You Win Some, You Lose Some

As moderate rebels beat back Islamist radicals in Syria, Assad gains.

IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria — I drove across northern Syria this winter under the protection of the Free Syrian Army (FSA): There were three cars in our convoy and a total of seven fighters, carrying AK-47 machine guns and grenades in their pockets. As we proceeded on our journey, we passed towns and villages controlled by the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) nestled along the northern border with Turkey and further to the south. "Those calling for democracy are an enemy of Islam," read one of the group's slogans plastered on the walls we passed. "There's no hope for people who have the Quran, but don't appreciate it," read another.

What would normally be a two-hour journey was transformed into a seven-hour ordeal as we took routes designed to avoid the numerous ISIS checkpoints dotting the roads. We passed the town of al-Atareb, where the jihadists' black flag fluttered atop a hill dominating the village. While both ISIS and FSA were present in the town at that point in December, their co-existence was uneasy: The month prior, it had been the site of the execution of seven fighters from the FSA battalion of Ghurabaa al-Sham, including their leader Hassan Jazarah -- a brutal act meant to show ISIS's strength, and cow the more moderate rebels into silence.  

Large swaths of the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces fell under the control of ISIS toward the end of 2013, as moderate rebels were busy fighting the regime. ISIS exploited the fractured nature of the battalions in this region, quickly becoming too large for any single group to face alone. It first targeted small rebel groups that did not have the protection of other battalions, seizing the towns of Azaz, ad-Dana, and Atmeh -- all three of which lie strategically near the Turkish border.

As it expanded across northern Syria, ISIS's main aim was to prevent rival rebels from getting supplies of arms and ammunition from Turkey. This was would allow them to slowly strangle any efforts to block their project to establish an Islamic caliphate solely under their control.

Three months later, it has become clear that ISIS has failed. A broad alliance of rebel battalions across northern Syria has united to drive the extremist group from many of the cities and towns formerly under its control, leaving it holed up in the city of Raqqa, one of its last remaining strongholds.

In other parts of the country, the Syrian regime has gained territory from the opposition. Most recently, it seized the city of Yabroud, along the border of Lebanon -- the latest in a string of successes that has seen the regime significantly strengthen its hold on the western part of the country and the capital. But even as these setbacks have dimmed hopes that Bashar al-Assad's fall is imminent, the routing of ISIS represents one of the bright spots of the Syrian uprising over the past several months.

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I had entered Syria on the invitation of several rebel commanders, who were organizing the first effort that pushed the radicals from much of northern Syria. On Christmas Day, 17 FSA commanders came together for the first time to discuss ISIS's expanding influence and its negative impact on their battle with the Syrian regime. The meeting was held in the northern al-Zawiyah mountains, a stronghold of moderate rebels in the area.

Despite fears of opening a second front, all the commanders present agreed on the importance of defeating ISIS in continuing the battle with the regime. The commanders' main fear was ISIS's effort to control al-Atareb. The town consisted of roughly 70,000 people before the uprising, and is strategically located about halfway between the Turkish border and the city of Aleppo -- making it a popular junction for those traveling across the northern provinces. Losing the town would deal the FSA a double defeat: It would cut their supply routes from across the northern border with Turkey, and trap their fighters between ISIS fighters to the north and Assad's forces to the south.

The meeting resulted in the establishment of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), a moderate rebel alliance consisting of roughly 17 factions. The fighters present at the meeting elected as their leader Jamal Maarouf, the head of the Syrian Martyrs' Brigade, who spoke about his vision for Syria's future. He said that he intended to form a national army to secure the country after the fall of Assad, arguing that it would be necessary to prevent chaos after the inevitable fall of the regime. Thus, the decision was taken to start training a force of 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, who would spearhead the battle against ISIS.

"ISIS is infecting our battle," Maarouf said. "While our fighters are on the front, fighting the regime troops, it comes and controls our areas. ISIS did that in the whole north -- they didn't gain any city from the regime, all of their areas are the ones we liberated."

But as Maarouf and his allies prepared their offensive, ISIS was tightening its control over northern Syria. Accompanied by fighters from the Ninth Division, a rebel force based nearby, I circled back to al-Atareb, where I was able to sneak in without ISIS's knowledge. The radical group was clearly gaining the upper hand against its rivals: ISIS fighters manned checkpoints throughout the town, women had largely disappeared from the streets, and the group's black flag predominated while the revolutionary flag had largely disappeared.

While I was trying to secretly film, ISIS called the civilians of the city to attend a rally. ISIS fighters handed out juice, and organized a Quran-reading competition for children. The winners of the contest -- those who had memorized the Quran the best -- were given the equivalent of $50.

The rally was also an effort to bolster ISIS's ranks of fighters. The rebels with whom I traveled noted with surprise that the ISIS recruiters had previously belonged to their own groups. As the ISIS spokesman called on citizens to join the group, he openly insulted other battalions: "When you pay homage to ISIS, it means that you accept to fight wherever I will send you, be it in Deir ez-Zor or Khan Toman," he said. "We do not want a mess like other FSA battalions."

