Syria

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ISIS Tears Attention Away From Activism in Syria

Defeating ISIS is not the end-all solution to the war in Syria.

When Omar Arab hears the sound of shelling nearby, he does not run for cover. He runs toward the noise. Arab is an independent photojournalist living in Aleppo, Syria. Once an ancient metropolis, it is now the battleground of what the Red Cross recently described as “one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.”

The Syrian regime laid siege on Aleppo in late spring, when President Bashar al-Assad’s forces surrounded its outskirts and severed all routes out of the city. In the past few months alone, over 1,800 civilians and fighters have been killed in Aleppo as the opposition struggles to regain control. With help from Russian aerial forces and elite Iranian soldiers, Assad has launched a brutal assault on rebel-held parts of the city. Activists on the ground have accused the regime of deliberately targeting schools and medical centers throughout the siege.

Arab also claims that in addition to targeting schools and medical centers, Russian and Syrian aircraft have targeted residential neighborhoods, including his own in a small swath of rebel-held territory in western Aleppo.

“The situation in Aleppo is very bad. There are many dead after the regime targeted neighborhoods with rockets. They also destroyed my house,” Arab wrote to me back in June. The situation has only worsened since.

Spirit of the Revolution

The fight over Aleppo is emblematic of the spirit of the Syrian revolution—an uprising of a nation against its despotic leader. While there may be radical Islamist elements fighting inside the city, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) has little presence there. It is a struggle between the opposition and the Syrian regime—the very essence of the revolution before the rise of the radical Islamist group.

This is important for the Syrians who spearheaded the revolution and those who continue to carry on the legacy of its martyrs. But the attention of the international community has shifted away from drawing red lines against the Assad regime and supporting the opposition to the fight against ISIS.

Activists feel forgotten by the international community, and Syrians hope and demand that the world redirect its focus back to the revolution and understand that empowering activists is critical for a long-term solution for Syria. Defeating ISIS alone is not the end-all solution to the conflict.

Grass-Roots Syria

The revolution began as a grass-roots effort. Inspired by the successful overthrow of oppressive leaders in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring, the Syrians sought to confront their own despot. Protests erupted throughout the country in the beginning of 2011. While there was minimal coordination on a national level, activists’ demands nonetheless tended to be uniform: for Bashar al-Assad to realize the failed promises of the 2000 Damascus Spring—a series of reforms aimed at easing authoritarian control and expanding political rights that he has since reneged on.

The political objectives of the Damascus Spring included establishing a multi-party democracy, recognizing freedom of assembly, press and speech, the release of political prisoners, economic rights for all citizens and lifting of the 1963 emergency law. Syrian activists adopted these demands in 2011, but soon reached breaking point only a few months after the uprising began with the torture of 15 schoolboys detained for scrawling anti-regime graffiti in the city of Dara’a.

When the protests demanding the boys’ release were met with indiscriminate gunfire, they expanded to demand an end to the Assad regime.

Protests not only continued to take place but grew larger despite the regime’s brutal crackdown. The uprising began as a series of stop-and-go protests, and eventually blossomed into a full-blown revolution. The goals of the revolution transcended religious sects, with Sunni and Shia Muslims and other religious minorities working parallel, and often together, against the regime. Activists formed local revolutionary councils, the most popular being the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) aimed at helping organize protests in their own communities and supporting the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).

As the crackdown by the regime became increasingly violent, a growing number of soldiers refused to shoot at protesters and began defecting en masse. The wave of defections, including 10,000 in the first year of the revolution, allowed for the creation of the Free Syria Army (FSA). Although the LCCs and activists believe foremost in the efficacy of nonviolent protest, they understood that the conflict had become militarized, and that their work would need to adapt accordingly.

Many were inspired by the efforts of the FSA and joined its fight against the Assad regime. Foreign states growing wary of the crimes of the Assad regime and feeling guilty for their own passivity began to arm the FSA, including the US, with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reportedly not only sending weapons, but also training FSA soldiers.

