As clashes between the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and numerous rebel brigades rage across northern Syria, NOW spoke with activists, fighters, and journalists on the ground to get their perspectives on the conflict. They were asked to address four fundamental questions: Who is fighting ISIS? What does life under the “Islamic state” look like? Why did the campaign start now? And what can we expect in the coming months?
Who is fighting?
Since clashes erupted between ISIS and other rebel groups, sources have disagreed over which rebel brigades have been participating in the fighting.
“The Islamic Front did not participate at all; all of the news about it participating in the clashes against ISIS are rumors. The brigades that are fighting ISIS are associated to the FSA only, even if some of them are defined as Islamic brigades: they are associated to the FSA, and contrary to various reports, are not under the umbrella of what is called the Islamic Front,” insisted Kurdish-Syrian political analyst Massoud Akko.
Indeed, the Islamic Front never officially announced its participation in the war against ISIS, even in northern Aleppo when the Atareb battles erupted. But Islamic Front spokesman Islam Alloush contested Akko’s statement. He told NOW,”The Islamic Front is present in Raqqa. We assure you that we are repelling back any alleged attacks on our front or on the civilians and mujahedeen fighting against Assad’s regime, even if ISIS provokes the attacks.” Alloush continued: “Our front, however, stands with any type of truce or agreement and reconciliation to be established between all of the mujahedeen under one condition: to maintain the rights of civilians and mujahedeen whose rights have been violated by ISIS members and hold any ISIS member accountable if necessary by holding fair trials.”
Asked about who was participating in the fighting in northern Syria, Manhal Barish, activist and member of the SNC, said, “What happened is that ISIS crossed all of the red lines and gained a lot of enemies. What made the situation even worse is ISIS killing a member of the newly-formed brigade, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), in Atareb/Aleppo,” he explained. “That is when the clashes erupted between the rebels and ISIS. ISIS quickly withdrew from its strongholds because the SRF attacked all of its positions at once, preventing ISIS from reassembling in one area.”
Barish listed the participants as the following: “the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, including the Farouq Brigade, the Union of the Syrian Clans, 11 other factions, and defected fighters from other brigades; the Islamic Front, with the Ahrar al-Sham in Raqqa, Maskana, and Manbaj, Souqour al-Sham, and al-Tawhid, which has a significant presence in Aleppo; the Jihadis’ Army; and the Nour al-Din Zinki Brigade.”
Jimmy Shahinian, a Syrian activist who was forced to flee Raqqa with the arrival of ISIS, agreed that large groups of the Islamic Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, and some FSA brigades are participating in Raqqa battles against ISIS.
But an ISIS source who wished to remain anonymous insisted that “we are not fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra.” He told NOW, “Jabhat al-Nusra is on our side and together we will face the enemies. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham will not give up on the Syrian revolution; we will keep on fighting the brigades who are attacking us.”
With ISIS being driven from areas like Aleppo, Jabhat al-Nusra’s stance on these developments has remained unclear. Nusra’s spokesperson in northern Syria, who asked to remain anonymous, told NOW, “We tried to contain the tension of all sides, we tried to avoid the clashes: after all, ISIS was one of our divisions.
However, we could not ‘sit back and watch’ anymore, and now we are working on coming to some sort of agreement between all sides.”
However, Syrian activist Ghassan Yassin
agreed that almost all of the factions and FSA brigades are participating in the war against ISIS. He explained that “this war against ISIS contributed in uniting many rebels, brigades, and fractions aiming for one goal: kicking ISIS out of our land, Syria.”
Life under the islamic state
Akko remembers how the Syrian regime withdrew from Raqqa only to deliberately hand it to ISIS. “We in [the opposition] are certain that ISIS is a division related to the Syrian regime,” he said.
Producer and filmmaker Orwa Nyrabia told NOW, “There is no doubt that the current move against ISIS happened because of public pressure. The Syrian communities are fed up regarding the presence of ISIS in certain areas. This apparently led to setting aside all differences within Syrian society, uniting it and creating a wave of refusal and rejection concerning ISIS’s presence and behavior,” he said. “There is no doubt that the ISIS project is not about establishing an Islamic state anymore: I see it as a chaotic project, a project that benefits from the chaos happening now and the chaos yet to come, a project to sabotage the chances of stability.”
When asked why other rebel brigades chose to confront ISIS, activist Souad Nofal replied, “I think that the group executions that ISIS practiced aimed at reflecting one idea: Assad is your best option as Syrians, this is an example of what would succeed him.”
