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A disillusioned Syrian fighter's story

Now a refugee in Turkey Mohammed says moderate FSA fighters facing siege and starvation have been left with few choices.
Last modified: 30 Apr 2014 13:03

We met Mohammed in Syria's border town of Bab Al Hawa in October 2012. He was a commander in the Free Syria Army-linked Farouk Brigade.

More than a year later, Mohammed is a refugee in Turkey.

He laid down his arms six months ago.

I went to meet him in the town of Islahiyah where he lives in a two-room house with his newly wed wife.

He is a disappointed man.

He is disappointed with the opposition. He is disappointed by the men who have used power to further their own interests. He is disappointed with those who have become corrupt.

He is disappointed with the people of Syria.

"This is not a revolution in the true sense of the word," he says.

Not all segments of the population rose up against the state. The intellectuals who are needed in any revolution to succeed didn't participate."

However, he doesn't blame them.

"Look at where we are today," he says. "We have lost our livelihoods, our savings, our future. We work in any job just to make some money because there is no other way to survive. And we are lucky if we find work."

Opposition coalition blamed

Mohammed does blame the political opposition in exile, the Syrian National Coalition.

"Up until now, they haven't been able to lay the foundations for a state," he says.

"They can't provide jobs for people. They don't offer anything in opposition held territories. And that is why people are still tied to the regime and rely on it."

Mohammed's family is among them. His father was a state employee.

He returned to the war-torn city of Homs where he can guarantee a salary at the end of each month.

His family may have given up the fight but this former fighter hasn't.

"I didn't stop fighting because I want to reconcile with the state. That would be a betrayal of all those who have been killed. How can we accept such a regime?" Mohammed said, explaining why he didn't accept a government offer of what it calls reconciliation.

In recent months, hundreds of fighters have surrendered in a government-organised reconciliation programme.

But Mohammed believes most of those armed men agreed to lay down their arms only after they were under siege and hungry.

Just like him, they were left with no alternative.

Brigade only in name

The Farouk Brigade was among the first to be formed when the uprising became an armed rebellion in mid-2011.

Today, the brigade exists only in name. The so-called moderate fighting forces have been outnumbered and outgunned by brigades who operate under the "Islamic Front" banner.

"They are better organised and they get funding," Mohammed explained.

"Many of the fighters I know joined their ranks because of that. But many of those people who spontaneously took up arms to defend the people against the regime are long gone. Those men had no other interest apart from defending themselves and the people."

So much has changed since the anti-government protests first erupted in Deraa in March 2011.

The chants of the crowds were clear. It was about preserving their dignity and demanding freedom, justice and democracy.

Three years later and after more than 150,000 deaths, the government is promising them that.

Multiple candidates

Presidential elections are scheduled for June 3.

And for the first time in over four decades, multiple candidates will be allowed to contest in the poll.

In the past, it was a referendum. Syrians were given the choice to approve or oppose parliament's nomination of President Bashar al-Assad, and before him, his father Hafez al-Assad.

But the opposition says nothing has changed. Assad's opponents say he will win no matter how many candidates run and the vote will be a "joke".

For the regime, however, the decision to hold an election conveys several messages.

It wants to show the world that there is a state, it is still functioning and it has the support of the people.

It also wants the international community to know that it is solving the crisis itself and is not interested in an international sponsored peace process.

"This is the regime's strategy now. It wants to show it has legitimacy," Mohammed says.

"And it is trying to bring as much people as possible to its side."

"This way, the government will claim it has popular support and that the people stand behind it in its fight against terrorism," he says.

Left with little choices

For Mohammed, people are left with little choices.

They are either forced to surrender because of siege and starvation tactics or simply because financially they have no other way of surviving.

According to UN agencies, more than 75 percent of aid distribution across the country occurs in government-controlled areas.

In rebel-controlled regions, people receive little help and are under constant bombardment.

"What the regime is doing now is trying to turn the people against the rebels. It wants the people to surrender. It wants to make it difficult for them to survive. It wants to expose the opposition's weaknesses whether on the battlefield or politically," Mohammed told me.

And he is afraid they may win.

But it won't be a permanent victory, he says if "the people actually revolt".

"Didn't they revolt?" I asked him.

"No, it was the poor. Those who had nothing to lose. Those who had comfortable lives were hesitant. They didn't want to take the risk. And now that the government has regained the upper hand, they will be even more hesitant."