Going Rogue: Bandits and Criminal Gangs Threaten Syria’s Rebellion

In stretches of northern Syria where government control has collapsed and rebel militias call the shots, numerous criminal outfits have come to the fore — and threaten to undermine the rebellion

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Khalil Hamra / AP

Free Syrian Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria, on June 10, 2012

The checkpoint wasn’t a permanent or even makeshift structure—just a couple of armed men, some in civilian clothing, others wearing items of military apparel, standing in the middle of a main road just outside the town of Abu Ad-Duhur, some 50 kilometers south of Idlib city. Their faces were uncovered. It was 10am and there was traffic on the road when Abu Ibrahim, a well-to-do, dignified, 60-year-old engineer, duly stopped his Kia hatchback at the human barricade. “All I saw were guns pointing into the car, they told me to get out,” Abu Ibrahim says. “One of the men said ‘take his car, but don’t insult him.”

It wasn’t the first time Abu Ibrahim had been carjacked by people he says were posing as fighters in the Free Syrian Army, the motley rebel force taking on Syrian President Bashar Assad. Two weeks earlier, his family’s sedan was also stolen under similar circumstances. It would be returned to him, he was told, if he forked over 400,000 Syrian pounds ($6,225). He refused, and accepted the loss of his vehicle.

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This time, however, he was not going to accept the same outcome. He told a local FSA leader in charge of some 30 men to try and get it back. “We suffer here from the fact that the thuwar [revolutionaries] have fallen between two fires — the regime and criminals who say they are thuwar,” Abu Ibrahim said.

Although there are still loyalist checkpoints along some of the main highways (which are easily avoided using backroads), the rebel flag flies in many of the towns and villages in this flat, fertile agricultural region, creating pockets that function as informal safe zones free of government troops. Still, although vast swathes of northern Syria may have fallen out of government control, they are not necessarily firmly in the FSA’s.

Criminal elements also function within these pockets; groups that kidnap people for ransom (releasing them dead or alive after payment of a ransom or purchase of weapons), and that carjack civilian vehicles. Sometimes, those criminal elements operate under the FSA’s banner, prompting other FSA units to try and neutralize them via one of two ways – firepower, or by leaning on local leaders with influence over certain families, tribes and areas. The FSA are trying to police their own ranks, while fighting the regime and competing for suppliers, supporters and resources with each other and with other armed groups like the Salafist Ahrar al-Sham brigades.

As TIME has previously reported, support to the FSA is, and always has been, parceled out to select units. The sources are many and varied — from recent state-sponsored Qatari and Saudi efforts, to hefty donations by members of the Syrian diaspora as well as sheikhs in the Gulf with massive fund-raising abilities. FSA units, even those fighting in the same area, often have very different sources of funding and weapons. Some of this support comes with strings attached: pledges of allegiance to the hand that doles it out.

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Some senior members of the FSA are also playing favorites — dishing out money and weapons to certain FSA units, while ignoring others. The group has long been a loose franchise organization, nominally headed by Colonel Riad al-As’aad and other senior defectors sequestered in a refugee camp in the the southern Turkish town of Apaydin in Hatay Province. (There are 10 FSA military bureaus — regional umbrella groups — inside the country.)

As’aad and General Mustafa al-Sheikh, one of the earliest generals to defect, have long been rivals, although they supposedly buried their differences by forming a joint military council in late March. Months of reporting and meeting with numerous FSA groups, mainly operating in northern Syria, has made it clear that the men are backing different groups inside Syria, and in so doing, are undermining ongoing efforts to unite the rebel army.

It’s just another of the many layers of friction between various elements of the FSA. There are real and serious rivalries between exiles and those inside Syria, sub-splits between those groups, deep schisms between the armed and political opposition, and among some armed groups in different areas. At the moment most of their guns are pointed in the same direction, but it’s easy to predict what may happen when their common enemy falls.

“Victory is made here, not in Turkey, thank you martyrs,” is sprayed on a wall in Saraqeb, although it could be almost anywhere in Syria. Abu Trad, 27, heads the Martyr Asaad Hilal Brigade in the town, one of four FSA units operating there. The former agricultural trader recoils at the thought of answering to the opposition in exile. “Where are they? In five-star hotels, drinking tea?” he says.

He claims his “differences” with both General Sheikh and Colonel As’aad mean he doesn’t get help from any faction within the FSA. “They are buying loyalties, and mine isn’t for sale” he said, seated behind a scuffed wooden desk in the office of a sweltering school that now serves as his unit’s headquarters. He keeps photos of the seven men his unit has lost under the glass top of the office desk. “We will not join the Muslim Brothers or the Salafis or anyone,” he said.

