FOUR masked men raided Fateh Rahmoun’s house in Ras al-Hussein, a village in Syria’s north-western province of Idleb. Heavily-armed and wearing belts of explosives, one shot the 13-year-old boy who opened the door while the others stormed into the house shooting at everyone.
This is how Abdo, a 24-year-old fighter with Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, describes what happened on April 16th to Mr Ramoun, one of his group’s leaders. Locals say Mr Fateh and four others were assassinated by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a jihadist group disavowed by al-Qaeda.
Since clashes erupted across northern Syria between ISIS and rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra in January, the former has withdrawn eastwards. The group no longer has an open presence in Idleb province. Ahmad al-Souad, a lieutenant-colonel who defected from Bashar Assad’s army and now heads the 13th division, a local rebel group that participated in the battle against ISIS, reckons ISIS is permanently gone. “Neither civilians nor us will allow them to come back,” he says.
But revenge operations are common. Mr al-Souad was held by ISIS for two weeks in December. There have been more than 12 car bombs in the local area, most targeting checkpoints run by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist-minded groups. Fearing further attacks, residents pile up dirt to prevent cars from entering their areas. “They are just as criminal as the regime. They would do anything for power,” says Abu Jumaa, a fighter from Maarat al-Numan, a local town.
A new atmosphere
Since ISIS withdrew, Idleb’s markets no longer stock the facemasks and Afghani-style garb worn by ISIS fighters. On a recent morning in the towns of Saraqeb, Armanaz and Kafr Tkarem, shopkeepers openly smoked argileh (water pipes), something forbidden by ISIS. Cigarette-sellers, who vanished in December when ISIS set one of them on fire, are back. Female high school students who were forced to wear black abayas (long cloaks) are back in their usual attire.
Fighters are relieved too. The green flag of the Syrian revolution once again flies on many rebel barricades. Black flags with “No God but Allah”, associated with extremists, remain but without the ISIS logo. For the first time in months your correspondent heard rebels playing music rather than Islamic chants in their cars. People can once again talk openly.
Yet in some ways life has got harder. The regime has stepped up its attacks against Idleb, fuelling rumours that it is working with ISIS, albeit tacitly. “When they were here, we were targeted with couple of mortars,” says Salma, who works in a field hospital in Maarat al-Numan. “Now Assad’s diary has two air strikes a day scheduled for us.” Um Khaled from the nearby town of Kafr Nabl, says the local economy has suffered since ISIS fighters left. But “as a mother of activist, I feel relief,” she says. “I was always waiting for them to raid my house to take him.”
ISIS has long targeted journalists. The Syrian Violations Documentation Centre, a local organisation, has tracked the cases of 71 journalists kidnapped in Syria, over 60 of whom are held by ISIS.
The activists’ fear of ISIS is now shared by some Syrians who used to fight with or support the group. Hassan, a 26-year-old student of French literature, says he was about to join ISIS when the conflict with rebel groups broke out. “I woke up,” he says. Before he says he saw them as “an organised, rich group that, unlike us, has endless ammunition and great funding”. Two months ago Hassan would ask your (female) correspondent to wear an abaya; today he says “those who refuse to accept you are the ones who should change.”
Some fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, which shares a similar ideology to ISIS, are more openly critical of those they used to call their “brothers”. One member of the group looked your correspondent in the eyes—such contact with women is considered sinful by devout Muslims—and asked why ISIS is carrying out so many crimes. Abdo, the young fighter, no longer leaves the room when your correspondent visits his family home and now describes ISIS as criminals.
Despite the general relief, residents fear ISIS members are lying low in sleeper cells. Many people who rose up against the regime three years ago still don’t dare to publically criticise the group.
Meanwhile, rebel groups continue to fight on two fronts. A third of the fighters from the 13th Division battle ISIS while the rest tackle the regime. Some locals reckon the battle needs to stop. “Although ISIS has made mistakes, the Free Syrian Army fighters took the revenge too far,” says Muhammad, a 21-year-old activist who used to run an internet café. “They are battling against all
foreign jihadists, even those who just came to help us.”
This article was published with the Economist on the 5th of June 2014