August 16, 2013

By Michael Pizzi and Nuha Shabaan

 AMMAN: With this week’s takeover of A-Raqqa’s provincial capital, al-Qaeda offshoot ISIS is solidifying its unchecked presence in the north of Syria as citizens adjust to another kind of authoritarian rule.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, a rebel group under the umbrella of the al-Qaeda network composed of foreign and domestic jihadist fighters, entered the city of A-Raqqa after allied Islamist factions captured it in March. The fighters began to impose what activists describe as “reckless” Islamic sharia law, arresting civilians who violate their rules and taking hundreds of prisoners at their whim.

ISIS then turned its guns on its one-time allies in the city, the FSA and the FSA-affiliated Ahfad a-Rusoul brigades, attacking their positions in the capital and capturing their soldiers.

On Tuesday, ISIS detonated a car bomb in front of an Ahfad a-Rusoul position in A-Raqqa city, killing five fighters and taking control of the post, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The FSA and hardline Islamist brigades previously had a common goal, “but now everyone has his own agenda,” says Abu Hussam, 23, a Kurdish-Syrian activist in A-Raqqa.

Out-manned, out-gunned and out-funded, the FSA was forced to retreat, relinquishing the one provincial capital it had controlled.

“We fell under the control of these groups that entered the city in their black outfits, masked and heavily armed with weapons,” says Fatima Hussein, a Kurdish 23 year-old journalism student in A-Raqqa who opposes both the regime and the extremist rebel fighters that have taken over her city.

“Did we rid ourselves of the injustice of the regime only for a new power to conquer us?” Hussein asks.

Syria’s north-central A-Raqqa province, roughly the size of New Jersey and with a population of close to one million people, is strategically situated along the Turkish border. It also has relatively unfettered access to Iraq, where many ISIS fighters arrive from or were trained.

Today, the border is open for ISIS to move back and forth freely. ISIS is thriving, “flush with jihadi recruits, which are coming into Syria, and we think they are sending a number of them into Iraq,” a senior administration official told reporters, among them from The New York Times, in a report published Friday.

In the provincial capital of A-Raqqa city, protests against the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham are in their third week to demand the release of hundreds of prisoners ISIS allegedly arbitrarily arrested. Protesters are also calling for the expulsion of the extremist group from their city.

“Syria is free, ISIS get out,” protesters chant in one video posted to YouTube.

Among the prisoners Raqqans are demanding be freed is Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, the popular Italian priest who activists say entered A-Raqqa in late July to negotiate a truce between ISIS leaders, moderate rebel groups and Kurdish forces. Local activists say he was killed in still-unknown circumstances.

A-Raqqa’s influential tribal leaders had maintained their allegiance to the regime for the first two years of the revolution – and were rewarded with weapons for their loyalty – until the tide began to turn and rebels made a swift advance. A statue of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor, remained in A-Raqqa city center until just one month before both statue and city fell at the hands of Islamist rebel factions.

Today, the mainstream Free Syrian Army maintains a presence in the province, assisting in the siege against the Syrian army’s 17th Division, the regime’s last stand in A-Raqqa. But activists say that the better-equipped Islamist factions are outshining these FSA brigades.

“There have been a number of defections from the Free Army to the [Islamist] brigades because of the military support for these brigades,” says Abu Baker, a 31-year-old citizen journalist in A-Raqqa.

“The FSA can’t stop them now,” Abu Baker says.

Ever since the March capture, extremist influence has been on the rise in A-Raqqa, with black al-Qaeda flags observed flying over the city in recent weeks and Islamist declarations spray-painted on walls. Some opposition activists are not pleased with these changes.

“[ISIS] appointed themselves without asking anyone,” says Abu Baker.

Islamist rebel factions, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State, which al-Qaeda leaders consider to be Jabhat al-Nusra’s successor organization, have been recorded in A-Raqqa destroying alcohol stocks, publicly flogging sharia violators, and enforcing modesty requirements for women.

Syria Direct’s correspondent in the province, who asked that his name not be disclosed out of fear for his safety, says that informational courses on Islamic sharia law are being held by certain rebel factions at mosques in A-Raqqa, though he says they are “not compulsory” for residents.

As its name suggests, the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham has long-term ambitions for post-Assad Syria, analysts say.

ISIS' aspiration is indeed to establish an Islamic state in Iraq and the greater Levant, as a prelude to establishing a transnational Islamic Caliphate,” says Aymann Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the conservative Washington-based think tank Middle East Forum, who writes about jihad in Syria for the blogs Syria Comment and Jihadology.

For now, al-Tamimi says, ISIS is content to expand their presence in the north, establishing local emirates and beginning to enforce their notion of sharia law.

In part, ISIS has taken advantage of a leadership vacuum, maneuvering through a splintering opposition and enforcing some semblance of stability.

“The Islamic State is capitalizing on the conflict between the Syrian Coalition, the West and some thieves in the FSA to establish their rule,” says Sami, an oncologist who treats the injured in Manbaj, outside A-Raqqa city.

Sami says that beleaguered residents of war-torn A-Raqqa may support ISIS because it provides security, “the thing people care most about,” and because many among the FSA, rightly or wrongly, are perceived to be “thieves and mercenaries,” rife with regime informants in their midst.

The militant fighters are also better equipped. “What we notice is that the fighters have good capabilities,” says Abu Baker. “They take a lot of spoils from the regime headquarters and are trained well.”

While the legitimacy of ISIS control over much of A-Raqqa province ultimately stems from their weapons and the lack of suitable alternatives, their authority remains tenuous. Animosity between FSA fighters and their jihadist rivals is palpable on the street, residents say.

Abu Baker has observed skirmishes and heated arguments between elements of the FSA and the Islamic State on the street in his hometown. He describes a “verbal showdown” that took place between groups from the FSA and ISIS in A-Raqqa’s market.

“The FSA referred to the Islamic State fighters as infidels, and told them to get out of A-Raqqa,” he says, adding that at one point “weapons were raised.”

Those turf wars will end since ISIS has captured the city from the FSA. Now that Al-Qaeda controls a provincial capital unchallenged, analysts are watching A-Raqqa to see what comes next.

“The question of whether ISIS intends to announce a wider state structure depends on how successful their current expansion efforts are,” says Middle East Forum fellow al-Tamimi.