ISIS’s abandoned headquarters in Aleppo are just across from another large building that serves as the base for Tawhid Brigade, one of the largest of the seven rebel groups that joined together in November to form the Islamic Front. ISIS had been present in opposition-held Aleppo since the beginning of 2013
The Promise of Aleppo’s Radicals
By MATTHIEU AIKINS
ALEPPO, Syria — As a rebel fighter shined his flashlight onto a clump of blankets and clothes scattered around the concrete basement floor, I wondered if this was where my friend Sultan had spent the last moments of his life. A goofy, gap-toothed 22-year-old who worked for a local fixer, he was part of a group of Syrian activists, journalists and rebel fighters who had been arrested by the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and taken to this makeshift prison in the basement of a former hospital.
The building had served as the Sunni extremist group’s headquarters in Aleppo,
Syria’s largest city, but now the pitch-dark corridors were deserted. By the stairs, we found a long cable of copper wires taped together. One of the rebels picked it up and mimicked a whipping gesture — former prisoners who were held here reported being tortured. Farther down was a room that served as a cafeteria, with signs in English attesting to the presence of foreign jihadists among ISIS’s ranks. “Fear Allah! Remember that he is watching you so please do not waste food and clean up after you have eaten,” read one. Another advised “brothers who want to receive their families from outside Syria” to coordinate with the “Mujahedeen Services Office.”
ISIS began as the Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda but split off at the beginning of this year over its ambitions to expand into Syria and establish itself as a new caliphate. After its stunning takeover of much of western
Iraq last month, it now calls itself simply the Islamic State.
But ISIS is gone from Aleppo, having been forced out by local Syrian rebels in January. This military reversal, one of the group’s few, highlights the dilemma facing the West: Its best potential allies against ISIS are other Sunni Islamists.
The fighters who accompanied me during a weeklong visit to Aleppo in mid-June were members of the Islamic Front, a rebel coalition dominant in the city and much of northern Syria. The Islamic Front is a fierce and effective opponent of ISIS but also, in its Islamist platform and indirect connections with Al Qaeda, a far cry from the “appropriately vetted elements of the moderate Syrian armed opposition” for whom the Obama administration recently requested $500 million in military training and funding.
ISIS’s abandoned headquarters in Aleppo are just across from another large building that serves as the base for Tawhid Brigade, one of the largest of the seven rebel groups that joined together in November to form the Islamic Front. ISIS had been present in opposition-held Aleppo since the beginning of 2013, but by the end of the year tensions with rebel groups had reached a crisis. Considering itself a sovereign state, ISIS was refusing to accept mediation for any dispute, and it had taken to kidnapping those it considered to be critics or enemies, including people who worked with foreign journalists, like Sultan.
On Jan. 7, ISIS carried out a surprise attack on Tawhid Brigade’s headquarters. It was held off. The next day, Tawhid Brigade forces from around the city counterattacked and surrounded the hospital. “We cut them off and prevented them from bringing any support,” said the commander who led the offensive and who goes by the nom de guerre of Abu Assad.
Around 3 a.m., the ISIS fighters trapped inside the hospital asked to be allowed to leave the city, and Abu Assad, not wanting further bloodshed, agreed. When he and his men searched the hospital at first light, they discovered that ISIS had massacred its captives. “We found a group of bodies every ten meters,” said Abu Assad. Most of them had been shot in the head while bound. “They were real revolutionaries, journalists, doctors. If we had known what ISIS had done, we wouldn’t have let them escape alive.”
Not long after the battle, half a globe away, I watched footage of its aftermath that rebels had recorded and uploaded to YouTube, and recognized Sultan among the corpses.
The battle against ISIS in Aleppo is part of a larger conflict that started at the beginning of this year, as rebel groups across the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo — including the powerful Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra — fought a pitched battle to expel ISIS. The face-off left the Islamic Front pre-eminent. It controls the key border crossing with Turkey at Azaz and, with its estimated 50,000 to 60,000 fighters, is thought to be the largest and most militarily potent rebel alliance in Syria.
The Islamic Front is entirely Syrian in leadership, and its central goal is overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad — good credentials in the eyes of Western governments hoping to roll back ISIS without strengthening the Syrian regime. Many of the group’s most powerful members — including Tawhid Brigade and one of the largest factions fighting in the Damascus suburbs, Jaish al-Islam — are not particularly ideological, and were once allied with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
But they are far from secular. The Islamic Front draws on support from pre-war Islamist resistance networks, including wealthy, religious donors across the Muslim world and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an exiled Islamist group. More problematic from a Western perspective, one of the coalition’s key members, Ahrar al-Sham, has links to Al Qaeda’s core leadership, and the Islamic Front as a whole closely coordinates operations with Jabhat al-Nusra.
The commanders I spoke to in Aleppo said the Islamic Front has not, as a result, directly received any military aid from Washington or other Western governments. But can the West meaningfully influence the military situation in Syria while continuing to eschew Islamist groups, now that they are dominant among the rebels? “The Free Syrian Army has been weak and divided,” said Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official. “And so the Islamic Front is really the only game in town if you want to attack ISIS in Syria.”
Rebel commanders in Aleppo were dismissive of the supposedly “secular” Free Syrian Army groups linked to the government in exile, which the West has been backing. “They’re like NGOs. They know how to say what the donor wants to hear,” said Abu Bilal, Tawhid Brigade’s chief of operations. “In reality, they’re diesel smugglers who control a little of the border. They don’t do any serious fighting.”
If Washington and its partners want to push back against both Assad and ISIS at once, they will have to be less squeamish about picking allies in Syria. Otherwise, they may not find any left at all.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer living in Kabul.