Disillusionment Grows Among Syrian Opposition as Fighting Drags On


Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

A damaged street in Deir al-Zour, Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad continues to rack up modest victories.

Published: November 28, 2013

DAMASCUS, Syria ­ In a terrace cafe within earshot of army artillery, a 28-year-old graduate student wept as she confessed that she had stopped planning antigovernment protests and delivering medical supplies to rebel-held towns.

Multimedia[] Video Feature


Rebels Fire on Government Forces in Maliha
Syrian Forces Press Rebels With Gains (November 29, 2013)
Khaled, 33, a former protester who fled Damascus after being tortured and fired from his bank post, quit his job in Turkey with the exile opposition, disillusioned and saying that he wished the uprising “had never happened.”

In the Syrian city of Homs, a rebel fighter, Abu Firas, 30, recently put down the gun his wife had sold her jewelry to buy, disgusted with his commanders, who, he said, focus on enriching themselves. Now he finds himself trapped under government shelling, broke and hopeless.

“The ones who fight now are from the side of the regime or the side of the thieves,” he said in a recent interview via Skype. “I was stupid and naïve,” he added. “We were all stupid.”

Even as President Bashar al-Assad of Syria racks up modest battlefield victories, this may well be his greatest success to date: wearing down the resolve of some who were committed to his downfall. People have turned their backs on the opposition for many different reasons after two and a half years of fighting, some disillusioned with the growing power of Islamists among rebels, some complaining of corruption, others just exhausted with a conflict that shows no signs of abating.

But the net effect is the same, as some of the Syrians who risked their lives for the fight are effectively giving up, finding themselves in a kind of checkmate born of Mr. Assad’s shrewdness and their own failures ­ though none interviewed say they are willing to return to his fold.

Their numbers are impossible to measure, and there remain many who vow to keep struggling. Yet a range of Mr. Assad’s opponents, armed and unarmed, inside and outside Syria, tell of a common experience: When protests began, they thought they were witnessing the chance for a new life. They took risks they had never dreamed of taking. They lost jobs, houses, friends and relatives, suffered torture and hunger, saw their neighborhoods destroyed. It was all they could do, yet it was not enough.

What finally forced them to the sidelines, they say, were the disarray and division on their side, the government’s deft exploitation of their mistakes, and a growing sense that there is no happy ending in sight. Some said they came to believe that the war could be won only by those as violent and oppressive as Mr. Assad, or worse.

Such conclusions have been expressed by more and more people in recent months, in interviews in Damascus, the Syrian capital; Lebanon; and Turkey and via Skype across rebel-held areas in Syria. Many more fighters say they continue mainly because quitting would leave them feeling guilty toward other fighters.

“It’s undeniable that a lot of your early activists are disillusioned,” said Emile Hokayem, a Syria analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, adding that in revolutions, it is often “your most constructive, positive people who are engaged early on who find themselves sidelined.”

Because such groups tend to be more vocal, he said, their changed views may be magnified beyond their numbers. Most are urbanites who had little understanding of the conservative poor whose mobilization is the backbone of the insurgency, he said. But their backing off has real impact, he said, especially on local governance, where they tended to be active.

Disillusioned activists say that early on, euphoric at being able to protest at all, they neglected to build bridges to fence-sitters, or did not know how. Homegrown fighters desperate for help welcomed foreign jihadists, and many grew more religious or sectarian in tone, alarming Mr. Assad’s supporters, dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting them.

With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assad’s forces cracked down early and hard on the civilian, educated opposition, erasing the space where a middle ground could have emerged. They used heavy weaponry on rebel supporters to an extent that shocked even their foes, while pursuing a deliberate and increasingly successful strategy of persuading Syrians and the world that their opponents were a greater danger.

With the help of staunch allies, Mr. Assad’s government hung on through a war that has destroyed much of Syria and its economy, leaving millions hungry and homeless, and even critics wistful for better days.

“They changed the battle,” said the 28-year-old former activist in the Damascus cafe. “Now people are trying to survive more than they are fighting for their rights.”

She and her friends, she said, sometimes think “they are geniuses, this regime.”

She continued: “They worked from Day 1 to make it like this, and they succeeded. We were just fooled ­ going in the same direction they drew for us.”

Those still active say that as others drop out, their work becomes harder. One activist who still tries to deliver humanitarian supplies from Damascus to blockaded rebel-held areas expressed frustration that pharmacists and others who once helped her obtain baby formula now refuse, out of fear and despair. Another says that as young, motivated people flee the country, there are few to help with political organizing.

Mr. Assad has moved to capitalize on opponents’ despair, offering amnesties to rebels who lay down arms, even calling for army defectors to return to the government forces. But Abu Firas, the former fighter in Homs, laughed out loud at the idea of surrender.

“O.K., I will be on Addounia TV as a hero for the pro-regime people,” he said sarcastically, referring to state television, “while my people spit on the TV, calling me traitor and coward.”

“And the day after,” he added, “I will find myself in Saidnaya prison” ­ a government facility ­ “spending 31 years in the rule of a military court or court of terrorism.”

The 28-year-old Damascus activist said that if the government prevails, she will leave the country or face arrest. She believes the authorities know about her activities but have not arrested her “because I’m not doing anything that hurts them now.” But later, “they will remember,” she said. “They will take everybody.”

Each of the disaffected has a story of personal betrayal or disappointment. For the activist, it came when she realized there was “a difference in values” between her and some of the fellow protesters she had trusted, especially some who took up arms.

“They think that they are in the right and they have the authority to do anything they want,” she said. “They are fighting for Islam or their beliefs, maybe not any more to bring down Assad.”

Abu Firas, in Homs, said that at first he felt proud to carry his gun, even forgoing food or cigarettes during a government blockade. But things “went ugly,” he said, when some commanders made profitable deals with government soldiers, endangering fellow rebels.

“Selfishness and greed just came to the surface,” he said, adding that he tried to smooth out the problems, “but it didn’t work because you can’t think right when you are hungry.”

“I think these corrupted commanders do not want this war to end,” he said. “Did I say war, not revolution? Yes, unfortunately I did.”

Ammar, 21, stayed in his hometown, Qusayr, recording videos for the rebels through a blistering defeat, living on little food, fantasizing about chocolate. He had given up a comfortable life; he studied English literature and his family owned apricot orchards. When they fled to another rebel-held area, despite their sacrifices, they were kicked out of mosques and forced to sleep on streets.

“I reached a stage where I hated the revolution,” he said, visiting Beirut, where he obtained a visa to emigrate to Sweden. “I don’t want to be an activist any more. I want to be a football player. I want to eat a lot of chocolate.”

Anne Barnard reported from Damascus and Beirut, Lebanon, and Mohammad Ghannam and Hwaida Saad from Beirut.

A version of this article appears in print on November 29, 2013, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Resolve Ebbs Among Syria’s Opposition After More Than 2 Years of Fighting.