The last thing I expected on my latest trip to Syria at the very beginning of 2014 was to be able to eat a bowl of fetteh in Abu Salim's restaurant in Najjiyeh, in territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For sure, things have changed: fetteh costs 750 Syrian lira--an extremely high price. But in some parts of Latakia, things are not as fractured as security analysts would have you believe. At least at street level, the split between ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic Front and the Free Syrian Army is difficult to discern. Things are far more fluid on the ground than media coverage leads you to expect. One fighter, Abu Raif, left Ansar Al-Sham for ISIS, while another, Abu Dera'a, used to be with Ansar Al-Sham but left for Al-Nusra. These different groups might be fighting in Aleppo or Atareb, but in Latakia they seem to get along fine.
I stayed at the local headquarters of Ansar Al-Sham, which is right next door to the base of Harakat Al-Sham Al-Islami, both of which are affiliated to the Islamic Front. Both groups also work with Ansar Al-Muhajireen, a group consisting mostly of foreigners that is sympathetic to ISIS. They get along fine, according to Abu Muhammad, the local commander of Ansar Al-Sham. "We fight under one banner, Islam, at the end of the day," he told me. It appears that the proliferation of brigades depends more on funding than ideology. It is not uncommon for one brigade member to work in close cooperation with another. For instance, Abu Zayn, a member of Ansar Al-Sham, smuggles in North Africans from Turkey for Harakat As-Sham Al-Islami, whose emir is Abu Ahmed Maghrebi, from Morocco.
The revolution has become unashamedly Islamic since my last visit. According to Abu Jihad, the second in command for a local Ansar Al-Sham brigade in Latakia, this is due to the complete failure of the Syrian minorities to stand by the revolutionaries and the inaction of the West, especially after the chemical attack in Ghouta. Consequently, foreign fighters are welcomed. According to Abu Jihad, this is because they are "[more] humanitarian than the aid agencies, they revive the idea of jihad with their blood despite the fact that we need money more than men." In Abu Jihad's perception, the humanitarian situation in the region has gone from bad to worse. It wasn't hard to see why. I counted only three tents donated by USAID and a few from the UNHCR as we toured the mass of tent cities that dot the landscape of Latakia and Idlib province. Most had been supplied by Islamic brigades and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
However, it's not just the Abu Jihads and Abu Muhammads who view ISIS and Al-Nusra with respect. The lack of support from the international community has also led civilians to give grudging respect to the two groups. Abu Yusuf, a Turkman from Yamadia, said that Syrians would not accept ISIS' vision for society after the war is over because it is too harsh, but admitted that "they have stopped the lawlessness in the areas that they control." Another man I spoke to, Muhammad Mukhtar Suleiman, seemed to agree. "Initially I was skeptical about ISIS," he said, "but when I went to one of their courts and saw that they were fair, I changed my mind."
When we drove in to Najjiyeh, it was guarded by Syrians, Egyptians and North Africans. This was not unique to ISIS--Ahrar Al-Sham does the same thing, as does Ansar Muhajireen in Latakia. The term "guarded" is something of an exaggeration, as it means waving cars through, giving directions, or just shaking hands with an acquaintance. I had expected a town where ISIS forced women to be veiled in public and chopped men's little fingers off for refusing to stop smoking. However, in this one-street town, cigarettes were sold openly and there were no four-fingered men or veiled women walking around in black khimars. There were even unveiled women wearing trousers walking around. For sure, there were quotations from the Qur'an and Hadiths stenciled on the walls, but this was not unique to ISIS. Even the presence of a Shari'a court run by the ISIS Sheikh Abu Muaz was not unique, as Ahrar Al-Sham areas also have Shari'a courts. Sheikh Walid, a local scholar affiliated with the Islamic Front, complained that the court does not cater for all in the area. Even the media blackout the group has imposed was not unique, as both ISIS and the other Islamic brigades fear that media attention will attract Assad's MiGs.
Nevertheless, despite regular visits from the government's MiGs and helicopters, Najjiyeh has become a local trade hub. Syrian fighters from Ahrar Al-Sham, Ansar Al-Sham and other brigades affiliated with the Islamic Front congregate with nearby ISIS and Al-Nusra fighters, chuckling over war stories. Syrians, Tajiks and North Africans munch on kebabs while cradling their Kalashnikovs, while 4x4s and pickups drive past with mounted DShK machine guns--proof that Syrian ingenuity properly applied can evade any ban on these cars getting in.
The biggest evidence that things are working in Najjiyeh are the prices in the shops, which ISIS appears to have managed to stabilize. True, tomatoes remain an expensive luxury, but cigarettes--thankfully for Syrians--remain cheap and plentiful. Even the jewelry store does business. It used to be that a man needed to own a flat, a car and have a steady job before he could marry, these days all you need to be is a mujahid, know how to use a Kalashnikov and have a bit of gold. For us civilians, though, the best thing was the toilets: they flushed. That is a rare sight in rebel-controlled areas, and one suspects this is the key to their success.
That, of course, does not mean that there aren't problems. In the mountains surrounding Najjiyeh, one 62-year-old fighter complained that some ISIS youngsters were ill mannered, and accused them of being overzealous. Others complained that ISIS was trying to run before they could walk: Why set up a state before Assad had fallen? Then there is the thorny issue of the conflict between Abu Ayman Al-Iraqi of ISIS aand Abu Basir Al-Ladkani of the FSA, which saw the latter killed in July of 2013. The mountains surrounding the town are full of gossip. "There are more stories," says Abu Jihad, "about the killing of Abu Basir than the Battle of Karbala, and no one knows quite what happened." In the evening as the rebels gather around the sobia, a samovar-like stove straight out of a Western movie, some complain that some brigades are more concerned about money and prefer cameras over guns. Over tea and cigarettes, unanimous scorn is poured on the Syrian National Coalition, "the companions of the hotels."
Why, asks Abu Adnan, "is Abu Dera'a . . . regarded a terrorist by Interpol and [Syrian National Coalition Vice President] Suheir Attasi lauded by the West? I swear by God, those who attend Geneva II have betrayed the people of Syria." I try to explain that things are complicated. "Things are complicated here," says one, mimicking the voice of a Syrian government news presenter.
This article has been cross posted from The Majalla