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As foreign funds run dry, Syrian fighters defect to anti-Western militias

As West curtails aid to Syrian rebels, fighters from the Free Syrian Army are defecting to Al Qaeda-linked militants ahead of planned peace talks in January. 

In an apartment in this Jordanian city that has become a rest stop for the Syrian opposition, Ahmed al-Hariri waits for the guns and ammunition that he says he has been promised. It may be a long wait.

Hariri commands a brigade of 450 men in the Free Syrian Army in his hometown of Dara’a where the Syrian uprising began in 2011. Once courted by Western powers and funded by anti-regime exiles, support for the FSA has dried up in recent months, and its demoralized fighters have begun to desert. Some end up in the arms of armed opposition groups linked with Al Qaeda, whose sectarian cause has attracted foreign fighters and funding, to the alarm of Western powers that initially backed the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

The US and Britain said last week that they had suspended non-lethal aid to northern Syrian rebels after Islamist rebels raided a warehouse run by an FSA-allied group, underscoring the crisis of leadership in Syria’s armed opposition. US officials said that FSA commander General Salim Idris had fled to Turkey.

“At the beginning of the revolution we got millions,” says Hariri, who reports to a regional FSA commander. “From our countrymen in Kuwait we would get $80,000 or $100,000 every one or two months.”

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Now he says, his men are eating one meal a day and he relies on donations from his brother, a businessman, to keep them supplied with cigarettes and phone cards.

With fighting still raging in Dara’a, Hariri say his fighters are on leave because there isn’t enough t feed them. His group had been fighting in an uneasy alliance with some Al Qaeda affiliates against Syrian government forces.

“I have allowed most of the fighters to go on leave to find work because of lack of food,” Hariri reads from a message from his deputy in Dara’a. He says some of the men are considering offers to join Ahrar al-Sham, one of the main groups fighting for an Islamic state that has undertaken joint operations with Al Qaeda affiliates.  

“They are good offers,” Hariri says. “They are giving them vehicles and salaries. They have four-by-four vehicles and anti-aircraft guns. They are paying them $150 a month, that’s a huge amount of money for them. “

Jordan plays quiet role

Neighboring Jordan has quietly played a key role in helping coordinate divided FSA forces in the south of Syria, channeling Western aid, guns and ammunition. Wounded fighters are treated in Jordanian medical facilities. FSA commanders travel here to meet with US, European, and Arab military and intelligence official. As part of its covert aid to the Syrian opposition, the CIA is leading the training of Syrian fighters in the south of the kingdom, US officials say privately.

Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continues to bankroll better-armed hard-line opposition groups, including those affiliated with Al Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra (“Nusra Front”), according to Arab and Western officials. The Nusra Front is believed to share some of the same leadership as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria.

“The Saudis don’t believe they’re fighting for regime change, they believe they’re fighting Iran,” says an Arab official with knowledge of security matters.

With the focus on UN-brokered peace talks scheduled for January, much of the aid to the FSA has now almost stopped, according to FSA commanders and analysts.

“For four months now we’re not getting weapons. If we ask for coffee, they give us water,” says Hariri. “Everything has decreased – the weapons, the ammunition, even the food.”

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The FSA has also been weakened by assassinations of its leaders, the resignations of others and deep internal divisions. This disorganization – and the risk that arms would end up in the hands of militant groups hostile to the West – is a long-standing concern of US government officials and one that has held back military assistance to FSA and other armed opposition groups.

“This notion of resource constraint collapsing the ranks of the FSA is something we’ve seen playing out in slow motion,” says Lara Setrakian, editor of the website Syria Deeply.

“FSA members…have essentially left the ranks to join Jabhat al-Nusra because they don’t have the resources to carry on and they feel they need protection from other groups like ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria),” says Setrakian, who is based in New York. “Jabhat al-Nusra is the lesser of the two evils.”

Hariri says fighters who join Jubhat al Nusra are taken to a camp in Lajat in southern Syria. There they are indoctrinated in the group’s austere Salafist version of Islam.

Life before wartime

Before the war, Hariri lived in Kuwait and designed women’s clothing, while also investing in a diaper factory in Damascus and a recording studio. “My life was simple – laughing and joking. I didn’t need anybody. Everything was alright,” Hariri says.

But even then he says Syrian security forces permeated every aspect of ordinary life. “Even if someone wanted to get married he had to get permission from security authorities.”

Hariri had done his military service in Qardaha  – the city in Latakia province where Assad’s father was born and a stronghold of the ruling family’s Alawite minority. When the uprising started, Hariri says he took up his gun to protect protestors in Dara’a. He says the first person he killed was an informer he shot dead in the street.

He was finally arrested and imprisoned. In one prison, he says nineteen men slept standing up in a cell smaller than three feet long by five feet wide. There he says they were hung upside down, beaten and burned.

Hariri says he was finally released in September 2012 after meeting an Arab League delegation that determined he had been tortured and asked for his release.

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A month after he was released, he and two other fighters opened fire on a military bus and an accompanying vehicle with machine guns, killing 46 security people, he says. It was not possible to independently verify Hariri’s accounts of his exploits.

From the outside, Syria’s conflict is seen as a proxy battle between the West, the Arab world and Iran. But for Hariri’s men, who to fight for comes down to a stark equation. 

“They will go where the weapons are… If we run out of ammunition we will be killed by the regime.”