The prolonged armed conflict in Syria, as well as the increasingly violent oppression by the government over the past two years and the spread of extremist organizations, have led many armed opposition fighters to give up the fight, just as new individuals join it in droves.
Their reasons vary, but two seem to reappear time and again: the absence of a political solution in sight to end the conflict; and the expansion of the extremist organizations – such as the Islamic State – across Syrian territory.
Mohammad, 25, from Sukkari, near Aleppo, joined the Tawheed Brigade early in the conflict, back in 2012. He participated under the command of Abu al-Furat in liberating the Infantry School in Aleppo. “While peacefully protesting, I witnessed protesters being killed in front of my eyes, I knew then that peaceful activism wasn’t enough; therefore I joined the Tawheed Brigade in its beginnings, and took part in liberating the city,” Mohammad said.
“In the Infantry School battle, my uncle died in front of my eyes, and although this incident greatly impacted me, I decided to carry on,” the former fighter recalled. “But my mother’s constant fear for me – because I’m her only son – which increased after the death of my uncle who was only two years older than me, persuaded me to leave for Turkey.”
Ibrahim, 45, a lieutenant engineer, deserted the Syrian armed forces in late 2013, leaving from an airport in Homs. “I couldn’t continue fixing planes the regime is sending to kill my people. I was responsible for the mechanical maintenance of the planes,” he said. “I left, aiming to go to Turkey, with the help of fellow officers who had defected before me.”
“I stayed in Turkey for about a year. I tried working with opposition factions, but my skill set didn’t make me very useful for the Free Syrian Army,” he continued. “I also faced various forms of harassments from [extremist] political groups considered as part of the revolution. All of this made me quit my armed service and search for a different job.”
“I was not successful in finding a job, so I decided to purchase a fake passport for $2,000 and travel to Egypt, where I now work as an accountant in a Syrian restaurant,” he said.
“The political opposition has yet to succeed in forming a clear political vision for the future of Syria. This reality has led many fighters to quit fighting beside opposition forces and search for better opportunities in life,” he concluded.
Samer, a 30-year-old agricultural engineer from Suwayda, was serving his obligatory army service in rural Hama, in west-central Syria. “In mid-2012, the people of Hama were repeatedly being arrested at the military airport checkpoint,” he remembered. “I could not tolerate the situation any longer; killings would take place based on people’s personal ID, without any justification, trial or proof that they were conspiring with opposition factions.”
Of his defection, he added: “The funny thing is, I defected with full gear and weapons, with the cooperation of the people of [the town of] Khan Sheikhoun. I then headed to rural Idlib, and worked there for a period of nine months in the intelligence sector with one of the opposition factions. After that, al-Nusra called upon me and requested that I announce my [faith as] Islam before the head Sharia judge. I was afraid of being killed were I to refuse, and I did so, despite being a Druze. Following this, I decided to travel to Turkey and leave everything behind.”
Samer later made it to Turkey, although he had a mere $100 and no identification papers with him because military officers are not allowed to obtain passports or other forms of identification for civilians.
“I tried getting in touch with the military councils and defense ministry in the temporary government with no success,” he said. “So I decided to depend on no one and search for any job to provide for myself. I spent days eating just bread, and not even having money for a pack of cigarettes. After a long search I found a job in a household tools factory in Antakya. I get paid 800 Turkish lira per month, which is enough for only my basic needs.”
Samer explained that he can no longer bear to think of the future. Back in Syria, he had planned to get married to the love of his life – a prospect that is now distant and unlikely. “No one knows when the war will end, and my future in building a career is lost. I sometimes feel that I will spend my life in this factory, operating the plastics oven,” he said.
“I fear a future in which the regime is forced to accept some sort of political resolution that doesn’t include solutions for defected officers,” he concluded. “Then I will never be able to return to Syria, due to the fear of the regime’s violence toward those who deserted it, such as myself.”
Omar, 26, from Salma region in rural Latakia, dropped arms after serving as a fighter in the Hijra Ila Allah brigades. Now in Mersin, a city in southern Turkey, he explained that till now he had been scared to speak out due to security concerns.
“I was caught and held captive in battles against ISIS in rural Latakia. I was set free in an exchange deal five months later,” he said. “I spent some time in my house in the Kurdish Mountains, but the assassination attempt against Abu Rahhal, the commander of the Hijra Ila Allah brigades, and the assassination of various opposition military leaders by regime agents made me run away to Turkey.”
“The complication of the military situation in Syria, and the extensive external interference in Free Syrian Army politics, pushed me away, and I am now waiting for a future moment that will allow me to achieve my dream of liberating Syria from this regime,” Omar added.
Mahmoud, 24, from al-Bab, was a fifth-year student in the Assad Academy for Military Engineering. “After defecting, I fought in the ranks of Ahrar al-Sham,” he remarked, “and after violent battles with ISIS in al-Bab, which ended with ISIS winning control of the city, I left for Turkey.”
Asked why he decided to put down his arms and leave the fight against the government, he said: “The reason wasn’t losing a battle with ISIS, but a barrel bomb that caused the death of my father and injured my mother and younger brothers.”
“We have had enough death, we cannot tolerate any more. We have tasted death in all its forms, and neither did the regime fall nor did our dreams come true,” he said, sadly.
A version of this article was originally published in Arabic at Suwar Magazine. It has been translated, edited and republished with the original photos at Syria Deeply with permission.