Facing Calls for Diplomacy, Many Syrian Rebels Reject Talks With Assad Regime

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A Syrian opposition fighter watches over the positions held by government forces during skirmishes in Telata village, in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria, on Sept. 29, 2013

Just back from the front, where he watched his rebel-commander father die in a rocket attack launched by the Syrian army, Berri al-Hamad stalks the worn carpet of his family’s temporary refuge in Lebanon, swearing vengeance. His head wrapped in his father’s beanie, knitted by his grandmother with the red stars and black-and-green stripes of the revolutionary Syrian flag, Berri aims an imaginary AK-47. “Oh, Bashar,” he growls at his distant enemy, Syrian President Bashar Assad, “you killed my father. I will not rest until you are dead. I will kill every one of your soldiers with my gun.”

Berri is 4 years old. His is not the uncomprehending bravado of a toddler mimicking violent cartoons — he was the first to kiss his father’s bloodied face when fellow fighters pulled the body of Hassan al-Hamad out of the shattered remains of the ad hoc ambulance he had been driving as he ferried injured fighters from the front. Berri knows what death is, and says he can’t wait to join his father in heaven, once he has killed Assad, or has died in the trying.

There are plenty who hope the boy won’t ever get that chance. The staggering destruction and rising death toll of the Syrian civil war, now in its third year with more than 100,000 dead, has forced many to conclude that the only way out of the stalemate is through some sort of political compromise. The U.N., along with the U.S. and Russia — which backs the Assad government — is pushing for a peace conference in Geneva as early as November. By getting representatives from the Syrian Coalition, the umbrella opposition group based in Turkey, to sit down with members of the Assad government, they hope to hammer out a transition deal that will bring an end to the violence.

Even if the two sides can overcome their significant differences to come to the table — the Syrians and the Russians say Assad is an integral part of the transition, even as the opposition insists it will not take part in any transition government that includes him — fighters on the ground say they have lost too much to accept anything short of Assad’s death. They are the likely spoilers for any kind of compromise, and their numbers are on the rise. For every rebel who has died in the battle to oust Assad, there is a family determined not to let that sacrifice go in vain. “God damn Geneva and all those who want to negotiate,” says Nusra al-Hamad, Hassan’s mother. “After all this blood, after all these burned hearts, there can be no reconciliation here. We sacrificed our lives for a free Syria, not for Bashar to stay.”

At 47, Nusra is the widowed matriarch of an extended family that has seen 35 members die in the past two years, either on the battlefront or as victims of a ferocious government bombing campaign in her hometown of Baba Amr, in March 2012. A week after Hassan’s death, on Sept. 22, what is left of the family has taken refuge across the border in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Hassan, commander of a small brigade active in the Homs area, was the second of Nusra’s three sons to die. She says she is fully prepared to lose the third, only 15, if he too is called to fight Assad. And she is inculcating her four grandchildren with the desire for revenge, beaming as they declare their desire to die in battle. While Nusra and her family may be an extreme example, they are in no way unique in their determination to see the government overthrown, no matter the cost.

The world may exhale in relief if a compromise solution for Syria is found, but according to rebels — and their families — on the ground, it doesn’t mean the fighting will stop. If the estimated 1,000 disparate brigades that make up the armed opposition aren’t brought into the process, they are likely to continue their fight, contributing to an insurgency that becomes even more of a regional proxy war and an easy recruiting pool for extremist groups like al-Qaeda feeding on the frustration and resentment of rebels who feel they have been ignored. “We won’t stop fighting until everyone in the regime is dead,” says Abu Alaa, Hassan’s second in command. “If the [political] opposition makes negotiations with Assad, we will fight them and Assad. If the U.N. comes to implement a cease-fire, with Assad still there, we will fight them. Because where were they when Assad was killing hundreds of thousands of Syrians?”

Over the past week scores of rebel brigades have pulled away from the Western-backed Syrian opposition organization and its military wing, the Supreme Military Council, citing frustration with a leadership that has spent most of the war away from the front. On Sept. 24, several of the strongest brigades joined forces with the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra front to call for the rebel forces to be reorganized under an Islamic framework and led exclusively by commanders on the ground. On Friday another 30 smaller factions joined suit with a video statement posted online. Even more broke away over the weekend to form a new coalition, Jaish al-Islam, according to a statement released by the group’s commander, Zahran Alloush, on Facebook.

Many of the rebels contacted by TIME expressed fears that the opposition leadership in Turkey was so focused on a political solution that they would overlook the demands of the fighters themselves. The U.N. chemical-weapons resolution on Syria, passed on Friday to great fanfare, only heightened their concerns. The resolution, a response to the chemical-weapons attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21 that the West and the rebels blame on the government, saw Assad giving up his stockpiles of sarin and other toxic agents in lieu of being punished militarily. Rebel commanders point out that the West now has a vested interest in keeping Assad in place long enough to follow through with the disarmament agreement, a process likely to drag on for another year, if not longer. They worry that the chemical-weapons compromise — enacted in foreign capitals far from the front — may form the template of a political solution to come. “The people are the ones who should decide if there will be reconciliation with the regime or not,” says Islam Ayyoush, a commander and military spokesman for the Liwaa al-Islam Brigade in Damascus, via Skype. “A criminal cannot be negotiated, a criminal must be hanged. What shall we tell the families of the martyrs — ‘Let’s forgive Bashar, and we want to sit and negotiate with him?’ The people will revolt against us in this case.”

For its part, the opposition coalition is faced with a quandary. With few financial assets and no real influence inside Syria, it is dependent on its Western patrons just to survive. Should Washington and Moscow push for a compromise transition process that includes Assad, the political opposition may have little choice but to go along. If it refuses, it stands to lose even more international support and risks complete defeat. But if the opposition parties do meet Assad at the negotiation table they could squander what little sway they retain over the rebel fighters, unleashing even more violence and bloodshed. Though the political leadership is adamant that all negotiations must lead to a democratic transition, it has quietly dropped early rebel demands for the end of Assad. “We are trying to save more lives and stop the bloodshed,” explains Burhan Ghalioun, former head of the opposition group Syrian National Council, in a conversation with TIME. “There is no reason to have more Syrians killed. The call of the revolution is not to achieve revenge, but a higher goal, to guarantee peace for all Syrians and their ability to live together.” From the ground, the war looks simple: fight until the enemy has fallen. But the opposition leadership must take a longer view: some sacrifices have to be made to prevent even greater losses down the road. Convincing those that have already sacrificed so much may be the hardest battle yet.

— With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut