In a hotel lobby on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, Yasser Barish showed photographs of his bombed family home in Saraqeb, Idlib province. One room was still standing – the room Yasser happened to resting in on September 15th 2012 when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated – ground level rubble was all that remained. Yasser’s mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is a much fought over strategic crossroads, invaded wholescale by Assad’s army in August 2011 and March 2012. Since November 2012, the regime has had no presence in the town (though its artillery batteries remain in range). At first the Local Coordination Committee provided government, but through the spring of 2013, the al-Qa’ida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) gradually increased its presence in the town.
Yasser told me how they took over Saraqeb. At first only ten representatives came, and they brought with them large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous, and warmed the local people’s hearts. They also brought money, with which they recruited ammunition-starved and hungry local fighters. Then reinforcements arrived – “Libyans, Algerians, a lot of Iraqis, some Afghans and Turks, one white Belgian and one white American” – enough to frighten thieves into good behaviour, which at first increased the organisation’s popularity. But in May 2013 they whipped two men in a public square for an infringement of Islamic family law. In June they took absolute control, forbade drinking and smoking, and made prayer compulsory.
Yasser is part of an independent team which publishes magazines for adults and children – a sign of autonomous revolutionary success in terribly difficult circumstances. The slogan “I have the right to express my opinion” graces the cover of Zeitoun wa Zeitouna, the children’s magazine. Since the culling of his family, Yasser doesn’t care if he lives or dies. But so long as he’s here, he’s dedicated himself to improving local lives – teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures. (The local schools, of course, are closed, and most of the teachers killed or fled.)
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve, even in the regime’s absence. ISIS closed one printing press (a second ran at a secret location), and arrested and beat Yasser for ‘taking photographs of women’ (the ‘women’ in question were girls under the age of thirteen participating in one of his workshops). In July 2013 he witnessed ISIS attacking Saraqeb’s media centre and its abduction of a Polish journalist.
ISIS should by no means be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Army divisions as well as Kurdish groups, assassinated Free Army and more moderate Islamist commanders, and abducted revolutionary activists. It serves the regime’s agenda by terrifying minority groups, deterring journalists, and influencing the calculations of men like former American ambassador to Syria Ryan C. Crocker who writes (from a deficit of both information and principle, and with stunning short-sightedness): “We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad – and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse.” Indeed, many Syrians are convinced that ISIS is an Assad creation, or even a collaborative work of Assad and the great powers. Why else, they ask, does Turkey, a NATO member, make it so easy for foreign militants to cross the border? Why has the regime bombed the schools and marketplaces of Raqqa (a city in the north east held by ISIS for half a year), but not the well-known ISIS headquarters?
Apparently Ryan Crocker’s assumptions are shared by the British airport police. On the first stage of my trip to the Turkish-Syrian border, I was stopped at Edinburgh airport and examined under Schedule Seven of the UK’s Terrorism Act (2000). I was led to an interview room and asked which of the sides in Syria I supported. I explained that there are by now at least three sides, and I perhaps gave a fuller reply than expected. The question as posed seemed to demand an either/ or response: either the regime or the jihad. I suspect the safe and simple option for a Briton with a Muslim surname heading for the border areas is to say that they support the regime – that is, the side which rapes and tortures children on a vast scale, which bombards residential zones with barrel bombs, scud missiles and sarin gas. That way they’ll tick the ‘no further threat’ box.
But while the West writes off Syria as a security problem, the Syrian revolution is getting its house in order. In early January a long-brewing counterstrike wiped out the mini-states set up by ISIS along much of the Turkish border, strategic positions from which it controlled the passage of men and weapons. The attack responded to anti-ISIS demonstrations all across the north, and was led by the Mujahideen Army and the Syrian Revolutionary Front – groups associated with the Free Army. But many of the anti-ISIS fighters are also Islamists, also fighting for a shareea state, from both Jabhat an-Nusra, (also al-Qa’ida affiliated but more intelligent and disciplined in its dealings with the people) and, more importantly, the Islamic Front.
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions was cobbled together over the autumn, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the Free Army ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular Free Army happened not despite Western policy (as much journalism insists, misleadingly describing the Free Army as ‘Western-backed’) but because of it. The vanishing of Obama’s ‘red line’ and his handing the Syria file over to Putin after the mass Sarin gas attacks of August 21st catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse.
