Menbej, Asharq Al-Awsat—It should have been a day for celebration in Menbej. In late July, the small town in the north of Aleppo province marked a year of freedom from the regime of Bashar Al-Assad—a year of “liberation,” in the language of the opposition. In July 2012, the town’s Free Syrian Army brigades unseated the regime in a revolution that was so seamless it could almost be described as “velvet”: there was none of the messy stalemate or ongoing fighting that has so crippled the city of Aleppo itself, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south. After the nearby Jarablus border crossing fell into the hands of the opposition, the police and security forces that remained loyal to the regime fled. “We played psychological tricks, rather than confronting them head on,” a local brigade leader told me. “We used our informants to make them believe that we had more troops than we actually did. We put up ‘Wanted’ posters with the pictures and names of people who were working for the regime. Basically, we used their own tricks against them.”
But the scene that unfolded outside one of the town’s mosques on that anniversary morning revealed more about what liberation actually means in Menbej than any of the evening’s official celebrations. A small-but-angry crowd had gathered outside after Friday prayers—not in a demonstration but a dispute. Later, we found out the reason: a member of an Islamist opposition group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), had entered the mosque during midday prayers and pulled the imam down from the pulpit. He wanted to replace the moderate preacher with one of his group’s own, hardline Salafist imams.
This small backwater town, far from the frontlines and the attentions of the international media, is a microcosm of the Syrian revolution—particularly its latest and most troubling stage. The country’s twenty-nine-month uprising can be broken down into three distinct parts, each with its own theme and leadership. It started with the peaceful demonstrations in the cities and larger towns, led by the young, the educated and the urban middle classes. Six months later, the armed uprising began. Groups of young men—mostly from the rural working class—formed brigades and took up arms, buoyed by a stream of high-profile defections from the government army. “At that point, we would hear of a new brigade being set up every week,” the Menbej brigade leader says. “At the beginning there were eight brigades in the town with less than five rifles between them.”
The majority of the world’s media portrayed the fledgling FSA in the same way that the organization’s fighters portrayed themselves—as heroic and honorable freedom fighters who had been forced to take up weapons against a tyrannical regime that had killed scores of peaceful demonstrators and looked set to continue doing so. But the picture on the ground was always more complex. The FSA never existed as one cohesive force under a centralized leadership—it was, from the beginning, a patchwork of separate armed groups forming constantly shifting alliances. In Menbej alone there were ninety separate armed opposition groups in the weeks following the town’s liberation: some of them well-organized and effective military units, some of them little more than groups of friends toting ancient hunting rifles. And, crucially, some of the brigades were nothing more than criminal gangs or regime loyalists who found a convenient cover for their activities in the flag of the FSA. One old lady in Idlib province described how a local family affiliated to the pro-regime Shabiha militia switched sides to join the revolution once the government army fled the area, and then, in the state of lawlessness that followed, began carrying out kidnappings for money and robbing houses. “I am for the revolution,” she said, “but there are people who are taking part in it, but not in a good way.”
But the myth of the FSA was convenient for both the press and the opposition. It provided the media with a catchy title and a neat narrative, a way of crystallizing the conflict into a ‘good versus bad’ story that could be shoehorned into a newspaper article. For the opposition, it was a way of presenting themselves as a united and moral front against Assad’s forces, rather than the loose and often chaotic confederation it actually was. But on the ground things looked very different. Many ordinary Syrians—and especially those who’d had their houses or businesses looted by the more unsavory brigades—quickly grew disillusioned with the FSA. They saw them as inept, corrupt and incapable of properly policing the areas that they had liberated. And it was in this context that the third phase of the uprising began—the phase characterized by the rise of the foreign Islamist groups, which arrived in Syria in the early months of 2012 and presented themselves as a well-organized and effective alternative to the increasingly dysfunctional FSA. “When the Islamists moved in, they targeted the most corrupt FSA leaders first and that made them popular with the people,” says the Menbej brigade leader.
Not long after the town’s liberation, Ahrar Al-Sham established a headquarters in Menbej; six months ago, they were joined by ISIS. This is a newer group that is less well known to outside observers, but which appears to be even more extreme in its ideology and methods. The two groups have occupied neighboring whitewashed buildings in Menbej, turning a quiet and tree-lined street into a kind of Islamist diplomatic quarter.