The rally visibly scared the rebels who I was with -- they did not expect that ISIS would show hostility to them so openly and quickly. "It's hilarious, these bastards are winning the support of simple people by using Islam and they try their best to infect our reputation," said Lt. Hazem, one of the leaders of the SRF-affiliated Ninth Division. "We have to work fast to stop them, or they will turn people against us."

Hazem's fears that ISIS was on the cusp of completely dominating the city were justified. On Jan. 3, a week after the SRF was formed, ISIS attacked other rebel groups in al-Atareb and managed to control the city within hours. But this time, the group had overreached -- its capture of the city set off a chain of events that would see the jihadists badly bloodied throughout northern Syria.

By sunset of Jan. 3, the rebels in the Regiment 46 base, a former Syrian Army stronghold several miles outside al-Atareb, began a counterattack to regain control of the city. The situation on the ground evolved quickly from there: While the rebels were able to wrest the town from the group's control, ISIS managed to flank the SRF's base outside of the village and seize it.

For Hazem, the rebels' success at preventing the capture of the city was worth the loss of their base. "If we let them control al-Atareb, they would have continued to recruit and it was only going to be a matter of time until they control the base," he said. "For us, it was the turning point in the strategy of the battle to not allow them to increase their numbers."

In the next few days, the SRF and their allies launched massive attacks on ISIS positions throughout Aleppo and Idlib, forcing them away from the north and back toward their strongholds in the east.

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Over the past several months, Salafist and jihadist groups have gradually joined the SRF's struggle against ISIS -- forming a broad coalition against the extremist group that transcends ideological and political lines.

During the first days of the battle, groups like the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, declared their neutrality in the conflict. The Islamic Front suggested an initiative where Islamic scholars would mediate between the parties on the basis of sharia, while Jabhat al-Nusra offered ISIS fighters amnesty if they defected from the group to join them.

ISIS, however, refused all initiatives to end the conflict and threatened to use suicide attacks against its enemies. As the SRF began making gains, the Islamic Front decided to participate in the battles within the areas under its influence.

The battle lasted throughout January, with the rebels managing to take control of all of Idlib province and the majority of Aleppo, except for the towns of Azaz and al-Bab. ISIS displayed little resistance in the fighting: "They thought it's a battle with amateurs," said Hazem. "We have been fighting the regime for two years and we won great street wars while they were just stealing our efforts, idiots!"

Even Jabhat al-Nusra became involved in the conflict following ISIS's assassination of Abu Khaled al-Souri, a former associate of Osama bin Laden and one of the most important leaders of the global jihad movement. As al Qaeda's official representative in Syria -- and someone who had tried to mediate disagreements between jihadist groups -- Souri was held in particular esteem by Jabhat al-Nusra. The jihadist group's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, gave ISIS a five-day ultimatum to accept the mediation of a sharia court to resolve the dispute -- if ISIS refused the offer, he said, his group would confront it in Iraq and Syria.

However, the deadline passed without any reaction from Jabhat al-Nusra. That doesn't mean the conflict has been resolved: ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani subsequently exacerbated the dispute by accusing Joulani and the rest of the factions of treason.

The SRF commanders also felt betrayed by the meager support from Western powers, which did not supply the rebels with arms and ammunition during the battle. Ten days passed since the beginning of their battle with ISIS without any support, leading the rebels to believe that the United States and Europe wanted to see both sides weakened in this battle.

The operations against ISIS eventually stopped at the city of Raqqa, which is now considered the radicals' main stronghold. The rebels do not want to further drain their strength with another costly battle against ISIS unless the West decides to support them with ammunition. Small shipments of weapons were supplied by Qatar and Saudi Arabia during the January battles, but the arms did not arrive at regular intervals.

The regime has gained territory in this war in recent months, most notably in the western part of the country. However, these fighters believe that the key to reversing the tide of the battle lies in defeating the radicals within their midst.

"Every time we were about to launch a major attack against the regime, ISIS was creating some troubles in the north and stopped our battles," Hazem said. "Once we defeat ISIS, we will continue the battle against the regime -- today ISIS, tomorrow Assad, with God's will."



Watching Gogol in Simferopol

Life imitates art in Crimea, where nothing seems real anymore except the tears and the vodka.

SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — On the eve of the Crimean referendum, while the world anxiously awaited the climax of Ukraine's political drama, I went to Simferopol's Crimea Russian Drama Theater to see a production of Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector. In spite of the tension in the city, in spite of the insolent men in military fatigues patrolling every street and intersection, the house was still half-full that Saturday evening, with families, couples, and groups of high-school students occupying the plush seats under a gorgeous, blue-edged, floral-and-butterfly-themed ceiling.

The plot of The Government Inspector is classic bitter Russian satire: A new arrival in a provincial, corrupt town -- an imperious young man named Khlestakov -- is mistaken by local officials for an important government inspector from St. Petersburg, sent incognito to examine the town's affairs. The terrified mayor and his cronies immediately grovel before him, offering bribes and favors. The town merchants, believing Khlestakov a real inspector with the power to finally clean up their town, also court him. At the end of the play, the ruse is revealed, but too late: Having taken advantage of everyone, Khlestakov suddenly departs, never to be seen again. In the final act, the real government inspector arrives.

