Syrian activists, between the struggle against the regime and the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
“One, one, one, Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are one.” This has become one of the most common slogans in the demonstrations that continue to take place all over the country, two and a half years after the beginning of the uprising.
From fighting the regime, to fighting the regime and ISIS
During this time, Syrians have gone from protesting against the regime and its grip on relentless power to facing an endless number of threats and dangers. While the regime continues to bomb residential areas, arresting and killing activists and targeting civilians, the Islamist groups that are filling the void left by the Assad regime by hijacking the liberated areas and imposing their own agendas on the local population. Among these groups is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which grassroots activists often compare to the regime in its attempt to silence dissent and impose another form of tyranny.
Over the past months, ISIS forces have engaged in the arrest, kidnapping and killing of dissidents, including several leaders of the Free Syrian Army. Their main focus, however, has been the peaceful activists that had previously been targeted by the regime, including the organizers of peaceful demonstrations such as Abu Maryam, who has also been prosecuted by the group Jabhat al-Nusra.
Italian priest Father Paolo, Mohammad al-Amr and Samar Saleh are some of the peaceful icons that ISIS has targeted. Particularly symbolic is the case of Samar Saleh, arrested by ISIS in Aleppo months after her sister Maisa was arrested by regime forces in Damascus. Her story, highlighted on Syria Untold, showcases how peaceful activists, many of them women, are now trapped between two forms of tyranny.
ISIS is known for raising the group's black flag to replace the popular revolution flag in demonstrations, and for imposing sectarian slogans and messages. It has also engaged in desecration of Christian saints’ graves, destruction of churches and cultural symbols such as the statue of poet and philosopher Abul Alaa al-Maarri, known for denouncing religious superstition and dogmatism.
Popular reaction against ISIS
As a reaction to such groups trying to impose their extremist ideas on the diverse Syrian social fabric, activists from the liberated areas have organized demonstrations and sit-ins at the ISIS headquarters, such as the one led by female activist Suad Nufal in Raqqa to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience. On September 25, demonstrators in Raqqa raised a cross in response to ISIS withdrawal of the cross at the church of Our Lady of the Annunciation.
On September 20, protesters in Aleppo raised banners calling for the release of detainees and shared messages such as “ISIS is the Regime’s State of Iraq and Syria”, and “Our Syria is colorful. No to ISIS and its black flag.”
Coordination committees such as the Kurdish Fraternity Committee have accused ISIS of “occupying cities and terrorizing citizens”, equating them to pro-regime group Hezbollah, which has been ruthlessly targeting civilians. “It is our right to protest peacefully against those attempting to hijack our Syria, just like we protested against the Assad regime”, activists from the committee repeated.
Members of the Free Syrian Army have also attempted to prevent ISIS taking over their country. Over the last months they have tried to loosen their grip on residential areas and their access to strategic roads. On October 2, the FSA released a statement urging ISIS to evacuate Homs within 48 hours.
It has become common among Syrians to ironically refer to the “liberation of the North” as the “most controlled form of liberation”, since it has thrown Syrians from the tyranny of the Assad regime into the tyranny of Islamists groups with a foreign agenda that does not represent the population’s demands.
Within this context, “One, one, one, the Syrian regime and ISIS are one” represents the evolution of that hopeful slogan that became a symbol of the uprising in 2011: “One, one, one, the Syrian people are one.”