As the Syrian civil war sputters into its third bloody year, the situation on the ground is murkier than ever before.
Over the course of 2013, an al Qaeda in Iraq offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, initially welcomed by the Syrian rebels as disciplined and fearless fighters, established a stronghold over the rebel-held north of the country, attacking rebel brigades and executing their commanders.
Now the rebels, including Syria’s only official al Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, are fighting back. ISIS have pursued a policy of kidnapping western journalists, to the extent that almost no western journalists have worked in the country for 6 months, for their own safety.
In March 2014, VICE News was the first western crew to enter Syria’s northwestern Idlib province to embed with fighters from the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, a Saudi-backed coalition of former FSA brigades currently being touted as the West’s last hope of any influence on the ground.
Led by the controversial commander Jamal Maarouf, the SRF’s brigades had long won a poor reputation among Syrian civilians for looting, extortion and banditry, so much so that ISIS were initially welcomed by many Syrians for the effective, if brutal order they established.
Now SRF brigades are keen to emphasize their commitment to law and order, in an attempt to win back hearts and minds.
While we were there, we witnessed SRF commanders disciplining their own men for robbing civilians at one of the many checkpoints that line their rural stronghold.
“You didn’t film me shoot(ing) the thief,” one commander said to us over a glass of sweet tea.
“It’s a shame,” I replied, “We would have liked to.” “Well never mind,” he joked, “I can take another one out and shoot him for you whenever you’re ready.” The other commanders broke into laughter.
After evening prayers, one commander gave his men a sermon about their struggle.
“We are mujahideen, jihad is enjoined on us, but jihad has rules. We didn’t shed so much blood to free this country from the regime only to establish a new dictatorship of extremists from abroad," he said.
But the campaign against ISIS places the SRF in a delicate position.
Their ISIS enemies despise them as Sahwat, a term derived from the US-funded tribal fighters who drove al Qaeda from much of Iraq during the American occupation.
Any hint of collaboration with the West endangers the SRF’s fragile alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, which fears it may become the next target of rebel infighting.
While we were in Idlib, a commander’s son revealed that he had attended a US-run training course in Qatar, and that the US government was quietly funneling weapons and vehicles to the SRF through Turkey.
But the SRF’s fighters see the meager supply of equipment as too little, too late.
Earmarked for the campaign against ISIS, the American supply effort will not impact the course of the long and bloody war against the regime, and inspires more cynicism than gratitude from SRF fighters.
They told us, frequently, that they believe America wants to prolong the war as long as possible, to destroy Syria, and leave Assad weak but still in power. “If only you had given us a few weapons from the beginning,” one commander said, “we would have defeated this regime a long time ago.”