Vanguard of Syria’s uprising, now on the run from ISIS, weighs a bleak future

The New York Times reports: The cigarette smoke in the hotel room grew as thick as the cottony fog outside in this Turkish border town, as Syrian men, night after night, told their war stories. Their memories veered from exhilaration to black humor to terror, but mostly they told of what they had lost: Friends. A fiancée. An arm. A country. None were out of their mid-20s.

Three were insurgents, or had been. One had helped capture an army tank; another had hidden in tall grass as tank fire killed his raiding party. They told of abandoning one insurgent group after another, finding commanders too violent, too corrupt, too disorganized, too pious, not pious enough.

Three others, civilian antigovernment activists who broadcast war news on social media, were on the run from Islamic State extremists. For them, the fog was a comfort, shrouding their movements as they drove to the hotel. They had trekked for days from the remote Syrian provincial capital of Deir al-Zour, holding their breath at Islamic State checkpoints, hoping to find safety here in southern Turkey.

But they still felt hunted, sure that the group had eyes and ears everywhere, among bearded strangers in Syrian-run cafes or in hotels welcoming foreign fighters. They did not tell friends where they were staying, and they did not know when or whether they could go home.

Not long ago, these men would have felt secure here. Early in the Syrian conflict Antakya, long a sleepy provincial town, became the high-octane hub of an insurgency that thought it was winning. Back then, young fighters and activists, including some of those recently huddling in the hotel room, filled cafes to brainstorm, dreaming of new power and new freedoms.

But some of those flocking to Antakya would later become their enemies. The city was becoming a way station for foreign jihadists, who spent lavishly, even spurring a market for Taliban-style dress. They ultimately transformed Syria’s battlefield, many of them coalescing into the radical Islamic State group, which routed or co-opted other insurgents and shifted the West’s focus from ousting President Bashar al-Assad to countering the extremist group’s momentum. Now, the group has turned violently against any Assad opponents who fail to flock to its banner — like the young men in the hotel room.

Those men are part of what is looming as a lost generation of young Syrians. They are marooned in southern Turkey, unsure how to envision their future, and their hopes are deflating as rapidly as Antakya’s wartime boom. [Continue reading…]

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