January 8, 2014
By Kristen Gillespie and Abdulrahman al-Masri
AMMAN: Syrian rebels, whose gains have slid back in recent months amidst internal divisions, have put aside their differences to beat back an increasingly deadly insurgency against them by the Islamic State of Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) and are crediting their newfound unity for a string of victories against the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.
On Wednesday, rebels took control of a children’s hospital in the Aleppo district of Qadi Askar, which was being used both as a headquarters of ISIS and a prison for hundreds of their detainees, many of whom are fighters from rival group Ahrar a-Sham in addition to citizen journalists.
The unified rebels last Friday launched a series of attacks on ISIS strongholds in Aleppo and Idlib provinces and the north-central province of a-Raqqa, whose eponymous capital has been under the control of ISIS since last spring. At least 385 people have been killed in the fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Wednesday.
On Sunday, ISIS killed 50 of its prisoners in Aleppo, including four journalists from the pro-revolution Shada al-Houria television station.
50 ISIS prisoners were killed Sunday before coordinated rebel groups seized ISIS' headquarters at the Children's Hospital in Aleppo. Photo courtesy of an anti-ISIS Syrian Facebook page.
“There were activists among those executed,” said Omar, 21, an activist in Aleppo who asked that his last name not be disclosed. The executed were also from Jabhat a-Nusra and other groups fighting ISIS, Omar said.
One the major players in the fight against ISIS is the Islamic Front, which said it joined the battle against the Al-Qaeda offshoot after a series of attacks by ISIS.
Activists accused ISIS of targeting Ansar al-Haq's Tel Abyad headquarters with a car bomb Thursday. Photo courtesy of Twitter user @Zaid_Benjamin.
The Islamic Front “is defending itself against the injustice of ISIS,” said Captain Islam Alloush, a spokesman for the alliance of seven Islamist groups that formed last month. [Read the full interview with Alloush here.]
“We are fighting against those who attacked us, whether foreign fighters or Syrians,” Alloush said, adding that ISIS provoked the battle.
The FSA, which has been weakened by an ascendant ISIS in Syria’s northwest, “demands all non-Syrian armed groups leave Syria immediately,” said spokesman Fahad al-Masri in a statement on Tuesday.
“Anyone not complying will be considered an enemy, and we will fight him as we fight [Bashar] al-Assad and his gangs.”
The disparate rebel groups came together following months of car bombs, hardline Islamist rule and deadly attacks on them from the mostly non-Syrian ISIS fighters. As ISIS spread across Syria’s north unchecked, rebel leaders say they were compelled to take action.
“This sad situation pushed us to call for an initiative…to form a committee of all relevant factions,” said Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, the leader of Jabhat a-Nusra in an audio recording also published on Tuesday. “The groups should stand united as one, strong in the face of anyone who does not abide by the rulings of the legitimacy committee.”
ISIS fired back hours later in an audio message posted on YouTube Tuesday, in which the group’s spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani condemned those fighting ISIS in north Syria, insisting they are envious of their jihad and questioning “who has tricked you into fighting the mujahedeen? Who has deceived you?” Anyone fighting ISIS will be wiped out, he said, adding that “we will make an example of you.”
That hardline rhetoric is part of what drove the FSA and more moderate militias to band together to stop a common enemy sapping resources and distracting from the fight to bring down the Syrian regime, activists say.
Opposition journalists also pressed for action as ISIS continues to harass and threaten them in areas under ISIS control. “Today, if you are a journalist or activist, you have to work in secret,” said Mohammed, 28, an Aleppo-based activist. “ISIS has its supporters, but the majority are against it,” he added.
In A-Raqqa, the FSA and its Islamist allies are fighting to regain control of the capital city. “Some ISIS fighters have left and gone to Iraq, others have surrendered to Jabhat a-Nusra,” said Zaid al-Fares, 24, a Raqqa-based citizen journalist. The chaos and fighting along the Iraqi border makes it easy for ISIS members to cross over, al-Fares said.
“The clashes between rebels and ISIS started because of ISIS’s shameful behaviors against the Syrian people and the revolution,” said Abu Bakr, 31, a reporter with the opposition Sham News Network in A-Raqqa. “The rebels have taken control of many ISIS sites,” he said.
The spokesman of what is widely considered the Syrian opposition’s most powerful armed opposition faction, the Islamic Front, hinted at what may have been ISIS’s most egregious offense: claiming Syria as its state.
“We don’t accept any one faction claiming the title of state, because forming a state requires conditions and not just saying the word,” said Islam Alloush, the Islamic Front spokesman.