“In the first month and a half the rebels were really a united revolutionary group,” Abu Ismael said. “But now they are different. There are those who are here only to loot and make money, and some still fight.” Did Abu Ismael’s unit loot? “Of course. How do you think we feed the men? Where do you think we get all our sugar, for example?”
In the chaotic economics of the war, everything has become a commodity. Abu Ismael’s unit, for example, took a supply of diesel from a school compound, and every day his unit exchanges a few jerrycans of the precious liquid for bread.
Because Abu Ismael has a supply of food and fuel his battalion is more desirable than others in the sector. Commanders who are unable to feed their men tend to lose them; they desert and join other groups.
Bullets are equally important. When military installations and warehouses are looted the battalion that captures ammunition grows by cannibalising smaller, less well-equipped units that have no bullets to hand.
In a dark apartment in the Salahuddin neighbourhood of Aleppo we sat with a group of commanders who were discussing the formation of a new brigade that would bring their various battalions together. They soon turned to the topic of loot.
One of the commanders present had led an operation into the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Ashrafiya in Aleppo, but according to several fighters who were there the action failed when the army counterattacked because the rebel support units that were supposed to reinforce the front instead turned their attention to looting.
“I want to know exactly what you took that day,” the commander of a small unit told the leader of the assault. The commander opened a notebook to write, while another man held a flashlight above his head. “As long as one fights while the others are busy collecting loot we can’t advance,” he said. “The loot has to be divided equally.”
The leader started to list the luxury cars and the weapons his units had found and taken, while the other commander wrote them down in the notebook. Some of the cars would be sold back to the owners – if they paid out a hefty ransom.