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As Rebels Fight Rebels, Grim Reports From A Syrian City

The flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, flutters on the dome of an Armenian Catholic Church in the northern rebel-held Syrian city of Raqqa on Sept. 28, 2013. At first, Syrian rebels and civilians welcomed the experienced Islamist fighters, and the groups fought together to take over the city from Syrian troops. Now, many Syrians fear and resent ISIS. (AFP/Getty Images)

Reports from the Syrian city of Raqqa are dire. In the north-central provincial capital, "the atmosphere has gone from bad to worse," says one activist with a rare link to the Internet. He reports the city is "completely paralyzed," the hospital is abandoned, and there are bodies in the central square. There is no power or water for a city of more than half a million people. Even the critical bread ovens are shut.

The appalling description from Raqqa is just one scene from a new phase in the Syrian war. Fractious Syrian rebels have shown a rare unity in challenging an al-Qaida-linked group known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, demanding these foreign fighters leave the country.

The uprising against the al-Qaida affiliate is a surprise, but the anger was well known and has been building for months.

Rebels and civilians alike once welcomed ISIS as experienced and well-armed fighters who crossed the Iraqi border and shared the goal of toppling the Syrian regime. They were later joined by thousands of extremists from around the globe.

But their brutal tactics in ruling Raqqa and neighborhoods in the contested city of Aleppo have turned many Syrians against them.

To understand why Syrian rebels turned against the ISIS fighters, you just have to talk to Syrian activists and local journalists, the first victims of al-Qaida's ruthless ways, says journalist Adnan Haddad, who fled Aleppo after the group targeted him.

"It's about feeling afraid of being tortured and getting kidnapped," he says from his new base in the southern Turkish town of Gaziantep, where he is helping to rebuild a radio network to broadcast inside Syria. ISIS militants held Haddad for three days.

"It's a typical way of al-Qaida kind of thinking," he says. "They don't want activists and journalists covering the violations they commit."

A Dramatic Gesture

But the violations became well-known after ISIS took control of Raqqa, the only provincial capital to fall out of regime control. A group of rebels, including ISIS, captured Raqqa initially, but in May, ISIS swept their former allies out. Chris Looney, a Washington-based Syrian analyst, says ISIS made a dramatic gesture on the first day of its rule.

"On May 14, when ISIS came and took control of Raqqa, it executed three men in the town square in front of hundreds of people," he says. "It was a brutal display of power that announced their presence and set the tone for how ISIS would govern in Raqqa."

In those early days, ISIS allowed local media activists to post a video of the executions, showing fighters in black masks pushing the captive men to their knees and then shooting them at point-blank range.

But soon afterward, ISIS created its own media organization, publishing a newspaper, releasing well-produced videos uploaded to YouTube, and imposing strict rules and draconian punishments.

That's when local journalists and activists started to disappear, kidnapped by ISIS, says journalist Rami Jarrah. He operated a radio station in Raqqa until ISIS seized the broadcasting equipment and arrested one of his reporters, last seen in ISIS custody.

"He was badly beaten from head to toe and that he was left only in his underwear, and he had basically been tortured," Jarrah says.

Crushing Dissent

ISIS moved swiftly to crush dissent in Raqqa and across rebel-held areas in northern Syria, says Jarrah, targeting media activists.

"We know that 60 Syrian citizen-journalists have been kidnapped by ISIS," he says.

Now, Jarrah has set up a media outlet across the border in southern Turkey. Radio Ana broadcasts news and call-in shows from a studio near the Syrian border.

Jarrah and his co-hosts tell listeners that they are reporting what they call "the real news" of events in Syria. It is a media battle for the hearts and minds in territory controlled by ISIS.

But they are up against a well-funded transnational organization, says Looney, the Washington-based analyst. These are mainly Sunni extremists from Iraq. The war in Syria has revived the organization and given it a new base of support as well as safe havens along the Syria-Iraq border. Looney and other analysts say that ISIS funds its operations from money collected in Iraq.

"It's mostly through extortion, also criminal activity," he says. Estimates vary from $5 million to $8 million each month.

Controlling The Local Economy

With the infusion of cash, Looney adds, ISIS ensured its control over Raqqa's economy.

"Citizens have become dependent on ISIS for the provision of goods and services," he explains. "They feel if they establish themselves as the only group that Raqqa is able to turn to, it will generate some support for them among the community."

Much of that support vanished this week, as the new rebel coalition challenged ISIS across northern Syria and the fighting spread to the extremists' stronghold of Raqqa.

In the early days of the fighting, rebels captured an ISIS prison and released 50 captives; the fate of thousands of other prisoners, including Western journalists and humanitarian aid workers, is unknown. On Tuesday, ISIS mounted a counterattack, spurning offers of a mediated truce, to defend their most important base of operations.

