Tal Rifaat: A Hill With Many Flags

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

جولات تل رفعت

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In February 2016, a number of websites published an aerial photograph showing trucks in Tal Rifaat, purported to belong to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), carrying furniture that has been looted from the homes of civilian in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo. That was nearly two months after the YPG had seized control over the city, following fierce battles in which 80 people from Tal Rifaat died in defense of their town.

The news was disturbing. All testimonies of the battles confirmed it, and when I tried to verify them myself using other sources, everyone I asked confirmed these details as well. I sensed that the moral residues of this incident may yet need years to be overcome, especially that it is happening in Tal Rifaat, one of the most prominent bastions of the revolution in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and one of the main strongholds of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in that region.

That took me back to the three months I had spent in Tal Rifaat. I reminisced about the kind nature of its people, their pride in their city. and the great sacrifice they have made for the sake of sparking and carrying the torch of the revolution in Aleppo.

Tal Arphad: The Deep Roots

The archeology of the Tal (Hill) dates back to antiquity. It is approximately as ancient as many of the oldest cities of the Levant, including Hama, Homs and Latakia. The city was first inhabited nearly five thousand years ago. In the second millennium BC, it was an Aramean city-state, along with other city-states in the Syrian interior, such as Aram Damascus, Hamath, Paddan Aram, and Bit Agusi. The latter state stretched from Aleppo to Carchemish, and its capital was Arpad (or Arfad in another dialect).

The name Arpad is Aramaic (meaning stretch or support), and its state emerged in the latter part of the second millennium BC –following the fall of the Hittites– and lasted until the mid-eighth century BC, when it finally fell to the Assyrians. By the late seventh century BC, Arpad fell to the Neo-Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar II, who conquered the Levant and incorporated it into his rule in Iraq. Arpad was mentioned in the Old Testament as the city in Aram province which Assyrians took pride in having captured.

Kingdoms and civilizations have alternated throughout the city’s history. It has fallen to successive conquerors, including Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans, who remained in Arpad since the first century AD until the seventh, when the Islamic empire integrated it. It has been known as Tal Arphad in all the later eras since that time.

At the end of the Turkish era, Tal Arphad became Tal Rifaat. The new name appeared for the first time in 1912 on a train station banner in the city, which is still present in that station until today.

Demographics of Tal Rifaat

By administrative divisions, Tal Rifaat is a district which involves a number of surrounding villages and towns. The center of the district is the city of Tal Rifaat, with a population of about 35,000. The services its population enjoy, and the Tal Rifaat court, have helped the city expand and grow. Education is widespread among its population by more than 75%, with illiteracy being limited to the elderly.

The majority of the town’s residents are Arabs, with few families of Turkmen and Kurdish descent. No dissimilarity is observed, however, between the groups of residents. All of them, regardless of ethnicity, are related by age-old kinship ties.

Mohammed Walid, a teacher of history, spoke of the population in his hometown: “The people of Tal Rifaat have long been famous for their tolerance and good treatment of guests and strangers, which is why their city has been a sanctuary for families who were forced to leave their cities and towns. Many of Tal Rifaat’s families have settled in after having to leave their homes because of incidents such as revenge and tribal disputes, for example.”

One of the most renowned personalities to have been born in the city was sheikh Bashir Allito. In addition to being an important religious authority, he was a chief notable of Tal Rifaat and its surrounding towns, authorized by the townspeople to settle their issues and resolve their disputes. Sheikh Bashir passed away in 1997.

Religiosity in Tal Rifaat

The people of Tal Rifaat are generally devout, and most of them tend to follow Sufi practices. During the uprising in 1980s, the city suffered from the regime’s brutal crackdown. It was rare to find in Tal Rifaat a household without relatives who were detained or went missing during that dark chapter of Syrian history.

