So says Aleppo-based activist and writer Abu Leila about Jimmy Shahinian, a young Syrian-Armenian activist who, at the time of our interview, was on a brief sojourn in Beirut from his hometown of Raqqa. The northern city and province had suffered heavy bombardments in recent days, but Jimmy was not in Lebanon to stay. He had “too much work” to do back in Raqqa, the first of Syria’s 14 provincial capitals to fall to rebel control in early March.
“How will you return to Syria?” I asked him.
“Al-tareeq al-nizami,” (the legal, regime route) he replied. “Al-nizam al-jadeed” (the new governing regime.)
Christian by religion and Armenian by ethnicity – groups that largely shunned or remained silent on the revolt – Jimmy would seem an unlikely figure to work alongside Syria’s rebels and opposition activists in the northern city of Raqqa.
The 25-year-old IT engineer has been arrested four times since the first anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011, the last time at the Palestine security branch in Damascus where both of his shoulders were dislocated. “They don’t like me because I break their narrative that all the minorities are with the regime,” he said. “I’m not just Christian. I’m Armenian.”
Despite the constant threat of bombardment – regime forces control the airspace above Raqqa and other major cities – Jimmy is concerned with the governing of his city, which will prove a long-term issue. Throughout Syria, civil infrastructure is in a state of disarray.
“For the past year, the regime had stopped operating trash collection in Raqqa because there was no money for the workers and gas was expensive,” he said. “The bus system was only picking up employees in the morning before work and the rest of the day they didn’t operate.”
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Only weeks after rebels took control, the first task of the local civilian council was to get the most critical municipal services up and running again.
“Civilians are running government and they have re-launched most of the services in the city. They fixed the garbage trucks, provided fuel, paid the workers. Now the bus system is running all day, and it’s free. There are two hospitals that were private and now they are public. Not all of the employees are back to work, but we’re trying to re-launch the most important services,” he told me when we first spoke in mid-March.
These basic functions have returned thanks to funding from Raqqa’s rich resources; the province is one of the top producers of cotton and sugar in Syria, not to mention its vast oil fields.
But the resources have also proven a source of contention between the people and the new sheriffs in town: mostly Islamist groups, with Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra at the forefront.
When al-Sham entered Raqqa during the rebel takeover, it took control of the governmental institutions, including the provincial capital’s central bank. In March, Jimmy said the rebels were only there to provide security; now he has a different view.
“We found out that Ahrar al-Sham took money from the Raqqa central bank and are using it in Homs and Damascus. Some say they will use it to buy weapons there,” he said.
A post to the Facebook page “Raqqa Eyewitness” on April 22 reads:
“By chance today we met Abu Hamza, the Emir of Ahrar al-Sham. He said part of the Raqqa money was sent to Damascus and Homs, and the rest will be distributed to the families of Raqqa in the next few days.”
Whether the group uses the funds for arms or aid, it will undoubtedly increase their influence and patronage network. “This money was meant for Raqqa,” Jimmy said, admitting that all activists can do is remain vigilant and spread the word.
‘We have to provide an alternative’
Jabhat al-Nusra has also secured a foothold in the northern city, and is intent on making further inroads. It could prove a major setback to any progress Raqqa has made in its rebuilding efforts.
Jimmy compared the group to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a group that was able to gain a foothold in northern Syria and fight Turkey for three decades. He said the reason for their success was that people on the ground became emotionally connected to the fighters – which could repeat, in Raqqa, with al-Nusra.
Al-Nusra’s members “are sons of the country. They give food, medicine, provide security. And they [appear to be] honest people, so people started to trust them and ask them to come to their areas.”
As al-Nusra’s popularity rises, the Free Syrian Army has taken a hit. “It always suffers from a lack of weapons, ammunition and sometimes even food,” Jimmy said, which could lead residents to seek what they perceive to be a more stable leader. “They kidnap rich people for money or steal the government cars or factories to sell off. They would even steal the communications antennae of the city and sell it for scrap metal. Say it’s worth $1 million – they sell it for $10,000 just because they have no money.
“Maybe half the FSA guys are good, 25 percent are thieves, and another quarter are influenced by the bad ones. As a result, the whole battalion gets a bad reputation and the good half end up joining Jabhat al-Nusra because they don’t want to be associated.”
The young activist points out that while many battalions are affiliated with Nusra, few are part of the elite fighting force.
“There are so many conditions to be in Jabhat al-Nusra. In Raqqa there are about 135 of them who memorized the whole Koran by heart; other battalions in Raqqa give their word that they will fight with them, but they are not Jabhat al-Nusra. Jabhat al-Nusra has very advanced and new weapons – they even have tanks, so many battalions want to fight with them for supplies.”
Nusra, the state, and oil politics
While Jabhat al-Nusra and its affiliates are ideological on the religious front, the business end of the operation is unorthodox. “They negotiated with the regime over oil,” according to Jimmy.
“The regime paid Jabhat al-Nusra so that workers would be allowed to repair the pipeline in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa,” he said.
Such negotiations between the Islamist group and the regime, conducted through a middleman, are not unusual, and have included other supplies like electricity, according to Jimmy.
“They don’t have any problem negotiating with the regime for money. Their program is for the long term – their immediate goals are to be accepted by the people, to attract more supporters and fighters, and to be more powerful. It is not their main purpose to destroy the regime… they can wait,” he said.
This is tough competition for moderate fighters and activists, but in Raqqa the ground is being laid to provide citizens with a viable substitute.
“Either you can fight Jabhat al-Nusra head on and put yourself in a fight with them, or you create alternatives,” Jimmy said. “Raqqa has a vacuum now, so you need to fill the necessary roles but with moderate approach.”
The Raqqa Local Coordination Committee and the civilian council are working to offer the same services that the jihadist group does. They are also building a new military brigade limited to Raqqa men.
“Syrians in Jabhat al-Nusra will never kill a Christian, Assyrian, or Kurd, but the people who come from the outside do not know how to deal with the local minorities,” he said.
Armenians, the largest number of defectors
Jimmy’s name automatically sets him apart as an Armenian – now a potentially dangerous distinction – but he was set to return to Syria with the help of the Raqqa rebels a week after our interview.
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He has helped a number of his fellow Armenians defect from the Syrian Army.
“Just last week, 17 Armenian soldiers escaped from the army to Raqqa,” he said.
According to Jimmy, there are 360 Armenian soldiers in the Syrian army. Of those, 62, or 17 percent, have defected, the minority with the largest number of defectors.
On Jimmy’s Facebook page, he writes in the religion slot that “My sect is Syrian” – a statement against the rising sectarianism in his country. He acknowledges that most minorities will be wary of the “new regime” being created in Raqqa and elsewhere. Indeed, most Armenian families have fled the Islamist-held provincial capital. The local Armenian Church of the Martyrs sits untouched, but empty.
Jimmy may be a revolutionary, but he is not immune to the traditions of his community – one of which is to marry a fellow Armenian. So it follows that his fiancé is a Syrian-Armenian woman from the northern city of Qamishli, in neighboring Hasakeh province. She is, no surprise, pro-revolution.