How my Syrian hometown fought the Islamic State and won
I still remember my first visit to my hometown, Atarib, after the Islamic State (IS) group first showed up there. It was late 2013 when entering Syria through the Turkish border was still easy and the main danger you had to worry about were regime air strikes.
It was impossible not to see a masked man in black or a fighter’s wife, casually walking around with a Kalashnikov
In the main market, you could hear all sorts of foreign languages which was shocking because we were accustomed to hearing Arabic and not much else. A family of Asian-looking fighters who spoke neither Arabic, nor English had taken over my high school.
“Daesh [the Arabic acronym for IS] was established literally over a night in Atarib,” said Ahmed, a local activist.
“It was shocking to see that a group who did not exist the night before now has a military base, soldiers and logos all over the city. In other words, it was a jihadi coup.”
Walking around town, now plastered in the IS logo and its signature black flag, it was impossible not to see a masked man in black or a fighter’s wife, casually walking around with a Kalashnikov.
My city seemed to be in a permanent state of mourning.
The uninvited guest
How IS ended up in Atarib in 2013 is a similar story to how the group ended up in pockets across the rest of Syria as it tried to establish territorial control in preparation for its proclaimed caliphate.
In late 2011 as the civil war in Syria slowly evolved from peaceful uprisings into an armed conflict, al-Nusra was established in Syria with the support of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), which was at that time exploring opportunities to expand into Syria.
But things deteriorated between these allies when al-Nusra refused to merge with ISI. Nusra, led by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, wanted to continue to follow al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Both ISI and Nusra shared the same vision of establishing a caliphate, but disagreed on how to achieve that goal. Nusra wanted to pursue a long term strategy, winning over locals in the process. Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISI’s strategy was to use whatever means necessary to take territory with little concern for hearts and minds.
Eventually, these differences came to a head and, in April 2013, ISI and al-Nusra split when IS was officially created in Syria.
As elsewhere in Syria, this division caused the majority of al-Nusra’s foreign fighters in Atarib – who were more focused on pursuing a caliphate than winning over locals - to defect and set up a branch of IS in the city. The newly-branded IS members took over al-Nusra’s centre in Atarib including its weapons and other belongings.
Despite clear ideological and strategic differences with IS, the Free Syrian Army groups in Atarib (and elsewhere), made up mostly of locals, didn’t have enough capacity or international support to challenge the group. Knowing full well that IS’s goal was to take control of the city, the FSA reluctantly found common cause with IS in fighting the Syrian regime.
Bread, water and games
Initially, IS seemed to accept that it would coexist with others in town. But soon enough, the group started to encourage members from others to defect to its ranks by offering public services that were otherwise hard to come by and not offered by other groups.
“When cooking gas was not available in Atarib, Daesh started providing it at cheaper rates to people who registered at its centre,” said Waleed, a local activist.
“When drinking water was not available, Daesh used a water tanker truck to provide people with water. It distributed water for free to its members, and at a low rate to those who registered their names at its centre. As a result, people started joining Daesh,” he said.
IS reportedly attempted to take over Atarib’s main bakery to provide bread at lower prices and also offered to supply thousands of free litres of diesel to the city’s revolutionary council on condition that the latter allowed IS to run it.
Likewise, IS also made efforts to embed itself in the community through provision of dawa and also through awards ceremonies.
“They used to ask people easy questions so whoever participated would win. They knew that people were poor, and that by paying sizeable amounts for silly questions – usually 5,000 SYP [then around $20] for a regular prize, with the big prize going up to 25,000 SYP [around $100] – the number of people attending these events would double every time,” said local activist Waleed.
Members of the group also tried to highlight the inefficiency of the existing local government and paint IS as the best crisis manager and city administrator.
“During Daesh’s public events, the host speakers used to publicly criticise the police, the checkpoints and even the local court, and talk about its corruption, incompetence, not following sharia,” Mahmoud, an activist in Atarib, said. “They were trying to turn locals against those in charge.”
'The host speakers used to publicly criticise the police, the checkpoints and even the local court, and talk about its corruption, incompetence, not following sharia'
- Mahmoud, activist in Atarib
According to Mosab, a local activist, IS’s court – operating in parallel to the local court supported by the local council and the FSA group - was willing to do whatever it took to solve its cases, including coercing people to confess and comply, to maintain an appearance of efficiency.
“One day my friend had a car accident in the city and his gun was stolen from his car in the ensuing confusion. He filed a complaint with the local court, but nothing happened due to lack of evidence,” Mosab told me.
“He later lodged a complaint with Daesh’s court. A few days later, Daesh found a suspect, charged him and gave a gun back to my friend, but it was not the same gun he lost,” he said.
Around four months after Baghdadi launched IS from his underground base in Iraq in April 2013, IS had secured its presence in Atarib and moved to compete more directly with the other rebel groups, seemingly willing to do anything it took to gain control.
Obscurity to protest hub
To me, there was never anything that special about Atarib before the peaceful demonstrations of 2011 began. About 25km west of the city of Aleppo with around 30,000 mostly Sunni Arabs, our city wasn’t the site of anything historic or the hometown of anyone particularly famous. The truth is that from the moment I could leave Atarib to start university, I did.
