There’s a new sheriff in town in Raqqa, the first of Syria’s provincial capitals to be wrested from Assad’s grip: the al-Qaida affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Over the past week, ISIS consolidated its rule in the northern city using force and intimidation, attacking and capturing both fellow opposition fighters and peaceful demonstrators.
Tensions exploded between ISIS and Ahfad al-Rasoul (meaning “Descendants of the Prophet”), the local Free Syrian Army brigade, on Tuesday, when ISIS detonated four suicide car bombs. One of the attacks struck Ahfad’s headquarters at the local train station, leaving dozens killed, wounded or taken prisoner, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. By Wednesday, the headquarters was completely under ISIS control.
ISIS “was able to drive a car bomb with an estimated 500 kg of explosives into the Ahfad headquarters,” said Raqqa media activist Ahmed al-Asmeh, 27. “Six of the Ahfad members were killed, and then ISIS accused them of being clients of Qatar, France and Saudi Arabia.”
Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the Britain-based Observatory, said this was the first time ISIS has used its suicide bombers against fellow opposition fighters. The Observatory, an opposition NGO that has tracked the revolt from the outset, reported on Wednesday that one of the Ahfad battalion commanders had been killed in a separate standoff with ISIS, also in Raqqa.
The battle was long in the making.
From the first week of Ramadan, ISIS had been flexing its muscles in the city, taking FSA fighters as prisoners at checkpoints. Respected FSA senior commander Abdel Jabaar Okaida soon got involved, offering 200 million Syrian pounds for any information on captured high-ranking officers.
Skirmishes began between the two sides during the last days of Ramadan, and as the Muslim holy month came to a close, the fighting escalated.
Raqqa residents began holding nightly protests against ISIS, citing frustration and anger with its aggressive actions and detentions. (One of the group’s highest-profile alleged prisoners is well-known opposition peacemaker Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who is rumored to have been killed in detention following his kidnap earlier this month.)
Civilians have played a key role in defending the men of Ahfad al-Rasoul, which enjoys wide popular support in Raqqa. ISIS does not.
“The ISIS is trying to impose its control over the liberated areas and squeeze out all the battalions and brigades with a strong influence,” said al-Asmeh. “They have no popular support, though they do have locals in their ranks. Many of those were shabiha [pro-regime gunmen]. And about 30 percent of their members are muhajiroun [foreigners].”
“The overwhelming proportion of civilians are opposed to the Islamic State, and more than half of those are more than against it: they are outraged,” said fellow activist Jimmy Shahinian, 25. “But there is nothing people can do now. The ISIS has the guns.”
The interventions were not merely meant to keep the two sides apart, but to protect the outgunned FSA battalion from disintegrating. “These guys are always under pressure by ISIS,” he said, “and the civilians kept trying stop them.”
But the patience of the Islamic State, which has worked to ingratiate itself with the locals in other provinces like Aleppo, began to wear thin. Late Tuesday night it reacted, unleashing rounds of rocket-propelled grenade fire on the demonstrators.
Protesters on a YouTube video of the event can be heard shouting that “the people want the entrance of the ambulances.” Earlier that day, ambulances and fire trucks had been prevented by the ISIS from ferrying out the wounded in the wake of their car bombs.
Activists worry that there might no longer be an armed force capable of posing a significant threat to ISIS in Raqqa. Shahinian said ISIS had even begun using live ammunition the week before, during the nightly protests in the city.
“The clash with al-Qaida was something to be expected, but it should not have happened now. We thought they would be smarter and avoid a conflict until the departure of Assad,” he said. “We expected them to try hard to win a popular base, but these actions have earned them the animosity of everyone.”
He added that this week’s suicide attacks were meant to intimidate the local population and also send a clear message to any competing rebel groups.
Not even the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra, from which the Islamic State split over the former’s rejection of al-Qaida authority, is immune from harassment.
“Even the commander of one of the big [FSA] brigades, Lewa Amna (meaning “Raqqa Faithful”), which gave 32 martyrs for the liberation, is now a detainee of al-Qaida,” Shahinian said. “The reason was that he provided headquarters for Jabhat al-Nusra in Tabqa city after they broke with the Islamic State.”
His fellow activist al-Asmeh emphasized the difference between the two extremist groups, often assumed to be fighting under the same umbrella. Nusra “is a military faction fighting against the Syrian regime. ISIS is fighting to spread Islam and [conservative] sharia [law].”
Shahinian is more nuanced, noting that while the two groups have the same goals, “the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra are sons of the country” and are carrying out their agenda more smoothly. “They haven’t done anything against civilians, but that is not the case with the Islamic State,” he said.
The irony of suicide attacks in a “liberated” city is not lost on Raqqa’s locals.
“This was the first time ISIS [carried out] a bombing against revolutionaries,” al-Asmeh said. But “we will resist them until the last breath.”