This is a tale of two brothers, Hassan and Kamal Hamami. Though 14 years apart, the pair had always been close. Before the revolution, they sold meat and dabbled in real estate in their sun-drenched, seaside hometown of Latakia.
When demonstrations began in March 2011, the two brothers became ringleaders. Protests grew bigger every day across Syria. But, Latakia was not like any other restive city.
As the stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his Alawite sect, security forces couldn’t be seen to lose control there. So they cracked down on protesters with extra vigor.
Hassan, a father of five boys, was arrested in August 2011. His younger brother, Kamal joined the armed insurgency a few months later and became a senior commander in the Free Syrian Army. He became one of the few to be respected by both rank-and-file fighters and the leaders in exile.
A few months ago, on July 11th, Hassan called his brother Kamal to say he was finally going to be released after two years in jail.
“My brother was so happy, he told me that he was waiting for me, and he wanted me by his side to lead the brigade together,” Hassan said. “A few hours later, some of my friends at the jail invited me to break the Ramadan fast. After we finished eating, I noticed people were looking at me in a weird way. At the end, one of my friends broke the news to me: my brother had just been killed.”
Barely half an hour after the two brothers spoke on the phone, Kamal was gunned down by the local head of the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda linked group that has spread across northern Syria this year. It was the first time that radical Islamists had killed a top Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader.
When Hassan came out of jail a few days later, the death of his brother had changed his priorities.
“My focus had shifted to Abu Ayman, the man who killed my brother,” he said. “The Islamic State corrupted our revolution. I thought, ‘we have to fight them before we take down the regime.’”
Hassan tried to get fighters on board, but didn’t find much support. He says some FSA leaders pledged to help – but didn’t. Others were simply too scared to pick a fight against al-Qaeda.
Overall, Hassan says his brother’s death was a missed opportunity for the FSA and its leaders.
“They’ve shown absolutely no foresight,” Hassan said. “My brother’s death should have been a wakeup call, but the top commanders didn’t do anything. They should have stood by us but instead they backed out.”
So Hassan decided to kill Abu Ayman himself. His cousin and an old friend, Mazen, both heads of local brigades, helped him set up a trap. The assassination attempt failed when Mazen sold them out at the last minute.
Hassan says that’s when the ugly truth came out: Some Free Syrian Army leaders are colluding with radical extremists in exchange for cash and protection.
Then came the last straw.
One early morning last month, 40 al-Qaeda militants raided the brigade’s warehouse and looted dozens of Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft machine guns while chanting “God is great.”
With its charismatic leader killed and its weapons gone, the Hamamis’ brigade had reached the endgame. Hassan says the whole FSA is actually heading that way.
“Now we only hear about the Islamic groups and al-Qaeda on the ground,” he said. “If the other brigades continue falling apart like this, it will be game over soon for the FSA.
Many in the opposition have long chastised Western countries for their lack of support, especially now that the Islamist groups seem to be taking over. But Hassan says since his release from jail he’s seen something even more troubling happening on the ground.
“I was shocked because I saw my people, the Latakian people, hate each other,” he said. “Even friends you knew before have become like enemies. Everyone now is alone against everyone else. Finding radical Islamists all over my homeland was a surprise, but this is even more painful.”
Yet Hassan isn’t ready to give up. He’s still trying to forge a coalition to fight al-Qaeda and reclaim the revolution.
He says money isn’t an issue. The real challenge is finding leaders willing to take on the well-trained, well-funded Islamist groups.