Decimated by mass desertions, depleting sources and devastating losses, the FSA today has lost the appeal that it once had. However, its creation was valuable for the work of activists, especially during the beginning stages of the revolution. Rebel-held territories like eastern Aleppo allow activists to thrive and work peacefully toward the goals of the revolution. But their efforts would become greatly complicated by the rise of ISIS, which has torn international attention away from the revolution that consequently bolsters the Assad regime, the very outcome that the activists worked so hard to avoid.

Enter the Islamic State

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had a different vision for the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) when he took over the group in spring 2011. To be successful, it needed to make greater territorial gains. Baghdadi saw an opportunity in Syria, which was on the brink of collapse.


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That summer he sent operatives inside the country and, in 2013, officially announced the creation of an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that stretched from Raqqa to Mosul. The rise of ISIS—first in Iraq and then in Syria—alarmed the international community, especially the US, after the beheading of American journalist James Foley.

The revolution was swept aside, and defeating ISIS became a priority for the international community. The US and its allies believe eradicating the Islamist group is tantamount to ending the conflict in Syria. For many Syrians, this could not be further from the truth. Their message of pluralism, equality and democracy has been lost in the shadow of ISIS.

The FSA’s resources were greatly depleted after ISIS established its presence in Syria, as a result of declining international aid and losing battleground to the seasoned foreign fighters of the Islamic State. Benefactors feared their weapons would land in the hands of ISIS either through battle losses or corrupt FSA fighters selling them on the black market. ISIS aside, by this time the failures of the FSA had become evident. Greatly weakened by factionalism and corruption, the once-revered rebels had lost the trust of the international community.

The emergence of ISIS in Syria has transformed the work of the Syrian opposition movement, especially its activists on the ground still fighting for the revolution. International media has callously conflated the opposition as a single entity that includes ISIS. It is this very misconception that has given momentum to the regime. Foreign states view Syria through a binary lens between the opposition and the Assad regime and consequentially believe that to defeat ISIS the Syrian government must stay in power.

Syrian Activism Today

“Activists on the ground feel forgotten. They feel like they were betrayed by the rest of the world. It’s sexier—a hotter topic to talk about ISIS rather than talk about the wants and demands of Syrian civilians, which is a free and democratic nation,” Ala’a Basatneh, a young activist born in Syria but raised in the US, emphasizes to me during an interview. Basatneh is the main subject of the documentary #ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator, which depicts her bold efforts to help activists in Syria coordinate with each other through social media. Even with the rise of ISIS, she explains, dethroning Assad continues to be a priority for most activists.

“[Assad] was a big factor in creating ISIS. He has won time, he has won allies worldwide—it’s not only Russia, China and Iran [that] are aiding him or are lenient on him because of ISIS. So, the only one benefactor for what’s going on in Syria and what ISIS is doing is the Syrian regime.”

For Ola Karman, a Syrian activist living in Aleppo, ISIS has not overwhelmingly affected her work because eastern Aleppo where she resides is protected by the rebels, which has helped preserve it as a hub of revolutionary activity. It has not changed her determination to work toward the “fall of the regime and liberation.”

Karman also points out that in some rarer instances activists must resort to drastic measures to stay afloat: “Activists who work in regions controlled by [ISIS] limits their work a lot … Unless, if they work with ISIS.”

As Syrians are bombarded by both state forces and radical Islamists, LCCs have expanded their experiment in self-governance by organizing much-needed humanitarian work. The opposition has built clinics and hospitals, organized makeshift schools for the youth and helps support first responders like the revered White Helmets rescue volunteers. Syrian activists who coordinate with rebels to channel aid to besieged and liberated territories are often targeted by the regime and, more recently, Russian airstrikes. The revolution now is not only an ambitious effort to depose the Assad regime, but also to survive.

