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Deepening Wounds and Recent Gains in the Fight with ISIS in Syria

The Syrian army in recent weeks backed by Iranians, Hezbollah and Russian support, has gained considerable ground towards Aleppo and Raqqa. In fact, they have retaken eighteen villages back from ISIS, although some have been lost once again.[1] Regime forces, based on the last interviews we have conducted through our ISIS Defectors Interviews Project , now control the Salamiyah-Raqqa highway close to Tabqa, which is around twenty-five miles from Raqqa. Tabqa is strategically critical as Tabqa Air Base and Tabqa dam are also located in the region and the dam region is where our defectors tell us ISIS trains new recruits and holds its prisoners. Tabqa dam also provides water and electricity to its surroundings including Raqqa.

As the Syrian army is closing in, recent ISIS defectors have told us that ISIS issued a new order to Raqqa residents on February 19, 2016. According to this new ISIS order, every man, including youth over the age of thirteen, is required to join ISIS as a fighter. Families, who cannot contribute manpower to ISIS are required to hand over at least 1000 pieces of Kalashnikov AK-47 ammunition and one AK-47 automatic rifle. Any residents who are not abiding themselves to this rule are told to leave Raqqa by ISIS. In fact, our sources have reported a few instances of bulldozed and demolished households whose owners did not want to comply with this new order.

As ISIS lost al-Shadadi city to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and started to leave al-Hasakah because the SDF is approaching[2], the main highway from Mosul is also now closed to ISIS and controlled by the SDF. Arabs in the region are concerned, as our defectors sample has voiced, because with the withdrawal of ISIS, the replacing SDF considers all Arabs as ISIS members. This understanding occurred during ISIS gaining of territories from the Kurdish population and the Yazidis and especially after the Kobane and Tel Abyad battles. Our subjects reported that after the clashes, every Kurdish decent Syrian in the eyes of ISIS was viewed as a member of PYD, which opposes ISIS and fights against it, therefore thousands of Kurds who were not part of the PYD fled. The opposite is also now true—the Kurdish fighters consider every Arab descent Syrian local as a possible ISIS member and acts accordingly. This became a real problem as the SDF forces gained ground because many local Arabs with long beards being deemed as ISIS members have been killed and imprisoned, according to our defector reports. Furthermore, our defectors report that the SDF advancing with Russian air strike assistance, has been misleading the Russian military to bomb villages without any fighters, with only with women and children living inside them. In fact, the locals claim that Russian airstrikes have never targeted ISIS strongholds and ISIS members, but only their villages and other opposition groups, but not ISIS[3].

Of course, this situation has fueled hatred between the Arabs and Kurds living in the region. One of the interviewees claimed that people are being killed for no reasons including women, children and elderly. He added that there are no men left simply because they have already fled due to fear of ISIS. In fact, SDF was accused by our defectors of killing one hundred twenty women and children from Al-Jubour tribe, an entire village without any men. They also claimed that because reports from the fronts are not passed in a timely manner, the atrocities are not seen in the media. Many of the villagers are told to flee to the desert areas to save themselves from Russian airstrikes and now live in tents in the desert.

This situation between the Kurds and Arabs of Syria is becoming more problematic and deepening the wounds which were opened severely during ISIS assaults. At al-Shadadi region, three of the strongest Arab tribes, al Baggara, al Aqeedat and al-Jubour with populations of over three million have been getting together to talk about their future. One high-level former ISIS commander warned that they are not ready to give away their centuries old land to the Kurds and will fight furiously against the new rulers. and are said to be angered because their members were being killed and imprisoned. In fact, one of their leader’s said that “SDF may have the Russian air support during day time, we will see what they will do after dark.” Also, these tribes are told to be forming yet a new militia to fight for their land now conquered by the Kurds.

There are also reports according to our defectors, claiming that even though Assad is supporting the SDF, he is also establishing a new militia group to fight against the SDF after they are done with their advance in the region. The new militia force that is allegedly (according to our defectors) being established by Assad is called Ad-Dafaul Vatani. It is said that there are Sunni and Shia Muslims and Christian Arabs in this militia. They are said to be receiving weapons and ammunitions from regime forces for future fights.

Finally, when it comes to ISIS. They know that it will be very difficult for them to keep Raqqa for a long time. ISIS defectors have warned that if it comes to the worst ISIS leaders plan to shave off their beards and cut their hair and blend in with civilians to act as hidden cells in different cities in Syria and in other countries and move from an open war strategy on the open ground to guerilla warfare carried out by terrorist cells hiding out inside cities.



[3] See also:

Ahmet S. Yayla, Ph.D. is Professor and the Chair of Sociology Department at Harran University in south of Turkey by the Syrian border. Dr. Yayla is Deputy Director at ICSVE. Dr. Yayla served as Chief of Anti-terrorism Division at the Turkish National Police. He has earned his masters and Ph.D. degrees on the subject of terrorism and radicalization at the University of North Texas. Dr. Yayla’s research mainly focuses on terrorism, sociology, dealing with terrorism without use of force, terrorist recruitment and propaganda, radicalization (including ISIS and Al Qaeda) and violence. He has mostly authored several works on the subject of terrorism. He has also been advisor to the United States Ohio Department of Homeland Security (December 2005 to April 2006) on issues of terrorism and interacting with Muslim Communities in the United States. Dr. Yayla also witnessed at the United States Congress and Senate, Homeland Security Committee and Subcommittee on Prevention of Nuclear and Biological Attacks (October 21st, 2006) on the subject of “Local Law Enforcement Preparedness for Countering the Threats of Terrorism.”

Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University in the School of Medicine and Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. She is author of Talking to Terrorists and coauthor of Undercover Jihadi. She was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to twenty thousand detainees and eight hundred juveniles. She also has interviewed nearly five hundred terrorists, their family members and supporters from various parts of the world including Gaza, the West Bank, Chechnya, Iraq, Jordan, Russia, Canada and many countries in Europe. Her newly released book is Bride of ISIS. Website:

Reference for this paper: Yayla, Ahmet S. & Speckhard, Anne, ISCVE Brief Report: Deepening Wounds and Recent Gains in the Fight with ISIS in Syria, March 8, 2016. Link

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