The influx of jihadis appeared to signal a shift against Assad, but in reality it has blighted the lives of Syrians in rebel areas and besmirched their cause, by associating it with terror. The testimony of those who lived it is harrowing.
Abdallah Khalil, a 25-year-old activist and student of Sharia law, recalls the joy of liberating Azaz in 2011.
“Life was OK but then these jihadis started arriving. They set up a military training camp, run by a jihadi from Egypt known as Abu Obeida al-Muhajer. First he told us it is banned to clap or sing in protests, then they killed the mentor of the revolution, Sheikh Youssef, a moderate Muslim.
“They told us: ‘you are infidels who want to sin, you don’t want to apply sharia’,” said Khalil. “Islam is strongly present in Syria but not this kind of Islam. They disfigured the religion and the revolution.”
Activists described a feud inside al Qaeda whereby ISIL, led by Iraqi veteran Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, tried to take over Nusra, led by Abu Mohammed al-Golani, but was rebuffed by Ayman Zawahiri, successor to Osama bin Laden as the head of al-Qaeda.
The Syrian fighters stayed with Golani and the Nusra Front, they said, but Azaz ended up under ISIL, known colloquially as Daesh. That was when local people learned what the black flags of the Caliphate Jihadis meant.
“They went into a pre-school to segregate the boys from the girls,” said Mahmoud Osman, 27, an activist from Aleppo.
“They started going to schools to check whether the girls were wearing the head-to-toe black chador and they started asking girls to marry them. Parents stopped sending their daughters to school,” he said.
ASSAD NOT A PRIORITY
Al Qaeda banned smoking, music and any mingling between men and women unless they were closely related. They forced Christians to pay protection taxes, activists said. They beheaded men in public squares because they fought for the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
“We used to hear about them or see them in movies but now we see them for real,” Osman added.
After local Islamic scholars pronounced it legitimate to fight Daesh, Azaz residents say, ISIL pulled back to its stronghold of Raqqa in the east.
While Daesh held territory, the government left the towns unmolested, activists said. Only when they left did government forces drop barrel bombs – proof, they say, that Assad wants the most hardline Islamists to prevail in rebel areas so he can portray his fight as a battle with al Qaeda.
Assad has repeatedly referred to his enemies as terrorists.
Khaled Ibrahim, 30, who worked in advertising before the war and is from Raqqa, describes his home as an ISIL province, ruled by terror. He said every Friday they executed activists, Free Syrian Army fighters and also looters in the public square, either by the sword or by gunfire.
He and others said that anybody who worked for a foreign NGO or a media outlet was considered an “infidel agent”.
Abu Thaer, a 25-year-old computer science student and media activist, who was held by ISIL with FSA fighters and NGO workers, said “every day that passed there I wished for death”.
“They used to come into our cell with the sword, they would tell us ‘you are infidels, we will cut your throat’. They started torturing the FSA fighters: One day they would cut a finger, another day a slice of their ear and let them bleed.”
Abu Alaa, 25, is a defector from ISIL now living in Killis.
Formerly in the FSA, he fought for six months with the veteran jihadi who uses the nom de guerre Abu Omar al-Shishani (the Chechen), the Daesh commander who captured a government air base near Aleppo last summer.
Abu Alaa was jailed and then escaped after trying to help friends who were being rounded up, tortured and executed.
“They were torturing the prisoners with electricity and beatings” says Abu Alaa. “They liquidated many on the grounds they are allies with the west.”
Abu Khaled, a former Syrian soldier and now an ISIL officer,
made little effort to contradict these chilling accounts.
Reached by Skype in northern Syria, he spoke of a network of contacts abroad including in France and Britain, operating through mosques, but also using social media and the internet.
“We don’t have a problem getting fighters, and we have been able to get them into Syria. We are receiving jihadis from all over the world, from Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Yemen, Turkey, Britain and France. ISIL has some 6,000 fighters,” he said.
ISIL ranks were swelled by 500 jihadis broken out of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and a further 700 freed from Sednaya military jail near Damascus in what was seen in rebel and western circles as an attempt by Assad to boost jihadi forces in Syria at the expense of mainstream rebels.
“The aim of the ISIL is to set up an Islamic Caliphate that will attract Muslims from all over the world. Our aim is to fight the infidels whether it is Bashar al-Assad or the Free Syrian Army,” he told Reuters.
“Any apostate should be beheaded and women must follow the Sharia,” he said.