Azaz, Syria – Residents of parts of northern Syria say they are breathing easy again after living under the rule of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters, who hastily retreated from the area after the threat of attack from other rebel groups.
The eight-kilometre stretch of road from the Turkish border to the small town of Azaz in Aleppo province is now cleared of ISIL gunmen. The hardline group’s main checkpoint at the town’s entrance – under ISIL control since early August – has been abandoned.
ISIL insignia still cover a concrete barrier jutting out across the road, but the tanks that demonstrated the group’s military strength have vanished. Only a solitary sofa remains on the gravel roadside – where, until late last month, ISIL armed guards were stationed around the clock, restricting all movement in and out of the community.
“It feels like the town is smiling, laughing, happy,” Azaz resident Abu Bilal told Al Jazeera.
Battles between ISIL and its rival, al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, that began in early January have killed thousands of people – the deadliest fighting among opposition forces since Syria’s civil war began three years ago.
Azaz eventually had little strategic value to ISIS because it was cut off from the rest of its contiguous territory… and they were constantly under siege from rival factions. So the withdrawal was tactical.
At first united in their opposition against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the two groups fell out with one another due to ISIL’s brutality and its demands for strict adherence to its ideology. In late February, Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani warned ISIL to end the infighting among rebel groups or be “expelled” from northern Syria.
Before making the surprise retreat on February 28, ISIL had expanded its control north to just a few hundred metres of the Bab al-Salam camp for internally displaced people, which sits next to the border crossing into Turkey.
In mid-February, the group detonated a car bomb in the camp, killing at least two dozen people and terrifying the already traumatised residents.
Abu Ahmad was living right next to the spot where the vehicle detonated. His family’s tent was destroyed in the explosion. “Thanks to God, none of my family were inside at the time. All the children play near the road,” he said.
As Ahmad speaks, his eight-year-old son clings to his mother like a much younger child would, his eyes a steely blue-grey. But now, with the ISIL fighters gone, the family feels some relief from the constant fear, Ahmad said.
ISIL had demanded strict adherence to Islamic law with public beatings and executions for those who disobeyed. “Now that [ISIL] left, we feel better,” Ahmad said.
The camp – erected hastily in late 2012 and not long after eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands – used to have 6,000 residents, but it now houses 17,000 people. Having fled bombings and ISIL rule in Azaz, the 17,000 residents have been living in appalling conditions while they wait for the chance to return home.
Living next to the border crossing has not been easy for the camp’s residents, and any imagined safety because of its proximity to Turkey is just that. A huge battle between other rebel groups and ISIL took place here last September, in which 4×4 vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns surged towards Azaz to try to capture the town.
Since then, northern Syria has grown much more dangerous. Local and foreign journalists have been kidnapped and executed, NGO workers have been targeted for being “spies”, and residents have gone into hiding from ISIL’s unforgiving rule.
|The ISIL abandoned Azaz, but signs of the hardline group remain [Emma Beals/Al Jazeera]|
The border crossing, a vital supply route to the camp and the north of the country, has been closed periodically, depending on the perceived threat of ISIL.
With inconsistent access to supplies and a situation so dangerous that many NGOs and journalists have stopped coming, the camp and its residents have largely been left on their own for survival.
The stench in the Bab al-Salam camp is overwhelming at times. A combination of a lack of toilet facilities and waterlogged, swampy ground creates pools of green water and mud next to small dry patches of dirt where children play.
“We don’t feel any safety here. We are always afraid, afraid of [ISIL],” said Abu Muhammad, a father of two young sons from Aleppo. They have been living at the camp for more than a year.
ISIL has retreated to an area spanning from al-Bab in the west through Manbij and Jarabalus towards its stronghold in Raqqa, in Syria’s northeast.
“Azaz eventually had little strategic value to [ISIL] because it was cut off from the rest of its contiguous territory… and they were constantly under siege from rival factions. So the withdrawal was tactical,” explained Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who studies jihadist groups.
It's cheerful. You can leave town without any troubles. Thank God.
Azaz was home to an estimated 50,000 people before the war, but about 10,000 have fled, many because of the ISIL’s harsh rule.
“They were manipulating the religion, they forced people to do the prayers,” said Abu Bilal, a driver who works in the town. “They’d bring the people and chop their heads off in public. I mean that’s a person with a soul, right?”
Many residents were evasive when asked about life under ISIL, fearful of the group’s return and suspicious of a journalist’s questioning. Despite its retreat, ISIL has left behind loyalists and spies.
Liwa al-Tawhid, the rebel brigade now in control of Azaz, continues to root out support for the group. Loud explosions could be heard recently as ISIL booby-traps left behind were detonated.
A year ago, the town’s main street was desolate as Assad’s forces shelled Azaz with Scud missiles, a form of collective punishment against those who supported rebel fighters who took control of the Mennagh military airport a few kilometres away.
Today the town is bustling. Women walk freely along streets, and fruit and vegetables are available for sale in small shops. A man in a wheelchair sells cigarettes from a card table surrounded by a flock of children. Tobacco products had been banned by ISIL.
Supplies are also making their way back into the Bab al-Salam camp. The day ISIL left town, 200 trucks were waiting at the Turkish side of the Oncupinar border crossing when it opened for the day.
Yet maintaining the high spirits may not be easy. With high expectations for life after ISIL, the challenge for Liwa al-Tahwid and Jabhat al-Nusra will be maintaining order and ensuring access to supplies.
But for now, residents are enjoying their small victory. “It’s cheerful. You can leave town without any troubles. Thank God,” said Abu Bilal with a smile.