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The hard choices of internally displaced Syrian rebel fighters

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

Since the fall of eastern Aleppo last December, the Syrian regime has been able to significantly restore its control over different provinces such as Aleppo, Homs and rural Damascus through a series of forced displacement deals. The agreements allow the regime to restore its symbolic control over rebel-held areas in exchange for ending its military operations and allowing those who do not approve of the deal to leave. While some rebel fighters, as well as civilians, agreed to terminate their anti-regime activities so that they could remain in their homes, other dissidents had no choice but to move to northern Syria. Displaced fighters have had to make tough decisions regarding whether to continue to fight or not, who to fight with, where and against whom.

The displacement of fighters started as early as April 2011 when soldiers began moving to different areas after defecting from the Syrian army in protest against killing civilians. The choices back then were simple: either hide and perhaps participate in the peaceful demonstrations or join the loose umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was originally established to protect civilians and fight back against the regime. Soldiers making either decision enjoyed a high level of solidarity and community support among those who were protesting against the regime. But the current fragmentation, corruption and infighting among some rebel groups and the strong strings attached to the support channelled to them, have made the displaced fighters’ decisions on what to do next more difficult than ever.

The forcibly evacuated rebel fighters are usually allowed to keep their light arms in exchange for abandoning their heavy weaponry. But this significant reduction in capacity, and resources is generally resulting in them losing a percentage of their soldiers. Moving to a new area also brings with it the typical problems of securing accommodation and providing basic needs. The answers to how to fulfil those needs sometimes defines the fate of some combatants. As Syrian activist Mustafa Abdullah, based in northern Syria, explained, the money that fighters earn, usually no more than $100 a month, is not enough for food and accommodation, and ‘this is why some of fighters prioritize securing their basic needs through doing something else than fighting’.

Ideological differences also contribute to how displaced fighters are treated. Most of the  factions that have been displaced to northern Syria, where former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, previously Jabhat al-Nusra) is influential, are considered close if not members of the Free Syrian Army. JFS perceives their moderation as a threat, leading to confrontations with those factions, according to Ahmed Hussein, a media activist in northern Syria. As a result, some fighters decided to stop fighting out of fear of persecution at the hands of JFS.

For example, Shuhada Daraya, a faction forcibly displaced to Idlib from Daraya, was attacked last November by JFS, which also arrested 10 of Daraya’s rebels and confiscated their weapons and two of their cars due to Shuhada Daraya’s affiliation with Western donors. Similarly, JFS attacked other groups such as the Fastaqim Kama Umirta group, which had many of its members displaced from eastern Aleppo to Idlib, due to similar accusations, pushing the group in the direction of either being dismantled or being forced to merge with JFS.

Corruption, the absence of a unified structure and infighting among rebel groups also pushed some militants to rethink their options. ‘It was a massive shock to see the big number of fighters and the enormous amounts of weapons available in Idlib and yet nothing is being done to help other areas under attack. We, in Daraya, did not have a fraction of that but still, we were able to fight the regime for years. Those people did not even try to save the people in eastern Aleppo. That is when I stopped fighting because it became clear to me that all those groups care about is how to make money even at the expense of killing each other,’ said a former fighter from Daraya who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The proxy nature of the Syrian conflict shapes the support channelled to specific groups in specific areas to serve specific interests. Therefore, the fighters who are forced to leave their areas might not receive the same support elsewhere. Some of the rebel backers are open about the conditions attached to their support, which comes as a take-it-or-leave proposal. The US train-and-equip program against ISIS was channelling its support to rebel groups who agree to exclusively fight ISIS. Therefore, moving to a new area may not align with the patron’s interest and lead to decreasing or terminating the group’s support, which pushes fighters to seek alternative groups to join. Similarly, the Turkish-led Euphrates Shield operation in northern Syria is prioritising fighting ISIS and Syrian Kurdish-led forces.  Consequently, rebel fighters who move to areas under the operation’s control are not allowed to fight the Syrian regime, which may also push many people for whom Assad remains their number one enemy to stop fighting.

Contrarily, displacement might open new opportunities for rebel groups who refuse to give up fighting. The Usud al-Sharqiya faction was formed by fighters fleeing Deir ez-Zor province after its fall to the hands of ISIS in 2014. A multitude of exiled groups have merged together in the south in August 2014 fighting both ISIS and the Syrian regime. The increased US focus on eradicating ISIS in eastern Syria has increased the support channelled to the groups  fighting ISIS there. Likewise, having existing branches in the areas where they were evacuated to also helped displaced rebels continue fighting. Many of the rebels who were forced out of Aleppo had military bases in northern Syria, which alleviated the displacement challenges.

In summary, the fate of some displaced rebels has been determined through a series of interlinked choices, but the reality on the ground has sometimes made those choices on their behalf.


Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.