I did not stay until the end of the play. In the intermission, I checked my Twitter account and discovered with alarm that anonymous masked men, armed with automatic weapons, had barged into Hotel Moscow in Simferopol, where most of the international journalists covering the referendum -- many of them my friends -- were staying. I grabbed my jacket from the cloakroom and rushed out of the theater back to my hotel to meet my photographer, Boryana Katsarova, so we could decide what to do next. It seemed that on the eve of the referendum, the Crimean authorities, prodded by the Russians, had recklessly decided to carry out a crackdown on the international media. My fear was not completely unfounded: A few days earlier, Boryana and I had come across another group of armed masked men, as well as a few Cossacks, who were raiding an Associated Press TV studio in downtown Simferopol right in the middle of the day. Seeing us filming, they pounced on us, throwing me to the ground and putting a gun to my head. They took away my smartphone, and yanked away Boryana's camera, before jumping into a white van with no license plates, speeding away with our (and the AP's) equipment.

Back at my hotel, I met a wild-eyed Boryana. We opened our laptops and began following the messages streaming in over social media from Hotel Moscow, half-expecting commandos to rush into our own place any second. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, and the information was getting weirder by the minute: There were a dozen masked men with silenced assault rifles going through the hotel floors; they were either Berkut, the elite police corps responsible for many of the civilian deaths in Kiev, or maybe the Ukrainian Alfa special forces unit. Some of them were wearing fatigues, while others were plainclothes; some were masked, others were not. They were looking for an armed criminal; no, it was all just a training exercise; they were looking for an armed criminal, but had been acting on false information; no, it was all just a drill. As Simon Shuster, a reporter for Time staying at the hotel, tweeted: "In Russian gangster parlance what happened tonight at the hotel could be called a [mask show]. Crimea, welcome to Russia!"

In some ways, all of what has unfolded in Crimea over the past few weeks has been a different kind of mask show -- a Gogolian theater play. The peninsula has thrown itself at the feet of a man from Moscow, giving him all they have with no second thoughts, imagining that he'll be able to work it all out for them, sort out all their troubles. The opening act was action packed: In Crimea, on February 26, scores of phantom troops with no insignia, pretending to be local forces protecting the population from phantom fascists, took over the entire peninsula, gradually securing government institutions, vital infrastructure, transport networks, and army bases. In the second -- more melodramatic -- act, the new prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov, appealed to his older and stronger brother, Vladimir Putin, to help ensure peace in his small Crimean kingdom by the sea. In the third act, our hero -- or is he the villain in disguise? -- rushes to the rescue. It is the kind of plot that Vladimir Propp, the early 20th-century Russian scholar known for breaking down his country's folk tales into their most vital components, would recognize immediately.

All Crimea's a stage and all Crimeans merely players: from the pro-Russian "self-defense units," who strut up and down the streets in their mismatched fatigues and red armbands, to the local teenagers who never spent a day in the USSR but guilelessly wrap themselves up in red Soviet flags and listen to Soviet marches, to the Crimean Tatars who try to stage a kind of counter-theater with their own rather defenseless self-defense units. The referendum itself, which took place on Sunday and resulted in over 96 percent support for a union with the Russian Federation, was nothing more than theater-of-the-absurd: A group of people pretending to make a choice and others pretending to scrutinize the fairness of that choice, while in fact there was no choice at all. In a sense, even we, the journalists reporting from Crimea, are at times complicit in that theater by pretending we are covering a real event -- as problematic as the term "real" is -- rather than a staged one. The British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called this condition "suspension of disbelief": the ability of a person to suspend judgment about the implausibility of a given narrative in order to participate more fully in its magic.

Yet not everything is theater in Crimea. Last night, after the referendum, I stood at Simferopol's Lenin Square with thousands of people of all ages waving Russian flags and shouting "Russia! Russia! Russia!" On a large brightly-lit stage at the back of the square, famous musicians and dancers entertained the people, who danced along and embraced each other, singing Russian songs until their voices went hoarse. There were tears in the eyes of many, and not simply for the cameras. The joy seemed genuine, heartfelt, though certainly also fueled by substantial amounts of vodka and beer. People were happy not because they were drinking, but were drinking because they were happy.

For many of them this was a national fairytale come true: the return home, homeward, domoj. The tropes around which we build so many plays -- the prodigal son returning, humble and penitent, to his father's house; the discovery of the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert -- these are not simply plotlines, but narratives deeply rooted in our collective memory. To call them theater would be to diminish something of what makes us all human.

Sadly, the joy may not last long. The play may be drawing to a close, but the final act remains to be seen. Will the residents of Crimea prosper? Or will they, too, be swindled by their government inspector? Worth keeping in mind: Russian literature is not known for its happy endings.

This project is funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Photo: Boryana Katsarova