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Power struggle underway in rebel-held Syrian town

Thursday - 6/27/2013, 12:58am  ET

FILE - In this Monday, March 4, 2013 file image taken from video obtained from Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a statue of former Syrian President Hafez Assad is pulled down in a central square in Raqqa, Syria. A quiet power struggle in taking place in the eastern city between Islamic extremist rebels, who control the city after capturing it four months ago from the regime, and moderates trying to curtail their influence, making it a test case for the opposition. (AP Photo/Ugarit News via AP video, File)

ZEINA KARAM
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- A slogan painted in small letters on a school wall reads, "We the people want Syria to be a civil, democratic state." Scrawled next to it in bigger letters is the response from an unknown Islamic hard-liner: "The laws of the civil state contradict the Islamic caliphate."

A quiet power struggle is taking place in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa ever since a Muslim extremist faction of the rebels swept in and wrested the town from the regime nearly four months ago.

Armed men wearing Afghan-style outfits patrol the streets, raising black Islamic banners at checkpoints instead of the rebellion's three-star flags. But moderates are trying to counter the extremists' tight grip, establishing dozens of newspapers, magazines and civil society forums in an effort to educate the roughly 500,000 residents about democracy and their right to vote.

Raqqa, the first and only provincial capital to fall into rebel hands, is now a test case for the opposition, which has wrestled with how to govern territories it has captured amid Western concerns that Islamic groups will hijack power if President Bashar Assad is ousted.

The tensions reflect a wider struggle going on in the rebel movement across Syria, where alliances of Islamic extremist brigades have filled the void left behind whenever Assad's forces retreat, while moderate and secular rebels have failed to coalesce into effective fighters and the opposition's political leadership has failed to unify its ranks.

The rebel capture of Raqqa on March 5 consolidated opposition gains in a string of towns along the Euphrates River, which runs across the desert from the Turkish border in the north to the Iraqi border in the southeast.

Even so, the momentum on the battlefield over the past few months has been with regime, aided by Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, according to the U.N. -- though a count by activists puts the death toll at over 100,000.

Two extremist factions, Ahrar al-Sham and the al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, led the push into Raqqa, which fell relatively quickly after a campaign that lasted less than a month. Most of the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters in the city are foreign jihadis, while the Ahrar al-Sham fighters are Syrians with a jihadist ideology.

Other opponents of the Assad regime in the city have been put off by what they see as the extremists' unnecessary brutality. In the days after seizing the city, the Muslim brigades brought captured security forces into public squares, killed them and drove their bodies through the streets.

Then in May, fighters affiliated with al-Qaida killed three men described as Shiite Muslims in the city's main Clock Square, shooting them in the back of the head. In a speech to a crowd that had gathered, a fighter said the killing was in retaliation for the massacres of Sunni Muslims in the town of Banias and the city of Homs, both in western Syria, according to online video of the scene. The statement was made in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a merger of Jabhat al-Nusra and Iraq's al-Qaida arm announced in April.

Armed gunmen with their faces covered in masks shot pistols and rifles wildly in the air in celebration after the three men were killed. They wore clothing favored by Afghanistan's Taliban and Arab mujahedeen who fought in that country -- a sign that they belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra.

The Shiites "were executed in front of everyone, young and old," said Mohammad Shoeib, an activist, recalling how for several hours, nobody dared approach the bodies to take them for burial until a nurse did. The nurse, Mohammad Saado, was assassinated by unknown gunmen the next day, Shoeib said. Other activists corroborated his account.

"Executing people in this manner in a public square and killing Saado was unacceptable and turned many people against them," Shoeib said. "Our revolution was against oppression and we don't accept such actions under any circumstance."

Activists set up a mourning tent in the same spot where the three were executed, receiving mourners for three days in a sign of their anger. "They didn't like it," he said of Jabhat al-Nusra, "but people demonstrated their right to an opinion and they should respect that."

Shoeib, 28, is one of the directors of "Haqquna," Arabic for "It's Our Right," an organization founded about three weeks after Raqqa fell that aims to educate people about democracy. The group's logo is a victory sign with the index finger bearing an ink mark, signifying the right to vote. The logo can be seen on walls in the city and on leaflets distributed by the group.

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