One of the last scenes we saw heading out of Syria was a convoy near Aleppo, a long, snaking line coming from the east in a swirl of dust.
The passengers on the flat-bed trucks and cars, riding pillion on motor bikes, waved their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launcher. They flew the black flag of al-Qa’ida.
These were the fighters of a group named Isis, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, returning after it had become quite clear that despite all the threats, Barack Obama was not going to take military action over the crossing of his “red line” on chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra, the other main Islamist organisation among the rebels, had convinced themselves that the US would take the opportunity of air strikes on the regime to target them as well. Elaborate security precautions had been taken, moving men, weapons and Western hostages away from their bases, in some instances all the way to Anbar province in Iraq.
That was two months ago. Since then, Syria’s chemical stock, at least the portion of it that was in regime hands, is in the process of being destroyed. But no one knows when the supposed next stage in the process, the Geneva II talks aimed towards a negotiated settlement, will ever actually take place despite yet another date being set for January.
Meanwhile the killings have continued; hundreds of civilians and also of fighters on both sides. The rebels, however, are not just getting killed by regime forces, but also by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. This reached the ghoulish depths of farce when they executed a fellow Islamist, a member of the Ansar al-Sham “by mistake”.
Mohammed Fares was captured and had the misfortune to think that his captors were the Shabiha, the militia of the Alawite community from which President Assad and the ruling elite are drawn. In a desperate hope of ingratiating himself, he took the names of the Shia imams, Ali and Hussein; the enraged Sunnis of Isis promptly beheaded him.
Other killings have not been through mistakes. Two of those I met in Syria in September, members of the relatively moderate Farouq Brigade, have died fighting against Isis. Kamal Hammami, a senior officer in the Free Syria Army (FSA), which is supposedly in charge of the opposition militias, had gone to try and prevent a sectarian massacre by besieging rebels and was shot dead, also by members of Isis.
Last week, one of the highest profile of the rebel commanders was eliminated – this time not killed by fellow rebels but the regime in an air strike. But the life and death of Abdulkader al-Saleh, who most of us knew as Hajji Marea, was intrinsically linked to the deep divisions in the opposition. We had first met him last year as a co-leader of the Tawhid, one of the largest brigades taking part in the battle for Aleppo. His fame grew rapidly and we would often see the tall and rangy figure, a former honey merchant, at the front lines of fighting in the city.
I travelled with him on a number of occasions when he would maintain that, with international help for the revolution, President Assad could be toppled within weeks.
But as the power of the Islamist groups grew, the power of Tawhid declined. Many of its members were killed or driven out by Isis. Hajji Marea did not confront the Islamists, insisting that doing so would have just led to more bloodshed, and he believed that he could achieve more through mediation.
Not everyone supported his stance. One of them, Abu Haitham, who left Syria disillusioned and is now staying across the border in Turkey, reflected: “I felt sorry, of course, on a personal level for Hajji Marea’s death, but at the end many of us felt that he gave up what we as a khatiba (battalion) stood for, he gave in to the Salafis. Who knows who gave his location to regime so they could kill him?”
But others also bear much responsibility. George Sabra, until recently the acting president of the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition government in exile which replaced the dysfunctional National Council, gave a fulsome public eulogy for the dead commander.
But the disunity of the opposition politicians has ensured they lack authority in the rebel-held parts of the country, allowing the extremists to hold sway.
And what of the Western states which encouraged Syrians to rise up and then did little while the Gulf states armed al-Nusra and Isis?
In an interview with my colleague from The Daily Telegraph Richard Spencer, Hajji Marea had been scathingly dismissive of the type of aid that was being given to the rebels by Britain. “Mr Hague after all this bombing of the city said he would send us ‘communications devices’. It’s like coming to a man who is dying and offering him sunglasses.”
There is a price to pay for this. Syria has now superseded Pakistan as the first choice of Muslims from the UK seeking terrorist training. They post messages on social networks inviting other to join the “five-star jihad”.
The head of MI5, Andrew Parker, has echoed his predecessor in pointing out the risk that this development poses to Britain.
The moderate fighters in Syria, meanwhile, feel that they have been abandoned by the West where public opinion increasingly sees all the rebels as extremists.
The West has ensured that Bashar al-Assad has got the enemy he wanted.Reuse content