ISIL in Syria: From Isolated Group of Fighters to A Caliphate

None of those who started the Syrian uprising in 2011 would have thought that after five years their home will be taken over by many militias and groups including Iranians, Hizbullah, Al Qaeda and a so called “caliphate”.

The first two are among 53 foreign shi’ite militias invited to Syria by Bashar Al Assad, unlike ISIL and Al Qaeda that sneaked in to rebel held areas to build a base using the chaos and the lack of central authorities there.

Al Nusra Front, is an extreme group affiliated with Al Qaeda, they announced its formation in 2012. The Washington Post described al-Nusra as the most successful arm of the rebel forces. shortly after, the United States designated Jabhat al-Nusra as a foreign terrorist organization. Then Nusra set the road for ISIL to come.

“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is an extension of the al-Nusra Front, they brought them to Syria and protected them against Syrian fighters, no question about it.” This was the united answer given by locals and fighters that I spoke to across the Syrian territories occupied by ISIL.

In late 2013 ISIL was already spreading across the northern provinces of Syria, from Latakiyah in the east, to as far west as Dier Ezzor. The most frightening armed force in Syria, known then as the “unbeatable power,” ISIL were nevertheless pushed back east in January 2014, as skirmishes broke out with a small faction of rebel groups able to force them from their towns. By June the same year ISIL had captured Mosul in northern Iraq and declared the establishment of a caliphate. But how did this instigation of power take place?

“Abo Al Fateh A Joulany, the head of Al Nursra Front (that has changed their name into Jaish Fateh al-Sham was ordered by Abo-Bakir Al Baghdadi to come to Syria with a few fighters and establish a branch in the unstable areas of Syria controlled by the rebels” says Husam Baker, the pseudonym of a doctor and researcher from Dier Ezzor. Until last year Baker lived under the Caliphate, who arrested and badly tortured him before he managed to escape.

Baker was arrested and tortured before by Assad regime as well for helping the casualties of the security forces crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.

For Baker the timeline of his life would be raising against the regime demanding freedom, helping his fellow demonstrators, arrested and tortured badly for that, supporting moderate syrian rebels who took lands from the regime, living in their areas for years despite the constant bombing and shelling by the Syrian army, then this already mostly destroyed area being captured by

“When the uprising turned into armed revolution,” says Baker, “it was easy for terrorist groups to take control for a number of reasons; the general feeling of helplessness while Assad forces used all kinds of weapons to suppress the Syrian people; and the opinion of some moderate rebels, without any common ideology with al-Qaeda, that al-Nusra Jihadis were brave, honest men, fearlessly battling regime forces. They were rich, had plenty of weapons, and seemed capable of military victory over Assad.”

Until late 2012 ISIL focussed their attention on combatting the Assad regime, and paid little attention to the public and private lives of the Syrian people. But by 2013 the organisation had evolved from a small band of fighters to the most powerful battalion in the Dier Ezzor province, controlling the oil market, a sugar factory, and all the local granaries.

“Financially speaking they became the state, and were smart to staff their institutions with Syrians,” Jaber said.

The situation was the same in Aleppo, says Monzer Sallal, the deputy of the Free Aleppo Provincial Council. “When Nusra Jihadis came they were few, and had little support from the locals. What helped them enormously was Assad’s amnesty and release of many Islamists from his prisons in 2011 and 2012. They were united by their jihadi ideology, while the Free Syrian army and local rebels were ideologically divided, though more numerous.”

In March 2013, Nusra captured Raqqa, occupying both state buildings and public spaces. “As early as April we started seeing Nusra slogans on the walls and doors of our streets: ‘Seized by Nusra,’ and ‘the hand of theft to be cut,” says Amer Matter, a journalist from the city. These bases were offered to ISIL, by Nusra, their “brothers in mythology” as they became known.

The honeymoon between The Islamic State in Iraq and Nusra Front came to an end when al Baghdadi, the head of the first group proposed uniting them under the name ISIL and demanded the dissolving al-Nusra permanently under his leadership. Jolani, the head of the latter group had invested time and energy into expanding al-Nusra’s power in Syria and was loth to cede power to the rival group. So he refused Baghdadi’s offer. And he was supported in this by Ayman Al Zawahri, the leader of Al Qaeda, who declared the separation of ISIL and al-Nusra and asked the Islamic state to stay in Iraq and not to expand into Syria.

