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Opposition activists return to northern Syria

After a campaign of kidnappings and executions, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is starting to retreat

Syrian opposition activist and journalist Jameel Salou is not easily spooked.  He continued to operate his news agency and human rights organization in northern Syria even as the most extreme Islamist militia in Syria, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), became more powerful last summer.   

Salou received threats from the ISIL and other militia groups before. In fact, they were common in his line of work. He documents human rights violations committed by all sides in the Syrian conflict. 

But the ISIL’s threats turned very real on the night of July 27, 2013. Salou was hosting a meeting at his home for his opposition news organization, the Free Syrian News Agency, in the city of Raqqa. At 10 p.m., just as he and his staff were about to publish the day’s news update, about 30 gunmen from the ISIL surrounded the house. Salou and his colleagues surrendered. The ISIL militiamen took them away, then set his home and offices ablaze. 

“I was targeted for more than one reason. I’m a journalist, a human rights activist, and I want a civil [nonreligious] state,” he said. “So they considered me to be an infidel.” 

Salou was beaten so hard in detention that his captors broke two of his ribs. But he said the starvation was worse than the beating. Each day, they gave him only half a loaf of bread and a small potato to eat.

When the ISIL released him in a prisoner exchange almost a month later, he fled to Turkey. He was one of many. Thousands of Syrians who organized and gave voice to the initial Syrian uprising in March 2011 — activists, journalists and opposition figures and officials, including the opposition governor of Aleppo province — sought refuge in Turkey, as the ISIL detained, murdered and imprisoned those who did not agree with its puritanical interpretation of Islam.

This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 shows fighters from the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria
ISIL members marching in Raqqa, Syria, in an image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014.
TAREK ABU Al-FAHEM/AFP/Getty Images

“The harassment began from the first day the ISIL arrived,” said Adnan Hadad, an opposition spokesman for the Aleppo Media Center, who fled to Turkey in September after he and his colleagues at the center began receiving threats from the ISIL.

“They were whipping people and hurting people, then they arrested activists and raided media centers. Any media person who was not pledging allegiance to them in one way or another was considered an enemy. They would accuse you of being a spy or that you work for the West or that you are slandering the image of Islam.”

In areas the group controls, the ISIL has sought to impose Sharia, or Islamic law. In Raqqa, one of the group’s strongholds, the ISIL has forced women to completely cover themselves, banned smoking and forced business owners to close their shops during prayer times. The group recently imposed Sharia on Christians in Raqqa, telling them they couldn’t display any outward signs of faith and charging them a religious tax.

Those who challenge the ISIL face imprisonment or execution. The group is so extreme that even Al-Qaeda’s leadership has denounced it and told the ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to return to Iraq and leave the Islamist agenda in Syria to another ultraconservative Islamist militia, the Nusra Front. 

Security experts who watch Syria say the ISIL has about 5,000 fighters — not that many compared with other opposition militias. But the group has focused on capturing strategically important areas along the borders with Turkey and setting up checkpoints on key roads. This gave the group control over not only trade and transport but also people leaving and entering the country — ideal for persecuting perceived enemies. 

“They were kidnapping people in broad daylight and killing people,” Hadad said.   

I had to leave because I advocate a civil, democratic state, and for this, the ISIL calls me a nonbeliever.

Abdel Rahman Dadam

Aleppo Provincial Council

Of particular issue was the group’s seizure of Azaz, a key border town just a few miles from the main crossing between Aleppo and the Turkish city of Gaziantep. Azaz was once a hub for Syrian opposition activity and was a first stop for foreign journalists heading to other parts of northern Syria. 

The ISIL took the town from the Free Syria Army (FSA) and allied opposition groups in September 2013. Hadad covered the battle and was there when it fell. He said the group killed the opposition head of the Azaz media center and confiscated all the center’s equipment. 

Hadad and other activists retreated to the border with Turkey, along with the FSA and other non-ISIL opposition military units.   

A few days later he crossed back into Turkey and stayed there.