In the nineteen months since the Al-Nusra Front—the first Islamist group in Syria—announced its presence, the power and influence of these groups has soared. Now, in Aleppo province—and even more so in Aleppo City itself—it is rare to pass a checkpoint where the black Salafist flag is not on view. The seal of Al-Qaeda is daubed on countless walls, and in Aleppo City ISIS has erected vast billboards promoting its caliphate ideology. Huge numbers of rebel fighters now cover their faces and dress head to toe in black in the jihadist fashion. And in Menbej, on the same morning that the ISIS entered the mosque and pulled down the imam, I watched a group of Syrian teenagers circle the town square on motorbikes whilst holding aloft the Salafist flag in a rally of support for the foreign jihadists who have moved into their town.
Increasingly, too, the Islamists are not only dominating the rebels’ military operations, but also the daily lives of civilians in opposition-held areas. Jabhat Al-Nusra, ISIS and Ahrar Al-Sham— the three main foreign Islamist groups operating in the country—state explicitly that their aim is to establish an Islamic state in Syria. In the areas where they are strongest, they are already working on putting this into practice by establishing Shari’a Courts and handing down summary punishments to people caught breaking the rules of Islam. In Menbej, there were reports of people being arrested and whipped for drinking or smoking on the street during Ramadan, while in Aleppo City last month a neighborhood Islamic council issued a fatwa banning Muslim women from wearing make-up or revealing clothes in public. For anyone who knew Syria before the uprising, this will come as a shock: how can a tolerant, multi-faith country succumb so quickly to a foreign, hardline ideology?
The primary appeal of the Islamic brigades was—and still is—their prowess on the front-line. The Islamist fighters are better funded, better organized and more experienced than their FSA counterparts, and many people in Syria believe that without their presence, the opposition would have been defeated by Assad’s forces months ago. It was because of their military weakness that the majority of the FSA brigades’ leaders were happy to accept the presence of the Islamist newcomers despite the gulf in their respective ideologies. Earlier this year, Asharq Al-Awsat interviewed Hajji Marea, the leader of the Tawhid Brigade—the largest and strongest FSA grouping in Aleppo. Regarding the presence of Jabhat Al-Nusra in the city, he said: “They are very brave fighters and we are working alongside them on the front lines.” However, he also affirmed that “the agreement between us is military, not political,” adding, “Nobody from outside came to help us, except Jabhat Al-Nusra.”
At the time, Jabhat Al-Nusra was by far the strongest military force in Aleppo, attracting scores of young Syrian men to their ranks alongside their original foreign jihadist fighters. One Aleppine activist attributes their meteoric rise in popularity and frontline power to a tremendous foreign policy own goal by the United States, namely adding Jabhat Al-Nusra to their list of proscribed terrorist organizations in December 2012.
Speaking exclusively to Asharq Al-Awsat, the Aleppo activist said: “Before that, Jabhat Al-Nusra was just one Islamist group amongst many, but when the US government classified them as a terrorist organization it gave them free publicity. It turned them into the most famous armed group in Syria, and the one that all the young men wanted to join.”
The Islamists’ fearsome front-line reputation started to precede them, helping them to attract even more local fighters. A twenty-year-old rebel from Aleppo spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat pragmatically about his decision to join this Islamist brigade, composed largely of foreign fighters, rather than one of the home-grown FSA brigades. “If you are injured or killed while you’re fighting with the FSA, they will leave you there when they retreat,” he said. “But the Islamic brigades will never do that.”
Furthermore, the activist opined that part of the appeal of the Islamists is a reaction to the failure of the West to intervene in Syria, and to the growing feeling amongst Syrians that they have been forgotten by the rest of the world.
But it is behind the frontlines that Syria’s Islamist groups are working hardest and smartest to consolidate their power. In Aleppo City Asharq Al-Awsat met with Abu Osama, a Syrian who worked in the Gulf until the outbreak of the war. After securing funding from private overseas donors, he came back to Aleppo and set up Ahlar Ansar, a relief organization which hands out 13 tons of bread every day to the poorest people in the city. Pointing to the Kalashnikov he keeps for protection behind the distribution counter, he told Asharq Al-Awsat that he has had problems with some FSA brigades who have tried to steal bread from his bakeries. But he is also fending off ideological attacks from the Shari’a Court set up by the city’s Islamist brigades. “The court tried to shut us down because they don’t like the fact that we have male staff dealing with the women who come to collect bread from us,” he said.