To the more orthodox Jihadis, ISIL was a better fit for their ambitions of international Jihadism, and many left al-Nusra for al Baghdadi’s newly-established group. ISIL similarly became the organisation of choice for foreign Jihadis.

After a few months the dispute between al-Nusra and ISIL reached Raqqa. “We heard that Al Baghdadi’s envoy Abo Ali Al Anbari had come to confront the Nusra sharia judge Abo Al Abbas,” says Mothanna, a doctor from city, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Then the former could convince most of the Nusra jihadis to join ISIL, while the few jihadis who refused withdrew to the nearby Jaabur castle, 50km outside of Raqqa.”

ISIL continued to practice public executions, terrorising civilians and kidnapping local activists, planting fear in the hearts of both local civilians and rebel militias. Their ultimate dominance in the area was cemented after wresting control from the dominant militia in the area—the Afad Al Rasoul Brigade—kidnapping most of its fighters and exiling the remaining members from the city under accusations of theft. the remaining rebel groups remained silent until the occurrence of a final battle, after which they all became apostate enemies of ISIL.

“After the withdrawal of al-Nusra from the city, ISIL took the base of the Al Farouk Brigade,” says Matar, “Ahfad Al Rasoul knew they were the next group to be attacked, and took up arms against them. ISIL used a car bomb to hit their base in the old train station, then they used another car bomb to hit Ahrar Sham base.”

During this period the brother of Amer, Mohamad Nour, was kidnapped by ISIL fighters along with many other activists whose whereabouts remains unknown. Amer notes the tribal background to the conflict between al-Nusra and ISIL in Raqqa; the members of al-Nusra mainly coming from the Walda tribe, and ISIL fighter from Afadlah.


One strategy adopted both by Nusra and ISIL has been the attack of rival militias under the guise of law enforcement, allegedly protecting civilians from corruption and theft. This method has won favour with civilians who have fallen victim to the various crimes of the rebels. “By doing this,” says Monzer, “they gain support from the public and frighten the other battalions of the FSA, tackling them one by one until they become the dominant force in the region. This is what happened in the northern suburb of Aleppo”.

“ISIL got its repetition of power after carrying out numerous suicide attacks against Assad forces,” says Lieutenant Fares Bauoush, a commander of the northern division in the Free Syrian Army in Edlib. “Using Islam as a cover, they later showed their real face of terror, and it became apparent that we had to stop them by force. At the same time we had to deal with constant bombardment by the Assad regime that was mainly targeting our bases and helping ISIL to advance”.

In January 2014 the FSA launched a concerted counterattack against ISIL, while still under attack from the regime. ISIL were attempting to advance in northern Aleppo supported by Assad airforce that was exclusively targeting FSA fighting them, facilitating ISIL’s progression into the area.

“We knew that ISIL had come to destroy our revolution,” says Bauoush, “so we united and kicked them out of Edlib.”

While rebel forces in Edlib were able to force ISIL out of the region, similar faction in Aleppo were not so lucky.

In Menbej in Aleppo ISIL was trying to gain the public support by different ways they provided wheat for the bread and took over the  Imams’ orators’ positions in mosques, to speak directly with them but they couldn’t gain their support until they won in the battle on 2014 and forced all the local fighters to leave.

In Dier Ezzor, the conflict between ISIL and al-NUsra found a different form. Until the summer of 2014, Nusra were the dominant force in the region. Claiming to be neutral, Nusra were secretly hiding ISIL’s escaped Jihadis in their bases, protecting them from the regime. When conflict between ISIL and Nusra did eventually break out, it was for economic, rather than political reasons.

In 2014 ISIL took control of the Koneko oil field in Dier Ezzor which had previously been under the control of al-Nusra. Koneko was the main provider of fuel to the Jender power station in Homs, a producer of electricity for the whole of Syria.

The fight for Koneko lasted until June 2014, when all the rebel held areas finally submitted to ISIL. Despite their military superiority and greater force, Nusra were overpowered by ISIL for a number of reasons.

