Analysis

For Syrians Who Lived Under ISIS' Iron Fist, a New Nightmare Awaits Under Assad

The advance of Assad forces only heralds a new era of regime repression and score-settling in the territories formerly held by opposition forces

People carry a body on a stretcher in the besieged eastern Ghouta town of Hamouriyeh near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018
\ BASSAM KHABIEH/ REUTERS

Residents of Syria don’t view the recent victories of President Bashar Assad’s forces as heralding an end to the nightmare, because it will be followed by a settling of scores.

“You have three guns in front of you and each contains nine bullets? How many shots can you fire?”

“Draw a line between the expected number of weapons and the dead.”

“The caliphate’s fighters opened an offensive against enemy soldiers from seven points. If every point had seven fighters, what is the total number of fighters who joined the battle?”

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These questions, along with detailed pictures, were obtained by Suleiman Ibrahim, a researcher with the Syria Direct website. They were photographed from elementary school textbooks from a town in southern Syria.

In an area known as the Yarmouk Basin, bordering the Golan Heights and Jordan, Islamic State forces are still in control. They maintain a way of life similar to what prevailed in the Syrian and Iraqi cities they captured, such as Deir el-Zour and Raqqa, but on a smaller scale. Therefore, although officially the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has come to an end, the organization is still present in small enclaves in both countries.

The ISIS units purportedly no longer pose a substantial military challenge to the armies of Syria and Iraq, and Western coalition is barely involved with them anymore. That is both because ISIS is mainly present in civilian population areas and because they lack the territorial contiguity that was the Islamic State’s main goal.

A man rides on a motorbike at a damaged site in the rebel held besieged town of Hamouriyeh, eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2018
\ BASSAM KHABIEH/ REUTERS

For the residents of the enclaves that ISIS controls, life under strict Islamist rule, including executions, has not come to an end, but the military priorities have changed. If until a few months ago, the enclaves’ residents expected the armies of the Western coalition would rid them too of ISIS, such hopes have now waned. They are now waiting for the Syrian government.

It could be a long wait, judging by the pace of the advance of President Bashar Assad’s forces in the most crucial areas of Syria. Just last week, after months of combat, the Syrian regime managed to take control of eastern Ghouta, through the use of chemical weapons and massive assistance from Russia, which also secured an agreement for the evacuation of fighters from the Jaish al-Islam militia, thereby transferring Ghouta to the full control of the Assad regime.

The site of the next campaign is expected to be Idlib, after which the Syrian army may try to also take full control of southern Syria. At the same time, there is still no agreement over Kurdish territory that Turkey has invaded.

The military victories scored by Syria and Russia still haven’t given Syrian citizens a sense that the war is nearing an end, because after the military retakes control of areas of the country, the times of repression will come. Plunder, abuse and arrests will target anyone who is considered a collaborator with the militia forces.

The experience of Syrians in other cities that have passed from the control of the militias to that of the regime have prompted aid organizations in the city of Ghouta to quickly collect and burn any documents that they can and burn them to prevent them from falling into the hands of the regime. Doctors have been asked to destroy medical records. The branches of aid offices have gotten rid of any record of citizens who received food or clothing, and it’s possible that birth and death records kept during the period when the militias had control of the city have been destroyed.

Civil defence help a man from a shelter in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria, February 22, 2018
\ BASSAM KHABIEH/ REUTERS

The justifiable concern is that these records would provide a pretext on the part of Assad’s forces to arrest anyone whose name appears as a recipient of assistance from aid organizations, on suspicion of collaboration with opponents of the regime.

As evidence, opponents of the regime have released a video showing a journalist from the Syrian television network collecting documents left at a local hospital.

Misuse of documents in this way is not confined to Syria; in Iraq the regime is also still using documents confiscated in cities that had been controlled by ISIS to create blacklists of suspected collaborators.

This is also the stage in which the settling of scores begins, not just between the regime and “hostile” civilians, but also among the residents themselves. According to reports from Ghouta and other cities, civilians give information about their neighbors to the military forces, and sometimes even inform on family members who, in their efforts to survive, cooperated with the militias and got favorable treatment.

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Meanwhile the residents of Ghouta are starting to look for where their relatives were buried under the rubble of thousands of structures that were damaged in the bombardments. This is long-term work that is now preoccupying tens of thousands of civilians, some of whom had fled the city and are now trying to return. Unlike in cities that had been controlled by ISIS, in Ghouta the search for bodies does not entail risk to life from bombs left by the militias.

No one is yet talking about the reconstruction of cities like Raqqa, Deir el-Zour, and now, Eastern Ghouta. Syria is far from ready for a realistic damage assessment or any plan for financing reconstruction. But perhaps it can learn from the lengthy rehabilitation process in Iraq, which is still ongoing.

One of the symbols of reconstruction in Iraq is the city of Tikrit, where Saddam Hussein had built more than 160 palaces in the city and its environs. The Iraqi government is trying to turn it into a tourist site; it has solicited bids to repair and restore the palaces to make them a source of tourism income. Thus may begin the process of healing from that war, which is now marking 15 years since it broke out. In Syria, though, they are still counting the dead.