ALEPPO, Syria — The Islamic State’s new offensive in Aleppo is in full swing, with dramatic changes on the battlefield a certainty; this will define and reshape the whole dynamics of the Syrian conflict, and may cause major players to recalculate their fundamental policies and strategies. The very survival of the rebel movement in Aleppo hangs in the balance, with serious implications should it be replaced by the terrorist Islamic State (IS).
There is also a personal element to the current offensive. The slogan of the Islamic State's latest campaign to rout the Aleppo rebels and capture their territory is called “revenge for our chaste women.” This hair-raising motto was chosen for two purposes: to put the fear of God into their opponents, and to rally their already frenzied fighters into even higher levels of brutality and blood thirst.
What this war slogan alludes to is the alleged rape and abuse of the wives and female relatives of IS militants after the fighters were expelled from Aleppo by a coalition of local and Islamist fighters under the banner of the Islamic Front in January of this year. Before that, IS militants were fighting and living side by side with other factions. Many had settled down with their families alongside local rebels in their towns, villages and neighborhoods.
When relations went sour and war erupted, many IS fighters were forced to flee and leave their families behind. It was the alleged cases of rape against their families that now inspire IS fighters to return with a hateful fury and vengeance that threatens to unleash new and ever more grotesque acts of barbarity onto the world’s television screens and social media. And this has the rebels exceedingly worried and frightened.
Adel is a native of Hreitan, a town in Aleppo’s countryside just a few kilometers north of the city on the Gaziantep highway. The previous round of clashes with IS in January saw them enter his town and execute several rebels and their supporters there.
“This is a fight for our existence and way of life,” he said. “They are much like the regime in that they want to impose their rules by force, and kill anyone who opposes that. They killed many fine and decent young men when they came to my town last time.” He went on to add bitterly: ”Of course, the regime is happy about this and wants to see them kill us all, as are the people of Aleppo who think we are the cause for the destruction of their city and who despise us for that. But let me ask them, where were they when we were protesting and our young men were being shot and killed? What about the thousands of lives we have given fighting this terrible regime and IS, what about the sacrifices of those people, did they forget about that? Who is bombing their city, us with simple weapons or the regime with its missiles and barrels and airplanes?”
The truth surrounding the alleged rapes is sketchy at best, limited to specific cases and nothing systemic. But that hasn’t stopped IS from exploiting the issue to its advantage. The group has always displayed a skillful mastery in the arts of psychological warfare and propaganda. Its latest war motto is just another weapon in this impressive arsenal. By relying on tactics of fear and intimidation, IS hopes to persuade opponents to surrender or pledge allegiance without firing a single bullet, and there is plenty of proof that those tactics worked pretty well in Deir Ez-Zor. For a Machiavellian and nihilistic death cult like IS, sex abuse is just another tool to beat your opponents and rally your troops with.
With all that in mind, Aleppo rebels are facing their toughest time since the Syrian conflict began. Their obvious nervousness is palpable as the clock ticks down to the inevitable showdown that will either make or break them, even as they draw reinforcements from other fronts in and around Aleppo city to bolster their strongholds against IS.
An awful lot is riding on this, and the rebels know that they are at a major disadvantage. Outgunned and outmaneuvered, they find themselves caught between the slowly advancing regime troops around Aleppo city, and the relentless approach of IS in the northern countryside. The prospects do appear dim, and already residents of front-line or strategically important towns have left for safer areas of Syria or crossed the border into Turkey. Some speculate the local rebels might soon follow suit.
But many of Aleppo’s residents have little sympathy for the rebels, whom they largely blame for destroying their city. Wadah is an Aleppan small business owner who fell on hard times after the city was plunged into the turmoil of civil war. “May God take them all, may they kill each other, them (rebels) and IS.”
“They are the cause of all of our suffering and problems, we had no troubles before the rebels of the villages came, we were happy and doing just fine. We rejected them and their so-called revolution, and they hated us for that, which is why they took revenge and stole our factories and businesses and ruined our livelihoods. But now God will have his revenge on them,” he said.
Regarding IS, Wadah shared the rebels’ fear. “Of course we are terrified that they will take Aleppo city, they are backward butchers from dark times, it will be worse than the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols. They will destroy our civilization completely. We cannot live under such a barbarian group. But we have faith the Syrian army will protect us.”
The IS campaign in Aleppo will most definitely be a game changer, and its outcome will have serious ramifications on the flow of the Syrian conflict as a whole as well as the future of the terrorist group should it be decisively defeated. What is certain for now is that the residents of Aleppo, no matter their affiliation, are dreading the arrival of IS.