Samir Kazaz put his head down as a fighter forced his way through the crowd outside the Military Bread Factory and the people around him teetered back like falling pins.
They had all been standing in line for almost three hours for their daily bag of pita bread when the fighter from the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) shot to the head of the line just before 2 a.m.
“They act as if we exist to serve them,” the 36-year-old bank teller said. “They brought these hardships on us and now they want us to suffer while they take the choice goods.”
As the revolt against Bashar al-Assad inches toward the end of its second year, civilians are not applauding the FSA’s performance. From commandeering precious supplies to abuses against government forces, the rebels have done much to alienate Syrians despite 41 years of authoritarian rule under the Assads.
When FSA fighters entered Aleppo in July, Khalid Hubni greeted them with cheers.
“We wanted an end to the regime, to its abuses and the intelligence services that scared us every day,” the 29-year-old engineer explains. “But now we see the FSA will not change things. It is doing most of the same.”
Aleppo residents are angry that the FSA seizes whatever it wants in the name of the revolution. Thugs from villages outside the city descended like locusts when the FSA entered it and swept up all the luxury cars they could find. Now ruffians who could not afford to buy new cellphones are driving BMWs and Mercedes. Others set their sights on more modest commodities such as canned goods in groceries.
“They come in and clean off my shelves and offer only promises of payment when they ‘liberate’ the city,” says Faris Kindi, a 53-year-old grocer.
At the top of the list of grievances is the FSA’s control of grain silos. Some units have hoarded grain and delayed delivering it to bakeries in order to drive up prices and make a quick profit. The result is long delays at bakeries throughout Aleppo.
“Spending all night in line for bread doesn’t endear me to the FSA,” says Mr. Kazaz. “It just makes me want to return to the quiet we had before the revolution.”
These irritations are pinpricks compared with what really annoys residents: the FSA’s arbitrary stops and arrests. Fighters detain civilians at checkpoints on the slightest suspicions.
On a recent night drive with an FSA contingent, a reporter saw firsthand how such capricious stops are squandering the group’s support.
The fighters chased a car through the dark streets merely because the driver’s facial expressions did not suit them. After halting the suspicious vehicle and forcing its occupants out for a pat down, they finally allowed the harmless civilians to drive off.
Battlefield abuses have also turned Syrians against the FSA. People whisper stories about extrajudicial killings and torture.
“My cousin is in the army,” a man who only gave his name as Mustafa said as his eyes darted around the street corner to ensure he was not overheard. “[The FSA] caught him in Homs and beat him with chains as they showed him pictures of their martyrs.”
Human rights organizations have urged the FSA to cease such abuses. In a March 2012 letter to the Syrian opposition, Human Rights Watch condemned the “torture, taking of hostages, and executions by armed opposition members.”
It is not just the FSA’s battlefield tactics that have Syrians irate, but who they recruit. Teenagers barely old enough to sprout stubble have begun popping up at the front, carrying Kalashnikov rifles and emulating the older fighters by smoking cheap cigarettes with fancy French names.
“The other day a kid from the quarter came back all dirty with camouflage fatigues,” says Musa Salman. “Last year he was riding his bicycle with all the other youths. What are they doing to our children?”
Such recruitment is happening across the country. In an April 2012 report to the UN Security Council, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted the “United Nations has received some credible allegations of the recruitment and use of children by armed opposition, including the FSA and other armed groups.”
These abuses are slowly turning the Syrians against the rebels they once eagerly welcomed as their saviours. And as they do, civilians are beginning to view a regime they were ready to condemn to the history books in a new light.