In Menbej, too, the bakeries have become a flashpoint. A young man called Abu Ali, the manager of the largest bakery in the town, described how fighters from the ISIS have been hijacking the town’s wheat trucks in an attempt to control the bread supply. The US military’s policy in Vietnam was to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people they were trying to occupy. Hafez Al-Assad put it rather more phlegmatically: “Keep your dog hungry and it will follow you.” In both of its guises, benevolent and harsh, it is a lesson that the Islamists seem to have learned well.
Back in Aleppo City, Ahmad Dary is trying to negotiate the trickiest of tightropes. He is the man in charge of services at the Aleppo Local Council, a civilian body set up by volunteers to oversee all the things that the Syrian government used to take care of, such as street cleaning, education, and water and power supplies. In the social chaos that has followed the fighting these are the things that matter the most, because for the majority of civilians who have remained in Syria it is not the front-line clashing that blights daily life, but the power shortages, the outbreaks of leishmania (a disease carried by flies that feed on the piles of rotting rubbish in the streets) and the school closures. “The complaints that people come to us with are mostly to do with street cleaning and electricity,” Dary told Asharq Al-Awsat, adding, “We try to solve around 70 percent of all the problems we hear about.”
The Council’s office is airy and businesslike; 60 management staff—most of them middle-class graduates who have chosen to stay in Aleppo rather than flee to a safer life abroad—deal with huge case files and dispatch jobs to the street teams who deal with problems on the ground. “The problem we’re finding hardest to fix is the water supply, because most of the damaged pipes are near the frontlines and it is too dangerous to work there,” says Dary.
But with an initial funding grant from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), he has hired 18 garbage trucks and taken on 55 men to start clearing the streets. And the Council’s work is paying dividends—the mountains of rotting waste that lined Aleppo’s streets in February have shrunk remarkably.
[inset_left] If the West really wants to fight Al-Qaeda, they can do it by supporting local service providers.[/inset_left]But when Asharq Al-Awsat visits the council, Dary is distracted by news that the Shari’a Court (which is run by a coalition of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham and Sukhour Al-Sham) has just arrested one of his workers and confiscated some of the rubbish trucks. “They say they have the right to take our equipment because they liberated this area,” he says. “We need this equipment, but they also want to use it. And they have guns.”
In municipalities across opposition-held Syria, Islamic groups are running their own local service committees, and are often coming into direct competition with the parallel locally run civilian councils. In Aleppo, a body called the Islamic Management for Public Services, which is linked to the Shari’a Court that confiscated the Aleppo Local Council’s equipment, has also started a massively subsidized bus service that local people can use at roc- bottom prices. But while the well-funded Islamists are able to provide these popularity-boosting deals, the Local Council is still scrambling around for cash. “The SNC sent us EUR 200,000 in March, and we have raised EUR 6,500 from private donors, but it is not enough,” said Dary. “We cannot grow because we have no money, and meanwhile the Islamic groups are claiming all the credit for the local services in Aleppo. If the West really wants to fight Al-Qaeda, they can do it by supporting us,” he added.
The Islamists’ civilian PR offensive is proving all the more successful because there is a dearth of independent news and information in the opposition-held areas. The Internet connections were cut long ago and only the rich can afford to install and maintain satellite connections. In Menbej, people crowd into the Internet cafes to check their emails on painfully slow connections, but even this is outside the budget of the poorest – one hour of Internet time costs SYP 75, as much as two packets of precious bread. “When the revolution started, people were selling their valuables so that they could buy a laptop and find out about everything that was happening,” a local activist tells me. “But now the laptops are useless because they can’t connect to the Internet anymore.” And in this information vacuum, the grapevine has taken over: when civilians see trucks that are branded with the logos of the Islamists cleaning their streets, or believe that they are receiving bread thanks to the benevolence of these groups, it is inevitable that they will begin to support their presence in Syria even if they don’t believe in their ideology.
