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Fear of Assad turns to fear of Al Qaeda

The power of militant Islamists and men who see democracy as the work of the devil, or the West, is rising in some of Syria's rebel-held areas.
A man secures an area that was hit by a suicide bombing at the Kurdish Security Forces Centre (Asayish) at Qamishli, Syria. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have claimed responsibility. Rodi Said / Reuters
A man secures an area that was hit by a suicide bombing at the Kurdish Security Forces Centre (Asayish) at Qamishli, Syria. The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have claimed responsibility. Rodi Said / Reuters

BEIRUT // When he was agitating for revolution, urging fellow Syrians to rise up against President Bashar Al Assad, Abdullah dreaded the midnight knock at the door from the secret police.

Now that the uprising has succeeded in his hometown near Aleppo, pro-democracy activists are living in fear again — and this time those who brand them “traitor” don’t bother to knock.

Two years ago, after Abdullah broke off his studies to run social media campaigns against Mr Al Assad, he was held and tortured by security men. This summer, it happened again — only now it was Islamist gunmen loyal to Al Qaeda who smashed into his family’s house, broke everything in their way and took him off to a cell where, once more, he was blindfolded and beaten.

“The sad thing is that those who were doing this were not Mr Al Assad’s police,” Mr Abdullah said from Turkey, where he managed to flee after his latest ordeal. “They were fighters who were supposed to be fighting for freedom, our freedom.

“Back then they called me ‘traitor’ for demanding freedom. These armed men also tortured me for calling for freedom.”

His story is increasingly familiar across northern Syria, where Mr Al Assad’s government has ceded territory to an array of rival militias. The rising power is militant Islamists and men who see democracy as the work of the devil, or the West, a system contrary to their hopes for a state ruled by religion.

Abdullah’s experience also highlights the fragmentation of Syria’s opposition, which greatly complicates new international efforts to end a civil war that has killed over 100,000.

Nineteen Syrians who described themselves as activists for democracy all gave similar accounts of violence and intimidation by militant Islamists in northern areas no longer controlled by Mr Al Assad’s “mukhabarat” security services.

Most were students when Syria’s Arab Spring protests began in March 2011. All got involved in publicising demonstrations — and documenting Mr Al Assad’s crackdown on them — using social media. They went on, as self-taught journalists, to provide images and reports for Syrians and international media as the war spread.

Some, like Abdullah, have now had to flee for their lives.

They, and those still inside Syria, say Islamist militants have begun a campaign to silence them. Last month, two media activists were shot dead in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city. Some have been seized and are being held. Others have simply disappeared.

In particular, those who spoke recounted the fear spread by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Al Qaeda-linked group, dominated by foreigners blooded in other wars, from Libya to Iraq and Afghanistan, does not tolerate critics.

“It is impossible for me to go to Syria now. I am wanted by the regime and by Al Qaeda,” said Rami Jarrah, who ran a radio station in the city of Raqqa until early October, when ISIL gunmen shut it down and took away one of his colleagues.

Now living in Turkey, from where Radio ANA continues to broadcast into Syria, Mr Jarrah won early fame among “media activists” in 2011, employing the English of his British education to forge an international reputation blogging from Damascus, where foreign news organisations had little access.

The station’s mistake, he said, was to open its airwaves to phone-in callers venting grievances against the Islamists.

“People were calling in and saying ISIL did this and did that. ‘They closed my shop’ or ‘attacked my wife and forced the hijab on her’,” Mr Jarrah said. The militants, online themselves, accused him of “atheism” and put a price on his head.

Hazem Dakel, from Idlib, now also living in Turkey, said his ordeal began when two men on a motorbike forced his car to a halt after he had been filming in an area run by ISIL. Held in a house, they accused him of “opposing Islam”. He escaped through a window.

If he had any doubt what would have happened had he stayed, a call from one of his captors to an acquaintance still in Syria has since removed it: “They were planning to execute me on the night I escaped,” Mr Dakel said.

The militant Islamists have won respect among Syrians in the north, partly by their fighting mettle, party by imposing order where feuding among rival rebel warlords had broken out and partly by ensuring supplies of food and medicines. But for democratic activists, that does not excuse other failings.

“Our problem with them is ideological,” said Mr Jarrah. “They want to force their ideology without asking our opinion.

“The regime deprived us of freedom of expression and they are doing the same,” he added.

Mr Jarrah said he knows of at least 60 activists who have been detained by Al Qaeda gunmen or have simply gone missing.

One Syrian blogger who is close to another Al Qaeda-linked group, Al Nusra Front, dismissed accounts of oppression and intimidation from democratic activists as exaggerated and intended to “please the West” by slandering Islamists.

“Those who accuse Islamists of violations,” he said, “Are following a Western agenda.”

*Reuters

Updated: November 27, 2013 04:00 AM

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