ALEPPO — Every night thousands of people gather outside Aleppo’s bakeries to buy their daily bag of bread. Syria’s civil war has transformed the formerly routine transaction into a six hour process.
Disruptions in flour and gas deliveries have created bottlenecks that managers cannot solve. Customers jockey for position, a scene reminiscent of a Texas cattle auction.
But when a fighter from the Free Syrian Army barges into the crowd, people around him scatter like bowling pins.
As he darts to the head of the line, men who have been waiting for more than four hours jeer. “What makes them so special?” asks Muhammad Sharqi, also in line. “They cause our suffering and now get to exploit it for their own ends?”
What’s clear is that as the grisly battle for Aleppo enters its six month, its residents are slowly losing faith in the FSA.
The stalemate on the front lines has turned some against the group. But for many, it is the FSA’s dismal track record with society that has them snickering at the sight of every rebel vehicle that blows through their neighborhood, seizing, residents say, the choicest culinary goods and harassing civilians who cross them.
Meanwhile, widespread shortages in basic necessities – including heating oil and gas, for which people are desperate as temperatures plummet – have fueled a thriving black market, where prices have skyrocketed.
The FSA first marched into Aleppo promising to end the arbitrary arrests carried out by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and to restore public order after months of fighting. But residents say it has proved ill-equipped to solving such seemingly simple problems as distributing bread and fuel.
Their missteps have many civilians in this battered city complaining about the opposition fighters.
Sharqi, a 46-year-old plumber, was one of many Aleppines who welcomed the rebels when the local Tawhid Brigade arrived in the besieged city in July.
“We organized food deliveries for them at the front,” he says. “We were so happy to finally be doing something for the revolution. But after a few months, we saw who these people really were.”
What he saw were bands of villagers from the countryside pilfering cars and stripping buildings. Others complain of being financially extorted by FSA units.
Although rare, cases of civilian ransom kidnappings have struck fear in the wealthier classes, persuading them to flee to neighboring countries.
“It got to the point where we thought they were fighting to get all the property they could instead of fighting to bring down the regime,” lamented Sharqi, standing in the bread line.
Though some Aleppines were initially willing to overlook the FSA’s thieving from the affluent, they drew the line at abusing state resources like grain. Some FSA groups have sold grain abroad, driving up the price in Syria.
The shortages have strained bread production at bakeries, causing the six hour waits that exasperate everyone.
“They are not building tanks in the bakeries,” says 41-year-old customer Hamdi Yusuf. “It’s just bread. What’s so difficult in making a few loaves every day?”
The half dozen brigades currently fighting in Aleppo each have several thousand fighters under their command. But as more civilians joined the rebel units with each battlefield success, they say fighters with ulterior motives infiltrated the FSA.
Even more damaging than the rebels’ failing managerial skills are their physical abuses. Civilians say their constant harassment – from arbitrary arrests to humiliating people at vehicle checkpoints – has the city’s residents on edge.
“My brother in law was stopped at a nighttime checkpoint,” says 37-year-old mobile phone store owner Sadiq Fahmi. “They slapped him because he did not have his identification papers. Is that how they intend to rule? If so, I don’t want to be a part of their state.”
The FSA is doing far worse to regime supporters. “Armed opposition groups have subjected detainees to ill-treatment and torture and committed extrajudicial or summary executions,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a September 2012 press release. The organization reported that it could verify at least a dozen executions of regime fighters by FSA units.
Such stories have residents believing that a change of power will leave them no better off.
“They do the same things as the regime,” says carpenter Mahmud al-Hamawi, 34. “Only they do it under the banner of revolution and freedom. But we know better. These fighters are all just little Bashars.”
The FSA’s battlefield policies have also drawn the condemnation of the United Nations.
Last April, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council that the UN has received credible allegations of the recruitment and use of children by armed opposition, including the FSA.
Though residents of Aleppo note that the FSA has not yet recruited youths in their neighborhoods, they are not surprised by the allegations.
“These guys will do anything to win, even if it means destroying our youth.” says grocer Anwar Khuli, 51, throwing a disdainful look at a group of fighters buying munchkin size cups of coffee at a cafe nearby. “They have already destroyed our country.”
Sentiments like these reflect the disappointment that many of Aleppo’s residents harbor towards a group that held so much promise for them when it first emerged. With each passing day, they say, their hopes are dashed by the reality that the FSA is a seriously flawed organization. And with every gaffe and abuse, the luster of Assad’s tainted regime grows brighter.
(Photos courtesy Steven Sotloff.)