Robin Yassin-Kassab describes his recent trip into liberated Syria: At first the strangest sensation was the normality of the surroundings. A hot and breezy afternoon ran past the windows – stubbled wheat fields, rocky outcrops, smooth-topped tells. But the villages seemed much poorer here, some of their roads gnarled up by tanks. In one hamlet, the Jabhat al-Nusra logo was printed on the walls. Our secular hosts explained that the Islamist group, designated a terrorist organisation by the UK and US, had liberated this stretch of land.
We diverted to avoid al-Fu’aa, a Shia village still held by the regime, and drove on towards Taftanaz, where the scale of the damage wrought by shelling and aerial bombardment became terribly apparent. We passed streets of crumpled buildings, long banks of debris, shopfront shutters buckled by the vacuum bombs that suck in and ignite the air to create fireballs.
White paint on the walls warned: “Watch out – Taftanaz airfield ahead!” The airfield was liberated in January after two months of siege. The resistance lost many men here – the burnt and cratered fields around offer no cover whatsoever. Now ruined tanks and lopsided helicopters rest inside the perimeter, and Free Army militia sit guard at the entrance.
Next we drove into Saraqeb, a city of significant size, again notable for its war damage, and victim of a chemical attack in April. We stopped in the busy centre so one of us could vomit into roadside rubbish, while the others (one an uncovered woman) entered a cafe to eat haytalya, a local speciality. Jabhat al-Nusra runs a sharia court here. Its black flag flies atop the famous TV mast. Nevertheless, nobody looked twice at our friend’s unveiled hair. Saraqeb felt not like the Taliban’s Afghanistan but like Syria minus the regime: socially conservative but largely tolerant of difference.
The media image of the liberated areas suggests the regime has been replaced by heavy-handed militias. At least in Idlib province (Aleppo has suffered much more from thuggery, corruption and Islamist fanaticism, a fact much lamented by the activists and fighters I spoke to), it is not like that at all. No checkpoint stopped us. The men with guns were locals and were considered protectors, not oppressors.
Many men have fought. They fight for a while, then take time off to visit their families in the camps or to harvest the fields (those that haven’t been burned). Most have no political aim other than defending themselves by ending the regime. Some are Islamists, usually moderate and democratic.
One such is Abu Abdullah who, before his leg injury, fought with the rebel group Liwa al-Islam in Douma in the Damascus suburbs. He shocked me with his statement: “We aren’t fighting for freedom, but for Islam.” But the follow-up was more reassuring. “Europe,” he said, “is implementing Islam without being aware of it. It educates its people, it respects their rights, there’s one law for all.”
He doesn’t fight for “freedom” because to him the word means people doing anything they like, regardless of the rights of others. His vision of an Islamic state is one compatible with democracy; it wouldn’t enforce dress codes or ideological allegiances because (he quotes the Quran) “there is no compulsion in religion”.
As for the foreign fighters, Abu Abdullah, like everybody I spoke to, views them with disdain. Syria has enough men, he told me. Syria needs weapons, not men. Foreigners only cause problems. They increase the sectarian element, as Assad and Iran want. They ruin the revolution’s reputation. In any case, most of them aren’t fighting but resting, waiting for “the next stage”. [Continue reading…]