Disillusionment Grows Among Syrian Opposition as Fighting Drags On
street in Deir al-Zour, Syria. The government of President Bashar al-Assad
continues to rack up modest victories.
Published: November 28,
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
Multimedia Video Feature
WATCHING SYRIA'S WAR
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
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.
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. Assads
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. Assads 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.
forced them to the sidelines, they say, were the disarray and division on their
side, the governments 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
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
Its 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
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
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. Assads supporters,
dividing his opponents and frightening the West out of substantially supporting
With a ruthless foresight, following the playbook of his father and
predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, Mr. Assads 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
With the help of staunch allies, Mr. Assads 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.
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
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
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
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 Im 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
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 didnt work because you cant think right when you are
I think these corrupted commanders do not want this war to
end, he said. Did I say war, not revolution? Yes, unfortunately I
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
I reached a stage where I hated the revolution, he said,
visiting Beirut, where he obtained a visa to emigrate to Sweden. I dont want
to be an activist any more. I want to be a football player. I want to eat a lot
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 Syrias
Opposition After More Than 2 Years of Fighting.