Missteps By Rebels Erode Their Support Among Syrians

By Anne Barnard – New York Times – 12.11.2012 – BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syria’s rebel fighters — who have long staked claim to the moral high ground for battling dictatorship — are losing crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels, including poorly planned missions, senseless destruction, criminal behavior and the coldblooded killing of prisoners.

The shift in mood presents more than just a public relations problem for the loosely knit militants of the Free Syrian Army, who rely on their supporters to survive the government’s superior firepower. A dampening of that support undermines the rebels’ ability to fight and win what has become a devastating war of attrition, perpetuating the violence that has left nearly 40,000 dead, hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and more than a million forced from their homes.

The rebel shortcomings have been compounded by changes in the opposition, from a force of civilians and defected soldiers who took up arms after the government used lethal force on peaceful protesters to one that is increasingly seeded with extremist jihadis. That radicalization has divided the fighters’ supporters and made Western nations more reluctant to give rebels the arms that might help break the intensifying deadlock. Instead, foreign leaders are struggling to find indirect ways to help oust Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. And now arrogance and missteps are draining enthusiasm from some of the fighters’ core supporters. “They were supposed to be the people on whom we depend to build a civil society,” lamented a civilian activist in Saraqib, a northern town where rebels were videotaped executing a group of unarmed Syrian soldiers, an act the United Nations has declared a likely war crime.

An activist in Aleppo, Ahmed, who like some of the others who were interviewed gave only one name for security reasons, said he had begged rebels not to camp in a neighborhood telecommunications office. But they did, and government attacks knocked out phone service. One fighter shot into the air when customers at a bakery did not let him cut into a long line for bread, Ahmed recalled. Another, he said, was enraged when a man washing his car accidentally splashed him. “He shot at him,” Ahmed said. “But thank God he wasn’t a good shot, so the guy wasn’t hurt.”

Twenty months into what is now a civil war, both supporters and opponents of the government are trapped in a darkening mood of despair, revulsion and fear that neither side can end the conflict. In recent months, both sides adopted more brutal — even desperate — methods to try to break the stalemate, but they achieved merely a new version of deadlock. To many Syrians, the extreme violence seems all the more pointless for the lack of results.

The most significant shift is among the rebels’ supporters, who chant slogans not only condemning the government but also criticizing the rebels.

“The people want the reform of the Free Syrian Army,” crowds have called out. “We love you. Correct your path.”Small acts of petty humiliation and atrocities like executions have led many more Syrians to believe that some rebels are as depraved as the government they fight. The activist from Saraqib said he saw rebels force government soldiers from a milk factory, then destroy it, even though residents needed the milk and had good relations with the owner. “They shelled the factory and stole everything,” the activist said. “Those are repulsive acts.”Even some of the uprising’s staunchest supporters are beginning to fear that Syria’s sufferings — lost lives, fraying social fabric, destroyed heritage — are for naught. “We thought freedom was so near,” said a fighter calling himself Abu Ahmed, his voice catching with grief as he spoke via Skype last month from Maarat al-Noaman, a strategic town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway. Hours earlier, a rebel victory there ended in disaster, as government airstrikes pulverized civilians returning to what they thought was safety.

“This shows it was a big lie,” Abu Ahmed said of the dream of self-government that he said had inspired him to lead a small rebel fighting group from his nearby village, Sinbol. “We cannot reach it. We can’t even think of democracy — we will be sad for years. We are losing victims from both sides.”

A chain of calamities has fueled disgust and frustration on all sides, dozens of interviews with Syrians show.

In July, a rebel bombing killed four senior officials in a heavily guarded Damascus building, bringing new insecurity to government supporters. The rebels’ growing use of large bombs that kill bystanders spurred concerns on both sides. Poorly executed rebel offensives brought harsh consequences. In September, rebels launched an offensive in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, an ancient town that stood for centuries as the proud legacy of all Syrians. The fighting failed to achieve the turning point the rebels had promised. The government, trying to curb soldiers’ defections and reduce the strain on the military, kept more forces on bases and turned to air power and artillery, flattening neighborhoods with abandon. But the change in strategy did not restore control or security.

After seeing a rebel bombing and small-arms attack on a downtown Damascus government building, a chauffeur for a wealthy businessman complained that conspicuous security measures made him “live in fear” — without being effective.

“I want someone from the government to answer me,” he said. “The government cannot protect its key military and security buildings, so how can it protect us and run the country?”

Even within Mr. Assad’s most solid base, his minority Alawite sect, discontent spilled over last month in a clash that began in a coffee shop in the president’s ancestral village, Qardaha. Some were shaken recently by heavy casualties in the disproportionately Alawite military and militias, according to Fadi Saad, who runs a Facebook page called Alawites in the Syrian Revolution. On the rebel side, the Aleppo battle catalyzed simmering frustrations among civilian activists who feel dominated by gunmen. One Aleppo activist said she met with fighters to suggest ways to cut government supply routes without destroying the city, to no avail. “You risked the lives of the people for what?” the activist asked. “The Free Syrian Army is just cutting the nails of the regime. We want results.”

Nominal leaders of the Free Syrian Army say they embrace ethical standards, contend that the government commits the vast majority of abuses and blame rogue groups for bad rebel behavior.

But that did not ease the disgust after last week’s video. It shows men writhing on the ground, staring up and screaming in terror. Rebels stand over them, shouting a cacophony of orders and insults. They move like a gang, not a military unit, jostling and crowding, kicking prisoners, forcing them into a pile. Suddenly, automatic weapons fire drowns out the noise. Puffs of dust rise from the pile, now still.

“All the ugly stuff the regime practiced, the F.S.A. is copying,” Anna, a finance worker in Damascus, said of recent behavior. She blamed the government for making society abusive, but she said the rebels were no better. “They are ignorant people with weapons,” she said.In Maarat al-Noaman after the airstrikes, the disappointed fighter, Abu Ahmed, said Syrians would weep to see destruction in the city of “our famous poet and philosopher,” Abu al-Alaa al-Ma’arri. The poet, a skeptic and rationalist born in the 10th century and buried in the town, wrote often of disillusion, and of the fallibility of would-be heroes: “How many times have our feet trodden beneath the dust / A brow of the arrogant, a skull of the debonair?”

Abu Ahmed said he found the town’s mosaic museum looted and littered first by soldiers, then by rebels. “I saw bodies of both rebels and regime forces, I saw beer bottles,” he said. “Honestly, honestly, words are stuck in my mouth.”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The New York Times from Aleppo and Damascus, Syria.