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A Weary Rebel Retreats From Syria to Fight Another Day

“We have to be honest, we weren’t able to finish it the way we wanted,” said Kassem Eid, a Syrian rebel who has joined the opposition in exile.
August 29, 2014

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As he rode onto the base of the Fourth Division, the formidable Syrian Army unit that had been starving and bombarding his town near Damascus for months, Kassem Eid prepared for a moral reckoning tougher than any he had faced in three years of civil war.

For the first time, Mr. Eid, 27, an opposition activist, fighter and spokesman for the rebels besieged in the town of Moadhamiyeh, was going to meet face to face with his enemy, represented by three senior officers in the Syrian Army, one of them an aide to President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, the division commander.

“Everyone is losing,” one of the officers told him. “We cannot defeat you, and you cannot win.”

They were being honest, Mr. Eid thought, so he would be, too.

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“We wanted a better country for all of us, including you,” he told the officers. “You answered with bullets.”

There was a silence. He held his breath.

The officers smiled. They would not hurt him, they said, but he had to do something for them.

Mr. Eid, who used the nom de guerre Qusai Zakarya, had helped make Moadhamiyeh an international symbol of Syrian suffering after Mr. Assad’s security forces blockaded the town in late 2012, trapping 8,000 civilians along with rebel fighters. Soldiers scrawled “starve or submit” at checkpoints. Malnutrition began killing the young and the sick.

Then came a chemical weapons attack in August 2013, unanswered by any Western military response — and the realization for Mr. Eid, who nearly died in the attack, that no one would be coming to Moadhamiyeh’s rescue.

Over the next six months, government forces alternated between shelling the town at will and dangling offers of food in exchange for concessions like handing over weapons and raising the government flag. The town was divided over how to respond, and Mr. Eid became torn. He distrusted the offers, he said, but feared missing “any single chance to help civilians.”

Truces were attempted, and some food was delivered, but never what was promised, never enough, Mr. Eid said. He complained loudly. The authorities, he said, relayed a threat: “Shut up or we’ll shut you up.”

Reluctantly, he concluded that he could do no more from the inside to help his town or his cause. So in the spring, when the Fourth Division invited him to talk, he crossed the army cordon.

A car took him to downtown Damascus, the heart of Assad territory — a 10-minute drive to another world. Mr. Eid had long declared that he would never “eat anything from the regime,” but when he arrived at the Dama Rose Hotel before the meeting, he ordered “a very big fat chicken” and four Pepsis.

When they began their protest movement against Mr. Assad’s rule in 2011, young, educated, relatively secular Syrians like Mr. Eid had acted on impulse and idealism, only to find that they had helped provoke a brutal crackdown and a war more fearsome than they had ever imagined.

Their struggle for political rights has now been eclipsed by the foreign-led extremists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, who have exploited the chaos to seize control of large areas of both countries. Caught between two enemies — the government and the extremists — many of the original protesters and homegrown Syrian rebels wound up dead, imprisoned, sidelined or exiled.

Mr. Eid had now decided, a bit guiltily, to stay alive for a new phase of the struggle. He was about to join the exiles.

At the army base, he confronted the officers about the government’s brutality. Gen. Ghassan Bilal, Maher al-Assad’s aide, responded by blaming intelligence agencies for “mistakes.”

Mr. Eid urged the officers to prove their good faith by giving Moadhamiyeh self-rule and restoring services in the town. They vowed to try. What they needed from him, they said, was to praise the government’s truces. Publicly.

Mr. Eid thought it over for days. He knew many fellow rebels would consider him a traitor if he complied. One day, air force intelligence officers burst into his hotel room and beat him until Fourth Division soldiers intervened. “Good cop, bad cop,” he said.

Finally, Mr. Eid agreed: He would do as they said — for safe passage to Lebanon.

He returned to Moadhamiyeh to pack, trying out his new script on his friends. They were dismissive, figuring that he had been intimidated into peddling the government line. One of them said he felt sorry for Mr. Eid, for “getting involved with the regime.”

Mr. Eid feared that taking himself out of the fight would leave him with little to show but his own survival. But in a crowded cafe in Beirut the day after he escaped Syria, survival and a chance to reflect seemed for a moment like enough.

