A small town on the Syrian-Turkish border is playing an outsized role in what has become a war within the war in Syria. Azaz is now a symbol of the dangerous rift between Western-backed rebels under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army and a radical Islamist groups linked to al-Qaida.
Clashes on Wednesday — the seizure of Azaz by an al-Qaida offshoot — were followed more closely than other battles, in part because Azaz was the gateway town for journalists reporting on Syria.
From Cooperation To Competition
My first visit to Azaz was just over a year ago, facilitated by activists who were eager to show visitors a town liberated by local rebels. Professors, professional men and farmers led the local militia and had defeated the Syrian army in July 2012. Two burned-out tanks remained in the town square as a symbol of the fight.
Tensions with radical Islamists have been building for months across northern Syria, including in Azaz. Many local rebels believed a showdown could be delayed until after the defeat of the Syrian regime. But foreign fighters have been streaming into Syria to join the ranks of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Local activists contacted by NPR said ISIS opened a headquarters in Azaz a few months ago. The leader came from Kuwait.
Local rebels welcomed ISIS fighters when they played a key role in capturing the Minagh airbase in August. The well-fortified helicopter base had menaced Azaz for more than a year with almost daily strikes. But the coordination was soon replaced by competition for control of Azaz.
The clashes were sparked by an incident at the hospital. When a German doctor arrived, a representative of the NGO that supports the town's only medical facility, radicals threatened to arrest him, according to activists. He was whisked to safety across the Turkish border, but a gun fight followed between local rebels and the jihadists. The battle ended with rebels from the Northern Storm brigade driven out of Azaz.
ISIS radicals posted snipers on rooftops, erected checkpoints in Azaz and imposed a curfew on civilians. "They closed cigarette shops and detained people who were smoking on the street," said one activist, in hiding because he feared arrest. The ISIS have also detained hospital staff and closed the courthouse.
An Economic Lifeline
Before the Syrian revolt, Azaz was known for its olive trees and cherry crop. Less than five miles from the Turkish border, Azaz was also seen as a hub for smugglers who knew the best routes to sell cheap Syrian cigarettes on the Turkish market. In July 2012, local rebels known as the Northern Storm brigade seized the border crossing from the Syrian army. The newly opened crossing became a gateway into Syria.
Over time, the Bab al-Salama border post became the corridor for humanitarian aid, building materials and arms. Azaz was the center of smuggling again, including a route for a covert U.S. humanitarian project that delivered medical supplies to battlefield clinics and tons of flour to bakeries from Azaz to Aleppo.
On Thursday, the Turkish government closed the border in response to the ISIS take over. Trucks were stranded on the Turkish side; on the Syrian side, thousands of displaced civilians living in a vast tent camp could hear rebels fighting rebels. The closure cuts off an economic lifeline to northern Syria. Bab al-Salama is unlikely to open any time soon.
The battle in Azaz demonstrates the growing power of the jihadists, as they make a play to control cities and towns across northern Syria. But the crackdown against civilians is a repeat of the tactics employed by al-Qaida in Iraq, tone deaf to a civilian population because they are outsiders.
For the first time, the Syrian political opposition, the National Coalition, publicly condemned ISIS in a statement released from Istanbul. More important, voices from inside Syria are growing louder. A local cleric in Aleppo was quoted by the AFP news agency: "Al-Qaida don't help the Syrians, they also kill us."
Aron Lund, a Swedish journalist and analyst who maps the jihadi groups in Syria, says ISIS is alienating Syrians. "It's lose-lose for the central al-Qaida leadership. They'll either have to drop their strongest wing and suffer related splits, or be dragged down with it."
In the longer run, Lund says, the Syrian al-Qaida network ISIS may disintegrate. But for now, Syrians in Azaz have a new regime that many believe is worse than the one they hoped to dismantle.