Since the beginning of Syria’s uprising, opposition supporters have been asking for international intervention in the country’s war. Their demands for help came in various forms, starting with a request to set up a no-fly zone over Syria and ending with pleas to provide arms, training and funding to those willing to fight President Bashar al-Assad.
Yet the launch of U.S.-led military strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) provoked Syrians to take to the streets in protest. Many condemned the airstrikes and some swore allegiance to ISIS as newly minted sympathizers with the extremist group.
A series of those demonstrations have been held in Idlib, in areas where residents have suffered from the brutality of ISIS and of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate. Despite their bitter experiences, Idlib residents stood up to oppose the military strike targeting those groups.
To understand why requires a close look at the view from the ground. Kafranbel, a town located in the Idlib countryside, was made famous in the early days of the uprising for its civic engagement and democratic spirit. Its banners and caricatures that satirized Syria’s bleak political situation found a global following on Facebook and other internet channels.
On September 26, Kafranbel’s residents demonstrated against the U.S.-led strikes, tagging their protest with the banner “Civilians Don’t Need Any More International Murderers.” The biggest surprise was when protesters held a sizeable Jabhat al-Nusra flag during the demonstration, a rare signal of support for the al-Qaida affiliate in what has been considered a moderate part of Syria. Even Syrians themselves were surprised by the turn.
Mahmoud, 31, teaches elementary students art in Kafranbel. He said that he took part in the protests out of personal frustration; he felt the world didn’t pay attention to all the bloodshed in Syria until a handful of Americans and Europeans were killed.
“We’re being killed on a daily basis, and we begged the world to help us, but they didn’t give us any support. Now that one American citizen is killed, the [U.S.] turned to its fleets,” he said.
“Is James Foley’s blood considered blood, but the blood of our children and youth is considered water? Why have they constantly ignored our deaths over the last four years?” Tears ran down Mahmoud’s face as he kept speaking. “More than 1,000 young men from al-Shiaytat [a Syrian tribe] were murdered in cold blood by ISIS in Deir Ezzor. Why didn’t the world intervene then? More than 1,400 people were killed by the chemical attack. What did Mr. Obama do? Let him leave us be, we don’t want anything from him.”
Just as Mahmoud finished his sentence, the sound of a regime helicopter zipped overhead, in an attack that dropped two barrels bombs on the town.
“We don’t know who’s bombing us anymore,” he said sarcastically. “There are way too many airplanes in the sky; it seems as if they need a traffic police officer to coordinate their flights.”
Another local man named Abou Qutayba agreed with Mahmoud. The 51-year-old farmer from Ma’aret Masreen in the Idlib countryside expressed similar concerns.
“Why now?” he asked. “There is no use fighting ISIS. They have become a reality. If you cut off Assad’s head, then ISIS will wither and die on its own.”
He left and rode his bicycle home, unaware that those words would be his last: he died the same day during an air raid that targeted his village. His statement was not shared out of pretension or with political prowess. They were merely the questions of a farmer.
Abu al-Miqdad, a young man in his late 20s, sees the U.S.-led coalition as simply “the world’s way to wage a new war against Islam, this time, with the help of Muslim states,” referring to the five Arab countries launching strikes on Syria.
In his view, “the world doesn’t want any country to be ruled by Islamic law, that’s why they’ve destroyed Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. Today it’s Syria.”
He then rhetorically asked, “Why weren’t the Shiite militias considered terrorist groups? Why hasn’t the coalition bombed Hezbollah and the Abou Fadel al-Abbas brigade? It’s obvious. It’s a war against Sunni Islam and a way to resuscitate the Assad regime.”
Abu Ahmad, 26, is a rebel fighter who’s stationed in northern Syria. He explained how Syrians shifted position on the coalition strike, once it began.
“The residents of Ma’arat Masreen were hoping [the coalition] military operations would begin. They were wishing they would be an alliance against Assad so as to tackle the main cause of terrorism and not the outcome of it.”
“How does the world expect the Syrians to believe that this is meant to protect them from terrorism, while the first missile fired by them in Kfar Diryan in northern Idlib killed 13 civilians including children? The Americans must be more careful while launching their next strikes. Syrians can no longer bear death. Any civilian causalities will empower ISIS and boost its popularity.”