First Person: The dark knights of the Syrian opposition

Free Syrian Army fighters search bags belonging to civilians who are attempting to enter Turkey at the Bab Al-Salam border crossing September 9, 2013. Molhem Barakat / Reuters

News Analysis

NORTHERN SYRIA and ANTAKYA, TURKEY -- There was another checkpoint up ahead, so we slowed down, but didn’t stop. It’s better to keep moving at rebel checkpoints now. Don’t make too much eye contact, and move on.

We were in a convoy of pickups with commanders from the Free Syrian Army, top guys, but they didn’t have much juice anymore.

A year or two ago, the FSA ran all the checkpoints. They ran the revolution. With their fatigues, Winston cigarettes and patriotic songs blaring on their car radios, they were the rebels of Rebelstan and the people loved them.

Farmers stopped them on the road to push baskets of figs snapped right from the trees into their cars. The FSA didn’t need bases because families opened their homes for fighters to bed down for the night.

But it got all messed up. The extremists started coming about a year ago.

Saudi teenagers looking to shoot someone with their new guns. Iraqis showing off how much they knew about fighting from years blowing up American Humvees. Tunisians and Libyans unsatisfied with their own revolutions and hungering for more. Al Qaeda put out the call to go Syria and it was answered.

The men at the checkpoint waved us through.

“Who are these people?” I asked the commander in my pickup.

“I don’t know. Nusra maybe,” he said.

The al-Nusra Front used to be the worst, the hardest of the hardcore Islamists, earning a spot on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. But now, Nusra has been surpassed by newer, more bloodthirsty gangs. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS) is more radical than Nusra. So are the Mohajeroun, "the migrants."

On a spectrum of dark knights, Nusra has become a charcoal to the Mohajeroun’s raven black. The Nusra at least tried to play nice, handing out bread, picking up garbage and playing for hearts and minds. The Islamic State and Mohajeroun don’t bother. You either listen to them, live by their unbending interpretations of seventh century Islamic justice or they whip you and kill you and forget about you.

“They have no friends,” said a friend of mine who was kidnapped by the Islamic State and sentenced to death after a five minute Islamic "trial." He managed to slip away by the silver of his tongue.

The Islamic State whipped a young groom and his father last May in the town of Saraqib. A video shows men giving the groom 40 lashes with a length of rope and his father 50 lashes, for marrying a divorced women without waiting three months, as defined by Islamic law. Other radicals killed a boy in Aleppo in July for making an off-handed comment about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, considering it blasphemy. In Raqqda last May, extremists carried out a public execution of three men they accused of being regime loyalists. They sat the men on the ground, hands bound behind their backs, read the verdict on a bullhorn, and shot each one with a pistol to the back of the head.

We’d only been driving for a few minutes since we’d gotten through the last checkpoint. The new one up ahead didn’t look promising. All black flags. Five men with AK-47s. No smiles.

I slouched in my seat. I knew it didn’t make me harder to see, but I couldn’t help it. I would have crawled into the glove compartment if I could have.

The men at this checkpoint were wearing Pakistani-style pajama suits. They were playing dress up jihadi. War can be fun for certain people. It’s a magnet for sadists, losers and angry dreamers. You get to travel and carry a gun and stop cars and kill people if you want to and tell them what to do and watch them cower in front of you.

It beats working in a grocery store in Benghazi or Karachi, simmering all day as you watch Muslims being killed on TV. In Syria, you can play al Qaeda superhero, a Muslim Ironman flying in to rescue Syrians from Bashar Assad’s Alawite death machine. Maybe you can even make money from kidnappings, or die and win a trip on the express elevator to heaven.

The men in pajamas waved us through the checkpoint, but there were more checkpoints to come. During the recent hour drive from Aleppo to the Turkish border, our convoy passed through nearly a dozen. Only two were run by the Free Syrian Army. The rest belonged to Nusra, the Islamic State, the Mohajeroun, or were run by men unknown to the FSA commander with us.

He told me his men had stopped traveling alone. Even the original rebels weren't safe from the whims of the Islamic extremists.

So who exactly would the United States be helping if it bombed Syria? We don’t really know. Neither do many Syrians.

In some ways Washington would be providing air support for al Qaeda-backed fighters. The extremists would benefit from the U.S. military intervention and try make advances. But attacking Assad’s regime would also help the FSA and its moderate leader General Salim Idris, a U.S. ally.

What about doing nothing? That's also has costs. Ignoring the crisis has only made Syria the mess it is now.