AKCAKALE, Turkey – A family comes across the border under cover of twilight, ten strong, carrying their hastily-packed possessions. Other refugees huddle in doorways, sit on dusty side streets. Children cling to mothers’ chests as sustained blasts of anti-aircraft fire ring out.
A few hundred meters away, across the Turkish frontier in the Syrian town of Tal Abyad earlier this month, rival opposition factions were engaged in bloody street combat.
“Enough,” says Essa, a resident of the town who fled to Turkey two days ago. “The regime, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), al-Qaeda: none of them is any good.”
There are the sharp, metallic cracks of sniper rounds; every few minutes the ground shakes from rocket fire.
The fighting in Tal Abyad is the latest twist in Syria’s nearly three-year internecine civil war, which has seen the Saudi Arabian-backed Islamic Front (IF) and FSA militias battle the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – an al-Qaeda-linked Takfiri group, dominated by foreign fighters.
An estimated 700 people have been killed during the nearly two weeks of clashes, including 100 civilians, which have forced ISIS to abandon its Aleppo headquarters – summarily executing 50 prisoners as it left – while bringing fresh chaos to dozens of towns throughout the rebel-occupied north.
In the eastern city of Raqqa, an ISIS stronghold linking the group to its heartland of Anbar Province in neighboring Iraq, civilians have scurried from the al-Mashlab neighbourhood, fleeing ongoing artillery bombardments and car bombings.
Meanwhile, rebels in Idlib province – one of the main entry points for international fighters – have executed around two dozen ISIS fighters.
Tensions between ISIS and other rebel groups have mounted over the past few months as rival brigades compete for resources and territory. The ISIS controls swathes of northern Syria, particularly border areas.
Meanwhile, the group has become notorious for its brutality. It has opened fire on protesters and practiced widespread use of decapitation.
“They put a chopped-off head in the middle of the room and required each of us to hold it by the ears and estimate its weight,” a prisoner who escaped an ISIS prison told the newspaper al-Hayat. “As for ‘the Egyptian executioner,’ he placed his sword against the neck of an Armenian prisoner and said that ‘it is fresh and will not trouble me much’.”
The spark for the latest round of violence appears to have been ISIS’ abduction of a leading opposition figure, Hussein al-Suleiman, a physician and commander of the Salafi group, Ahrar al-Sham, which falls under the IF banner.
An image of Suleiman’s mutilated corpse indicated that he had been severely tortured during his detention. One of his ears had been hacked off, his chest carved and the top of his head blown off.
Some Syrians argue that ISIS is a proxy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a tool to both splinter and defame the opposition. At anti-ISIS protests, to date small in scale, demonstrators regularly chant that “Assad and ISIS are one.”
Analysts note that the regime is “fully capable” of manipulating the group, citing ISIS’ relatively limited use of car bombs targeting the regime and Assad’s previous manipulation of jihadists in the region. The regime released scores of militant Islamists from Syrian prisons in the early stages of the uprising, who joined protests.
Assad has used the threat of radical Islamists as an effective narrative device over the past three years, effectively staving off a Libya-style Western intervention or more robust support for rebel factions, while ensuring that Syria’s minorities view the regime as the guarantor of their survival in the face of an austere Sunni insurgency drawing most of its support from the country’s rural, conservative poor.
As such, there is resentment of rebel factions among the more urbane Syrians from metropolitan centers.
“The situation for me is about my home and not being able to be in my room until God knows when. It is all the beautiful memories that were a big part of my life,” says a Christian refugee now living in Istanbul.
“It is that all those beautiful places are gone. All I have to do is think about who is responsible for all this: those pigs or ‘rebels’.”
While it is unlikely that the regime directly controls ISIS, it does have established ties to some radical threads of Sunni Muslim militancy, which it is capable of exploiting.
Shaker al-Abssi, the former leader of the Lebanese jihadist group Fatah al-Islam (FI), ran training camps on Syrian soil in the mid-2000s, in which suicide bombers were reportedly equipped before being sent on to Iraq.
Syrian intelligence officers are believed to have coordinated FI’s operations in Lebanon’s Nahr al-Barid refugee camp, which the Lebanese Army laid siege to in 2007, following an FI attack on a military checkpoint.
A number of FI fighters have been killed in Syria over the past three years.
Yet ISIS – which evolved out of al-Qaeda’s Syria representative, Jabhat al-Nusra – does retain some measure of public support. Well-financed, its fighters have largely avoided dependency on looting to gain revenue, unlike other rebel groups.
“The fact is, ISIS exists because there is support for it from the Syrian population,” says a security advisor working in northern Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press.
And few people doubt the zealotry of its fighters, who view the war in Syria as a near mythical battle between the Sunnis and Shiites for ownership of Islam.
For Mohammed, a refugee from Aleppo now living in southern Turkey, ISIS has provided “security” in areas it controls.
“If they catch a thief they kill him. Its fighters are very pure Muslims,” he says.
In Tal Abyad, fighters from Ahrar al-Sham warm themselves beside a drum kicking up flames. There is a thump from tank blasts and continuous shelling. In a few hours ISIS will drive its opponents from the town, reportedly executing up to 70 opposition fighters.
Armoured Turkish police trucks patrol the border. Refugees while away the hours. A child kicks around a plastic bottle. Stray bullets occasionally fly overhead.
“I don’t know if I will have anything to go back to,” says Saleh, a refugee from Tal Abyad, as he looks out across the border.