One local activist describes the ISIS tactics — using suicide attacks against any challenger and laying land mines throughout the city for protection — as "monstrous." There are credible reports that ISIS now dominates two key routes out of Raqqa: to the east toward the Iraqi border and also the road north to the Turkish frontier.

Now, rebels fighting ISIS must decide whether to continue the campaign against the extremists, which will split their efforts to fight the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The internal struggle among the rebels gives the regime a firmer hold on power.

You can follow NPR's Deborah Amos on Twitter: @deborahamos

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Roberts Siegel. We begin this hour with a new twist in the war in Syria. Rebels are now fighting other rebels in the north of the country. A fractious collection of rebel groups has come together to challenge Islamist extremists who are linked to al-Qaida. Those extremists, many of them experienced fighters, were once welcomed by rebels and civilians alike in the revolt to unseat Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But their brutal tactics have instilled fear and resentment. As NPR's Deborah Amos reports, this rebel on rebel fighting has now spread to Raqqah, a provincial capital and extremist stronghold.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: To understand why Syrian rebel groups turned against the al-Qaida affiliate known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, you just have to talk to Syrian activists. They were the first victims of al-Qaida's ruthless ways, says journalist Adnan Haddad(ph) who fled Syria after the group targeted him.

ADNAN HADDAD: I think it's about, you know, feeling afraid of being tortured and feeling afraid of getting kidnapped.

AMOS: You were kidnapped.

HADDAD: For three days, yeah.

AMOS: Why do you think they kidnap journalists?

HADDAD: Just, you know, a typical al-Qaida kind of thinking, you know. They just don't want activists and journalists to cover the violations they commit.

AMOS: But the violations became well known after ISIS took over Raqqah, the only major city in rebel control, pushing other rebels out of the city last May. Chris Looney(ph), a Washington-based Syrian analyst, says ISIS made a dramatic gesture on the first day of its rule.

CHRIS LOONEY: On May 14, when ISIS came and took control of Raqqah, it executed three men in the town square in front of hundreds of people. And that really announced its presence in a very brutal way and set the tone for how ISIS would govern in Raqqah.

AMOS: Back then, ISIS allowed a Syrian media center to post a video of the execution, when armed fighters in face masks forced their captives to their knees and shot them at point-blank range.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

AMOS: Soon after this event, ISIS created its own media organization, publishing a newspaper and releasing videos on YouTube. That's when local journalists started to disappear, kidnapped by ISIS, says journalist Rami Jarah(ph). He operated a radio station in Raqqah until ISIS seized the broadcasting equipment and arrested one of his reporters last seen in ISIS custody.

RAMI JARAH: He was badly beaten and bruised from head to toe and that he was left only in his underwear and he'd basically been tortured.

AMOS: ISIS moved swiftly to end any dissent in Raqqah and across northern Syria, he says, kidnapping more than 60 citizen journalists.

JARAH: I can tell you that Raqqah now there's a total absence of any activism or real citizen journalists.

AMOS: Everybody's gone.

JARAH: Everybody's gone from Raqqah.

AMOS: Now, Jarah and other activists have set up media outlets across the border in southern Turkey.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO BROADCAST)

JARAH: R-A-D-I-O A-M-A-S-Y (foreign language spoken)

AMOS: This is Radio ANA, broadcasting news and call-in shows from a studio near the Syrian border.

(SOUNDBITE FROM RADIO BROADCAST)

JARAH: (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: Jarah and his co-hosts tell listeners they're reporting the real news inside Syria. This is a media battle for hearts and minds in territory controlled by ISIS. But they're up against a well-funded transnational organization, says Chris Looney. These are Sunni extremists from Iraq, later joined by thousands of radicals from around the world.

The war in Syria, he says, has given ISIS renewed strength and safe havens along the Syrian/Iraqi border. Looney and other analysts say that ISIS funds its Syrian operation from money collected in Iraq. Estimates vary from 5 to $8 million every month.

LOONEY: It's mostly through extortion, also criminal activity.

AMOS: And Looney adds what ISIS has done with that cash is ensure its control of Raqqah's economy.

LOONEY: Citizens have become dependent on ISIS for the provision of goods and services. They feel like if they can provide for the community and establish themselves as the only group that Raqqans are able to turn to, it will generate some support for them among the community.

AMOS: Much of that support vanished this week as the new rebel coalition challenged ISIS.

In the first days of the fighting, rebels captured an ISIS prison in Raqqah and released 50 captives posting this video. But in recent days, ISIS has mounted a counterattack to defend their most important base of operations and today, residents report a city without power or water, the hospital abandoned and bodies lying in the street. Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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