Atarib means soil. I have no idea why it was called this, but the name says a bit about the purpose it has serves: it is a large agricultural and trading centre serving as a strategic transport hub between the city of Aleppo, the northern countryside of neighbouring Idlib governorate, and the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on the Syrian–Turkish border.
Anti-regime demonstrations took place in Atarib as early as April 2011, and the city swiftly became an important protest centre for both the district of Aleppo and for the city itself.
One reason for Atarib’s rise as a pocket of peaceful protest were the large numbers of young, university-educated people living in the city. But also important was a strong network for extended families living in the city who provided safe harbour and supported their protesting relatives even if they themselves weren’t in the streets.
But it wasn’t a free for all. Pro-regime locals and shabiha in the area harassed protesters and their families, leading to the emergence of a group of locals who protected the demonstrators. As military officers defected from the regime, Atarib – with its revolutionary reputation – was one of the first urban centres to host them. On 12 February 2012, one of the defected officers established the first FSA faction in the city.
The regime forces immediately reacted and stormed the city two days later. After brief armed resistance, local dissidents fled the city to avoid persecution. The local FSA group in Atarib district, which was made up of locals from the city itself and from the wider district, continued to recruit people until it was able to push the pro-regime forces out of the city in July 2012 and out of most of northern Syria.
Several months later, IS turned up.
Spies and disappearances
As the fight against the regime continued, Atarib, located on a crucial rebel supply line running between Turkey and Idlib and a revolutionary powerhouse that had helped secure rural Aleppo against the regime, became vitally important – and a key target for IS as the group attempted to capture the area.
“Controlling Atarib would have allowed Daesh to dominate the whole area,” said local activist Mustafa.
By late 2013, IS’s increased influence in Atarib had encouraged the group to do whatever it took to compete with locals for control of the city.
'Controlling Atarib would have allowed Daesh to dominate the whole area'
- Mustafa, local activist
Arrests, abductions and assassinations by the group of anyone who opposed, questioned or was perceived to question IS activities became rampant. Using money and other leverage, the group swiftly established a wide network of informants to better understand local dynamics, recruit supporters and eliminate potential threats.
The network, said Abdullah, another local activist, “created mistrust between people as they did not know who could be spying on them. As a result, many people joined IS in order to protect themselves”.
IS’s chief targets included independent activists, citizen journalists, influential figures and FSA members and commanders. Among the most prominent victims was my cousin Samar Saleh who was kidnapped off the street with her journalist friend, Mohammad Al-Omar, in Atarib in August 2013. An eyewitness saw a member of IS when Samar and Mohammad were pulled off the street, but otherwise, we have no information about what has happened to them since.
“It drove people crazy, the spike in the number of people who were forcibly disappeared,” said Mosab.
All of the evidence indicated that IS was the group behind the majority of them, he said. But the group “was always denying the whereabouts of those people. In many instances, Daesh denied arresting people, yet a few days later the same people were presented and sentenced in front of the group’s court.”
By now, fear of IS was widespread, and yet the true extent of the group’s power in the city – and the number of groups that had sworn secret allegiance to it – was a mystery. Unable to know who was aligned with whom, many locals and local groups who would have fought IS were hesitant to act.
IS’s next move, however, proved to be a turning point.
An easy choice
In the first days of 2014, IS’s skirmishes with local groups turned into a full-scale confrontation as the group attempted to seize the city for good.
The change happened quickly: IS established a series of checkpoints to isolate Atarib and prevent opposition reinforcements from reaching it, and also mobilised its forces from areas of Aleppo and Idlib in preparation for storming the city.
On 2 January 2014, IS fighters attempted to arrest my other cousin, Mahmoud Haid, on charges of corruption and affiliation with the Syrian regime. His arrest was part of a wider campaign against corrupt individuals. Local residents intervened to prevent his arrest, and demanded that IS follow the correct procedure in lodging a complaint against him before the local court. The city’s police and local court similarly took action to prevent his detention as IS’s arrest squad withdrew angrily.
IS members later returned with a warrant demanding that the head of the local court come to the IS-controlled police station in al-Dana, a nearby town under IS authority. Atarib’s own authorities refused to hand anyone over, insisting that locals should be questioned or prosecuted within the city itself.
IS’s local commander then went to the police station in Atarib and threatened to storm the city if the group’s demands were not met. At about the same time, the body of a local FSA fighter, Ali Obeid – a known opponent of IS who had last been seen heading towards one of the group’s checkpoints outside the city – was discovered in a town close by, apparently showing signs of torture; IS was assumed to be the main suspect.
This chain of events provoked demonstrations against IS on the streets of Atarib, and the city’s notables and local armed groups held an emergency meeting and, after months of an uneasy toleration of the group, the city decided to fight.
An FSA commander who was present at the meeting said it was an easy choice.
“People were demonstrating against Daesh in the streets. Daesh also threatened to storm the city and persecute us. Therefore, everyone agreed that fighting was our only choice,” he said.
