There are increasingly frequent accounts of rebel leaders in Syria switching sides to fight for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. What are the causes of this phenomenon? What impact is it having on the revolution, given the complex web of alliances and relationships already manifest in the dynamics of the conflict? What fate can the defectors themselves expect, given the valuable intelligence on rebel forces that they bring? The regime surely has an interest in cooperating with former rebel commanders to secure tactical benefits, but its record of ruthlnessness against opponents inspires little confidence that such shifts in loyalties will be rewarded in the long term.
One reason for the rise in defections is opportunism. This was arguably the case with Abdel Basset Hamida, previously leader of the Ahfad Aisha Brigades of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who in 2014 became leader of the pro-Assad Jaysh al-Asha’ir (Army of Clans) militia. Hamida claimed that switching sides was the only way to take revenge against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), after ISIS forces had carried out massacres against the al-Shaitat clan in Deir ez-Zor. Some hold Hamida and others partially accountable for the massacres, however, claiming that he had entered an unequal battle with ISIS simply to protect oil wells rather than to further the revolution.
Other prominent defectors include Mohammed Khair al-Shalash, the former leader of Ababeel al-Haq; and Abu Ali Raslan, the former commander of the al-Raslan Brigades. Both hail from Manbij, a city 90 km northeast of Aleppo. Both later joined Suhail al-Hassan’s pro-regime militia, known as the ‘Tiger Forces’. Raslan defended his decision by claiming that rejoining the regime was better than being dependent on Turkish forces.
Material ambitions and the prospect of financial gain are also motivating rebel leaders to switch allegiance. Many have already accrued large fortunes from the war economy, and have entered into murky partnerships with regime officers. For example, some revolutionary leaders in Aleppo smuggled goods and fuel to the regime while the city was under siege.
Conflict circumstances on the ground – such as the escalation of bombing and Russia’s adoption of a scorched-earth policy against rebels exhausted by siege – have made a change of loyalties seem expedient to some. In the countryside around Damascus, most notably in Moadamiyah and the Western Ghouta region, some leaders claim that reconciliation with the regime following its besiegement of the region’s towns has given their fighters immunity and protected populated civilian areas from destruction and aerial bombardment. In Barzeh on the outskirts of Damascus, where Abu al-Tayeb Walid Rafae reached the first truce with government forces in late 2013, leaders of his ‘First Battalion’ militia were rewarded in a regime-officiated ceremony on 20 November 2017.
Meanwhile, political and international pressure has contributed to the division of rebels into factions dependent on foreign entities for financial and military support. This has removed their agency. This year, most factions in Daraa, for example, had been banking on intervention by the US to protect them from attacks by the regime and Russia following the regime’s announcement that it wanted to take this rebel-held region back. In the event, however, the US abandoned these groups, leaving them at the mercy of Russian forces and susceptible to pressure from regional states that prioritized (relative) calm in the Syrian south in order to protect their own stability. As a consequence, some faction leaders – such as Ahmed al-Awdah, leader of the Shabab al-Sunna Faction in Busra al-Sham – ended up joining the regime’s 5th Corps. Al-Awdah’s three brothers had been killed during clashes with government forces between 2012 and 2014, but he later handed over guns, tanks and more than 200 anti-tank missiles to the regime.
A desire to be on the winning side in the conflict also seems to have encouraged defections. Leaders who fall into this category may include Bassam Dofdaa, imam of the Kafr Batna Mosque and a sharia leader for the Failaq Al-Rahman armed group, who had joined the revolution in mid-2011. Dofdaa joined the ranks of the regime after Ghouta was stormed. He addressed Assad with the statement, ‘We knew that you were right.’ Sheikh Omar Rahmoun – who was the founder of the Ahrar al-Sufia Movement and a member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – later became an intermediary in negotiations between rebels and the regime, most notably during the last days of rebel control in Aleppo.
The defecting leaders come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are simply ordinary citizens who have achieved unexpectedly prominent status as rebel leaders – their number includes Hamida, Abu Bahr (Moawiya al-Biqa’i) and al-Minshar (Samir Shahrour) from Barzeh. Others – such as Dofdaa and Amr Rahmoun – come from religious backgrounds. There are also some who have an intelligence background. The fact that corruption permeates all levels of Syrian society is evidenced by the incidence of defections in multiple provinces: defections have not been limited to one specific geographical area, even though conditions on the ground render leaders in some regions potentially more amenable to switching sides than in others.
The defections are hurting the Syrian revolution. They have disrupted the internal ranks of rebel forces, preventing the formation of a unified military structure and prompting the assassination of commanders loyal to the revolution. For example, Fahad al-Maghribi Abu Hamza Sarifa was assassinated after objecting to the unethical practices of First Brigade leaders.
More broadly, corruption among rebel groups has continued to incur the wrath of the people and has undermined popular support for the revolution. Various rebel leaders (many of whom have subsequently defected to the regime) have been accused of stealing arms and ammunition, looting and pillaging, seeking to control access to oil wells for personal enrichment, and smuggling fuel and arms.
Defections by rebel leaders have also weakened the armed opposition in battles against the regime. Indeed, some leaders have even directly participated in regime-led assaults on rebel-held areas. Abu Bahr, al-Minshar and other First Battalion leaders took the regime’s side in the battle for Damascus in March 2017, although more than 70 per cent of battalion troops stayed loyal to the rebels. Dofdaa formed a militia that operated in the central sector of Ghouta and aided the regime’s assault on the area earlier this year. Dofdaa’s forces also participated in the regime’s assault on Ayn Tirma.
Many of the above-mentioned commanders have moved between different rebel factions and formations, in the process gleaning crucial information about the opposition’s numbers and access to support. For example, before ending up in the Sultan Murad Division, al-Shalash served in the Safwa Brigades and Ahfad al-Rasul Brigades. Similarly, Raslan served in the Jund al-Haramain Brigade and the Aleppo First Division. This has made them valuable as sources of information on rebel forces.
Despite their change of loyalty and potential utility to the regime, rebel commanders who have defected are unlikely in the long term to be kindly received by Assad’s forces. Experience shows that the regime may exploit the defectors at first, but that former rebel leaders will eventually be executed, arrested or left for dead on the front lines. Many have already met such a fate: Hamida was killed by a landmine near the Deir ez-Zor airport. Moataz al-Bardaan and Turki al-Shanour were killed in battles in the Yarmouk basin. Yasser al-Tawirish, the first to sign a reconciliation agreement, was also assassinated by anonymous armed men thought to be linked with the regime. A number of other defectors have been arrested by the regime. While defecting to the side of the regime may be a short-term measure of security and power for former rebel fighters, these benefits are not guaranteed in the long term.
Jalal Zainedine is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He writes for different newsletters and Think Tanks, including Al-modon, The New Arab, and Arab Reform Initiative.