Reports from the Syrian city of Raqqa are dire. In the north-central provincial capital, “the atmosphere has gone from bad to worse,” says one activist with a rare link to the Internet. He reports the city is “completely paralyzed,” the hospital is abandoned, and there are bodies in the central square. There is no power or water for a city of more than half a million people. Even the critical bread ovens are shut.
The appalling description from Raqqa is just one scene from a new phase in the Syrian war. Fractious Syrian rebels have shown a rare unity in challenging an al-Qaida-linked group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, demanding these foreign fighters leave the country.
The uprising against the al-Qaida affiliate is a surprise, but the anger was well known and has been building for months.
Rebels and civilians alike once welcomed ISIS as experienced and well-armed fighters who crossed the Iraqi border and shared the goal of toppling the Syrian regime. They were later joined by thousands of extremists from around the globe.
But their brutal tactics in ruling Raqqa and neighborhoods in the contested city of Aleppo have turned many Syrians against them.
To understand why Syrian rebels turned against the ISIS fighters, you just have to talk to Syrian activists and local journalists, the first victims of al-Qaida’s ruthless ways, says journalist Adnan Haddad, who fled Aleppo after the group targeted him.
“It’s about feeling afraid of being tortured and getting kidnapped,” he says from his new base in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, where he is helping to rebuild a radio network to broadcast inside Syria. ISIS militants held Haddad for three days.
“It’s a typical way of al-Qaida kind of thinking,” he says. “They don’t want activists and journalists covering the violations they commit.”
A Dramatic Gesture
But the violations became well-known after ISIS took control of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to fall out of regime control. A group of rebels, including ISIS, captured Raqqa initially, but in May, ISIS swept their former allies out. Chris Looney, a Washington-based Syrian analyst, says ISIS made a dramatic gesture on the first day of its rule.
“On May 14, when ISIS came and took control of Raqqa, it executed three men in the town square in front of hundreds of people,” he says. “It was a brutal display of power that announced their presence and set the tone for how ISIS would govern in Raqqa.”
In those early days, ISIS allowed local media activists to post a video of the executions, showing fighters in black masks pushing the captive men to their knees and then shooting them at point-blank range.
But soon afterward, ISIS created its own media organization, publishing a newspaper, releasing well-produced videos uploaded to YouTube, and imposing strict rules and draconian punishments.
That’s when local journalists and activists started to disappear, kidnapped by ISIS, says journalist Rami Jarrah. He operated a radio station in Raqqa until ISIS seized the broadcasting equipment and arrested one of his reporters, last seen in ISIS custody.
“He was badly beaten from head to toe and that he was left only in his underwear, and he had basically been tortured,” Jarrah says.
ISIS moved swiftly to crush dissent in Raqqa and across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, says Jarrah, targeting media activists.
“We know that 60 Syrian citizen-journalists have been kidnapped by ISIS,” he says.
Now, Jarrah has set up a media outlet across the border in southern Turkey. Radio Ana broadcasts news and call-in shows from a studio near the Syrian border.
Jarrah and his co-hosts tell listeners that they are reporting what they call “the real news” of events in Syria. It is a media battle for the hearts and minds in territory controlled by ISIS.
But they are up against a well-funded transnational organization, says Looney, the Washington-based analyst. These are mainly Sunni extremists from Iraq. The war in Syria has revived the organization and given it a new base of support as well as safe havens along the Syria-Iraq border. Looney and other analysts say that ISIS funds its operations from money collected in Iraq.
“It’s mostly through extortion, also criminal activity,” he says. Estimates vary from $5 million to $8 million each month.
Controlling The Local Economy
With the infusion of cash, Looney adds, ISIS ensured its control over Raqqa’s economy.
“Citizens have become dependent on ISIS for the provision of goods and services,” he explains. “They feel if they establish themselves as the only group that Raqqa is able to turn to, it will generate some support for them among the community.”
Much of that support vanished this week, as the new rebel coalition challenged ISIS across northern Syria and the fighting spread to the extremists’ stronghold of Raqqa.
In the early days of the fighting, rebels captured an ISIS prison and released 50 captives; the fate of thousands of other prisoners, including Western journalists and humanitarian aid workers, is unknown. On Tuesday, ISIS mounted a counterattack, spurning offers of a mediated truce, to defend their most important base of operations.
One local activist describes the ISIS tactics — using suicide attacks against any challenger and laying land mines throughout the city for protection — as “monstrous.” There are credible reports that ISIS now dominates two key routes out of Raqqa: to the east toward the Iraqi border and also the road north to the Turkish frontier.
Now, rebels fighting ISIS must decide whether to continue the campaign against the extremists, which will split their efforts to fight the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The internal struggle among the rebels gives the regime a firmer hold on power.
You can follow NPR’s Deborah Amos on Twitter: @deborahamos