Revolution betrayed: Corrupt rebel leaders confiscate Syria dream of freedom
"The real revolution in Syria is over, we have been betrayed," laments a bitter Abu Mahmoud, a respected rebel leader, accusing fellow commanders of marring a "beautiful" revolt through corruption.
"Our beautiful revolution has been confiscated by thieves and corruptors," Abu Mahmoud says as he struggles to hide his bitterness at the way the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime is being fought these days.
Some rebel leaders have "enriched (themselves) shamefully at the cost of true revolutionaries who die on the front line," he says.
Abu Mahmoud's remarks confirm growing reports of looting and corruption by leading insurgents in rebel-controlled areas of strife-torn Syria.
Speaking from his home in the town of Atme -- a key rebel rear base on the border with Turkey -- Abu Mahmoud says he now watches his back, taking his Kalashnikov with him when he heads out "chopping wood or grazing goats in the mountains".
Rebel fighters who took up arms against Assad's forces in the initial days of the rebellion are increasingly abandoning their fight, frustrated at the level of corruption in their leadership, he says.
"These so-called commanders send us to die and they themselves stay behind to make money. They don't come to the front line to fight and yet they are the ones who are heading the rebellion," complains Abu Mahmoud.
"Wherever they go, they rob, they steal whatever they can carry and sell it illegally in Turkey -- be it cars, electronic goods, machines, fuel, antiques, anything you can imagine!"
Abu Mahmoud cites the names of a dozen commanders from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) -- the main group fighting Assad's forces -- who he says are engaging in such practices in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
One officer, whose unit of around 100 fighters is reputed for "raids" on abandoned apartments in Aleppo, has sold "arms, cars and even his office in the border town of Bab al-Hawa" to build two beautiful homes and marry a third wife.
Abu Mahmoud also tells of a former craftsman from Atme who was broke before the uprising but who now controls a fleet of luxury cars through assisting the FSA in coordinating its logistics and moving internally displaced people.
"The problem is that a lot of these officers are getting overseas support."
Abu Mahmoud, a former regime officer in his 30s who defected to the rebellion, is now chief of "Battalion 309", a unit of 35 men staying in tents in the olive groves.
He is known for his honesty and his fighters praise him for his courage and modest lifestyle -- evident from his old and rickety 4X4 vehicle.
His tiny group of fighters have fought almost everywhere in the region, most recently in Aleppo -- a fierce battleground since last July.
"We fought with only seven Kalashnikovs that were taken from the enemy," says a proud Abu Mahmoud.
"My men took turns in groups of seven on the front line," he says, adding that three of them were killed over the past months.
He said his group used to receive some money from Mustafa Sheikh, a former head of the FSA but this support has now stopped.
"On the front line we got some ammunition from officers but no weapons or money. We were being sent like sheep to be slaughtered. And we had nothing to eat," says a disillusioned Abu Mahmoud.
"Who are we fighting for? For our country? Or for those who steal from Syrians and quietly climb the ladder of the revolution?"
Abu Mahmoud has refused to integrate his battalion with other rebel units.
"I did not find any honest (group) that suited me," he says, questioning even the ideology of jihadists who have been launching some of the most brutal attacks on regime forces.
"I have a problem with the Islam that comes with these people. It is not the Islam that I know," he says, questioning the identity and the political agenda of the jihadists.
Some of his men have left him while others are "working in the village", he says.
"Today we are here but our heart is at the front," says the chief of Battalion 309.
"We have abandoned the revolution but the revolution will not (abandon) us. That day may come when the hour of fighting returns."