three years after the Syrian uprising began, marked by hope that it would succeed quickly, as in Tunisia and Egypt, optimism has been replaced with a sense of failure and a sentiment that the conflict has wrought little but destruction and loss.
Some have put down their guns and returned to the farming fields they left when the uprising began.
“A lot of people left because it’s taking so long; they thought it was going to be a matter of yelling ‘God is great’ twice in protest and a few hits and it would be over,” said Samir Zaitoun, a commander with Al Tawheed Brigade.
By his estimate, nearly half the fighters in Aleppo have left over the last year, most of them from small rebel groups. In the last six months the attrition has picked up as an emboldened Assad government retakes territory throughout the country: in Damascus and Homs, in central Syria, as well as in Aleppo, in the north.
But as the war continues in their absence, the departure of so many Syrian rebels could lead to more foreign fighters flocking into the country to fill the vacuum and join the fight against the government.
“It’s better for me to pursue my education and my future,” said Salaah, a former rebel fighter who did not want to give his full name for fear of endangering his family. “There is very little hope. These years were lost from our lives.”
The 21-year-old, who left school when fighting engulfed his town, lost faith in the opposition and finally decided to defect when the Turkish refugee camp where his family is staying began offering classes for high school seniors. Within days he sold his Kalashnikov rifle for $1,000 and headed to Turkey.
“We did what we could,” he said. “But in the end the country has been destroyed.”
The first thing Fa’aas sold was his Kalashnikov.
Gradually his savings were depleted, and as the situation in rebel-held parts of Aleppo worsened amid government air bombardments, the boutique where he still occasionally worked sewing formal and wedding dresses closed down.
To feed his family, he sold his rifle to his militia’s commander.
When that money ran out, he moved on to other possessions.
For months he sold piece after piece in his home, near the front lines in the Old City, starting with the imported bedroom set and two cameras he bought while vacationing in Cyprus. Then every item in the living room, including his mother’s sewing machine. He couldn’t part with the three comforters in the bedroom that she had sewn and embroidered by hand. But moving on to the kitchen, he sold everything except a broken freezer.
“Every time I would need money I would sell something,” he said. He always sold at a fraction of the value, his desperation driving the price down further.
“Don’t look at these sofas,” he said in the living room, indicating a broken, lopsided couch given to him by a friend. “There was a fancy living room set in here. All of this is not mine.”
The rest of the home’s furnishings had been similarly assembled through the kindness of family and friends.
Now, the house where he raised his children lies abandoned, unrecognizable. A government sniper shoots at it every time the curtains flutter.
Fa’aas had already endured crueler losses.
In late 2012, as the city of Aleppo was breaking apart into government and opposition-controlled areas, his 8-year-old son, Muhammad, was shot and killed at a military checkpoint. Muhammad had fallen ill and his uncle was taking him to a hospital when they were stopped by soldiers.
When the soldiers checked the boy’s identification, they discovered he was the son of a wanted man. They shot him twice while he was still sitting in the back seat of the car, Fa’aas said.
Less than a year later, another son, Amin, who was also 8 at the time, died of unknown, apparently natural causes. Though Fa’aas was torn by their deaths, especially Muhammad’s, they served to further motivate him to fight the government.
As he spoke, his 2-year-old daughter walked in dressed in pink Minnie Mouse sweatpants and shoes, small hands tightly gripping two bags of snacks, and plopped herself in her father’s lap. Fa’aas twirled her little ponytail between his fingers.
Each time Fa’aas was released from a government prison, after suffering brutal beatings and torture, he returned to the battlefield with a renewed fervor.
His breaking point came when his wife fell ill and he had no money for medicine and nothing left to sell.
He would be gone for a month at the front lines, and when he returned to his family he had nothing to give them. Wages were occasionally promised but never delivered.
He went to his militia commander and begged for 500 Syrian pounds, about $3.35. The commander sent him away with no money.
“We don’t want personal funds, but we need to support our families,” he said from the small, sparsely furnished friend’s apartment where Fa’aas and his family have been allowed to live. “We would go to the militia leaders and they would say, ‘We don’t have any money,’ but they are liars because we know they are getting support.”
Even after he sold his gun, Fa’aas continued to fight with the rebels using a borrowed Russian-made Kalashnikov. But the day after the rebel leader refused to help him, Fa’aas finally quit and gave him back the gun.
“Here’s your Russian,” Fa’aas said. “I no longer want it.”