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5 Years On, Syria's Moderate Rebels Are Exhausted And Sidelined

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A wounded Syrian man is carried to a hospital in Kilis, Turkey, just across the border from Syria, last month. The protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began five years ago this month, evolving into a multi-sided civil war.

At a rehabilitation center in Turkey, just over the border from Syria, Bassam Farouh raises and lowers leg weights, wincing and holding onto a rail.

The gray-haired Farouh is a Syrian rebel fighter who battled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army for years, until he was wounded in a Russian airstrike on his hometown across the border two months ago.

"It wasn't a war at first, it was a revolution against the system," he says. "We were trying to take a stance against the system and that led us here."

Farouh says the sweetest days were the early ones, when the uprising against Assad began in 2011, before other countries began funding their chosen factions in Syria. Before the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

His brigade still calls itself part of the Free Syrian Army, but they're a much weaker faction now. His town, Marea, is now facing three frontlines – the Islamic State, the Syrian government and Kurdish-led fighters. All are better-funded and organized than his group of home-grown fighters trying to hold onto their land.

From the first days of their uprising, the U.S. sided with the opposition to Assad. I ask what American support his men have received.

"Frankly, the Americans were supporting us, but just for appearance's sake," he says. "But it's not about the support. What the Americans had to do was take a decision."

Critical Of The U.S.

He believes, despite what officials say, the U.S. never truly wanted Assad out as Syria's leader. Thanks to American military and CIA programs, and U.S. cooperation with other Arab states, some weapons and training were sent to the rebels. But it's never been enough to tip the balance.

The result has been that groups like the Free Syrian Army have lost ground to extreme Islamist groups and to Syrian government forces backed by Russia and Iran.

Russia is a forceful ally of Assad, and rebels have watched the American-Russian cooperation with alarm.

"I believe the Americans for the thousandth time are sending the message that they don't want anything to do with the situation in our area or with the people there," says Bassam Haji Moustafa, a representative of a rebel brigade.

The U.S. and Russia led international efforts to broker a cessation of hostilities in Syria that took effect on Saturday. While some shooting continues, the overall level of combat has tapered off substantially.

Peace talks between Syrian factions are supposed to begin again next week. But after a series of victories by the Syrian regime last month, the opposition will be negotiating from a position of weakness.

"We feel our situation as rebels is really bad," Moustafa says. "The global community is actually portraying us as terrorists, extremist Islamists."

While the U.S. has been bombing the Islamic State since the summer of 2014, many in Washington see extremists dominating the battlefield in Syria, and there's little sign the U.S. will ramp up assistance to rebel forces.

Extremist Groups Dominate

One rebel commander says he thinks the great mistake of the uprising was that the extremists have always been more organized than the moderates. That includes the Islamic State, which holds much of eastern Syria, as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida affiliate active in northern Syria.

But commanders and ordinary people insist there are still men fighting only to defend their homes from Assad's regime. They're still receiving support from the U.S. and its allies.

In the Turkish border town of Kilis, I meet a slight man named Abdulmoneim Mohammad, who fled his home after Russian airstrikes cranked up earlier this year.

He says he never fought against the Syrian army, but when they started employing foreign fighters from Iran, Lebanon and even Afghanistan, he felt it was his duty. Now, with Russian air support, the Syrian regime and its allies have taken his village. He's too afraid of them to go back.

Unless President Obama decides to intervene on our side, he says, "it will be over in a year." He thinks maybe an Afghan family will live in his house. And, he says, it seems the international community is OK with that.

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