“It was the flag—the flag was what caused the problems,” he said. “They were saying that this is the flag of the disbelievers. They wanted only the black flag in Azaz.”
The flags were just the superficial symbols of a deepening ideological divide. The three-starred flag of the Syrian revolution had fluttered over Azaz since the rebels wrenched it from the control of the Syrian regime, but it was an affront to the town’s new dictators. The white-on-black seal of the Prophet Muhammad—requisitioned as the symbol of Al-Qaeda—was the only flag that was permitted in Azaz after the town fell under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in September last year.
In early March a rebel alliance called the Islamic Front—itself a group with Salafist leanings, but moderate compared to ISIS—launched an offensive to bring the town back under the control of the mainstream opposition. ISIS has retreated north and east, out of the city of Aleppo and the countryside west of it and back towards its stronghold of Raqqa. It has been more than two months now since the black flag flew over Azaz.
But ISIS left a dark legacy behind them. Fares knew for sure he had lost one of his sons. Malik was 22 years old, short-bearded and smiling, and was one of the seven faces in this secret photo. He was killed during the battle for Menagh Airport in August last year, as he was fighting alongside his comrades in the Free Syrian Army (FSA). But he still didn’t know what had happened to Wassim, the son who was snatched from the pavement outside his house by four armed men a month later.
“They pulled up in their car and fired in the air,” said Fares. “They didn’t say anything, they just started shooting, and then they took him.” The family has not heard any news of him since that day.
Wassim is one of 17 young men—all of them fighters with the FSA—who are believed to have been arrested by ISIS and are still missing from Azaz. In this small and close-knit town, everyone knows someone who is still unaccounted for. “Inshallah, he is alive,” said Fares—an expression of hope rather than a statement of fact. His countless phone calls to ISIS’s emirs and his visits to their nearest stronghold in Al-Bab, a small town northeast of Aleppo, had yielded no further information about the whereabouts or wellbeing of his son.
The disappeared have left a black pall hanging over free Azaz, but they are not the only men missing from this town. Dozens more are in self-imposed exile over the nearby border, living discreet lives in the towns of southern Turkey, or they have fled to the east, deep into ISIS territory. The uncomfortable and often unspoken truth in Azaz is that many of the men who took part in ISIS’s reign of terror were not foreign jihadists, but sons of the town itself. Unlike Wassim and his comrades, they will not be welcomed back.
There are families in Azaz that were cleaved apart during the ISIS era—one man fighting for the three-starred flag, his brother fighting for the black banner. Ahmed was a member of a local FSA brigade from the very beginning of the conflict in Azaz, and stayed on in the town working as an activist even as ISIS began targeting him and his comrades. But worse than the fear and intimidation of those months under ISIS’s rule was the sense of betrayal he felt when his brother decided to side with his enemies.
“He had been arrested by my brigade and accused of crimes he says he had nothing to do with,” said Ahmed. “Joining ISIS was his way of taking revenge.” His brother fled Syria after ISIS retreated from Azaz, and the two men are no longer on speaking terms.
Some men from Azaz are said to have defected to ISIS from the FSA for opportunistic reasons—to fight with the strongest team, as power ebbed away from the moderate rebels. Some had become disillusioned with the FSA, which had often earned itself a poor reputation for looting and kidnapping in Azaz. Others joined because they initially supported ISIS’s aims—the establishment of an Islamic caliphate governed by Shari’a law—but distanced themselves as their methods became more brutal. Whatever the reasons and whatever the remorse some of those men may now feel, the anger towards them is palpable in Azaz.
“I am most angry towards the people of Azaz who joined ISIS,” said Fares. “They were just killing their brothers. They will go to hell.”