A war-ravaged Syria is no reason not to “love thy neighbor,” as al-Qaeda-allied groups demonstrated when they published YouTube videos of a recent “family fair” they hosted in a rebel-held neighborhood in Aleppo.
Although the account to which the videos were posted has since been terminated, stories of wholesome family fun in the name of rebuilding community remain.
Games and contests that, in any other setting, might seem sweet and light-hearted—evoking distant, childlike memories for adults who long for the bygone days of their youth—here appear slightly more dismal.
A video recording showed an ice cream eating contest for boys, set against a backdrop of Islamic State jihadist flags.
Then there was a playful tug of war between members of the two host militant groups.
For the girls, a Koran recitation contest.
The gathering was hosted by Jabhat al-Nusra, an extremist Syrian rebel group, and funded by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant—the Iraq-based “umbrella organization of insurgent groups” which claimed responsibility for a recent prison break that freed hundreds of convicts and senior members of al-Qaeda from the notorious Abu Ghraib jail.
Pamphlets and flags were distributed to the families, along with bread. The event’s MC was a foreign fighter, who joined the Syrian opposition as part of the Islamic State of Iraq, and spoke to a crowd of, what EA WorldView saw as “mostly children.”
But what drives such a peculiar turn in a typically subterranean group, known for operating in shadows and dark corners and speaking primarily to those who accompany them in often-destructive states of extremism?
Perhaps exactly that: their reputation.
Certainly gaining the support of the Syrian people during a two and a half year civil war is no easy feat—especially when the rebels seeking support have earned a reputation for being a formidable opponent of the equally unpopular president, with terrifying tactics and severe rule over the areas they control.
Is it a bizarre attempt to soften what has become a very hardened public perception? Perhaps. Is it enough to “clean up their image”? Probably not.
Not in a place that, as the United Nations Secretary General just announced yesterday, has now seen over 100,000 deaths since the outbreak of conflict—that is 7,000 more deaths than last month’s estimate.
Not in a place where food is scarce and work is simply absent for those who remain.
Syria is now a place that has had all its borders but one closed, forcing fleeing civilians back into an unpredictable and increasingly volatile war zone. To date, some 1.7 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries.
It is a place where the UN special envoy on children in war has expressed deep concern for the rising death toll of the country’s children.
And al-Qaeda is known for major human rights violations that include honor killings, severe violence against women and minorities, deadly attacks on both domestic and foreign soil—some for which they proudly accept all credit (including 9/11).
They offer support and encouragement to many other attacks. An NBC News article from May reported that a “new issue of the al Qaeda-published propaganda magazine Inspire crows about recent terrorist attacks in Boston and the U.K. and urges young Muslims to carry out similar ‘lone wolf’ operations against the west.”
It’s possible that events like the family fair may aid in uplifting community morale, but an astronomically greater relief could come if the rebels and the regime commit to the faltering Russia and US-backed peace talks — and end the war.