In Dier Ezzor, ISIL used their tribal influence to take the town of Aqedat in the eastern suburb. A local leader named Amer Rafdan, had pledged allegiance to ISIL and the rest of the town soon followed. Rafdan was later appointed ISIL’s governor of the Khair (good) state.

-“The very powerful doctrine they fight for” , Husam gives an example of some of his friends who were fighing among the moderate rebels and were hesitant to fight ISIL, because its fighters are Muslims too, unlike ISIL jihadies who believe that all rebel groups are apostates whom God orders to kill.

-Sallal attributes the failure in winning over ISIL in this battle to the lack of support the FSA got “If our fighters had got the needed support, we wouldn’t have anything named ISIL now”, Sallal was appointed as a coordinator between all the groups fighting ISIL then in Menbej and its suburb, he reached all the sources funding rebel groups and tired to push them to support those groups to fight ISIL but they “refused”.

-The horror they practiced and showed professionally through their media and in their public acts, slaughtering, distorting bodies, which made the fighters so scared about their distance if they were captured by them.

As a result by summer 2014 ISIL was the only armed force in Raqqa, Dier Ezzor, Albab, Manbej, Jarablous and other towns in Aleppo’s northern suburb.

Similarly advantageous to ISIL was their capturing of Mosul, a city on the Iraqi border, and merging these two territories together, changing the names of various provinces. Dier Ezzor became Wilaet Al Khair, Ein Al Arab, Ein Al Islam, and Hasakeh became Barakeh. Then they combined the syrian town Albokamal with the Iraqi town Al Qaem into one province removing the broader between he tow countries.

ISIL has imported their own administrative hierarchy they had in Iraq, they kept their federal system alive, only the economical and military ones were central.

When they started establishing their role in eastern Syria, they kept the local councils, the medical and aid organizations, only media groups were excluded from this as they were asked to declare what equipment they have and to sign on conditions to keep working, among them getting a permission from ISIL before doing any thing.

Eventually even those who kept working under these conditions were either kidnapped or killed.

After couple of months, they told these institutions you should report to us and give us half of the sources you are getting, then the third stage was ordering them to give up all their sources and leave the Caliphate by the end of 2014.

They took over all the warehouses ( medical, relief,..) and assigned an Amir to run each sector, so everything goes through their man.

Their institutions include: The muslim financial house, which equals the economy ministry, Islamic service organization, the municipality, Hisbah, the sharia law judicial institution, the islamic police, tribes office, education office, security office, medical office.

In Dier Ezzor and Raqqa most of the decision makers were Iraqis, then Tunisians, then the Syrians might come in the third place.

The highest hierarchy in the province is Al Wali, the governor, he hires all jobs, excluding the military leaders, those are assigned by the Shura Council in Mosul, so their loyalty is to the central leadership not to the governor.

“Most of the families who are staying there have no other option to leave, intellectuals, doctors activists they all left because it’s impossible to bear living under their control”, Dr.Mothana said.

He added “They were interfering even our personal affairs, smoking is prohibited, when it’s praying time, if they heard a man’s voice in the house, they would break down and arrest him for not going to the mosque”.

Now close surveillance is reported on their areas, you need permission to move even within ISIL controlled areas.

Ali said “at the last eight months in Menbej any one who need to go to a rebel held area needs a permission from the sharia judge and they decide whether they are allowed or not”.

Still what they offered to the people is some kind of stability and security “in the ISIL areas there is a close monitoring for the markets, cheating is forbidden, no expired medicines in the pharmacies, even doctors who arrive late to the medical point would be facing shaving their head punishment”, Ali said.

No arms in the streets of the Islamic state, at all, only their forces, police have weapons, no thugs or thefts, as the punishment of cutting the hand is too frightening for anyone to commit it.

People would move from Mosul to Raqqa security which is not the case in the rebel held areas that are chaos, they even applied their roles on their own jihadies. their sanctions on them are even more harsh than other people.

But for those who started the uprising, and they became wanted for both, Assad regime and ISIL are equally criminal, although 90% of the Syrian civilian victims are killed by Assad forces while ISIL is responsible for 1%, but both have massacred their friends and family members.

Arrested/kidnapped activists, and forced them to leave the home they upraised for.

 This article is published in Weapons of Reasons magazine “power” issue in April 2017

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