Into the Fire
Nobody involved in the Syrian uprising of 2011 could have known that five years later, their country would be home to an array of terrorist militias, including Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and a new so-called “caliphate.”
Worse still, that several of these Shi’ite groups would have been invited into their country by President Bashar Al Assad. But in the aftermath of revolution a fierce contest for control ensued, creating a battle eld of ever-shifting allegiances between civilians, the state, and rebel groups of opposing ideology.
“When the uprising turned into armed revolution, it was easy for terrorist groups to take control for various reasons,” says Husam Baker, the pseudonym of a doctor and researcher from Deir Ezzor. “[There was] the general feeling of helplessness while Assad forces suppressed the Syrian people, and the opinion of some moderate rebels that al-Nusra jihadis were brave and honest men, fearlessly battling regime forces. They were rich, well-armed, and seemed capable of victory over Assad.”
Baker has fallen victim to both major powers in Syria; held captive and tortured by Assad forces for giving medical treatment to protesters of the regime, he was released, only to be captured by ISIL fighters, who imprisoned and tortured him again.
Alongside foreign militia, Syria plays host to a number of home-grown factions. The al-Nusra Front in particular has played a key role in shaping the development of civil war. Established by Abu Fateh al-Joulani at the instruction of the leader of Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, al- Nusra announced its formation a year after the Syrian uprising. Described by The Washington Post as the most successful arm of the rebel forces, al- Nusra was designated as a foreign terrorist organisation by the US for its founding links to al-Qaeda and ISIL.
“When the uprising turned into armed revolution, it was easy for terrorist groups to take control.”
In late 2013 ISIL had spread across the northern provinces of Syria, from Latakiyah in the west, to as far east as Deir Ezzor. The most terrifying of all the armed forces in Syria, known then as the “unbeatable power,” ISIL was already well known for its merciless brutality, using women prisoners as sex slaves and crucifying rival militia members as “apostates.” Until late 2012, under the name al-Nusra, its focus had been combatting Assad, and its fighters paid little attention to the public and private lives of the Syrian people. But by 2013 its dominance had grown, evolving from a small band of fighters to the most powerful battalion in the province — controlling the oil market, a sugar factory, and all the local granaries. “Financially speaking they became the state,” says Baker, “and they were smart to staff their institutions with Syrians.”
The situation was the same in Aleppo, according to Monzer Sallal, the deputy of the Free Aleppo Provincial Council. “When al-Nusra jihadis originally came they had little support from the locals. But their numbers grew after Assad’s amnesty and release of Islamists from his prisons in 2011 and 2012. They were united by their jihadi ideology, while the Free Syrian Army and local rebels, though more numerous, were ideologically divided.”
In March 2013, al-Nusra captured Raqqa, seizing and occupying state buildings and public spaces. “As early as April we started seeing al-Nusra slogans on the walls and doors of our streets,” says Amer Matter, a journalist from the city. These bases were then offered to ISIL, their “brothers in mythology.”
The honeymoon between Islamic State in Iraq and the al-Nusra Front came to an end in April 2013, when al-Baghdadi announced the uni cation of the two groups under the name ISIL, ordering the permanent dissolution of al-Nusra. Joulani had invested time and energy into expanding al-Nusra in Syria, and was loath to cede power to the rival group. He refused Baghdadi’s offer — supported by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri — and declared the formal separation of ISIL and al- Nusra, ordering Islamic State to remain in Iraq.
To orthodox jihadis with ties to both groups, ISIL was a better fit for their ambitions of international jihad. Many left al-Nusra for the newly- established ISIL, which became the organisation of choice among foreign jihadis too.
After a few months the dispute between al-Nusra and ISIL reached Raqqa. “We heard that al-Baghdadi’s envoy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, had come to confront al-Nusra’s Sharia judge Abu al-Abbas,” says Mothanna, a doctor from Raqqa. “Al-Anbari convinced most of the al-Nusra jihadis to join ISIL, while the few that refused retreated outside of the city.” Rarely mentioned in recruitment videos or across the mainstream media was the fact that ISIL paid better than their al-Nusra rivals, meaning those who lacked the religious fervour of ISIL were compelled to sign up for cash.