Samer, a pro-Front medical worker injured when the regime bombed a field hospital in the Damascus suburbs, stressed the practical importance of Islamist unification: “These are the best, most organised fighters. They aren’t expecting anything from the West. If they work as one, they can defeat the regime.” November’s progress in the eastern Ghouta and the strong defence against Assad and Hizbullah’s offensive in the Qalamoun region may be early proof of this.
Many democratic revolutionaries support the Front because they see it as the force most likely to roll back Assad’s war machine and because they hope its success will undermine more extreme groups – but their support is expressed through gritted teeth. They note that the Islamic Front’s most prominent leaders were released from the regime’s Seidnaya prison in the early days of the revolution, at the same time that secular activists were being hunted down and killed, and point out that ‘Islam’ is not a slogan which minority groups – large sections of which must be won to the anti-Assad cause if Syria is to remain one country – can stand behind. Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province last August – so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. Islamic Front leader Zahran Alloush has promised protection to minorities (which implies no automatic equality of citizenship) while also vowing to cleanse Damascus of Shia influence. Furthermore, the Islamic Front says that it is fighting not for democracy but for a shareea state, and therefore rejects popular sovereignty as expressed through democratic elections.
This was put to a man called Qutaiba (like Samer he fears for his family in regime-controlled areas, and doesn’t want his surname used), who is close to several of the Front’s leaders – that it’s for the people, not an armed group, to decide the nature of future government. Qutaiba responded with the medieval concept of ahl al-hal wal-aqd, or ‘those who loose and bind’, as a substitute for democracy – an assembly of clerics and businessmen who would elect and guide a caliph. This sounds a little like British democracy in the nineteenth century – perhaps an advance on Assadist totalitarianism but not a model likely to long satisfy the working classes politicised by the revolutionary process.
“But will they force it on the people?” asked Qutaiba in reply. “These are sons of the people, not dictators. They have laid out how they think the future should be. They haven’t said they’ll impose it by arms.”
Many find hope in the fact that the footsoldiers of the Islamist brigades are often not motivated by ideology but by the need for discipline and weapons, even food – which the Islamists can supply far better than the Free Army. At first sight, it is bewildering that Ahrar ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra liberated two churches in Raqqa from ISIS and removed the black flags that had been posted from their spires. According to local activist Abu Maya, “God willing, the churches will be restored and used again by Christians in Raqqa.” But this is explained by the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra in Raqqa is manned by ex-Free Army fighters.
Something else to consider is this: just as ‘Islamic state’ connotes repression in Western ears, to many Arab ears it sounds like ‘justice’, ‘decency’, ‘the rule of law’. It means something better than what they lived with under Assad. The concrete definition of what the state would mean in practice is a matter of fierce dispute which can only be resolved by elections.
By now everbody knows that the world isn’t coming to save Syria, that Syria must save itself. The present stage of this process involves finishing ISIS as well as confronting the regime. After that, either the people in at least most regime-controlled areas will welcome the revolutionary militias, or the revolutionary militias will fail to make meaningful progess. Most people in regime controlled areas are terrified of ISIS, not just minorities (who comprise a third of the population anyway) but also very many Sunni Arabs, including working class ones. The presence of Islamist extremists makes it strategically impossible to defeat Assad, as illustrated recently when Deir Attiyeh was briefly liberated. ISIS arrived with the liberating forces and mistreated Christians. As a result, many people there (Muslims too) were actually pleased when the regime retook the city.
Once ISIS has gone, liberated Syria must continue to arrange its affairs. The Islamic factions (and everyone else, but in particular Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham) must continue to increase their discipline so no abuses against minorities or dissenters occur. The Islamic Front must also be publically persuaded to democratise its programme. As a major player, it is entitled to call for a shareea state, but it must clarify that it is the Syrian people who will decide on the nature of their future state in democratic elections/ referenda – not a group of men armed with weapons and a great deal of conviction. Because Syria has been there before.
The Syrian revolution rose first against Assad and now against ISIS. There is every reason to believe that it will continue confronting tyrants. All should take note.