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In Syria, activists in Raqqa try to confront militant Islamist group

A strike in Raqqa was called to protest a tax imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria
Shop owners in Raqqa ignored the strike because they feared retribution from the Al Qaeda offshoot in Syria
'Just like the regime occupied the city, now ISIS is occupying the city' - Syrian activist in Raqqa

In the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the main commercial street was busy. Shops were open, with customers strolling the aisles, and cars filled the streets. Only a few dozen stores were closed.

It wasn’t what activists had hoped for when they called for a citywide strike among business owners on Saturday to protest a tax imposed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS has demanded payment in exchange for electricity, water, street cleaning and protection.

Though shop owners chafed at the imposition of a “protection tax,” they feared retribution from the Al Qaeda offshoot group for any act of defiance.

“They were very scared, they said they were afraid ISIS would burn or seize our shops,” said Abu Ibrahim, an activist who headed the call for a strike.

It wasn’t the first time opposition activists had called for strikes in Raqqa. Three years ago, business owners observed several calls to close up shop in protest against the government of President Bashar Assad during the early months of the Syrian uprising.

“It’s like we returned to the beginning of the revolution, but we will fight anyone who stands in the way of our freedom,” Abu Ibrahim said. “Just like the regime occupied the city, now ISIS is occupying the city.”

The strike was part of a campaign -- called “Raqqa is being silently slaughtered” -- that was launched in mid-April to draw attention to the Islamist group’s efforts to create a stronghold in Syria by oppressing and exploiting the residents. The goal, the activists say, is to return Raqqa to the broader opposition that rose up against the Assad government.

The campaign, with its Facebook groups, brief protests and calls for strikes, mirrors the trajectory taken by opposition activists when the Syrian uprising began in March 2011. And much like the government, ISIS has shown no tolerance for dissent, activists say.

Last week in a city square, ISIS summarily executed seven people accused of planting bombs, crucifying two of the men. Those two bodies were left hanging for three days.

“We felt the crucifixion was a direct threat to us,” said Abu Ibrahim, who, along with other activists, insists those executed were innocent.

After the launch of the campaign, ISIS leaders gave sermons at Friday prayers lambasting the activists as apostates who want a secular, democratic Syria and threatening to kill them.

On Friday, as activists were calling for the business strike, ISIS organized a military convoy of dozens of trucks with machine guns mounted on the back that drove throughout the city. Young residents were recruited to chant pro-ISIS slogans, said Sarmad Jilani, another campaign activist.

The convoy was meant as intimidation, he said.

ISIS has controlled the city and much of the province of Raqqa since January after a failed offensive by other Islamist rebels and the Free Syrian Army to push the group out. While elsewhere in Syria rebels have successful expelled the extremist group, many of whose fighters are foreigners, in Raqqa the group has become more entrenched and emboldened.

The conflict underscores deep divisions within the Syrian opposition. ISIS is gradually establishing an Islamic caliphate in Raqqa ruled by edicts that align with the group's extreme and harsh interpretation of Islam. In February, even Al Qaeda's central command announced it had severed ties with the group.

The launch of the civil campaign has been followed by a military campaign by rebel groups, led by the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade, which had been pushed to the edges of the province in January.

Though the rebels have regained control of a few villages in the west and are approaching the town of Tal Abyad, which sits on the Turkish border, they remain disorganized and short on weapons and ammunition, Abu Ibrahim said.

The rebels received two trucks of ammunition but don’t anticipate additional military aid, he said.

When ISIS first seized control of Raqqa in January, it was able to ingratiate itself with residents of the traditionally conservative province by appealing to their desire for an Islamic state, said Khalid, who fled to Turkey because he is wanted by ISIS and asked that his full name not be used for security reasons.

As time went on, he said, residents began to see the fighters' true nature.

“They didn’t come here searching for religion or revolution or an oppressed people,” he said. “After they seized control, all we saw was oppression and enslavement, which is what we initially rose up against.”

As a result of the campaign and previous efforts to publicize the group’s infractions against residents and rebels, some of ISIS’s foreign financial backers have withdrawn support, he said.

So far, the campaign has organized three brief protests, including one consisting of 10 men that lasted five minutes before ISIS soldiers arrived and they had to flee. Despite this, it was deemed a success.

Two following protests were held by women and called for the release of their husbands and sons detained by the Islamists.

Activists estimate more than 1,200 men and women are being held by the group.

Jilani and Abu Ibrahim are among only half a dozen activists left in the city, all of whom are wanted by ISIS. The campaign’s activism is all done in the dead of night and only for a few hours: distribute pamphlets in the streets and post signs on walls and shop windows.

“Like the day of the regime, we go out at night and distribute the pamphlets and then go back to our secret homes,” said Jilani, who hasn’t been to his home since January.

“We didn’t fear the [government] security forces the way that we now fear ISIS,” Jilani said. “Because ISIS executes people on the spot.”

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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