Antakya, Asharq Al-Awsat—One of the last things that Mahmoud did in Syria was to fit a new front door. It was another example of everything that was going wrong in Aleppo. A month before, he had upgraded his pistol to a submachine gun. Now he was fixing big metal barriers at the entrance to his apartment, checking the locks that clunked into place as it swung shut with a jarring slam, and peering through the peephole into the corridor outside. Three months later even the door and the gun wouldn’t be enough to protect him.
For nearly three years he had been an activist, a Syrian revolutionary, one of the young people who dedicated years of their lives to their country and a cause they believed in. But when he met with Asharq Al-Awsat in December in a small town in Southern Turkey he seemed cut adrift, safe in the cozy small flat he had rented with a friend, but unable to disconnect himself from the city he’d been forced to leave.
“I joined in the protests from the beginning. I was arrested by the regime and put in prison. I joined the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and then I started working with foreign journalists,” he said. “When the fighting started in Aleppo I went to the frontline every day and I was never scared, even though I was shot at more than a hundred times. But now I fear for my life.”
It is not the Syrian regime that has forced Mahmoud to flee Aleppo, but the civil war’s newest players—the foreign fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda-linked group that first appeared in Syria in the spring of 2013. As their numbers and power have increased, they have begun to wage a campaign of terror against foreign journalists and the Syrian activists and fixers who work with them. Dozens of Syrians like Mahmoud—men and women who have worked in the revolution since its very earliest days—are being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed, accused of working as foreign spies and of being enemies of the Islamic caliphate that ISIS hopes to establish in Syria.
Mahmoud escaped Aleppo before he was arrested, but Anwar, an activist who worked as a fixer and translator with German and Swiss journalists in Aleppo, was not so fortunate. He was at home in Azaz, a small town near the Bab as-Salaama border crossing, when the knock at the door came. It was August, and Anwar was sleeping through the most unforgiving hours of the scorching daytime heat. “No one else was home, so I went and answered the door,” he said. “When I did, there were three pistols and four AK-47s pointed towards me.”
The men who took Anwar from his home, forced him into a car and blindfolded him, did not announce who they were. But the questions they asked him as he lay in the darkness left him in no doubt that they were members of ISIS. “They started asking me about the journalists I worked with,” he said, “and then they asked me whether I was working for US intelligence. I said no, but they didn’t believe me.”
Anwar was taken to the Mashfa Al-Atfal children’s hospital in Aleppo, one of five buildings that Amnesty International has recently identified as an ISIS detention centre. He says he was one of around 100 prisoners being held there, most of whom were Syrians. Many were activists and members of the FSA. While he was there, a whole Sunni family, including women and children, was brought in, accused of being Shi’a. Anwar says that three foreign journalists—two French and one Danish—were also being held in the prison.
“It was a bad situation,” he said. “There were fifteen of us in the room I was being held in, but we were only given enough food for two people. We were taken to the toilet once a day. Whenever the door opened I automatically put my face to the wall, because I knew I would be beaten if I didn’t.”
After two weeks in the Mashfa Al-Atfal prison, Anwar was transferred to a second ISIS detention center in the Al-Haidariya area of Aleppo province. There he was held with a group of 200 Syrian Kurds who had been arrested as they were traveling by bus to the city of Qamishli. ISIS accused them of traveling to Iraq to join one of the Kurdish militias, but Anwar believes that their only crime was their ethnicity. “All of them were civilians,” he said.
During his time in captivity, Anwar was beaten and tortured to an extent that surpassed what he had been subjected to during the twenty days he spent in a regime prison at the start of the revolution. “They gave me electric shocks and hung me from the ceiling by my arms,” he said. “The regime tortured me, but they didn’t do it like this.”
He was also forced to read out a fabricated statement on camera, in which he admitted to working for the British intelligence services. “After they made that video I really started to feel the danger,” he said. “I decided then that I had to escape.”
After watching his captors’ routines and working out the layout of the prison, Anwar decided that there was a way to get out, by squeezing through the bars of his prison window and climbing over a perimeter wall. It took him three attempts, each time knowing that if he were caught he would almost certainly be executed on the spot. Finally, as the night guard’s attention was diverted, he managed to escape. After persuading a family in a nearby village to let him into their house and contact his own family, he left immediately for Turkey. He has not been back to Syria since.
A huge proportion of ISIS is made up of foreign fighters, Sunni Muslims from around the world who have little or no connection to Syria but believe that it is now a place where they can come to fight jihad. For these fighters, the origins of the revolution mean nothing. “They have come to Syria to die, and this is the problem,” said Mahmoud. “Most of the foreign fighters, if they arrest you and investigate you, they don’t know your history. I am an activist, I was in the regime prison, but they won’t believe me. They just think that I am a spy and they should kill me.”
Mahmoud told Asharq Al-Awsat that Aleppo is now almost empty of activists, and foreign journalists have largely stayed away from the city since the late summer, when the spate of ISIS kidnappings started. “When they had finished with the foreign journalists, they started to kidnap and kill the Syrian activists,” he said. In October, masked gunmen believed to be members of ISIS executed Mohammad Saeed, a Syrian who was working with Al-Arabiya news channel. In response, Aleppo’s activists decided to form a media union. “Within two days they had kidnapped the guys who started the union,” said Mahmoud. “After that, everyone else left and came to Turkey. They have arrested about fifteen activists in Aleppo.”
With the journalists and activists gone, there are few people left in Aleppo who are willing or able to document the worsening plight of the city’s civilians. As the harshest winter in decades has closed in on the city, thousands of families are trapped in their apartments without electricity or heating, while Assad’s forces have begun bombing and shelling the rebel-held areas of the city with a renewed ferocity.
In a cruel second blow, Mahmoud knows that even as ISIS’s power grows, the outside world’s sympathy for the Syrian revolution is waning. As the foreign jihadists have increasingly taken center stage in the conflict, Assad’s claim that he is fighting a war against foreign terrorists—a claim that he made from the earliest days of the revolution—now seems believable, and not the outlandish declaration of a besieged dictator. The damage that has been inflicted on the reputation of the Syrian activists is catastrophic. “Now the normal people in Europe, they think that Assad is fighting the terrorists,” he said. “They think there is no revolution anymore.”
But as the conflict heads into its third winter, and the refugees continue pouring into camps that are already full to capacity, even Syrians speak about the revolution of 2011 as if it were part of a different era. Abdullah, a young man from Latakia, smiled as he played videos of the early protests in his city. “Those were great days,” he said.
A lot has happened to him between then and now. He protested, he avoided his military service, and then, one day he was caught. He was forced to serve in the Syrian army for six months before he defected and escaped to Turkey, to work with a humanitarian organisation. As the countryside around Latakia was gradually captured by the FSA, he took regular trips back over the border with journalists and aid workers.
But as ISIS has taken control of the areas that the FSA used to hold, those trips have become more difficult and more risky. Now a visit back to his home region is laced with fear again—not of the regime, but of the new dictators.
“We made two deadly mistakes,” he said, as he summed up the death of the revolutionary dream. “The first was picking up weapons. The second was allowing the foreigners to come in. There is no revolution any more. It’s finished.”