The Rise and Fall of Al Qaeda's Syria Branch
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 be resting in on September 15, 2012, when the plane dropped its bomb. The other rooms were entirely obliterated. Yasser's mother, grandmother, sister and brother were killed.
Saraqeb is at a much fought-over strategic crossroads, taken over by the Syrian 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 governance, but since spring 2013, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has gradually increased its presence.
Yasser described how they took over Saraqeb. At first, only a few came and brought large amounts of medicine and food. They were humble and generous. They also brought money, which they used to recruit hungry and ammunition-starved 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[Ar] 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. He's dedicated himself to improving local lives - teaching children how to read and encouraging them to tell stories and draw pictures.
But even these simple aims are difficult to achieve. ISIL closed one printing press, and arrested and beat Yasser for "taking photographs of women" (the "women" in question were girls under the age of 13 participating in one of his workshops).
ISIL an Assad creation?
ISIL should not be considered part of the revolutionary opposition. It has fought Free Syrian Army (FSA) divisions as well as Kurdish groups; it has assassinated FSA 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 the former US ambassador to Syria Ryan Crockerwho wrote (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 ISIL 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 held by ISIL for half a year), but not the well-known ISIL headquarters?
But while the West writes off Syria, the Syrian revolution is getting its house in order. In early January a long-brewing counter strike wiped out the mini-states set up by ISIL along much of the Turkish border, strategic positions from which it controlled the passage of men and weapons. The attack responded to anti-ISIL demonstrations all across the north, and was led by the Mujahedeen Army and the Syrian Revolutionary Front - groups associated with the Free Syrian Army. But many of the anti-ISIL fighters are also Islamists, from both Jabhat al-Nusra, (also al-Qaeda affiliated but more intelligent and disciplined in its dealings with the people) and, more importantly, the Islamist Front.
This alliance of seven leading Islamist factions was cobbled together last fall, and so far seems much more disciplined, certainly better armed, than the FSA ever was. Its eclipsing of the secular FSA happened not despite Western policy (as many journalists insist on misleadingly describing them 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 attacksof August 2, catalysed the Islamist realignment, and probably a burst of Saudi largesse.
Many democratic revolutionaries, very reluctantly, 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. They note that the Islamist 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. They also point out that "Islam" was not a slogan which minority groups can stand behind, that is if Syria was to remain one country.
Ahrar al-Sham, the largest organisation in the Front, was implicated by Human Rights Watch in the slaughter in Lattakia province in August 2013 - so far the only documented large-scale massacre of Alawi civilians. The organisation denies involvement. Islamist 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 Islamist Front says that it is fighting, not for democracy, but for "a Sharia state", and therefore rejects popular sovereignty as expressed through democratic elections.
ISIL worse than Assad?
Many find hope in the fact that the foot soldiers 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 FSA. At first glance, it was bewildering that Ahrar al-Sham and al-Nusra front liberated two churches in Raqqa from ISIL 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 was because al-Nusra in Raqqa is manned by ex-Free Syrian Army fighters.
Something else to consider is this: just as "Islamic state" connotes repression to Western ears, to many Arab ears it sounds like "justice", "decency", "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 everybody knows that the world isn't coming to save Syria: Syria must save itself. The present stage of this process involves ending ISIL as well as confronting the regime. After that, either people, in at least most regime-controlled areas will welcome the revolutionary militias, or the revolutionary militias will fail to make meaningful progress. Most people in regime controlled areas are terrified of ISIL, not just minorities (who comprise a third of the population), but also many Sunni Arabs. The presence of extremist armed groups makes it strategically impossible to defeat Assad, as illustrated recently when Deir Attiyeh was briefly liberated. ISIL arrived with the liberating forces and mistreated Christians. As a result, many people there were actually pleased when the regime retook the city.
Once ISIL has gone, the Islamic factions must increase discipline so no abuses against minorities or dissenters occur. The Islamic Front must also be persuaded to democratise. It is entitled to call for a Sharia state, but it must clarify that it is the Syrian people who will decide on the nature of their future state, 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 ISIL. There is every reason to believe that it will continue confronting tyrants. All should take note.