At the same time, the rebels have already gone a long way toward fulfilling another of their key demands: a haven free of government forces. An 11-year-old boy, Abdel Rahman Sabha, whose left leg was severed at the knee, was one of the last victims of the battle for control of al-Bab, whose fighters drove out government forces last week to join a string of “liberated” communities stretching south from the border with Turkey toward Aleppo.
“America and the West could have prevented this,’’ Omar Sabha, 21, said as his younger brother lay weakly under a bloodstained sheet, his face twisted with pain and incomprehension. Abdel Rahman had been struck the previous day by a missile apparently fired by a helicopter outside his home, and the loss was only now beginning to register. “They are able to help us, but they don’t want to,” the older brother said. “They don’t have the courage or the intention.”
The areas that have fallen under rebel control remain within reach of the government’s artillery and air force, however, and the Syrian opposition is still trying to persuade Turkey and its NATO allies to impose a no-fly zone that would enable rebels to safely congregate and organize there, said Louay Miqdad, a coordinator for the Free Syrian Army based in Istanbul.
But the clamor for international intervention that erupted after Gaddafi’s fall last year, when Syrian protesters carried banners appealing for NATO help, has abated, replaced by a grim sense of self-reliance.
“After everything we’ve been through, we don’t want any help from the West,” said Ahmed Dosh, 24, an Aleppo university student who is on a waiting list for a gun so he can join the Free Syrian Army. “We know only God can help us. We have great faith in God, and only God will end this.”
Dosh described himself as an Islamist, though not an extremist. But at a time when al-Qaeda-influenced jihadis are trying to establish a presence in Syria, there is a risk that a virulently anti-American form of Islamism could take hold among disillusioned Syrians, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs, who believes that the United States should selectively arm rebel groups identified as supporting America’s interests.
If Washington continues on its current path, “ultimately the political entity that comes to power is not going to be in U.S. interests,” he said. “A secular and democratic Syria is what we’re going to lose big-time.”
For some Syrians, offers of help now would be too late. With the rebels holding ground in the commercial city of Aleppo and making inroads in Damascus, hope is growing that they may be able to finish what they started unaided, said Barry Abdul Latif, 30, an activist in al-Bab. “These days I thank God that nobody supports us, because nowI think it will be easier for us to build a new Syria on our own, without the agendas of others,” he said.
“We called for help and nobody came. It is better this way.”