How the US Intervention Against the Islamic State Has Alienated Syria’s Sunni Arab Opposition

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By Umar Farooq,
Syrian Kurdish refugees carry their belongings through the streets of Suruc, Turkey, looking for shelter, September 30, 2014. Syrian Kurds fleeing the Islamic State assault on Kobani in Syria have settled in storefronts, unfinished buildings and tent camps in this Turkish border town, which has a majority of Kurdish residents. (Photo: Bryan Denton / The New York Times)

Gaziantep and Suruc, Turkey – A dozen men huddle around a campfire in the Turkish village of Ma’sariya, 700 meters north of the Syrian border. They are a fraction of more than 120,000 Kurds who have fled an attack by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on Kobani, the strategic town just across the border in Syria.

It’s too cloudy to see the US jets flying above, but they make plenty of noise. Applause breaks out at the sound of explosions from the bombs they drop, and the occasional fires they trigger in Kobani. The sound of gunfire that punctuates the damp night prompts worried frowns around the campfire: Many here are fighters with the People’s Protection Units – YPG, by its Kurdish acronym – on leave for a few days from the battle across the frontier.

More than a thousand people have been killed in the months-long battle to defend the town, including hundreds of ISIS fighters in airstrikes by US and Arab warplanes.

YPG commanders in Kobani say the airstrikes have turned the tide in their favor, allowing them to capture several hills and cut off ISIS supply routes, making it only a matter of time before the fighters are forced to abandon their siege.

But the US-led intervention in Syria also highlights the failure of the Obama administration’s strategy in the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 191,369 people, according to the latest report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The airstrikes have alienated the country’s Sunni Arabs, who had called for such aid on their behalf for more than three years now to no avail. When warplanes began airstrikes in Syria in September 2014, many were aghast: The world was finally intervening, not against Bashar al-Assad though, but against the most powerful forces fighting him.

A few kilometers north, near the Turkish town of Suruc, Muhammad Issa sits in a tent in the Rojava refugee camp, grateful for the airstrikes. The camp is named after Rojava, a region in northern Syria where Kurds have setup an autonomous, ostensibly inclusive government of their own. Regime forces withdrew from the area in 2012 in order to engage opposition forces elsewhere.

A handful of parents have named their newborn boys “Obama” in the camp. “Who will help us if not the US?” asks Issa, a 55-year-old farmer from Kobani with a white beard, and an orange and white keffiyeh wrapped around his head. “[ISIS] has ruined the name of Islam in the world . . . They want to finish off us Kurds . . . slaughter us,” he said, sliding an index finger across his throat to demonstrate. “They will become a problem for Europe and the US. They will eventually attack them,” he said, when asked if the United States should be intervening.

“Most of the government officials, even our school teachers, were Arabs from the regime,” says 19-year-old Nareen Khalil, a female YPG fighter recovering from wounds in the camp. “We just want our own independent homeland; we have nothing against Arabs.”

For Kurds like Khalil, the intervention against ISIS is a chance to realize a long-held dream of an independent Kurdistan, a homeland for the estimated 30 million Kurds scattered across Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.

Syria’s Sunni Arab majority though, sees the intervention on behalf of the Kurds as a betrayal by the United States, and the end of any hope for a “moderate” opposition to win the Syrian civil war.

Losing Ground to the Islamic State

“America’s hypocrisy is clear for the world to see,” said Mahmoud Hashemi, pointing to the television, sitting on the floor of his ramshackle rented apartment in Gaziantep, an hour north of the Turkey-Syria border. (Hashemi’s real name is not being used out of concern for his safety.) “For so long no one cared about Syrians; now they start bombing . . . The entire world knows Assad’s crimes, but no one does anything about it.”

On the screen is the latest news report from Syria: the charred remains of tents, the mangled bodies of women and children, another barrel bombing attributed to the Assad regime, this time killing at least 10 people living in Abedin camp, a tent city for those who fled fighting in the city of Homs.

“From the grassroots, everyone is asking us why the US is bombing ISIS, but not Assad,” said Anas Abdah, one of the most senior members of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the opposition group recognized by the United States and much of the West as the Syrian government in exile. He says ordinary Syrians fail to understand how difficult it has been to get institutions like the UN Security Council to take effective action to protect civilians in the war. “All they see is the Assad regime dropping barrel bombs on them,” Abdah said.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group of Syrians sympathetic to the opposition, Assad forces have increased their reliance on weapons like barrel bombs since the anti-ISIS airstrikes began, dropping more than 400 of them in the second half of October 2014 alone.

Abedin camp, the scene of the October barrel bombing, is in Idlib province, not far from Hashemi’s hometown of Jisr al-Shugour. It was in Jisr al-Shugour in July 2011 that the largely peaceful protest movement against Assad descended into today’s war. More than 120 Syrian soldiers were killed by forces loyal to Assad after they refused orders to open fire on protesters.

That event triggered the first set of defections from among the officers in the Syrian army, soldiers who fled to neighboring Turkey and formed dozens of independent battalions to fight the Assad regime. By the end of 2011, those battalions had banded together into the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and in 2012, agreed to join the Syrian National Coalition. At its outset, the FSA included battalions of minority Christians, Druze, Kurds and Shiites. It’s founders called it “a national army that can protect the revolution and all sections of the Syrian people with all their sects.”

Hashemi, a Muslim Brotherhood member who spent 12 years in prison under the rule of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, helped the FSA wrestle control of villages surrounding Jisr al-Shugour from Assad’s forces.

“We made our own police, our own government,” said Hashemi, showing photos of himself toting a machine gun, patrolling the countryside in camouflage. He was elected to head the local coordinating committee in his village, a body set up by opposition activists in areas under their control. The bodies are tasked with providing the kinds of basic services a government would provide: water, electricity, health care and public safety.

