Islamist takeover fear drives rebel chiefs back to Assad

A man walks past the aftermath of an air strike by pro-Assad forces in Aleppo

Four top rebel commanders in Syria have switched sides to join President Assad’s forces in a further sign of disarray in fragmenting opposition ranks.

The men, from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), are thought to have become disillusioned with an opposition that is becoming increasingly dominated by Islamist factions and alliances. Islamists have been doing much of the recent fighting. There is also a strong sense that the recent gains made by Assad’s forces make it pragmatic for FSA officers to go back to the regime.

The defections are expected to improve Mr Assad’s standing in the June presidential elections.

Brigadier Mohammed Abu Zaid, the former president of the military court in Aleppo, Colonel Marwan Nahila, the head of the military council in Homs, and Colonel Abu al-Wafa, the head of the military council in Damascus, are thought to have defected to the regime last week. The news was announced by both pro- and anti-government media channels yesterday, and has been verified by other senior FSA figures.

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All three men were members of the Syrian military before the start of the uprising in 2011, and had defected to join the fledgeling FSA at the start of the armed conflict.

The fourth defector, Sergeant Fadi Deeb, was working under the command of Colonel Mustafa Hashem, the commander of the FSA’s western front. Sergeant Deeb is believed to have defected last month as the opposition began its Anfal offensive in Latakia province.

The defections come at a time of deep confusion and crisis in the ranks of the FSA. The growth of extremist Islamist factions within the opposition, including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al- Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis), has weakened the moderate opposition over the past year.

In December one of the largest rebel brigades, Aleppo’s Liwa al-Tawhid, cut its ties with the FSA to form a new rebel alliance called the Islamic Front. A second rebel alliance in Idlib province, the Syrian revolutionary front, is more closely linked with the supreme military council of the FSA and the Syrian national coalition.

Among the rank and file of the Syrian rebels, there is a growing feeling that the FSA is no longer a relevant force on the battlefield. Abu Mohammed, a fighter with the Islamic Front in Tel Rifat who was initially part of the Liwa al-Tawhid, said that the opposition was now organised according to allegiances with outside funders. “When all the groups were FSA, no one supported us,” he said. “Then every group started to collect support from their own connections. Now as the Islamic front, we are not FSA any more”

None of the officers has made public statements since their defections, but in an interview with Sout Raya, a Syrian radio station based in Istanbul, Mohammad Fateh, a former FSA spokesman, said that some FSA officers were going back to the regime because they believe that it is winning. He also offered the possibility that “the regime had some officers defecting and joining the FSA to infiltrate it”. The timing of Sergeant Deeb’s defection could also suggest that the more secular rebel leaders are being squeezed out of an opposition that is becoming dominated by Islamist factions and alliances. The Anfal offensive has been led by the jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, with the smaller FSA groups taking a secondary role.

Also speaking to Sout Raya, Colonel Ahmed Rahhal, of the FSA general staff, said that he believed that the aims of the revolution had been overtaken by personal interests. “Everyone is fighting for power,” he said. “On the ground we have warlords, and in the offices we have people trading in politics.” Government forces have made significant gains on the ground in recent weeks, particularly in Homs, which has been a rebel stronghold. An activist in the city, speaking on Tuesday, estimated that up to 1,000 rebel fighters had surrendered to the regime in the past month. It is thought that the city could fall in the next few days.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert, said he believeds that more FSA leaders could defect if Assad continued to make gains on the ground. “I believe we will see many more such defections should Assad continue to retake rebel territory, where families and communities must make the difficult choice of whether to fight, flee or find an accommodation with Assad’s rule,” he said. “All Syrians must decide how best to save their lives and those of their families and followers.”

The defections and gains on the ground have come at a fortuitous time for Mr Assad, who is preparing to defend his position in elections on June 3. “I think the regime might use the defections to strengthen [his] position in the coming elections,” said Abu al-Tayyib, a former media activist from Damascus. “It might use them to say to the Syrian people that everybody is coming back to where they belong, and that the others on the other side are only terrorists.”

It has been announced that Syrians living outside the country will be able to vote in the presidential elections, but it is unlikely that people living in swathes of the country that are controlled by rebel forces will be able to take part. Syrian law states that anyone who stands for election must have lived in the country for the past ten years, meaning that the opposition figures who have fled the country will be barred. The US has dismissed the election plans as “a parody of democracy”.

Syrians living in exile in Istanbul reacted to the defections with shock. “I had little hope of going back to Syria, but now that little hope is gone,” said a man who gave his name as Ayman. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

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