ISIL’s rule in Raqqa was characterised by brutality; executing rival militia members in public, terrorising civilians, and kidnapping local activists. Its ultimate dominance in the region was cemented after defeating the Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade — until then the strongest military presence opposing the Assad regime — kidnapping most of its fighters and exiling those that remained. All other rebel groups in the region became apostate enemies of ISIL.
“ISIL got its reputation of power following a campaign of suicide attacks against Assad forces,” says Lieutenant Fares Bauoush, a commander in the northern division of the FSA in Edlib. In January 2014, the FSA launched a concerted counterattack against ISIL, while still under heavy attack from the regime. “We knew that ISIL had come to destroy our revolution,” says Bauoush, “so we united to kick them out of Edlib.”
“To orthodox jihadis with ties to both groups, ISIL was a better fit for their ambitions of international jihad. Many left al-Nusra for the newly-established ISIL.”
In Deir Ezzor, the conflict between ISIL and al-Nusra took a different form. Until the summer of 2014 al-Nusra held power, claiming neutrality while secretly hiding ISIL’s escaped jihadis in its bases, protected from the regime. When conflict between ISIL and al-Nusra did eventually break out, it was for economic, rather than political reasons.
In June ISIL took control of a major oil field and gained the allegiance of a local tribal leader, Amer Rafdan. As a result ISIL became the only armed force in Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, Albab, Menbej, Jarablous, and other towns in Aleppo’s northern suburb. By June 2014 they had captured Mosul, one of the most powerful and important cities in northern Iraq. In doing so they inherited the Iraqi Army’s vast arsenal of weaponry, expanding their military capability far beyond that of other rebel groups.
At this point opposition to ISIL began to dwindle, their reputation for extreme violence intimidating other rebel groups. Many were also afraid to attack ISIL on religious grounds, forbidden by law from killing other Muslims. By declaring all groups opposed to ISIL apostates, al-Baghdadi gave his soldiers a clear-cut advantage over the opposition — religious justification for their brutality.
After capturing Mosul, ISIL imported its administrative hierarchy from Iraq, transposing its federal system onto Syria, while economic and military operations remained centralised in Mosul. Initially, it kept the existing Syrian councils intact, alongside medical and aid organisations. After a few months, these organisations were ordered to pay protection money to ISIL; a few months later they were instructed to leave the caliphate by the end of 2014.
ISIL now controls all manner of state institutions, from local law enforcement, to education, health care, and the judiciary.
“Most civilians who live there have no option but to leave; intellectuals, doctors and activists all left because it’s impossible to bear living under ISIL control,” says Mothanna. “They were interfering in our personal affairs, banning smoking, and beating people at prayers if they weren’t in the mosque.” ISIL now maintain close surveillance across the region, and all civilians need permission from the Sharia judge to move between the areas under its control.
In spite of the repression and constant threat of physical violence, ISIL offers a strange kind of stability and security to the Syrians living under them. “In the ISIL areas there is a close monitoring of the markets, cheating is forbidden, there are no expired medicines in the pharmacies — even doctors who arrive late to the hospital would have their head shaved as punishment,” says Mothanna. No other groups can bear arms in the streets of ISIL-controlled areas, and those that do face having their hands cut off as punishment. In some cases civilians living in areas controlled by other rebel groups began to move to Raqqa and Mosul for security, to escape the chaos of conflict between rebel factions, the regime, and the FSA.
But neither ISIL or the regime have the wellbeing of the Syrian people in mind, and those that began the 2011 uprising are still at the mercy of both. As many millions of people continue to lose homes, livelihoods, and in tens of thousand of cases their lives, it seems the fire with which the 2011 revolution was ignited, has finally gone out.