Asked why ISIS settled in Raqqa, she responded, “Because the area has always been a field of experiments. The population in Raqqa is simple: they lean on religion and have rural mentalities, and it is a tribal society.
It was easy for groups like ISIS to use religion to bring the leaders of the clans to their side.”
Historically, she said, the Baath Party used the same technique, benefiting from the leaders of the clans to gain power in Raqqa.
The simplicity of the society transformed it to a more welcoming environment, which eventually received groups like ISIS. Yet like all societies, members stood up and acknowledged the game played by such groups.
For Shahinian, nothing really changed between what he calls the ISIS era and the regime era. They both practiced the same security methods with activists, insisted Shahinian, who was previously detained by the regime. “I can tell you why they chose Raqqa… for groups like ISIS, it is the perfect environment for them to grow and develop and gain popularity.” Shahinian told NOW that the growth of ISIS “started from the suburbs of Idlib all the way to the suburbs of Aleppo. Raqqa was one of the first cities to be liberated from the Syrian regime; that’s when they attacked and took control of it.”
The activist recalls how what started with 110 jihadis soon developed to more than 600, and with promises of both money and power, what ISIS calls “muhajireen” joined them from all over the world.
Other activists agreed with this characterization. During its presence in Syria, ISIS showed no interest in implementing projects aimed at supporting the Syrians and fighting the Syrian regime, argued Yassin, who described how ISIS simply occupied liberated areas. “So an FSA brigade liberates a village in northern Aleppo, for example. All that ISIS does is occupy it, so we now have to re-liberate cities. ” He said, “This confrontation was going to happen sooner or later. We are glad that it happened now so that we would have time to focus the upcoming confrontations on the Syrian regime and invest more in taking the regime down. It hurts us as Syrians to be fighting among each other, but ISIS is here to terrorize Syrians and not to contribute in the process of liberating any parts of Syria anymore.”
Ziad al-Homsi, who was abducted by ISIS in October 2013 like many other media activists, said: “I was watching what ISIS was doing to our revolution silently. There wasn’t much for me to do with them robbing and assaulting our beloved revolution, a revolution that cost us the loss of the souls of our loved ones.” He continued: “We were fighting with the Syrian regime because it used to insult us in detention. That regime never had any type of respect for Syrian citizens, and now ISIS treats us even worse than the regime whenever it takes over liberated areas.” Homsi characterized the confrontation between the Syrians and ISIS as a “second revolution.” “It is the right time to adjust the path of the Syrian revolution, to take back what is ours. Yes, we are angry. We are angry because they kidnapped what is ours, they transformed and reshaped our freedom so that it would suit them.”
“There are international attempts toward resolving things in Syria, not to mention the regional changes added to the concerns of the Syrian populace and the wounds caused by ISIS and its allies,” Homsi explained. “People woke up and found a new occupant. Now they are trying to get rid of them. It’s now up to the Syrians to acknowledge what’s best for their country,” he added.
Akko believes that the FSA could have combatted ISIS from the first day of its spread in Syria. “I just don’t know why they delayed this battle up until now. What’s ironic is that ISIS used to terrify people with slaughtering them in Aleppo and Raqqa; why is this strong organized terrorist group all of a sudden weaker and just leaving its areas of control?”
Photojournalist Mezar Matar has traveled through Raqqa, Aleppo, and Idlib during the fighting. “The battles are timely,” he said. “It is an international decision before Geneva II, for most of the FSA brigades and Muslim [sic] Front’s decisions were not made by them. It seems that a decision was made: take ISIS down, be generous with weapons if FSA’s war is against ISIS now.” Rhetorically speaking, this international decision aims at showing great support for the campaign against ISIS. The battle in Raqqa is wider than expected because it is an ISIS stronghold: “It’s where you might
locate one of the biggest detention spaces in Syria,” Mezar said.
Yassin agreed with this characterization. “The time frame of the battle is important, fighting ISIS changes what’s planned for Geneva II: ‘war against terrorism,'” he said.
Atareb is known to be a stronghold of the FSA, with only one ISIS headquarters. Recently, according to activists, ISIS started spreading more in the area, kidnapping many civilians, fighters, and activists like Nazem Barakat, Mosaab Mansour, the leader of the Atareb Martyrs Brigade,” and killing many, among them Ali Obeid, whose family includes a large number of defectors from the Syrian Arab Army. When news of ISIS’s plans to invade the village and widen its control there, Atareb’s residents decided to confront the group. ISIS then began besieging the area, cutting off roads, and clashes erupted.
