After two years as an activist in Syria, Mahmoud al-Basha thought he was prepared for whatever the civil war could throw at him. But the scene last week outside a rebel-controlled hospital in Aleppo made him think again.
Drawn by a commotion, he witnessed the aftermath of a beheading by militiaman from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an Al Qaeda-affiliated group dominated by foreign fighters. The militiamen claimed that the victim was an ‘apostate’: a Shiite Muslim from Iraq fighting for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The man had been dragged from the Al-Zarzour hospital and executed – a case of mistaken identity, it soon emerged.
Days later, Mr. Basha fled Syria. The incident, and the reaction of those involved, graphically exposed how Syria’s moderate rebels are running scared in the face of the brutality, extremism and paranoia of ISIS. Amid a flurry of recent regime gains, activists and analysts describe a rebellion in dire health.
The dead man in Aleppo was a wounded commander of Ahrar al-Sham, another rebel brigade. The group called out the error after ISIS posted online a video of the execution. ISIS responded with a statement that asked forgiveness, but warned the other group not to retaliate.
In recent weeks, ISIS has turned its sights on Syrian activists and journalists. When they sought protection from moderate militia groups, none came, says Basha, speaking to the Monitor from the Turkish city of Gaziantep. “Every three days someone is abducted and the rebel groups on the ground know ISIS is doing it, but they do nothing. They are afraid.”
Basha says that of 30 activists and local journalists he knew [recently] living in Aleppo, ISIS had arrested 10, and another 15 had fled in recent days. The crackdown came after Aleppo activists and journalists formed a union to better protect themselves, which ISIS saw as a threat, he added.
“Syria’s revolution is devouring its children, and ISIS is the devourer,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, who runs the prominent blog Syria Comment.
Alternative viewpoints not tolerated
ISIS has been battling an array of small rebel groups in the province, including Tawheed Brigade, one of the most powerful rebel groupings. ISIS accuses it criminal activity, but the real dispute is ideological, according to Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Britain-based expert on Syrian jihadist groups and fellow at the Middle East Forum think tank. “It seems like wherever they come into contact with neighboring factions, there is this fighting or tension,” he says. “It’s inherent in the ideology of wanting to establish a totalitarian system where alternative viewpoints aren’t tolerated.”
One activist with close links to Tawheed Brigade told the Monitor that it and other rebel groups were seeking to unite in order to isolate ISIS. “Tawheed Brigade hates them,” says Mohannad al-Khalil al-Najjar, speaking in Gaziantep whilst on a visit from Syria. “If ISIS have a problem with you, they say you are a kaffir [infidel] and they kill you. None of the other brigades would do this.”
Gokhan Bacik, a specialist on Middle Eastern politics at Ipek University in Ankara, suggests some of this tension is driven by the growing realization among rebel groups that there will be no speedy end to Syria’s war. “Once they believe that they are part of a long-term process, they shift their priorities from fighting the Assad regime to bolstering their own positions,” he says.
The regime has capitalized on this infighting. Its forces have been making gains around Aleppo, capturing rebel-held suburbs and areas close to its international airport. Activists like Basha blame the chaotic infighting for the loss of territory. “[The rebels] are losing areas because everyone is fighting for their own benefit, not for the country,” he says. “Most of them just stay in their headquarters and do not go to the frontline to battle Bashar’s army.”
Commander’s death a blow to rebellion
The most recent and serious blow to the rebellion was the death on Nov. 17 of Abdulkader al-Saleh, the head of Tawheed Brigade. Mr. Saleh was one of the revolution’s most iconic commanders and highly influential within the spectrum of moderate and Islamist battalions that oppose the extremism of groups like ISIS.
Basha himself cut a distinctive figure among the Aleppo activists: 6’2” and sharply dressed, he had endured three months of torture in one of Assad’s jails. He stayed in Aleppo through months of civil war, filming clashes at the frontlines and guiding foreign journalists around the province.
When the Monitor spoke to him on a previous visit to Gaziantep a month earlier, he spoke with some contempt for activists who had left the country. “Syria needs educated and committed people to help it through this time. What use are they if they are abroad?”
Now things have changed, “In Aleppo now if you want to fight for the revolution you have three options: you can join Al Qaeda, you can be killed or imprisoned, or you can flee to Turkey.”