Zabadani, Syria—Emad Khareeta says he had no choice but to defect. The 23-year-old member of the Free Syrian Army stands outside his family home in a deserted section of town. Shards of concrete and glass litter the ground, the result of nearby shelling. The street is dark and quiet, Emad’s face only discernible in the glow of his cigarette. He tells his story slowly.
In April 2010, Emad was called up for his mandatory army service. When the revolution broke out in March 2011, he was deployed to various parts of the country—but it was his time in Homs, where he was sent on December 31, 2011, that compelled him to leave his unit. Sometimes called the ‘capital of the revolution,’ the restive city in western Syria had been under siege by the regime of Bashar al-Assad since May and was the site of some of its bloodiest crackdowns. Emad describes indiscriminate killing and widespread looting by fellow soldiers, as well as an incident that deeply affected him, when an unarmed truck driver shot in the arm and legs was left to bleed to death in front of him. Ordered to fire on protesters at demonstrations, he says he aimed away.
“I was ready to die after what I had seen and been through,” he says. “I don’t want to oppress anyone.” He eventually bribed an officer 20,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $300) for a three-day vacation leave. On January 26, Emad left and never returned, making his way back home to Zabadani.
Emad is just one of thousands of army defectors who are switching sides in a conflict that began as a nonviolent popular uprising but has since spiraled into an increasingly bitter and polarizing civil war, one that has become a theater for geopolitical interests.
The armed opposition to the Assad regime first began to take form in the late summer of 2011, following months of mass demonstrations that were overwhelmingly nonviolent. Facing repeated crackdowns and mass detentions by security forces, protesters began to arm themselves, many by purchasing smuggled weapons from border countries like Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan. The revolt was further militarized by increasing numbers of army soldiers defecting to their local communities and bringing their weapons with them.
“They dragged us into arming ourselves,” says Malek al-Tinnawi, a 25-year-old FSA volunteer. He limps badly as he goes to retrieve a newly acquired assault rifle. Two months ago, he was shot through the ankle in clashes with the army. The local doctor inserted a metal rod in his leg to replace the shattered bone. “It’s a good one, isn’t it?” he smiles, brandishing the German-made H&K Model G3 rifle. “Not too used, almost like new.”
The rifle was brought to him on foot, through a mountainous smuggling route from Lebanon. Malek received it as a gift, along with two extra magazines and a chain of bullets, compliments of his fellow opposition fighters who gave it to him, he says, in acknowledgment of his role in being one of the first to demonstrate in Zabadani, and one of the first in the town to take up arms against the regime. Still, Malek says, he would have preferred for the revolution to have remained nonviolent. “When we were peaceful, we were stronger than when we had weapons,” he says, patting the gun in his lap.
“This revolt started out with very modest demands concerning the state of emergency, and it has been dealt with since then as a war of the security state against its people,” says Fawwaz Traboulsi, a Beirut-based historian and columnist. “What should be understood is that this militarization of the response to a vast popular movement ended up by militarizing the opposition.”
As the revolt plunged deeper into a military confrontation this spring, countries in the Persian Gulf—primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar—began to channel funds to the FSA on a sustained basis. More sophisticated arms and heavy weaponry has been funneled to the rebels through southern Turkey with assistance from the CIA.
“This doesn’t mean that the role of activist groups and the local coordinating committees diminished,” says Omar Dahi, a Syrian scholar at Hampshire College. “The military power is so disproportionate, there was no way the revolt could have sustained itself and re-emerged time and again, despite the regime’s brutality, if it wasn’t for a vast network of support inside the country.” Indeed, foreign assistance has not trickled into towns like Zabadani, where FSA fighters have had to rely primarily on local resources. Numerous rebels describe selling family jewelry to buy weapons. They remain poorly equipped, armed mostly with assault rifles and some RPGs with limited stocks of ammunition.
“We don’t say enough that the Syrian revolution is a revolution of first, the rural poor,” Traboulsi says. Over the past decade, under the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria entered into a “mitigated neoliberal experience which weakened the production and agricultural sectors and created a mafia-style new bourgeoisie that is very monopolistic and very rentier and services-based,” he says.
Those who have taken up arms against the regime are overwhelmingly Sunni. (An estimated 75 percent of Syrians are Sunnis.) Bashar al-Assad is part of Syria’s Alawite minority, a sect that dominates the higher ranks of government and the regime’s brutal security forces. “This revolution started with two sides: the regime and the people,” Malek says. “The regime made it so we talk about Alawi/Sunni. They made it sectarian.”
According to Dahi, heightening sectarian conflict is the result of tactics pursued by both the government and the opposition, which have appealed to religious differences in order to mobilize people. There are also reports of radical Islamist groups and foreigners linked to Al Qaeda taking up the FSA banner. “The obvious thing that we know is that it is a revolution of the countryside, which is mainly pious,” Traboulsi says. “But it’s not a revolution where the jihadis command dominant positions.”
While the armed rebels generally started out as local groups scattered in countryside towns, the coordination between different opposition groups across the country is increasing. Fighters in Zabadani say they are in contact with FSA units across Syria. “We had no coordination in the beginning but now it’s more central, more organized,” says Abu Adnan, an FSA battalion commander in Zabadani. “I am connected with the Free Syrian Army in all of Syria.”
Yet this appears to have had little effect on the ground. As battles rage in Damascus and Aleppo, the conflict in Zababani has reached a stalemate. The regime has set up isolated checkpoints in town, though soldiers rarely leave their posts, with the rest of town in the hands of locals and the FSA. Instead of engaging the rebels, the army shells Zabadani with daily, indiscriminate fire from tanks and artillery stationed in the mountains above.
On a particularly heavy night of shelling, the rebels gather in a makeshift bunker and argue over how to respond. “We can’t just sit here and have shells falling on us and having people die every few days,” says one. Another shouts back: “If we attack a tank, it will take so many resources to take it out—then what? They just replace the tank and shell us harder and arrest anyone in the area.”
After a rare two-day lull in the shelling, 25-year-old Kenaan al-Tinnawi decides to return to his home in Hara with his parents and younger brother, after having taken refuge at his uncle’s apartment in a safer part of town. That night, they sit sipping tea in the third-floor family living room after finishing iftar, the sunset meal that marks the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. Kenaan recalls his imprisonment a year earlier, when he was held for thirty-three days in a suffocating, overcrowded cell after being detained by security forces in a random sweep of the neighborhood.
His story is interrupted in mid-sentence by the deafening blast of a shell landing nearby. The lights go out, leaving the room in utter darkness. Seconds later, another shell lands, this time on an adjacent rooftop no more than fifteen yards away. The house shakes with the ferocity of the blast. Shrapnel punctures the outer walls and shatters the balcony windows. The family rushes downstairs in a panic, guided by the dim glow of cellphone screens. They huddle on the ground floor. The shock of the attack quickly gives away to anger. “May God break their hands,” Kenaan’s mother says, tilting her head back and looking upwards at the ceiling.
Seventeen months after the Syrian revolt began, the violence shows no signs of abating and a political solution appears further out of reach. “People have this habit of saying that this revolution, if you don’t like it, then it’s not a revolution,” Traboulsi says. “But it’s important to give the Syrian people their right in starting a vast popular movement for radical change of the existing regime.”