The opposition movement has thus had to resort to moving underground. As the documentary #ChicagoGirl shows, even before the rise of ISIS clinics gradually moved underground. However, that has not stopped the regime from finding and targeting them in direct airstrikes. The clinics Basatneh visited and brought medical supplies to in 2012 have since been destroyed.

Postcards from Hell

Instead of organizing protests against the regime, activists have shifted focus to documenting the revolution and atrocities committed by Assad and his accomplices, mainly Russia and Iran. Thanks to the work of citizen journalists, the conflict is considerably the most well-documented of its kind. Through a variety of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube activists like Omar Arab expose the actions of the Assad regime to the rest of the world.

“I am a photographer and document the crimes of the regime in pictures and video because I have to be a witness and prove that the regime is not aiming at terrorists but civilians,” says Arab.

His photos depict the grim reality of everyday life in Aleppo—the daily bombs that pound the city, the destruction and the human compassion of ordinary Syrians helping each other survive.


If they stop, no one else is talking against Assad. If they stop, then hundreds of people will have died for nothing. These protesters and people who were targeted during protests by barrel bombs and sniper bullets—they are demanding for Assad to go.


Ala’a Basatneh also points out that their work embodies the long-term picture of a post-Assad Syria: “The more documentation we have the more we are able to bring people into account after the topple happens in the Syrian regime, after Assad is gone.”

This is perhaps why the SNC—the loose umbrella organization claiming to speak on behalf of Syrians opposed to Assad—has repeatedly refused to join the Geneva peace talks with the regime and members from the international community.

Many Syrians not only want to see Assad relinquish his power, but also to be held accountable and brought to justice for his actions as president. Documenting them is therefore not only critical for raising awareness to the rest of the world in hopes of garnering support and aid, but also for the long-term.

Syrians are not calling for the international community to redirect its focus to the revolution in order to minimize the real threat that ISIS poses, but rather because they strongly believe that supporting the revolution will help put an end to the terror wrought by the group. Activists help lay the foundation for a free and democratic Syria by developing a robust civil society that works toward solidifying the values of the revolution—mainly promoting equality, justice, pluralism and freedom of speech and religion.

Karman emphasizes the importance of civil society in the revolution because of individuals who have helped lessen Syrians’ dependence on the government: “The role of Syrian activists is really important in the Syrian revolution between doctors, teachers, first responders, etc., because they have the ability to build institutions and schools outside of the regime’s control [which] might negatively affect Assad’s regime.”

Those active in the revolution understand that a free and democratic Syria will not come with the overhaul of the existing regime alone, but of state institutions as well. A smooth transition to democracy is incumbent upon avoiding a power vacuum that could empower ISIS even more. The activists are working to guarantee that they are prepared for a post-Assad Syria.

International Community

This past summer alone, ISIS has launched a wave of terrorist attacks that have killed hundreds around the world. It is undeniably a global threat. The Syrians know this better than anyone. By boosting funds to groups like the White Helmets to appease the preconditions of the opposition in order to encourage them to join the peace talks and, most importantly, supporting Syrian activists by following their fight against the Assad regime, the international community can make headway in helping the revolution while simultaneously fighting ISIS.

The alternative is the status quo, with the international community continuing to look at the Syrian conflict through a binary lens between the Assad regime and ISIS. Even if the world has given up on the revolution, the activists are the ones keeping the country from an irreversible collapse and are the best hope that Syria has for a stable future.

“If they stop, no one else is talking against Assad. If they stop, then hundreds of people will have died for nothing. These protesters and people who were targeted during protests by barrel bombs and sniper bullets—they are demanding for Assad to go. Their work, the activists that continue their work, they are the ones that continue that legacy to make sure that Assad goes. If Assad doesn’t go, then ISIS will grow, and more chaos will grow, in not only the Middle East, but also in the West—and we won’t see ISIS back down if Assad doesn’t go.” So Basatneh.

The greatest goal of the revolution was to have the voices of the Syrian people heard. It is time the world started listening.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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