BEIRUT: When Omar leaves his tent in Arsal every morning he feels as though danger stalks him from all directions. A Free Syrian Army troop commander chased from Syria by ISIS, Omar fears the Islamist militants in the hills surrounding Arsal will attack his refugee camp.
Still, the Lebanese authorities accuse him and other FSA members of working with ISIS. “We’re living between two fires: the Islamic State on one side and the Lebanese government on the other side, and we are afraid of both,” he told The Daily Star. “They both want us dead.”Lacking both the tactical resources to fight ISIS in Syria and the trust of the Lebanese authorities, FSA members are stuck in a desperate and uncertain limbo in Arsal.
Having suffered the double injustice of both fleeing ISIS and standing accused of colluding with its members, morale is desperately low among FSA ranks in Arsal.
“We have reached a situation that is very bad. It couldn’t get worse,” said Mohammad, also an FSA commander residing on the outskirts of Arsal. “The Syrian revolution has been orphaned.”
Life for FSA fighters turned refugees in Arsal is austere. Funding for the revolution, once abundant if not flush, has dried up, and some high-ranking FSA members have recently moved into refugee camps.
Many line up for United Nations-funded food distributions in the town alongside other refugees, and perform manual labor to earn enough money for heating oil.
Abu Fidaa, who served for 31 years in the Syrian army before joining the revolution, said that he is living on handouts. “My daily expenses come from what charities and aid organizations offer,” he said. “I never expected to end up like this in Arsal.”
Not all FSA members have accepted the privation.
“We have had defectors,” said Mohammad, also an FSA commander in Arsal. “A lot of people are convinced that the Islamic State is rich and can provide them with money and goods ... We have tried a lot to explain to these soldiers that it’s not right to go with the group [ISIS] but their need to live pushed them to do this.”
Mohammad said that he personally knew at least 60 FSA members who had defected to ISIS.
“If you prevent us from making ends meet, we will have to do anything possible to preserve our lives,” said Abu Ahmad, another high-ranking FSA member in Arsal.
While the Lebanese security forces have been engaged in a fierce but intermittent battle with ISIS-affiliated militants near Arsal since last summer, FSA members said the Army’s heavy-handed security plan for the town could incentivize some to join deep-pocketed Islamist groups.
Largely cut off from the rest of Lebanon, FSA members said they have few employment options, little freedom of movement and constantly fear arrest at the hands of Lebanese authorities who group them alongside Islamist militants.
“If I try to leave Arsal [and go seek work inside Lebanon], I will be arrested or accused of being an extremist,” Abu Ahmad said. “A lot of people will be forced to defect in order to survive.”
Many FSA members in Lebanon entered illegally and do not have the proper paperwork. A representative from the FSA based in Arsal was recently sent to speak with General Security about the issue. “He never came back,” Omar said.
Many, however, said that they would remain loyal to the FSA despite the economic hardship and crippling military losses. “After what they [ISIS] did in Mosul and after they were trying to build an Islamic State in my country, I felt that this was really an attack on my dignity,” Mohammad said.
“I won’t allow myself to go with them ... I am still convinced that we want a free Syria, a democratic country where the people can decide. I know the Islamic State will not provide me with that,” he said.
But the situation of the FSA has drastically changed since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, as Arsal-based members know well. “We used to offer the revolution everything we had, but today we have become a burden on the revolution because we don’t have anything to offer anymore except our lives, and that is our last option.”