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Analysis: Syrian civilians are caught in the middle as rebel forces fight the government, Kurdish forces, and each other.
REYHANLI, Turkey — Kamal Oskan knows more about Syria's war than most of the country's writers.
He’s spent the last two years traveling throughout rebel-held Syria, gathering reporting for articles that run in a magazine dedicated to covering the conflict.
“Before it was no problem to go anywhere but now it is so dangerous,” said Oskan, a journalist for Sora magazine, published in Turkey.
But freedom of movement in rebel areas has become increasingly difficult since major clashes between Kurdish forces, Islamic and secular rebel groups began in March, Oskan said.
Islamic rebel groups “have checkpoints on every road. Anyone Kurdish, any journalist, Syrian or foreign, is captured or killed no matter who they are or what they are doing there.”
Oskan has lost many Syrian friends and colleagues, captured mainly by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al Qaeda-linked group known by the acronym ISIS.
The Syrian conflict began as a revolution against the Assad government in March 2011. But it has since become a multi-faceted war where opposition groups fight each other and kidnappings and executions take place on every side, often with sectarian motivations.
In multiple interviews with GlobalPost, Syrians and activists describe an increasingly desperate situation.
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As fighting grows more widespread, life for civilians has deteriorated rapidly. More than 2 million have fled the country and as many as seven million more have been internally displaced.
Fighting between Kurdish forces and Islamist rebels has placed Oskan’s home town of Qamishli under seige, he said.
“There is no medicine. The economy is collapsing. There is food but it is limited,” Oskan said. “We rely on local agriculture. We can’t access any border crossing to Turkey because of the fighting. The only way to get supplies is by crossing illegally, but the Turkish government monitor the borders closely.”
In the town of Ariha in central Idlib province, at least half the population of 50,000 has fled, according to three students who had recently arrived in Antakya, Turkey.
Locals estimate 70 percent of the city is damaged from constant fighting between government troops, Islamic groups and the Free Syrian Army, all of which have controlled the town at some point during the past two years.
Last month, government troops retook the city.
“It was a terrifying war,” said Ahmed, a university student who asked to be identified by first name only. “The government soldiers are more powerful now. They reached the rebel areas around the city and have taken the mountains. [Government] militiamen have seized a lot of peoples’ houses and shops.”
Before Assad’s forces returned, a coalition force of three Islamic groups — Jabhat al Nusra, ISIS and Ahrar Al Sham — controlled the city for around a week. The three rebel extremist factions have been growing in power and influence over the past year, and now control large areas in Syria’s north.
“During this time the city wasn’t stable. There was only two days without fighting,” Ahmed said.
"When the Islamic groups came they were trying to provide a better picture than the government so they treated the people very well, but I think if they gained full control they would enforce strict rules. They think they are giving something good to the Syrian people but I look at them like enemies of the future.”
In other areas solidly under the control of ISIS, strict Islamic laws have begun to be enforced.
One female activist in Aleppo sent a list via email of new regulations now being enforced in her area. These include strict dress codes for women, the banning of makeup and the removal of advertisements with images of women and displays of women’s clothing. The activist said women are now forbidden to sit in public areas, while women’s tailor shops with male employees have been closed.
Mohammed, a civilian living in the town of Saraquib, near Aleppo, said most of Idlib province is under the influence of ISIS.
“They enter the cities and control everything,” Mohammed said. “They are not like Jabhat al Nusra or Ahrar al Sham who fight the government forces on the edge of the cities. ISIS fight everything: foreigners, nationals, other opposition groups, even the walls…They are feared and distrusted by the people.”
But, he said, the regulations enforced by ISIS vary by location. In Saraquib and a handful of villages, Mohammed said the Free Syrian Army and local leaders still have some influence. In Saraqib, Islamic rules have not been imposed. Alcohol is still available and women’s dress, while traditional, has not altered he said.
Still, Mohammed described the situation for locals as dismal. Tribal feuds have increased and regime aircraft continue to bomb the city day and night. Public buildings are filled with the displaced fleeing from other areas.
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As the situation has deteriorated, Mohammed said his friends and neighbors increasingly blame a lack of intervention by foreign powers, particularly the United States.
“Before we used to look to America for help, but now we hate the USA and the West very much,” he said. “We burn American cars and throw Pepsi cans in the streets.”
At the same time, activists working to build democratic institutions have found their work increasingly under attack from Islamist rebels. Rajaa Altalli, co-director of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria, described a visit to Saraqib last week.
“What made me sad and frightened was not the bombing or the extremist leaders but the hopelessness,” she said during an interview at her office in Turkey. “If we cannot mobilize people, how can we build the blocks of democracy and equal rights that are necessary to form the future of Syria.”
Her organization has 10 offices throughout Syria. As the Islamic influence has taken hold, Altalli said it has become increasingly difficult to operate within rebel areas.
The group runs projects on peace building, transitional justice and advocacy for equal rights and free media. But even the mention of the word democracy puts their offices and activists at risk. In many areas they can only work in secret.
“It’s not easy. There are a lot of challenges and it is dangerous work,” Altalli said.
“We often discuss whether or not we should continue, but it is crucial to begin the work now of building a foundation for the future of Syria based on human rights, equality and women’s rights.”
For Adam, an economics student who fled Syria this week to look for work in Turkey, the situation seems hopeless.
“When I think about all that has happened in my country between the government and the opposition groups, the people who have lost the most are the civilians,” he said.
“We have lost almost everything. Our memories have been destroyed. We are afraid to return to our own cities. The Syria we knew is gone.”