The Free Syrian Army commander leant against the door of his four-wheel drive BMW X5 with tinted windows and watched as his men waded through the river on the Syrian border moving the barrels of smuggled petroleum to Turkey.
“There are many leaders in the revolution that don’t want to make the regime fall because they are loving the conflict,” said Ahmad al-Knaitry, commander of the moderate Omar Mokhtar brigade in the Jebel az-Zawiya area, south-west of Idlib city. “They have become princes of war; they spend millions of dollars, live in castles and have fancy cars.”
At the beginning of the Syrian war, cafés in Antakya, the dusty Turkish town on the border with Syria, was alive with talk of revolution.
Rebel commanders were often seen poring over maps discussing the next government target. Almost three years later the fight against Bashar al-Assad is long forgotten. Discussion now surrounds fears of the growing power of al-Qaeda’s Syrian outfit, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the criminality and corruption that grips rebel-held areas.
Syria’s north has been divided into a series of fiefdoms run by rival warlords.
With no overarching rule of law, every city, town and village comes under the control of a different commander. A myriad of checkpoints are dotted across the provinces: there are approximately 34 on the short road from the Turkish border to Aleppo alone. It is a dog-eat-dog existence, where men vie for control of territory, money, weapons and smuggling routes; it is, disgruntled civilians say, a competition for the spoils of war.
“I used to feel safe travelling around Aleppo and in [the neighbouring] Idlib province,” said one Aleppo resident who works with a local charity to distribute food to civilians in the area. “Now I am afraid to leave the street outside my home. Every time you move you risk being robbed, kidnapped, or beaten. It all depends on how the men on the checkpoints you are crossing feel that day.”Fuel smuggling has burgeoned into a massive business, where smugglers and fighters take oil from the country’s rebel-held fields in the north, crudely refine it and pass it through illegal routes along the porous border with Turkey. Some rebel brigades have given up the fight against the regime entirely to run the operations that line their own pockets; others are using it
to fund their military actions, locals explained.
Some fighting groups manage the transfer of crude oil from the field to the refinery and then to the border, others have simply set up checkpoints that impose levies on smuggler gangs.
“Three years ago the rebels really wanted to fight the regime,” said Ahmed, an opposition activist living in Raqqa, close to the country’s oil repositories.
“But then the FSA started to control the borders and the fuel. After that it changed from a revolution to a battle for oil. I know rebel groups from Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, and even from Homs in the south of the country, that come here to get a share of the spoils.”
The West has long viewed the FSA as its best ally in the melee of fighting groups in Syria. Western diplomats have worked hard to promote the idea of a command and control structure in which a “Supreme Military Council” provides supplies and orders to outfits on the ground.
The CIA was part of an “operations room” designed to ensure the weapons supplied by Gulf sponsors and channelled through Turkey went to Western-friendly, FSA-affiliated fighters. The United States has even offered limited non-lethal military support in the form of thousands of food packs.
But competition between the main proxy backers of the FSA, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the lack of a real military commitment from Western powers and chronic infighting from the outset sent the FSA into decline before it had been even been properly formed. Lacking financial and military support, or a clear strategy, groups in the north began to fragment. Men and weapons seeped away to the better organised, better funded Islamist groups, allowing al-Qaeda to strengthen its foothold in Syria.
Mahmoud, a rebel fighter from Jisr al-Shugour in Idlib, detailed the painful decline of his fighting unit. It is a story oft repeated across northern Syria. “We joined the revolution when men only had hunting shotguns to defend their villages. In the first months we liberated our town, took terrain and we were happy, we had a case to fight the regime. We were bringing freedom to our people,” he said.
He recalled how his comrades had planted home-made roadside bombs at the entrances to their town to block the regime’s tanks. “Back then we were a group of brothers, not officers with soldiers, leaders with their men. We were friends,” he said.
In April this year, the mood started to turn. “People arrived who were not with the revolution, they were only interested in selling guns,” he said. “They called themselves FSA, but they had no interest in fighting Assad. They seized areas that were already free of the regime and set up checkpoints on roads there and started charging people for access.
“Some of the men in my brigade started working with them.”
One officer, Ahmed Hamis, had been a representative in the Supreme Military Council for the Jisr al-Shugour area in Idlib province and had fought honestly against the regime, Mahmoud said. “Then a foreign sponsor started supporting him with money and weapons. He broke away to form a small gang.
“He has a lot of weapons but he hasn’t run one battle against the regime. He has no time for that because he has his own business, smuggling diesel and setting up checkpoints to levy taxes,” he said. “He also deals in kidnappings. If they catch a government soldier they’ll sell him back to his family.”
With little practical support coming from the Supreme Military Council, Mahmoud’s group started to falter. “Because we were not thieving, we had no money to operate. Many of our men had to leave to find jobs. We were weak and eventually we had to disband,” he said.
“My commander had been one of the first people to defect from the Syrian army. But now we don’t have any mission, and we don’t have any soldiers for fighting. My commander keeps asking his fighters to come back. He is desperate.”
At least 85 per cent of the fighting groups he used to know have started smuggling oil and cars, he said. Many had also turned to exploiting the finances of sponsors funding the war against Assad. Rebel groups film their military operations and post the videos on YouTube for foreign donors to peruse. Each outfit has a unit of “journalists”, men who follow them into battle armed with a video camera.
Back in the office they edit the footage, often putting it to music and stamping it with the group’s logo, before posting it online or sending it to their sponsor as evidence that the military operation they paid for had been carried out.
“Often our sponsors will give us money for a specific operation, so when we do it, we film it as proof that we have used their money well,” said a media officer with the Farouk brigade, one of the best-known rebel outfits in Syria, in their office in Reyhanli.
But FSA commanders are increasingly using this to line their own pockets, focusing more on getting the sponsor’s funds than on the military operations, civilians and rebel commanders have said.
Rebels across the region expressed anger at the battle of Wadi Deif, a six-month siege of a huge military base which ended with the government retaining control of it.
That siege was led by Jamal Maarouf, a former handyman and one of the most powerful rebel commanders in Idlib province, but many other rebel outfits participated. Men who were in the battle told The Sunday Telegraph that their commanders had not wanted to end the battle because it was too profitable.
“Funds poured in from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia,” said one fighter who asked not to be named. “And the siege itself made money: commanders were taking bribes from the Syrian regime to allow the regime to send food supplies to its men inside.”
For several months, foreign backers sent money and weapons to help finish the battle at Wadi Deif. It became, as one rebel put it, “like a like a chicken producing golden eggs”.
Mr Knaitry said: “We try not to talk about it about it because we don’t want our people to lose hope. But they became merchants with the martyr’s blood.”
Suddenly many of the fighters bought new homes, and started flashing more money. One man said of Jamaal Marouf: “He had nothing before the revolution, now he drives around in his personal bullet proof car.”