‘The whole experience of being with Daesh was terrifying’ – a Syrian defector’s story: Part 2

Part Two: “The way people were treated by us was not fair, but we were oblivious.”

Al-Nusra Front members in Maarrat al-Numan, credit: Voice of America
Al-Nusra Front members in Maarrat al-Numan, credit: Voice of America

Throughout his testimony, MD recounts his experience of major events that expose Daesh’s brutal tactics, perceived military strength, and collusion with the Syrian regime. The first such event takes place in Aleppo around the time Daesh was establishing its control over the city in late 2013. As Daesh acquires new territory, the organisation launches arrest and assassination campaigns against local political and media activists to seek to eliminate the prospect of organised civil resistance. In Aleppo, the campaign resulted in the detention of many activists who were held in Mashfa al-Ayoun, a hospital converted into a prison in Aleppo City. According to MD, after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) launched its anti-Daesh military campaign in Aleppo, a call was made to “liquidate the prisoners,” as Daesh was forced to retreat from the prison. “Prisoners were divided into what we called security prisoners [activists] and criminal prisoners [thieves]…and the intention was to kill the security prisoners,” MD recalls. At the time, Arabic press reported that 50 media activists were executed by Daesh in Mashfa al-Ayoun. Reflecting on this incident, he admits that, “the way people were treated by [them] was not fair, but [they] were oblivious.”


“Much of our advance wasn’t primarily due to military power.  To be honest in many of the battles…we weren’t really fighting.”


Another major events that MD was a witness to is Daesh’s takeover of Raqqa City in early 2014. Whilst Daesh boasted about the capture of Raqqa City as a major military achievement, according to MD, it was the other rebel factions’ refusal to fight that allowed Daesh to take control. “They didn’t want blood. So they stopped fighting to avoid sectarian strife and bloodshed.” Rebel groups in Raqqa agreed to a ceasefire with Daesh. However the organisation was simply buying time to wait for military support to arrive from Iraq. When a large military convoy arrived, according to MD, the military balance shifted in favour of Daesh. The other rebel groups then “retreat[ed] towards Aleppo and [Daesh was] able to control the city.”

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A member of Daesh, credit VOA

As Daesh was establishing its grip over Raqqa, it carried out a similar campaign of arrests and assassination against media and political activists to that in Aleppo. However, in a likely response to their defeat in Aleppo, MD recounts how Daesh commanders in Raqqa set out to make an example of any dissenting voice. Daesh, according to MD, “needed to experiment with a laboratory rat, be it a group of people, a family or a clan, or anyone that could set an example for others to learn from,” for this the Shu’aytaat tribe, who had control over the oil in the eastern province of Dayr al-Zour was chosen. Daesh’s attack on the tribe ended with the execution of nearly 700 tribal members.


“The general atmosphere suggested there was some kind of an agreement between the Islamic State and the regime.”


In mid 2014, after securing more military support from Iraq following the takeover of Mosul, Daesh fighters in Raqqa launched an operation on the Syrian regime’s largest military base in Raqqa, the 17th Division base. Daesh took control of the base after a few days of fighting allowing Daesh to use this event as evidence of their military supremacy. However, according to MD, it was only “after the regime pulled key military personnel out of the division, that [they] launched the attack.” MD recounts clearly that the Daesh commanders were very relaxed during the operation, “as if it was previously agreed on and already orchestrated […] the general atmosphere suggested there was some kind of an agreement between the Islamic State and the regime.”

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