From fight­ing regime to anti-IS, Syria rebel traces US pol­icy shifts

More than 330,000 dead and mil­lions dis­placed

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

From Spe­cial Forces of­fi­cer to brigade­hop­ping rebel, Abu Jaa­far has seen Syria’s up­ris­ing from all an­gles. But after years of set­backs, cul­mi­nat­ing in cuts to US sup­port, he feels dis­il­lu­sioned. The 31-year-old spent three years in a Syr­ian prison and once counted him­self among his US train­ers’ most ad­mired fight­ers. But now with more than 330,000 dead and mil­lions dis­placed, Abu Jaa­far ex­pressed ex­haus­tion and anger.

“I fall apart, I get an­noyed and I want to leave but I say no-if I leave and oth­ers do too, the coun­try will be even more de­stroyed than it is now,” Abu Jaa­far told AFP in in­ter­views via a mes­sag­ing app. In some ways, his tra­jec­tory has tracked Wash­ing­ton’s shift­ing pol­icy, which orig­i­nally backed anti-regime fac­tions but is now fo­cused on bat­tling the Is­lamic State group.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion last month an­nounced it was end­ing Wash­ing­ton’s four-year pro­gram to back rebels. Abu Jaa­far, who worked with two groups sup­ported by that pro­gramme but now re­ceives sep­a­rate Pen­tagon back­ing, was left con­vinced op­po­si­tion groups were pawns in a proxy war be­tween out­side pow­ers. “Rebel fac­tions were pieces on a chess­board. The board is in Tur­key, Trump is on one side, and (Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir) Putin is on the other,” he said rue­fully.

Orig­i­nally from the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs, Abu Jaa­far-born Khaled Kar­zoun-en­rolled in the spe­cial forces’ of­fi­cers school at the age of 17. When protests erupted in 2011, he was sta­tioned on Syria’s Mediter­ranean coast and or­dered to fire on the few demon­stra­tions in the regime strong­hold. “The op­pres­sion was bru­tal in a way I can­not de­scribe,” he re­called.

In Septem­ber 2011, he was ac­cused of li­ais­ing with rebels and sen­tenced to 15 years in the no­to­ri­ous Sayd­naya prison, where his wife was able to visit him only twice a year. “Three hours be­fore the visit, I would be taken out to be tor­tured and beaten so that I would come out for the visit cov­ered in blood,” he said. Abu Jaa­far was re­leased on June 14, 2014 after a string of amnesties cut his sen­tence to three years.

Rev­o­lu­tion as a busi­ness

Within a week, he joined the rebel Hazm Move­ment, at a time when the op­po­si­tion still con­trolled swathes of Syria, in­clud­ing half of sec­ond city Aleppo. Wash­ing­ton and its al­lies were train­ing and arm­ing rebel groups, in­clud­ing Hazm, through a Tur­key-based op­er­a­tions room known by its Turk­ish acro­nym MOM. Abu Jaa­far spent a month train­ing in Saudi Ara­bia but re­turned to Syria dis­il­lu­sioned by what he per­ceived as cor­rup­tion among Hazm mem­bers. “I missed the most amaz­ing years of the rev­o­lu­tion be­cause I was in jail.

By then, I saw the rev­o­lu­tion had been turned into a busi­ness.”I re­belled for honor, some­one else was against in­jus­tice, an­other be­cause his brother was in jail,” he said. “That’s why we were with the rev­o­lu­tion. But now, ev­ery­one is rush­ing to ex­pand his fac­tion for his own per­sonal in­ter­ests.” In Septem­ber 2014, Abu Jaa­far left Hazm as it lost ter­ri­tory and weapons to AlQaeda be­fore fold­ing the fol­low­ing year.

For sev­eral months, he worked as a school­bus driver out­side sec­ond city Aleppo. His wife, who taught at the school, gave birth to a boy. “He lived 21 days. There was an air strike and he died.” In early 2016, Abu Jaa­far was re­cruited by the Fas­taqim Union, a rebel fac­tion in Aleppo. “We got weapons on a monthly ba­sis, as well as salaries, med­i­cal equip­ment, ve­hi­cles, and re­lief ma­te­ri­als” from the MOM, he said. He led month-long train­ing cour­ses for Fas­taqim mem­bers in Tur­key and Qatar in 2016. “I had a great re­la­tion­ship with the Amer­i­cans. They liked me a lot,” Abu Jaa­far said.

Seen enough for a life­time

But the group was weak­en­ing as it and other rebel groups lost their hold on ur­ban Aleppo. In mid-2016, Abu Jaa­far trans­ferred to the Pen­tagon-backed Mu­tasem Bri­gades. The move meant Abu Jaa­far was now fight­ing the Is­lamic State group in­stead of the army-a shift al­ready months in the mak­ing in Wash­ing­ton. But with the end of US sup­port for the MOM, Abu Jaa­far won­ders if his lat­est bri­gade will be around much longer.

“Maybe soon it’ll be our turn.”US mil­i­tary sup­port in Syria is now cen­tered on the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a Kur­dish-Arab al­liance which is on the brink of oust­ing IS from its Syr­ian bas­tion Raqa. From Azaz, a rebel en­clave on the Turk­ish bor­der, where he lives with his wife and six-year-old daugh­ter, Abu Jaa­far won­ders what’s next. “Aleppo is over, Raqa be­longs to the SDF,” he says.”Things are hard. After the regime, we got (IS chief) Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. After Bagh­dadi, we got Mo­ham­mad Jolani,” the head of Al-Qaeda’s for­mer Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate. “I know I’m only 31, but I’ve seen more than some­one who has lived to 90.” — AFP

— AFP

TABQA, Syria : A pic­ture taken on Au­gust 4, 2017 shows dis­placed Syr­ian chil­dren, who fled from the Is­lamic State (IS) group’s Syr­ian strong­hold of Raqa, re­ceiv­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian aid de­liv­ered by UNICEF at a tem­po­rary camp in the town of Tabqa, about 55 kilo­me­ters west of Raqa.

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