The veteran rebel stood atop a pile of rocks, gazing across a barbed-wire fence at his homeland, Syria, where a black flag fluttered in the distance.
“That’s my house, the one with the blue door,” said Mohammed, with a gray beard and a beige tunic, pointing to a modest structure in the distance. “But if I go back now they’ll cut my head off as an infidel.”
“They” are the legions of so-called Islamic State, the Sunni Muslim extremist group that has seized vast stretches of northern Syria, including the frontier town of Tal Abyad, just across the boundary from this Turkish border city. Early this year, the militant group overran the strategic area, expelling Mohammed and other fighters affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, in a pattern replicated across Syria.
As part of its strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State, the Obama administration has vowed to transform the so-called moderate Syrian opposition fighters into an effective ground force against both Islamic State and the government of President Bashar Assad.
Once again, Washington appears to be turning to the FSA, despite the group’s well-documented shortcomings, including a lack of unity, uneven battlefield and human rights records and alliances with Islamist radicals.
“At this point, the intent of the coalition is to build a coherence to the Free Syrian Army elements that will give it the capacity and the credibility over time to be able to make its weight felt in the battlefield,” retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, named by the White House to help coordinate the anti-extremist coalition, told reporters in Washington this month.
To date, U.S. officials have provided only vague details about a new training and vetting regimen and hope for long-elusive reconciliation among rival opposition factions.
Washington is going ahead with a plan to reboot the FSA despite the fact that U.S. officials have acknowledged they have not been coordinating airstrikes with FSA commanders, apparently out of fear that information will be leaked to the targeted militants.
Interviews with opposition fighters in southeastern Turkey, long a rear-guard base for sundry Syrian rebel factions, underscore the magnitude of the challenge facing the White House in creating a viable military partner on the ground in Syria.
Demoralized former rebels can be found wandering around the vast region, eking out a living as laborers, cooks and shopkeepers, wondering what had gone wrong since the early days of lively street protests and chants for freedom in the streets of their nation.
That Washington has belatedly become directly involved in Syria’s conflict — but with airstrikes that target Islamic State, not Assad’s forces — is the latest twist that many find unfathomable.
“There’s some big game being played out right now, we just don’t know what it is,” theorized Abu Abdullah, 36, nicknamed for an exiled FSA rebel chief in eastern Syria’s Dair Alzour province, who spoke at an upscale cafe in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa.
Some analysts question whether any meaningful “moderate” opposition even exists among the disparate and radicalized array of Syrian rebel groups, many of which have sectarian agendas. The fighters’ ranks generally fall along a spectrum ranging from conservative Islamist to some incarnation of extremist.
While decrying Islamic State, former and current FSA fighters insist that toppling Assad’s government must remain the priority.
“Why didn’t America bring their warplanes when people were eating cats in the Ghouta?” asked Mohammed, 50, the ex-FSA man in this Turkish border town, referring to a largely rebel-controlled expanse outside the capital, Damascus, long under government siege.
Mohammed, who, like others, asked that his full name not be used for security reasons, was previously a commander with the Farouq Brigade, once among the more celebrated outfits of the FSA, always more of a loose franchise operation than a top-down alliance. Farouq’s stature took a hit after a number of embarrassing episodes, including notorious video of a Farouq-affiliated fighter carving up the corpse of a Syrian soldier and taking a bite of his lung.
Advocates of the FSA say it is the only viable option as a ground force against both Islamic State and Syrian government forces.
“To cancel something that is established to make something new is impossible at this point,” said Ahmad Rahman, a Syrian army defector and FSA loyalist who spoke in Reyhanli, a Turkish city that is a hub for Syrian rebel formations.
One clear goal is to impose some kind of unifying structure on the chaotic mix of funding sources that have long bankrolled the rebel groups. Lavish donations from Persian Gulf sheikdoms often ended up in the hands of radical brigades, enabling extremists to buy the best weapons and lure new recruits with cash.
“Basically, I as a commander barely had money to pay my men,” said Abu Abdullah, 36, who noted that Islamic State provides monthly salaries of about $300 to its fighters.
Though international attention has focused on foreign militants, observers here say much of Islamic State’s manpower is composed of defectors from the FSA and other rebel groups, often for financial reasons, not out of ideological commitment.
“I became so frustrated that I reached a point that I was ready last July to pledge allegiance to Daesh,” said Marwan, 25, another ex-FSA commander interviewed in Sanliurfa, using an Arabic name for Islamic State.
Marwan said he had a change of heart when he saw trusted comrades being held by Islamic State as “apostates.” He was introduced to a patronizing militant chief from Kuwait who informed him, “I have yet to meet an authentic Muslim in Syria.”
At that point, Marwan said, he decided to flee to Turkey, following a well-worn path of rebel fighters and commanders.
Though Islamic State has largely expelled the FSA from northeastern Syria, FSA brigades still control territory in southern Syria and in northwestern Aleppo and Idlib provinces. A pair of clandestine command centers in Turkey and Jordan have helped them coordinate with U.S. and allied intelligence agencies in those two theaters, according to rebel commanders.
In Syria, FSA commanders acknowledge regular cooperation with Al Nusra Front, the official Al Qaeda affiliate. U.S. strikes against Al Nusra positions near Aleppo drew a strong rebuke from FSA leaders.
“The strikes in our area were actually hurtful to us,” said Lt. Col. Fares Bayoush, a former aeronautical engineer who heads an FSA-linked group called the Fifth Legion, which is active in the Aleppo area.
“People called us traitors,” he recalled, speaking at a legion office in Reyhanli.
Rebel commanders view alliances with Al Nusra and other powerful Islamist rebel factions as essential to success. FSA brigades and other “moderate” groups simply don’t have the manpower to lay siege to Damascus or push Islamic State from its strongholds by themselves.
A big part of the FSA’s image problem in Syria concerns profiteering, including shakedowns of businessmen and kidnappings for cash. Halting what has become an entrenched culture of corruption won’t be easy.
“The warlords do not want the fall of the regime, because if it falls they would return to being gas sellers” and the other menial jobs they once held, said Bayoush, a career military officer before he defected to the rebel side.
It was the FSA’s penchant for lawlessness that prompted many Syrians to initially support the arrival of Islamic State, which imposes strict penalties for theft and other crimes.
“At least there is security in Daesh areas,” said Mohammed Khalil, 25, a Syrian laborer at the border crossing in Akcakale, the principal entry point from Turkey to Islamic State-controlled Raqqah province.
Workers gathered at the border gate planning to return to Syria complained of barely earning survival wages in Turkey. But they also exuded a sense of fatalism about the fate of their nation.
“I know the Americans are bombing inside Syria, and Daesh is in control of territory on the other side,” said Abu Jassem, 30, who intended to return to his home in Islamic State-controlled territory. “But if something happens to me, at least I will die in my own land. At this point I’m afraid that peace will never return to Syria.”
Bulos is a special correspondent.