He blamed state ruthlessness, global indifference and opposition leaders’ selfishness for “bringing us to this point, to settle for less than we asked for.” Turning reflexively to check who might be listening, he said, “We’ve been fighting all the evil on this planet, starting from Russia” — Mr. Assad’s strongest ally — “and ending up with ourselves.”

Mr. Eid’s mood reflected that of many in Syria’s grass-roots opposition. Facing the prospect of failure and a country in ruins, they are banking the fires of their aspirations to an ember they hope will smolder for the long haul. What they will do next is entirely unclear. “I’m not giving up,” Mr. Eid insisted. “But it’s a new era.” He spoke of the French Revolution and its detours through terror and reaction before ultimate success.

“We have to be honest,” he said. “We weren’t able to finish it the way we wanted.”

Mr. Eid described his own journey with the kind of youthful megalomania that has produced many a revolutionary. He was born on Easter Sunday in 1987 in Damascus. According to family lore, he was the only Muslim and the only boy to arrive that day at a Christian hospital — a sign, a nurse told his mother, that he would do great things.

He and his family are Palestinians, who can live, study and work in Syria on an equal footing with locals in all but citizenship, a marked contrast with other Arab countries. That policy helped Mr. Assad claim to be the Palestinians’ champion — making Mr. Eid feel, he said, like “a living excuse for dictatorship” — but it also gave Palestinians a stake in the country, one that would lead many of them to adopt the uprising as their own.

When the anti-Assad demonstrations started in 2011, Mr. Eid avoided them at first, but he let protesters hide at his apartment when the shooting started. Security forces indiscriminately killed or arrested “smart and decent” people, he said, and local men were shooting back.

Mr. Eid, a wiry man who grew up reading Reader’s Digest in Arabic and English, called himself “a lover, not a fighter.” But eventually, he said, he felt compelled to join the rebels. During shelling he played “Iris,” by the Goo Goo Dolls, imagining the perfume of his girlfriend in Europe.

At dawn on Aug. 21, 2013, the chemical attack struck Moadhamiyeh. Struggling to breathe, Mr. Eid staggered outside, saw a young boy foaming at the mouth, and then passed out. A friend found Mr. Eid among dead bodies; after a shot of atropine, he awoke to an earthshaking bombardment.

Washing his face as he prepared to rush to the front line, he glimpsed his reflection. He saw eyes filled with an unfamiliar rage, he recalled, “like when Bruce Banner looks in the mirror and sees the Hulk.”

By the time he reached Beirut, though, rage had transmuted into disillusion. He swiftly set about breaking his promise to the Fourth Division, telling journalists that the government’s truces were far from peace-building compromises, that starving towns had no choice but compliance. But he also recounted the opposition’s mistakes: betting on decisive help from the Western military that never came, and underestimating Mr. Assad’s appetite for violence, and the number and tenacity of his supporters.

Now, in the cafe, he called on fellow activists to be pragmatic, conserve lives, and root out sectarianism and extremism, or risk “destroying what’s left” and “creating another dictatorship.”

“Everyone who has a small shred of decency,” he said, “must start thinking over everything that happened. There is a very, very, very high price of blood.”

A few days later, he accepted a plane ticket to Washington from the exile opposition he had once called irresponsible and clueless. On the flight, the first of his life, he watched the movie “Argo,” and he pictured himself as the Ben Affleck character, escaping from Tehran.

He spoke at universities, lobbied officials to aid the rebels and appeared before the United Nations Security Council with the American ambassador, Samantha Power, trying to shame the Council into action. At those moments, he said, he felt like Qusai, the rebel spokesman. Other times, though, he was just Kassem, lonely, his hair thinning, avoiding friends and deeper talk of dark experiences. He hoarded food out of habit.

Back in Syria, little has changed. Mr. Assad offers few concessions. Extremists run rampant. Moadhamiyeh is again under siege. And leaving cost Mr. Eid the bona fides of suffering.

Some former admirers, trapped in Syria, brand him an opportunist. He understands their anger, he said, but “the healthy and smart thing is to adjust, take responsibility, look after our revolution and not let it go wasted.”

Disappointed in President Obama, Mr. Eid said he now pins his hopes on Angelina Jolie. If he can only meet her, he is sure she will take up Syria’s cause.

“It’s America,” he says. “Where anything might happen.”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting from Dubai, Mohammad Ghannam from Beirut, and Somini Sengupta from New York.

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(via NY Times)