BEIRUT: With regime troops and jihadists battling for control of Syria, sidelined activists who led a pro-democracy uprising in 2011 say their revolution has died along with their dreams of freedom.
On the ground, where foreign fighters have flocked to join the Islamic State group and rival Al-Qaeda-linked militants, the reality could barely be grimmer for the pro-democracy movement.
The jihadists have expelled mainstream, “moderate” rebels from large areas, while many opposition fighters once revered as heroes are now branded opportunistic warlords.
Meanwhile President Bashar al-Assad still holds Damascus and is pressing on with his relentless campaign of aerial bombings and arrests.
Most of the peaceful protesters of the early days of the revolt have been killed, jailed, forced into exile or live under siege, said 28-year-old Sami Saleh from the central city of Hama, where the opposition briefly seized control for a month in 2011.
“The revolution is dead. The dogs have taken over... It’s total war,” Saleh said, speaking to AFP via the Internet from Turkey.
“You need a movement, protests, civil action for it to be a revolution. What we are witnessing now are battles for territory, resources and control,” he said.
The feeling of failure has pushed many to abandon their demand that Assad be ousted at any cost.
Instead, they long for an end to a brutal conflict that has killed nearly 200,000 people.
Nael Mustafa, who risks his life to document violations by the Islamic State (IS) group, is among the disillusioned.
“My revolutionary cry now is for the killing machine to stop,” said Mustafa, who lives and works undercover in the northern city of Raqa.
IS has overrun the city and proclaimed it their “capital“, having ousted the rebels who captured it in spring 2013.
Those who had tried to set up a civilian administration after the army’s expulsion from Raqa, the first provincial capital to fall from regime control, have disappeared or are in exile.
Mustafa, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, said he never supported the arming of the revolt, which came after the government used live rounds and tank fire against unarmed demonstrators.
“I respect the fighters’ sacrifices, but when the decision to take up arms came, I knew this will be the death of the Syrian revolution,” he said.
Among others who have worked closely with rebel factions and face similar disenchantment is Ibrahim al-Idelbi, an outspoken young writer.
For the past month he has been living in forced exile in Turkey.
He survived two stints of government detention and torture, but it was not the Syrian regime that pushed him out.
It was Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, whose jihadists this month took over most rebel positions in his native northwestern province of Idlib.
“If someone had told me in 2011 that things would be this way, I would have laughed,” Idelbi told AFP via the Internet.
He blames the regime, rebel naivety and the international backers of the revolt for the failure.
“The regime said people were armed when they weren’t – and people took up arms,” said Idelbi.
“The regime said there were terrorists in Syria when there weren’t any – and the terrorists came. Sure, it’s the regime’s fault, but we helped make its claims come true,” he said.
“We made mistake after mistake.”
He said those well organised rebel forces still active are now fighting a turf war, with foreign backers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia exploiting Syria as a proxy battlefield.
“Each state is merely fighting for its own interests,” rather than the goal of toppling Assad, he said.
But Idelbi, like Syrian Kurdish activist Ahmad Khalil, refuses to give up hope.
Jailed for taking part in protests, Khalil fled to Turkey before being resettled as a refugee with his wife in Norway.
Speaking to AFP from hospital just as his wife prepared to give birth, he was full of emotion.
“There will be new life (for Syria). We may not live to see it, but when it happens, it will be beautiful,” he said.