But the FSA in Jisr al-Shugour lost out to Islamist forces, in a story that has been repeated across northern Syria. Unable to secure a decisive victory against the regime, much of the FSA’s rank and file joined better financed and better motivated Islamist forces.

Dozens of hardline Salafist groups looking to impose some kind of Sharia law coalesced to form the Islamic Front, while al-Qaeda put together a force called Jabhat al-Nusra. The most powerful group though turned out to be ISIS. Flush with hundreds of millions of dollars and looted US military hardware from Iraq, its fighters have swept through much of northern Syria, making little distinction between the Assad regime and rebels from the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic Front.

For his part, Hashemi tried to negotiate a truce, hoping the Islamist factions and the FSA would coexist, but he says he ultimately failed. ISIS fighters killed a friend of Hashemi’s, a veteran commander in the FSA, and he learned there was a bounty on his head from forces loyal to the regime, so he decided to move himself and most of his family to Turkey.

He says the root of the current crisis in Syria is the free hand given to the Assad regime. “Of course, ISIS is a problem; they are brutal, but Assad is a bigger problem.” The longer the war drags on, he says, the more Syrians will turn to groups like ISIS.

It’s a concern shared by Noura al-Ameer, a former anti-Assad activist who is now vice-president of the SNC. “Of course, we worry about ISIS; it’s an organization that is destroying the social fabric,” said al-Ameer, one of the youngest leaders in the SNC, who spent more than seven months in a regime prison. “It exploits children, children whose families have been broken up, whose fathers are missing or have been killed . . . they are brainwashing children, and after one or two years, they will adopt their ideology . . . Some have even [already] been used as suicide bombers.”

“Kobani is a part of Syria, and I feel pain when any part of Syria is hurting,” she said. A contingent of 50 FSA fighters joined Kurdish forces defending Kobani in October 2014. But it was seen by many Kurds as a largely symbolic gesture.

Like many of Syria’s Sunni Arabs, al-Ameer questions why the airstrikes against ISIS began so late. “They [the Americans] say they want to attack ISIS, but they have no clear strategy . . . before, when they [ISIS] were taking over all kinds of places aside from Kobani, no one was bombing them.” When US warplanes targeted ISIS in northern Iraq in August 2014, the SNC publicly called for the same in Syria, but no such intervention took place until the following month, when the Kurdish town of Kobani was threatened.

“The bombing [of ISIS] gives them [the Islamists] an argument to recruit more, and gives Assad a chance to attack in other areas,” said Abdah, of the SNC.

In Raqqa, Stuck Between Beheadings and Bombings

There are few who are more familiar with the brutality of ISIS than the activists who have formed the group, “al-Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.”

The al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra captured Raqqa from Assad’s forces in March 2013, but fighters withdrew from the city in January 2014, allowing ISIS to move in. Since then, around a dozen activists in Raqqa have been secretly documenting the militants’ actions, sharing hundreds of photos and videos on the internet.

“We were already Muslims before ISIS came; Raqqa already had mosques; we don’t need them to tell us what Islam is,” said Abu Muhammad, one of the activists, who left the de facto ISIS capital in May 2014. “Islam is a religion of mercy, not a religion of terror.”

The activists have provided a window into the daily workings of the capital of the Islamic State, the kind of evidence that helped sway international opinion in favor of airstrikes against the group in Kobani as well as Raqqa.

Like many of Syria’s opposition activists, Abu Muhammad says he quit his activism when Jabhat al-Nusra moved into Raqqa, in an attempt to avoid tensions with the Islamists.

Today, he and the other activists from Raqqa use fake names to protect their identity. One of the activists, a 22-year-old university student, was executed in October 2014, after being caught with photos as he tried to make his way toward Turkey.

In Raqqa today, women are not allowed to go outside their homes without a close male relative to accompany them, and they must wear head-to-toe covering burkas. Even their shoes must be black, so as not to attract the attention of males. Around 30 remaining Christian families have been forced to pay a special tax, 1,200 Syrian liras per person per month, and the city’s three churches have been converted into offices for ISIS. Shrines important for the local Shiite Muslim community have been razed.

One series of photographs released by the activists from October 2014, for instance, shows the decapitation of three blindfolded residents, hands tied behind their backs, kneeling one after the other on an already bloodied wooden tree stump in the city’s main square as a balaclava-wearing militant brings a sword down on their necks, hundreds of onlookers watching. The heads of soldiers from the Free Syrian Army, rival Islamist rebel groups and Assad’s regime alike are displayed on pikes in the town square, and alleged spies are crucified, left strung up for days.

“ISIS is definitely a major problem, none of us is denying this,” said Abu Muhammad, who participated in protests against the Assad regime beginning in 2011, and says two cousins were tortured to death in regime prisons. “But Assad has been committing crimes for three years.”

In the last 10 days of November 2014, for instance, the Syrian air force carried out 23 airstrikes in Raqqa, according to the activists, many of them apparently deliberately targeting civilians. On November 25, regime warplanes struck two civilian buses, killing all the passengers and burning scores of bodies beyond recognition. The activists say more than 258 civilians have been killed in the recent spell of airstrikes.

“We’re no longer able to keep count of the raids due to the sheer magnitude of the attack,” the activists admitted on Twitter on November 29, 2014, after a series of frantic messages documenting the chaos that was engulfing the city.

Syrians held protests across Turkey, Europe and the United States following the airstrikes, many holding placards saying “Stop ISIS? Get rid of Assad.”

“ISIS is a problem for the entire region, maybe Europe, maybe the world,” said Hammad, another activist from Raqqa, when asked why he thinks the United States intervened against ISIS. “Assad, he is only a problem for Syrians.”
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