MERSIN, Turkey – Zigga and his seven companions, fighters with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo’s scorched Old City, have given up their arms, selling them to another militia. They packed a few possessions and drove past checkpoints manned by bearded al-Qaeda loyalists, out into Turkey.
“Our revolution is finished,” says Zigga. “Now, it is just thieves remaining.”
Syria’s fractured opposition is imploding as the country continues to be carved up by warlords and extremists, enriching themselves in the areas they control.
Scores of fighters have reportedly taken the general amnesty offered by President Bashar al-Assad. Others, like Zigga and his companions, are abandoning the frontlines, disillusioned with a revolution gone awry. It has been hijacked by armies of jihadists fighting for groups loyal to al-Qaeda.
“If they want a car, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take it. If they want a wife, they say ‘Allahu Akhbar’ and take her,” Zigga says. “This is not Islamic and it is not what we were fighting for.”
Since sweeping into Aleppo in July last year, Syria’s insurgents – overwhelmingly the conservative, rural poor – exacted a terrible toll on the city’s wealthy business classes, imbuing the rebellion with heavy shades of class war.
Insurgent groups have long fought over the spoils of war – looting and pillaging – while profiteering from smuggling operations and a booming kidnap market.
But as rebel groups carved their fiefs into a dying land, battling over resources, the opposition frayed, decomposing into around 1,500 different groups, each out for itself.
Rival rebel factions recently battled in Azaz for control of the strategic frontier town. Fighting for northeastern Hasakah province’s oil reserves spiked earlier this year.
Meanwhile, austere Islamic extremism flourished as an ideological counter to the Arab nationalism of the regime.
“All the scum bubbled to the surface. In wars like this the worst people tend to become the most powerful,” says a security advisor working in Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “And Syria is twisted: If you had told me six months ago that Assad would use sarin gas and this would improve his position, I would have said ‘you’re mad.’”
The fracturing of the opposition has been accelerated by: The FSA’s failure to bring in the country’s Kurdish minority, which is now heavily penetrated by the regime; the arrival of many thousands of foreign fighters — ruthless hardliners who see everyone as the enemy and are flush with cash from private donors in Gulf Arab countries; and the West’s aversion to imposing a no-fly zone; instead, the United States and its allies provided arms and other material support through diffuse channels, accelerating the fracture even more.
Amid this disarray, Assad’s forces now creep, scoring a string of fairly modest battlefield victories. In Aleppo, where the war had ground to a festering stalemate between snipers barely meters apart, the tide has swung in favor of the regime, which may now controls around 60 percent of the city.
A potentially decisive battle will likely focus on Aleppo’s Industrial City, experts note.
Attack choppers and fighter jets have begun their presence over the area, which is firmly under the control of opposition factions and links the city with other key rebel positions throughout Aleppo’s countryside, notably al-Bab. That is a key opposition garrison town where around 50 people were killed over the weekend by regime “barrel bombs” that targeted a market.
Industrial City is also the high ground from which the regime can pressurize rebels surrounding Aleppo prison, stocked with around 500 regime loyalists. That is much needed manpower that Assad could use elsewhere, since about 40 percent of Syria’s 120,000 dead have been regime forces and paramilitary allies.
With neither side able to score an outright victory, experts note Assad is likely seeking to hasten the splintering of the opposition while piling on military pressure. Shelling in Aleppo has increased, driving up disillusionment and hastening its collapse.
“We are seeing a sharp increase in regime activity in Aleppo,” says the security advisor.
However, the collapse of the opposition, if it indeed happens, does not entail Assad’s survival.
“It (the jihadist presence) has crippled the opposition,” said William Harris, a Syria expert and author of four books on the Levant, during a recent visit to southern Turkey. “We could see a mid-term military outcome (in favor of regime forces) in the crisis. But the regime is seriously degraded, it is not sustainable (in the long-run).
Zigga and his companions say they stayed as long as they could. They lament a revolution in decline and think back to the days before the uprising nearly three years ago.
“I think Assad was very good. We used to have all the sects living together: Alawite, Christian, Yazidi, Druze,” remembers Hassan, one of Zigga’s companions who had been fighting the regime until a few days ago.
“Now, we ask, are you Alawaite, are you Christian? If someone is Alawite we kill them,” Hassan says, while running a finger across his throat.