It is also to the Islamists’ favor that the areas that have fallen under the control of the opposition are largely poor and were socially conservative to begin with, and that a huge portion of the middle class—the people best placed to resist them—have already fled the country. “Journalists come to the rebel-held areas of Aleppo and see the women covering their faces, and they assume that the extremists are forcing them to do that,” says the activist from Aleppo. “The truth is that they were doing that anyway, even when the regime was in control.” He believes that if the rebels manage to push into the middle- and upper-class districts of the city, the Islamists will find it far harder to exert any social control. “If they try telling the girls at the university to stop wearing make-up, they simply will not listen to them. It’s far harder to control people who are educated and have money.”
And it is the middle classes—the people who first led the uprising against the regime—who are now at the forefront of a growing backlash against the Islamists. In Menbej I meet Mohammed, a lawyer who was involved in the very first protests of the uprising in Aleppo City. “Every time students were arrested for protesting, we would hold a vigil outside the prosecutor’s office and collect money for their bail,” he says.
Mohammed watched as the protest movement morphed into an armed conflict, and then as the foreign Islamist groups entered the fray. “The first place they entered was Aleppo,” he says. “And initially we welcomed them, but now they want to take over everything. They are the only groups who have unlimited financial support, and they are taking advantage of Syrians who are poor and uneducated and have suffered two years of war.”
In Menbej, Mohammed is part of a group of local lawyers, all of them trained in Shari’a law, who set up the Syrian Revolutionary Court to deal with problems of law and order in the town. They have based their legal system on those used in countries such as Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco: a mixture of Islamic and secular laws. But at the same time, the town’s two Islamist groups – Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS – have set up their own hardline Shari’a version. Mohammed tells me that two weeks ago, the Islamists executed three people in the town: they had been accused of murder, rape and robbery, but were never granted a fair trial. “These people are not trained in Shari’a and they are not qualified to run a judiciary,” he says.
In an attempt to temper their power, Mohammed and his team decided to enter into discussion with the Islamists’ Shari’a Court with the aim of uniting the two. “We talked for seven hours, but we didn’t get anywhere,” he says. “They won’t accept any secular laws, only Shari’a. And they tried to swamp us with money to get their own way, but we refused. We don’t know where that money is coming from.”
Now the fight against the Islamists is stretching back to the frontlines. At his base just outside Menbej, Abu Khalid, the leader of local Free Syrian Army brigade the Euphrates Knights, says that the arrival of the Islamists has forced the once-disparate FSA groups to start working together to counteract their power. Now there are just seven FSA brigades in Menbej, instead of the dozens there once were. “We saw the danger and started working together,” he says.
But he admits that the Islamist brigades hold a growing appeal for young Syrian men. “Because of the circumstances they’re in, they’re attracted to the ideology of jihad,” he explains. “The Islamists can recruit these boys, send them to training camps, and plant the seed of Taliban-type ideas in their heads.”
Like Mohammed and his team of lawyers, Abu Khalil has held meetings with the Islamic brigades to try to resolve the ideological conflicts between them and work out how they can fight together to beat Assad’s forces. But all his attempts have proved futile. “They consider us secularists, even though we are observant Muslims,” he says. “We nearly came to blows once because my captain was smoking and they didn’t like it. This revolution is for freedom, but they don’t tolerate that.”
So as the rebels’ war against Bashar Al-Assad continues, a new war has begun. It is not yet being fought on a large scale on the frontlines, but that will surely come: already there have been numerous small-scale clashes between FSA and Islamist brigades. This new war is being fought in the areas behind the frontlines, where poverty and ignorance have created fertile ground for the extremists and institutions that have the will to confront them are weak. And the opposition forces—once the darlings of the international media—now have an image problem. Instead of being labeled as freedom fighters, they are now lumped together with the Islamists and largely viewed by the outside world as terrorists and extremists. And if that perception persists, the likelihood that they will receive help from the outside world will carry on diminishing.
And yet Mohammed still believes that Islamic extremism cannot flourish in Syria in the long term. “The people here are moderate and they will not tolerate this,” he says. “They have taken over mosques in Menbej, but those mosques are usually empty. They people here don’t want to pray there.” But as he even as he speaks, the boys on motorbikes continue riding around Menbej—a town that has spent one year liberated from dictatorship, but appears to be succumbing to another.