According to Souqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, it was the death of Dr. Abu Rayan that triggered the start of this campaign against ISIS. An Ahrar al-Sham activist explained, “The leaders of our brigades did not want to be the ones to start the confrontation with ISIS, for they know the consequences of this for Syria’s revolution and current situation. We can honestly say that the media had a major role in forming a strong public opinion convicting ISIS, which has been accused many times of kidnapping journalists and media activists and insulting civilians and never proved its innocence.”
ISIS sourcesagreed on the importance of the media campaign, though they denied their role in Dr. Abu Rayan’s death. “It all started because of the media campaigns spread against ISIS,” said an ISIS source. “It is well-played by the FSA and its allies. Then they clashed with us in the field blaming us for the death of Dr. Abu Rayan They want to shut down the light of Islam, the light that we are hoping to spread across the region, so they attacked us in Iraq’s Anbar and in Syria’s Atareb at the same time.”
Another ISIS source spoke to NOW, denying the group’s involvement in the kidnappings and killing in Atareb: “We are not to be held accountable for what we did not do, especially the murder of the leader Nazem Barakat. We also had nothing to do with many kidnappings of activists and leaders in northern Aleppo.”
However, members of ISIS who witnessed the start of the Atareb clashes did not entirely agree. “Some of the emirs of the Islamic states made a mistake by letting things escalate and get to this point, especially those in charge of northern Idlib and Aleppo’s west suburbs,” said another ISIS spokesperson. “Emirs and members of the Islamic State still refuse to be held accountable for any of the kidnappings that happened in Aleppo and its suburbs.”
What comes after?
Nyrabia argued that the campaign against ISIS “might lead to regional political changes regarding Geneva and that the Syrian revolution is now fighting against terrorism, not against Assad. Also, other extremist forces found in these [brigades] take advantage of this opportunity to appear as ‘liberals’ in comparison with ISIS, which raises concerns about the ‘post-ISIS era,'” he said. “Therefore, this is not a complete revolution, nor is it a complete social awakening, but a great chance to regain the weight of civil society in the revolution.”
“The important part now is to re-confirm that the Syrian society, not only Islamists, not only armed groups, but the Syrian society as a whole, is still capable of implementing pressure and influencing the forces that have authority over the Syrian revolution and its decisions,” Nyrabia continued. “ISIS won’t disappear from Syria, yet it can be restored to its original definition: a terrorist group conducting suicide bombings against the Syrian opposition, Syrian rebels, and other religious minorities in Syria.”
“What’s necessary now is to forbid ISIS and similar groups from controlling cities and towns in Syria. Raising their flags on any building in Syria shouldn’t be acceptable,” Nryabia concluded.
When asked what to expect in the days ahead, Akko said, “Another possible scenario would be the Syrian regime shelling Raqqa just like it is shelling Aleppo, killing both rebels and ISIS jihadis. That is why it is important for the FSA to organize itself in preparation to control Raqqa, avoiding the chaos that might be caused later on from individuals and other armed groups in the area.”
“I do not think that FSA will manage to take control of Raqqa, for there are no FSA forces initially installed in that area. So far, the brigades that are present there are only there to combat ISIS.” Akko added, “I do not think that it is planned for those brigades to settle in Raqqa. They joined the fight from Deir Ezzor and the suburbs of Aleppo and they will eventually go back to their bases.”
When asked the same question, Nofal replied, “I sadly can’t predict what [will happen] in the upcoming days, but I fear that ISIS may regain power and balance. ISIS is a well-trained and well-armed group. I think that the decision to combat them was not rational: the leaders of other rebel groups did not take into consideration that the only ones suffering both ways are the people of Raqqa,” she said.
Matar said that Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s call for a settlement “will not ease the ongoing battles at all. The battle will continue. Sadly, we won’t get rid of ISIS easily, even if they physically leave. We fear for wider terrorist attacks, car bombings, etc…”
“We can expect two scenarios” Shahinian explained: “If ISIS takes control, this will lead to the execution of whoever fought against it at some point, i.e. the brigades mentioned earlier. Others who disagree with ISIS’s Sharia will have to flee the areas of its control. If ISIS surrenders, according to FSA leaders, each fighter will be held accountable for his/her crimes. Fair trials will be held.”
Homsi insists, “I still have faith, we still have faith in our revolution against Assad, for we are the people, and the victory is always on the people’s side, whether it is against ISIS, Assad, or any tyrant.”
When NOW asked Homsi if the campaign would work, he said, “Why wouldn’t it work? That’s the right question.”