Preparations for the armed resistance were to be led by the local rebel groups, and among the various roles assigned at the meeting, two local military leaders were unanimously appointed to the roles of principal commander and military commander.
A broader meeting among members of the public followed, which was broadcast widely over walkie- talkies and from the city’s mosques. Members of local armed groups and civilians were urged to participate in the defence of Atarib in whatever way they could.
Based on instructions from the newly designated military commander, civilians set up makeshift checkpoints at all the main entry points to the city, while some local armed groups and business leaders began distributing weapons.
“The sense of solidarity among civilians was unbelievable. It reminded me of the early days of the peaceful demonstrations against Assad, everyone was working together,” said Mosa’b.
“Some people started cooking and looking after those who were at the checkpoints. Others were taking turns at the checkpoints or were patrolling throughout the city. Some donated money, ammunition, arms. Even restaurants were serving food for free.”
On 2 January, within hours of the various meetings around town, the fight against IS was underway. As the group began shelling Atarib from a nearby town, resistance members immediately returned fire, and soon the IS fighters still inside the city were surrounded.
For hours, the IS fighters and local leaders talked in an effort to negotiate their surrender, but it eventually became clear that the fighters were trying to delay efforts in the hope that reinforcements would arrive to rescue them. The next day, IS forces attempted to storm the city again, but were quickly repelled by locals.That same afternoon, the military commander briefed residents about the fight against IS at a further meeting convened in the city’s largest mosque during Friday prayers. He appealed to the members of the local community to forget about any differences they may have had over their positions since the war had started and work together to defend the city.
Later the same day, led by the military commander, armed civilians joined local armed groups and stormed IS’s headquarters in the city, capturing the remaining IS members – mostly foreign nationals – who had opted to fight rather than surrender. In the weeks that followed, the speed of IS’s defeat in Atarib encouraged other groups to join the fight and expel the group from their areas in Aleppo and Idlib.
The fight against IS was swift. But what is particularly notable about Atarib’s resistance to IS is that the fight was followed almost immediately by a locally run reconciliation process that helped IS fighters who had been pressured to join the group or even those who were now disillusioned to reintegrate with the community.
Local leaders in Atarib including elders, doctors and scholars told IS supporters – some of whom were their own family members - that if they chose not to fight for the group, they would be safe, and many of the fighters choose to put down their arms for this reason.
'We all make mistakes, and people should always have a second chance'
- Omar, a local who fought against IS
“We decided to give people a way out in case they wanted one. We all make mistakes, and people should always have a second chance,” said Omar, a local who fought against IS.
“Moreover, killing locals, even if they are members of IS, would badly impact the relationship between the residents of the city. Luckily, almost all of the locals decided not to fight, which weakened Daesh and preserved the unity of our community.”
Of course, there were some in Atarib who didn’t want to forgive the IS fighters, but by and large, as influential leaders in the city voiced their support for reconciliation, most people fell in line.
The process had flaws. It was hard to make sure that former members didn’t rejoin IS somewhere else later or switch allegiance to the ideologically similar al-Nusra as that group moved in to take control of former IS strategic positions and weaponry.
But three years on, the city of Atarib remains under local control, supported by strong civil society and rebel groups in opposition to the Assad regime. This strength has contributed to the city’s ability to protect itself in the face of the recent significant expansion of al-Nusra’s influence following the group’s merger with other rebel groups in the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) or Levant Liberation Committee alliance.
Keeping Nusra at bay
Both before and after the merger, al-Nusra launched a large number of offensives to capture key strategic areas and resources, but Atarib has evaded HTS control.
The city’s residents believe that their ability to work together, bolstered by the continued strong presence of rebel groups in the city, as well as Atarib’s record of resistance to al-Nusra’s previous attempt to take control of the city in early 2015, are chief factors that continue to hold al-Nusra at bay.
If the US-led coalition wants to defeat IS, it’s military strategy should be coupled with locally sensitive reconciliation processes to reintegrate IS members fully
In the context of the wider conflict against IS in Syria, the US-led anti-IS campaign has largely succeeded in conquering the group militarily, but it hasn’t tackled how to sustain these achievements. A sole focus on defeating IS militarily, without a broader strategy to address the conditions that first allowed IS to flourish, will likely further enable al-Nusra, which has been exploiting the power vacuum in areas where IS has collapsed.
A strategy to defeat IS – and other ideologically similar extremist groups – can only be successful if it is undertaken comprehensively and in cooperation with local communities to identify and address the deep-rooted political, economic, social and cultural problems that have allowed such groups to rise and flourish.
Strong local communities that are able to create their own alternatives and solutions like Atarib will have the incentive to fight for them, especially when they trust that what comes next will not be worse.
If the US-led coalition wants to defeat IS without it re-emerging, it’s military strategy should be coupled with locally sensitive reconciliation processes to address the issue of reintegrating IS members fully within a local community. Many lessons learned from the Atarib experience could be applied in this context.
- Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher and a Chatham House Associate Fellow. Focus: Security policy, conflict resolution, Kurds and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: In November 2013, an IS member urges people in a village, like Atarib, just outside of Aleppo to join their fight against the regime. (AFP)