AL-BAB, Syria — Hell is inescapable. With the terror of living under regime or rebel bombing, Islamic State (IS) barbarism and the nightmarish destitution of refugee camps and death boats adrift at sea, hell is the price of being Syrian today. “This is the Syrian’s lot,” Abu Riad told Al-Monitor, “we are destined never to find peace except in our graves.”
Abu Riad is a relative I recently visited near the town of Al-Bab east of Aleppo in the heart of IS territory. He echoed the fear of many others now that the United States has put together a coalition to wage war on the terror group, a war that will likely involve airstrikes against targets in Syria and inevitably cause more carnage and loss of innocent life.
In Abu Riad’s words, “We have been living in absolute terror for a week now under regime airstrikes. Now we have the Americans coming to bomb us too. Where do we go? Why is everyone killing us; what have we done to deserve this?” Indeed, Al-Bab has suffered heavy barrel bombing in the past few days, resulting in many casualties, which prompted me to avoid going to the town altogether and remain in the relative safety of rural areas. Caught between the hammer of regime bombings and the anvil of imminent US airstrikes, many people have started doing the same, fleeing the towns for safer areas. Even IS, as reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has begun to evacuate its headquarters to avoid putting people’s lives at risk, or at least that is what the group claims.
Regardless, it would be foolish to believe that US military action against IS is popular here or will go down well, especially when civilian casualties start to mount. On the contrary, it will most likely prove counterproductive, stoking anti-Western resentment among the population and increasing support for IS, driving even more recruits to its ranks.
The terror group knows this well, which is why it is secretly overjoyed at the prospect of military action against it. In its calculations, the loss of fighters to strikes is more than outweighed by the outpouring of support it expects both locally and on the international jihadist scene. And its fighters are not afraid of martyrdom by US bombs. In fact, the chance for martyrdom is why many of them came to fight in Syria in the first place.
The US strategy of arming moderate rebel groups to fight extremists on the ground in Syria seems to be an abject failure, yet it is resurrected time and time again. The most recent bombshell was dropped by Jamal Maarouf, the warlord head of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, who has signed a non-aggression pact with IS, prompting serious questions about the reliability and viability of such rebel partners.
In reality, the war against IS will be won and lost on the ground through hearts and minds, not through missiles and bombs. This is something I felt acutely while talking to the people of Al-Bab, who almost unanimously sang the praises of the Islamic State's administration and the services the group brought to the areas under its control after years of turmoil.
“My business had never been this good under the local rebels, some of whom were my relatives,” said Abu Riad. “They brought law and order; they went after the criminals and bandits and cleaned up the town. Under the rebels, it was chaos and lawlessness. Now I can be sure my merchandise is safe and I can transport it safely as no one dares steal here anymore,” he added. Even more extraordinary is that some of Aleppo’s industrialists and factory owners opted to move their machinery from the Sheikh Najjar industrial zone into IS territory in Al-Bab, as they knew it would be safe from looting there.
Law and order aren’t the only advantages of being under IS rule. The group also provides many services, mostly free of charge. “They fixed roads and power lines; they gave out food to the needy. They have traffic police and free religious schools. The rebels never did that. All they did was steal and fight each other,” said Abu Raid. When I asked him about what hardships under the austere rule of IS, he said, “Yes, they have very strict laws, but they won’t harm or bother you unless you cross the red lines. For me, the only difficulty I had was not being able to smoke in public. The rest wasn’t too bad; we are a very conservative town, after all.”
Ironically, Abu Raid claims the foreign IS fighters are more tolerant and respectful than the local recruits, saying, “They give you a sermon when they see you breaking the rules and try to advise you to change, while the local Syrian ones are belligerent and want to arrest you and take you to court immediately.”
The rise and popularity of IS seems to have more to do with the failings of the Syrian opposition and the fractious rebel factions than with the Islamic State's own strength. For almost three years, the opposition and the local rebels had failed to provide any semblance of civil administration or public services to the vast areas they controlled. This lawless chaos added to the people’s misery, already exacerbated by the horrors of war. In the end, they rallied around the only group that managed to give them what they wanted: the Islamic State. But now, it seems a new fear is rising among the people: the specter of war against IS, a war they feel threatens not only their lives, but also their livelihoods and the tenuous normality they’ve grown accustomed to.
It is the failed and ill-considered policies of the United States and its allies in Syria that helped create today's mess, and it’s those very same policies that seem set to perpetuate it now. The Syrian people are tired of war, of all the destruction and killing. They’ve reached breaking point. All they want is peace and stability, and they will rally around whoever can provide that. But no one is talking about a resolution to the conflict now, but only more bloodshed and killing as they cynically pursue their own agendas at our expense.