Life As A Syrian Rebel

May 6, 2018
Originally published on May 6, 2018 6:54 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the Syrian Civil War enters its eighth year, it has morphed from an uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad to also serving as a proxy war, a place where the United States and Russia, Iran, Turkey and others fight over competing interests. Rebels in the war have faced a changing array of adversaries and allies.

NPR's Ruth Sherlock traveled to a town in southern Turkey near the Syrian border to meet with a man whose life has been consumed with an ever-changing list of enemies.

ABDULLAH QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Abdullah Qontar commands a rebel militia in Syria, but we meet the trim, middle-aged man in the living room of his home in Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the border. His pet canary sings from its cage.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANARY SINGING)

QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Before the war, Qontar stayed out of politics. He worked as a businessman, a trader in agricultural products. He'd always hated the Syrian regime, though, with its prying secret police. So when the protests broke out, he and his brother, Mustafa, started a militia. But he was soon arrested.

QONTAR: (Through interpreter) In October 2011, the regime caught me, and I was armed. I was imprisoned in Sednaya for a year and six months.

SHERLOCK: Sednaya is a prison notorious for its brutality. Rights groups say over 10,000 people have been executed there during the war alone.

QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Qontar was only saved when his brother kidnapped the son of a Syrian military commander and made a prisoner exchange. After he was released, Qontar threw himself into the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Allahu akbar.

SHERLOCK: Videos filmed from one of the battles shows his militia firing weapons from behind a dirt bank. He boasts about killing soldiers. Killing was easy, he says, because he'd seen how the regime harmed civilians. But soon, Qontar started killing men who bore no connection to the regime. In parts of Syria that had fallen out of government control, rebel groups fought each other over terrain and differences in ideology. It was one of those groups, not the regime, who killed Qontar's brother, Mustafa.

QONTAR: (Through interpreter) My older brother, the one who got me released from prison, has been martyred. He was assassinated by a group, and we believe it was Al-Nusra.

SHERLOCK: Jabhat al-Nusra is a rebel group that Qontar's militia had fought.

QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: He says Nusra also arrested his other brother, Abdullah, and kept him in a prison that was as bad as those belonging to the regime. As Qontar talks about the later years of the war, he recounts the shifting enemies his militia has fought, and he hardly even mentions the regime.

QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: At one point, his rebel group received funds from the U.S. and other Western countries to fight ISIS. He shows us a video from that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

QONTAR: Allahu akbar. (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Allahu akbar.

SHERLOCK: He and his men cheer over the body of a dead ISIS fighter. Now, ISIS is mostly defeated, and Qontar's militia are fighting on yet another front, one that helps Turkey's interests. They battle a Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Qontar denies he's backed by Turkey, but he wouldn't be operating out of here if Turkey didn't see him as fighting in their interests.

QONTAR: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: These days, Qontar rarely makes trips inside Syria, fearing assassination from his many enemies. He gives his men orders from this living room. As the Syrian government wins back more and more territory, Qontar's dream to oust Assad is evermore unlikely. But this war seems to be what he's used to now. He can't return to his home, as it's in a town that's under government control. So he says he and his men will keep fighting.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Reyhanli, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.