“It was too dangerous to go back to Aleppo because of ISIL checkpoints and especially since things were still festering,” he said. “They wanted to capture us, especially since we had covered the Azaz battle.”

In early January FSA units and other less puritanical Islamist groups mounted an offensive against the ISIL. Fighting raged in the north between the ISIL and those opposed to it. Activists found other routes to get into Aleppo, but it was far from safe, and few dared to make the journey. Even if they made it to Aleppo, the ISIL still posed a danger there. In early February the president of the opposition Aleppo Provincial Council, Abdel Rahman Dadam, was forced to flee Aleppo because of threats on his life from the ISIL. 

“My friends woke me up in the middle of the night as I slept in my office and said, ‘You have to leave. There’s a patrol coming to get you,’” Dadam said at his council’s satellite offices in Gaziantep in early February.

He spent the next two weeks in Aleppo province visiting various towns not under ISIL control but eventually had to flee to Gaziantep.

“I had to leave because I advocate a civil, democratic state, and for this, the ISIL calls me a nonbeliever,” he said. 

But by late February, the situation began to change. The Nusra Front, which had stayed out of the rebel infighting, issued an ultimatum to the ISIL, saying it would attack its positions unless it pulled back. Although the ISIL was defiant, it began to pull out of some areas, including Azaz.  

Video from when Liwa al-Tawhid, considered a moderate Islamist group, rolled into Azaz showed residents celebrating the ISIL’s retreat. 

Now, Adnan says, there is a reversal of the exodus from areas that were taken by the ISIL, since the road between Aleppo and the Turkish border city of Kilis is now relatively safe, at least from the ISIL. 

“The road is still dangerous because of [the Syrian regime’s] barrel bombs, but it’s still better than being kidnapped by the ISIL,” he said. “At least you can do your work. People don't come and raid your center or your headquarters for any reason.”

Adnan says foreign journalists are also back, with more than 15 traveling to Azaz since the ISIL pulled out. He says that local opposition councils have also resumed their work and that the situation is stable, “although it still needs some time to return completely to normal.”  

Even devout, conservative Muslims are fleeing because of the ISIL’s puritanical interpretation of Islam.

But in other parts of Syria, Syrians are still fleeing areas where the ISIL has consolidated control — Raqqa and parts of Deir el Zour province. Even devout, conservative Muslims are fleeing because of the ISIL’s puritanical interpretation of Islam.

In mid-February, a woman in a full black veil that showed only her eyes crossed the border from Syria into Turkey with her husband, a man with a bushy beard and scar on his forehead — from praying, which is typical of pious, conservative Sunni Muslims. The man, a 34-year-old physical education teacher who called himself Ali, didn’t hesitate when asked why he and his family had fled. 

“We left because of the ISIL,” he said. “They are cutting people’s heads off. They began to impose their rules and regulations on us by force. They don’t have the right to do this.” 

The couple and their two children stood amid a pile of luggage they had just heaved across the border. 

Salou says he is unable to return to Syria right now, although his organization has staff working in the country. He says even moderate opposition military commanders want to detain him — or worse — because he has documented human rights abuses by all sides in Syria. He says that the ISIL withdrawal will make it easier for his staff to work in Syria but that it’s too early to determine whether it’s completely safe for civil society activists to be as visible as they once were. 

“Of course, some [activists] have gone back,” Salou said. “But is the danger still there? Yes. Nusra Front is still there, and I call them the sleeping monster. Soon they will take the place of the ISIL because they drink from the same fountain.”

Another concern is the fate of those whom the ISIL kidnapped. Salou’s brother was kidnapped, but Salou doesn’t know if the regime or the ISIL took him. Salou says he received a call from a man claiming to be from the ISIL demanding 3,500 U.S. dollars for his brother’s release. Dozens of other activists and Syrian and foreign journalists are missing.

Hadad’s colleagues are among them. “So far, their fate is unknown,” he said.   

On March 18, the United Nations said the ISIL “conducted mass executions of detainees, thereby perpetrating war crimes” in Syria in January.  A U.N. human rights team is investigating allegations of mass graves.

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