When Siraj heard the news earlier this month that al-Qaeda had embraced Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadist group recognized in Syria for its discipline and fighting prowess, but deemed a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. As someone who had fought on both sides of the war, first as a reluctant conscript for the Syrian government, then as a high-ranking defector with the Free Syrian Army, he appreciated Jabhat al-Nusra’s deadly strength. At one point he even flirted with joining them, beguiled by their toughness and single-minded dedication to the cause. Al-Qaeda’s support and expertise will be a boon for the rebels, who appear to be locked in a stalemate, says Siraj, but he is starting to wonder if the price of winning might mean the end of Syria. “Nusra has a different plan for Syria. For them, success means a forever revolution. How will it finish? When everyone dies.”
The Syrian war, now in its third year, has lapsed into a brutal impasse. More than 70,000 have died according to a U.N. count. An epidemic of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings has destroyed untold lives and implicates both sides. Meanwhile, scores of cities and neighborhoods have been crushed by an onslaught of bombs and rockets. More than a million refugees have fled the country, and international aid organizations estimate that more than 4 million Syrians have been displaced within the country. All the while, the international community is at loggerheads over how to end the conflict, torn between a desire to stop the bloodshed and fears over what may follow the ousting of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Rebel fighter Siraj, who only uses one name to protect his family still in Damascus, understands that reluctance. Something has happened over the course of the war that corrupted even the most upright of leaders, he says. Once he defected from the Syrian Army in early 2012, he quickly climbed the ranks of a well-regarded rebel brigade fighting near Homs. But he was blinded in one eye in the battle of Baba Amr and escaped to Lebanon for surgery.
When he returned to Syria a few months later, he was shocked by the levels of corruption and thievery within the ranks of his own brigade. The weapons he arranged to have smuggled over the border from Lebanon had been sold off for cash, and comrades who once winced at firing a gun now relished in the kill. Acts of battlefield barbarity had become commonplace. He saw corpses mutilated and watched opposition fighters steal from the populations they were supposed to be defending. “I started thinking, ‘Why am I in this fight?’ I sacrificed my life, my sight, my education because I thought I was on the right side. But the way they were behaving, they made me think this side isn’t so good either.”
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Disillusioned, Siraj joined a Salafist brigade near Damascus similar to Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Nusra stands out for its designation as a terrorist group, but there are many fighting brigades in Syria that share its jihadi ethics and prowess on the battlefield. They may not have formally joined al-Qaeda, but they do not disguise their admiration for the global terrorist organization. Siraj’s experience with the jihadis gave him pause. He appreciated their discipline and ironclad rules — no stealing, no killing of women and children, and no raping. But he soon realized that the group, largely made up of foreign fighters, had a different vision for his country. “They saw another Syria,” says Siraj. “A land for fighters, a place for guns, for training, where there is no law and no government. They wanted to make Syria a land of jihad. And I thought, ‘What about our revolution?’” So he left, eventually ending up in an apartment where he lives with other refugees of the Syrian war.
Now he sits on the sidelines, a haggard 27-year-old who obsessively monitors every dispatch from his friends on the front, even as he comes to the conclusion that no side is the right side, and that the only victor in this war will be the monsters created by violence. “We all started as freedom fighters, but now there are just opportunists left.”
— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Tripoli