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He and his 90 or so men rely on private donations from abroad (he wouldn’t say from where) to buy weapons, and have been “cooking up a few explosives,” he says. There’s an RPG missile in the glass cabinet, alongside double binder folders. An empty box of hand grenades is perched on the open window sill. “Some of us sold our wives’ jewelry to fund the fight,” Abu Trad says, as a single ceiling fan whirs overhead, while for some other FSA units, he says, getting weapons and money is “as easy as drinking a sip of water.” Several of his men, seated on chairs arranged in a semicircle around the walls of the room, nod in agreement. “We want arms. we don’t need bread, we will eat dirt, we just want to fight.”

“The Salafis have their own support, and it’s strong,” says Abu Trad, referring to the Ahrar al-Sham brigades comprised of adherents to a more orthodox form of Sunni Islam. “I don’t blame them, but we started before them, we spilled our blood, I think it’s a grave injustice to us that they have stronger support.”

“This is Gulf politics,” replied one of his men, referring to religious donors in the region’s oil-rich countries funding more conservative Sunni fighters in Syria.

Abu Zayd, the nom de guerre of a 25 year old Sharia graduate who heads one of the founding brigades of Ahrar al-Sham, can sympathize with local FSA leaders like Abu Trad, but says it’s not his problem.

“They (the FSA) get more support than we do, but our support is delivered to us, theirs doesn’t make it to them. That’s the truth,” he says.  “Their support stays in Turkey, it doesn’t make it to the revolutionaries here. If our supporters send us 100 lira, we get 100 lira. This is the reality.” He wouldn’t say who his supporters were, if they were state sponsors or individuals. “Whether it is official or unofficial doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “We have enough.”

It’s a statement many of the FSA units operating around these parts can only aspire to utter. Most blame the so-called commanders in exile for their situation, for not providing them with the weapons, ammunition and funds they need, leaving them to scrounge for supplies, and some units to resort to criminal means to secure them.

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Recently, one unit operating in northern Syria kidnapped three Shi’ite Syrians from the pro-regime Shi’ite village of Fouaa, saying it would release them in exchange for two 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns. The Shi’ite villagers, however, had other ideas and promptly kidnapped 32 Sunnis from a handful of villages surrounding them, including from Taftanaz, Binnish and Saraqeb, threatening to kill the men if the Shi’ites weren’t released. It took two weeks of tense negotiations between several FSA units to defuse the situation, and safely release all of the hostages.

Some FSA units are snatching loyalist soldiers from military buses and demanding a ransom from their families for their return. The amount varies, and can be anywhere between 100,000 Syrian pounds ($1,550) to 200,000 SYP ($3,100) for a regular soldier, although the family of a lieutenant colonel reportedly recently paid one million SYP for his release.

On a recent afternoon in northern Syria, a group of FSA fighters and civilians debated the ethics of the kidnappings. “Some people have reasons for not defecting, they should not be punished for protecting their families,” one man said, referring to the fact that retribution by loyalist troops is sometimes exacted on a defector’s family or property.  “If they are going to their hometown on leave, they can defect,” countered an FSA member, “and we need the money.”  The consensus was that if a loyalist was picked up on leave, on his way home it was wrong, because he may be using his leave to defect. If he was heading back to his barracks, however, it was a different story, the men said. “It means he’s coming back to kill us,” said Abu Amjad, whose son Amjad heads a rebel FSA unit, “so he has to be stopped.”

The carjackings of civilian vehicles are another story. The perpetrators are often masked, unlike most FSA fighters who move around freely with their weapons in the towns and villages of northern Syria, even during the day. Yet the carjackers also often fly the rebel Syrian flag. On a recent afternoon, one small group of armed men, with scarves covering their faces, stood in the middle of a major road just outside the town of Taftanaz. One sat on a motorbike that had a small revolutionary flag fluttering from its rear bar.  “Circle back around,” Mohammad, a rebel fighter in the vehicle I was riding in said after we’d cleared the checkpoint.

“We don’t have enough weapons to take them on,” said Basil, another rebel fighter in the car.  “Then call the guys to round those thieves up,” Mohammad said. “We know who is here, who is operating here,” he later explained. “Those men are not real thuwar.”

A similar situation played out earlier this month, albeit on a much larger scale after the Bab al-Hawa border outpost between Turkey and Syria was overrun, and part of it snatched from Syrian government troops by rebel forces. Some of the lorries stationed at the crossing were looted and burned while others were stolen. The actions prompted some furious FSA members to hunt down the rebels responsible and demand they return the stolen vehicles or compensate their owners. Just days later, Celalettin Lekesiz, governor of the southern Turkish province of Hatay, told reporters that 19 of the 30 Turkish trucks stolen from Bab al-Hawa had been returned to their owners.

Abu Ibrahim’s stolen Kia hatchback was also retrieved, 10 days after it was stolen by thugs he says were posing as rebel fighters. It was back in his garage “by force of guns, not kind words,” he said. “There are some people, they are criminals, unemployed, they were before the revolution and they are taking opportunity of the situation,” Abu Ibrahim said. “There are clashes between them and the thuwar, the thuwar are returning cars to the people, helping us, but this is a revolution. They need to be focused on other things.”

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