Al-Bab Residents Slowly Return after the City Is Liberated from ISIS

On February 23, Turkish and rebel forces seized al-Bab in northern Syria from the Islamic State group (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) after three years under the terrorist group’s control. Like many Syrian cities, since 2011 it was treated unfairly by the media, which stereotyped it as one of ISIS’s strongest bases of support in Syria and portrayed its residents as ISIS fighters. The truth is that ISIS buried most of the city’s customs and traditions and that during the extremist group’s control there, more than a third of its buildings were destroyed.

The city took part in the 2011 uprising against the Syrian regime, hosting numerous demonstrations. One participant and organizer is known as al-Muatasim Billah and currently lives in Turkey.

Al-Muatasim Billah recalls the first protests in his city in 2011 and how security forces attacked the protesters. Moderate and Islamist forces ousted them from the city on July 21, 2012, including Liwa al-Tawhid, Force 21, Liwa al-Umawiyeen, Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Bab thus entered a new chapter marked by the strength of the civil movement, peaceful activists, and the new city council. But Islamist factions began interfering and trying to impose their control and their laws. In mid-2013, supporters of ISIS started operating in the city, and the group took control of the city in January 2014.

The arrival of ISIS brought an end to locals’ joy at the departure of regime forces. Many of the city’s opposition activist residents escaped, including al-Muatasim Billah, who had been wanted by ISIS supporters in his city for opposing the extremist groups new laws.

Al-Muatasim Billah, who was a member of al-Bab’s coordinating committee during the anti-regime uprising, says no more than 40 percent of the city’s residents support ISIS. He said the city is by nature conservative, but many there who supported the group later realized that its laws were unfair, which started to trigger negative reactions. “Some people stopped praying at the mosques under ISIS rule,” he said.

Between late 2013 and ISIS’s arrival in al-Bab, an Egyptian called Abu Abdul Rahman al-Masri, a ISIS preacher and commander, played a major role in promoting the group’s ideology. He even prevented Sheikh Zaher al-Sharqat, who was assassinated in Turkey’s Gaziantep in 2016, from preaching the Friday sermon from the pulpit of the city’s Abu Bakr al-Sadiq mosque.

Under ISIS rule, the group got rid of many customs and traditions in the city as it did in other parts of Syria. “ISIS did away with all the city’s social customs and relationships with the restrictions it imposed on people,” said local resident Musaab Abdulrahman. “It made the women wear its own style of hijab, it did away with any kind of celebration or wedding, forced men to grow long beards and shut down barbers’ shops. The residents of al-Bab used to stay up late on summer nights, but it even banned that and prevented them from visiting their relatives on the first days of the Eid holidays.”

By taking control of al-Bab, the group also did away with a distribution and supply point for goods to all the opposition-controlled parts of the eastern Aleppo countryside, reflecting the city’s strategic importance.

Five months ago, Turkish Euphrates Shield forces, with supporting rebel groups, started preparing to liberate the city from ISIS.

“The battle for al-Bab lasted for three months, and it was liberated on February 23, 2017,” said Abdul Rahman.

“By the time it had been liberated from ISIS, the number of civilian casualties during the battle alone had reached 675, including the victims of Turkish and coalition airstrikes and mines planted by ISIS along routes out of the city and in civilians’ homes.” He said some 300 ISIS fighters were killed.

That was the cost of ousting the extremist group from the city, with residents bearing the brunt. But many locals who fled their city and beyond the borders of Syria dream of returning.

Among them are al-Muatasim Billah’s family. Their return became possible in February after many booby traps in the city were removed. For them, their longing for their land outweighs the risk of fighting breaking out between forces wrestling for control of al-Bab.

That contest became clear in recent months as Euphrates Shield forces entered the city, pre-empting Syrian regime forces and units of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Ankara is keen to consolidate a barrier to block Kurdish parties’ dreams of linking up Afrin and Kobane. After the capture of Jarablus, seizing al-Bab is a second step towards preventing that eventuality.

Al-Bab is quiet now. Residents are returning in a trickle, but their fate is yet uncertain. Their city may well share the fate of Jarablus: Ankara will not give it up to any other force operating in northern Syria. By seizing the city, Euphrates Shield forces have also prevented the regime’s military plans following the battle for Aleppo. For regime forces to take over the countryside east of northern Syria’s biggest city would be extremely difficult without first taking al-Bab.

Meanwhile most of the city’s residents are staying or returning and do not want to see the regime back in the city under any circumstances. The scenario of Manbij and similar cities, where the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drove out ISIS and established a local council, also seems unlikely. Locals from cities like Manbij accuse the Kurdish element of only allowing local councils that are conciliatory to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to be elected, and of not allowing native residents to return.

Aside from al-Bab’s strategic importance, reconstruction is a priority, says Abdul Rahman. “Up to a quarter of the city’s buildings are totally destroyed and 65 percent are partly destroyed,” he said. “Al-Bab’s residents want to change that and return their city to how it used to be—a safe place for the residents of the east Aleppo countryside and an important source of its famous products such as yoghurt and cheese.”

Hasan Arfeh is a freelance Syrian journalist based in Turkey.

Image: Photo: People gather near damaged shops in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab, Syria March 13, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi