x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

One fighter's story reveals the challenge Syria faces

The real challenge in rebuilding Syria after the Assad era will be to find ways to respect the rebels' sacrifices.

I knew Abu Abdullah for the best part of my life. He was my cousin, classmate and friend. Although he was an ambitious student, he never pursued his dreams beyond a university degree because he was his parents' only son, and preferred to stay close to his family.

But when Syria's uprising against the rule of Bashar Al Assad turned to armed resistance, he had to leave everything behind, including his family and five children, to pursue a greater dream: the liberation of his country.

Last Friday, after sunset, he was shot and killed, from ambush, in a desert area outside the town of Al Bukamal, in eastern Syria.

Some regime fighters, who had been besieged for seven days, finally agreed to surrender to rebels from the Jabhat Al Asala wa Tanmiya and Allahu Akbar battalions, including my friend's unit.

But then hidden regime fighters fired at the rebels, killing six of them, including Abu Abdullah who was shot in the head, shoulder and leg. He died on the spot.

Abu Abdullah, a graduate in Sharia studies from Al Bukamal region in eastern Syria, had started organising protests from the beginning of the uprising, away from the watchful eyes of pro-regime tribal notables in his village near the Iraqi border.

Towards the end of 2011, nine months after the uprising began, he formed his own battalion. As he was an only son, he had not served in the army, so his first experience with fighting came in early 2012, when he joined an operation to enable the defection of a soldier serving at a checkpoint. As it turned out, the defection was false, a plan to ambush new rebel fighters.

Known among his peers for his leadership skills and fearless fighting, Abu Abdullah later became the deputy commander of the Ahl Al Athar battalions in Deir Ezzor and a member of Shura Council in Jabhat Al Asala, a Salafi-leaning alliance that has branches across the country. (Jabhat Al Asala is not to be confused with Jabhat Al Nusra, a jihadi group that includes foreign fighters.)

To outsiders, a rebel with a beard, fighting in a group that raises Islamic banners, may be a cause for concern. Will such people fill the power vacuum after the regime's downfall? But to those who know him, even those such as myself who do not share his worldview, his death is lamentable. People like Abu Abdullah are emerging as provincial leaders, respected in their communities for their dedication, compared to many Free Syrian Army members.

Lawlessness is spreading in Deir Ezzor, made worse by increasing oil-related disputes among FSA fighters and local militias.

Multiple sources from different areas say Salafi-leaning fighters are currently almost the only people who focus on fighting the regime and conscientiously catering to the daily needs of their communities. The opposition's remarkable detachment from what is happening in Deir Ezzor is another factor in the rising popularity of Salafi and jihadi fighters.

In Deir Ezzor, the government collapsed shortly after the uprising became armed. Regime forces shelled or bombed certain areas. A strong social structure has helped to limit lawlessness in the province, compared to other areas of Syria. But that is quickly changing. Tribal leaders, although they can still use their clout to mediate and solve disputes, feel the situation is getting out of control, mainly due to disputes over resources.

This prompted Sheikh Rami Shaher Al Doush, a prominent tribal leader from Shuhail town in Deir Ezzor, to speak last weekend of oil disputes as "the problem of all problems" and "imminent danger … In a few months, we will not even be able to bury our dead because of it". He added that "our authority [as tribal leaders] to end this issue is becoming weak".

He urged other tribal leaders to join armed men from credible groups in the province - he cited Salafi and Jihadi groups - to stop the ad hoc oil trade. "If we do not stand up together against it, it will be more dangerous to us than anything else."

This increasing reliance on Salafi and jihadi groups because of their dedication and credibility, even in leadership roles that tribal chieftains used to hold, is empowering hardline groups and individuals. These have so far been inclusive and tolerant of secular forces and even ex-regime loyalists, making them acceptable to all sides.

No one can blame people like Abu Abdullah for winning hearts and minds in their areas. Contingency plans to strike at dens of jihadists in the future - "scratching one's head", as Moaz Al Khatib put it in his speech to the Arab Summit last week - are not the answer.

I have often written about the worrying rise of hardline groups during the uprising. And yet I am aware that people like Abu Abdullah are admired in their communities, for good reasons. It is very hard for their communities to turn against such leaders. Of course, there are groups that menace the future of the country, regardless of their honesty. But there are people like Abu Abdullah who do not have grand plans to take over the country. They emerged from their own communities to defend them, and thereby won love and admiration.

The real challenge in rebuilding Syria after the Assad era will be this: to find ways to respect the rebels' sacrifices, even though they are motivated by politics that many Syrians - including myself - find troubling. These people are organic parts of their communities, and cannot be dismissed. The question is whether they can be outshone.

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140