On Thursday, Raqqa’s Free Syrian Army (FSA) Division 11 raised a new flag: the black banner of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Activists in the northern Syrian city said the local FSA had little choice, outgunned by its hardline rivals and unable to stand up to the brutal tactics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on its own.
“There is no such thing as the FSA [here]. We are all al-Qaida now,” said a top rebel commander in Raqqa province, who declined to be named, for security reasons. “Half of the FSA has been devoured by ISIS, and the other half joined Jabhat al-Nusra.”
The commander emphasized the difference between ISIS, which openly declared its merger with al-Qaida in April, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which chose to remain semi-autonomous.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is one thing and ISIS is another. ISIS are criminals,” he said. “We have no problem with [al-Nusra's] vision, which is to bring the law of God to this land and bring down the regime. ISIS is fighting to topple the FSA … and everyone else who is fighting the regime.”
The FSA’s move has been long coming. In Raqqa, it was under threat from ISIS, which boasts a superior arsenal. Western promises of military support have failed to materialize, and hopes of support from the opposition’s Supreme Military Council have dwindled.
“What help? We have not received any support since the beginning of the revolution. Obama and Cameron are liars,” the commander said. One local media activist, who declined to be named for fear of retribution from ISIS, was adamant that if the rebels had received arms, ISIS would not have been able to gain a foothold in his city.
“There is no regime presence in Raqqa. Why should the FSA decide now, after the city is liberated, to join Jabhat al-Nusra?” he said. “It’s because ISIS is a bigger threat to them than the regime. If they had arms this never would have happened. ISIS is spreading like a cancer, and the regime only fights the FSA; they don’t fight al-Qaida.”
According to the commander, the FSA in Raqqa city had over 1,000 fighters, while ISIS had only 400 men and Jabhat al-Nusra (comprised of fighters who declined to join ISIS) numbered in the low hundreds.
But now, with the addition of the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra has become the largest fighting force in the city, with about 1,500 fighters.
The commander added that the FSA are not the only ones fed up with the tactics of ISIS. “Every day for the past month, men are leaving ISIS to join al-Nusra,” he said.
Activists in Raqqa said the FSA’s decision to join al-Nusra was pragmatic, the lesser of two evils.
“The [FSA] battalions are scared to become the weakest link, that they will be swallowed by ISIS,” said media activist Ahmed al-Asmeh, 27. “A number joined ISIS, and those who were with the people joined Jabhat al-Nusra. Nusra, until now, is still at the service of the people.”
Another activist, who wished to remain anonymous, said the FSA was motivated purely by a fear of annihilation by al-Qaida. “Not all, but the majority of FSA have joined Nusra because of ISIS. Al-Nusra are Syrian and ISIS is not. Al-Nusra, at the end of the day, is essentially FSA, in that they are fighting to bring down the regime.”
Al-Nusra has curried favor among civilians, both through its perceived dedication to the revolt and respect for the local population. “The key,” he said,”is that al-Nusra became more open. They have offices. They are putting up flags. They don’t wear face masks. People have friends who are al-Nusra. ISIS has experience with urban warfare —many of them lived their whole childhoods in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan — but they have zero experience with a civilian movement. They have no idea how to deal with protests.”
Among Raqqa’s activists, ISIS has become notorious for increasingly brutal tactics, including extortion through kidnappings, which have embittered the local population. In mid-August, the group set off four suicide car bombs in the city, one in front of the headquarters of Ahfad al-Rasoul, the local FSA brigade. Later that day, it shot RPGs into a crowd of demonstrators who were calling for an ambulance carrying the wounded to pass through the ISIS checkpoint.
Two weeks ago, ISIS raided Raqqa’s last functioning foreign exchange office. “People from the whole province depended on them to get money from abroad, and now it’s finished,” the activist said. “There are 13 newspapers in Raqqa and none wrote about this. Everyone is too afraid.”
ISIS is “not coming to fight the regime. They are coming to kill anything that moves,” the commander said. “Mark my words: there will be a bloodbath from Qamishli to Bab al-Hawa [crossing],” a reference to the strategic points furthest to the east and west along the Turkey-Syria border.
“There once was a city,” he said of Raqqa. “There is still some life, but it is occupied by ISIS. Imagine your favorite city in Syria, and pray that it is not liberated, because liberation means occupation.”
The FSA decision to join the jihadists was a sobering event for the young activists, but they understand it to be a necessity. “We have a saying in Arabic,” said Asmeh. “The hand that you cannot beat: kiss it, and pray that it breaks.”