Since the early 1990s, a new salafist movement began to emerge, most notably at the hands of sheikh Ahmad Fayyad – he was only lately killed in the notorious Al-Raa’i explosion in 2014, during which a Daesh suicide bomber targeted a high-level meeting of FSA leaders. A graduate of the Faculty of Sharia from Damascus University, sheikh Ahmad was an imam of one of Tal Rifaat mosques. “Sheikh Ammad’s inclination was merely that of a missionary (daawa),” said Osama Hadba, a media activist from Tal Rifaat. “He used to call upon people to renounce heresies, such as seeking blessings or performing supplications at shrines, which was indeed a widespread tradition among the local population. His preaching was received positively by the people, and more followers began to seek his counsel ever since.”

The Salafi doctrine has become apparent by 2005, and its followers were growing in number day after day. It was noticeable that they were mostly educated, students and graduates of universities, as well as high schools students.

From Nonviolent Uprising Up to Armed Insurrection

The first demonstrations in Tal Rifaat took place in April of 2011, during the first siege of Daraa. Protesters took to the streets on a Friday, calling for the lifting of that siege. They were in the hundreds, and they spent half an hour before the district municipal administrator arrived and addressed them, promising reform at times, and backhandedly intimidating them at others. A detention campaign ensued, which targeted the young people who participated in the demonstrations.

The movement persisted, however, and the ceiling of demands slowly rose afterwards, concurrent with the rising frequency of raids and arrests. Local Coordination-Committees emerged, and better organized revolutionary activity began to take hold. Tal Rifaat Coordination-Committees began distributing leaflets and spraying graffiti on the walls, and it was during this time that the chant of “overthrowing the regime” grew unequivocal.

The FSA appeared in the city at the end of 2011, first as a form of reaction to the regime’s repression of peaceful demonstrations, especially in response to the detention policy adopted by the regime by then. Having grown increasingly irate with the regime’s nefarious oppression, and encouraged by several defections from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) who opted out of it to protect the peaceful movement, many young men in the city decided to take up arms.

In that period, Tal Rifaat was famous as the city that harbors defectors, whereby any soldier to defect from the SAA would seek refuge in its neighborhoods, or coordinate with its youths so that his road to defection be secured. This resulted in the departure of hundreds of soldiers from many military units in the northern countryside of Aleppo, notably the Infantry Academy and Menagh Military Airbase, most of whom made Tal Rifaat, or the neighboring town of Marea, their final destination. The presence of large numbers of defectors helped organize the armed insurrection, which would later gain momentum and lead to the liberation of the entire city.

According to media activist Shahm Arphad, the decision to liberate the city was taken after a significant incident at the end of 2011: “During one of the demonstrations, several buses full of security personnel headed to Tal Rifaat to suppress the demonstrations, which were taking place near the train tracks. Clashes erupted with sticks and stones as the security forces started assaulting the demonstrators, which coincided with the passage of the train. This, this split the security forces into two groups: a group in the midst of the demonstrators, and another on the opposite side.”

Shahm went on: “The other group immediately fled, leaving the other group beleaguered in the midst of angry protesters. They were around 30 privates. The protesters arrested all of them. After the news arrived to the security headquarters in Aleppo, more than 100 buses loaded with security units were en route to Tal Rifaat, which was soon besieged and threatened to be stormed if the privates are not handed over. At that point, several elders and notables of the city intervened, and the people agreed to deliver the privates under the condition that security forces retreat from their positions. The privates were then handed over and the security fortifications retreated without clashes.”

After this incident, heated debates occurred between citizens in the city, mainly revolving around the following issue: For how long will security forces roam free to violate the city? How long will arrest campaigns continue? How do we allow the security to take our sons to certain death? The youth behind the movement grew more convinced of the necessity of liberating the city, and completely preventing the security from entering the city, no matter the cost. Military action began to take shape on a larger scale, and following the capture of the city’s police station, the security checkpoints erected around the area were forced to retreat, and flee the area.

By 2012, Tal Rifaat was completely Assad-free.

The Organization of Military Action

In early 2012, as military action in the city was taking shape, receiving more fighters willing to join the resistance, several battalions surfaced. Most of the city fighters belonged to two military formations: Al-Fateh Brigade, with its headquarters in Tal Rifaat, and Al-Tawhid Brigade, with its headquarters in Marea. Both formations survived the past few years and are still active in the Aleppo region, Al-Tawhid being the core of the current large rebel group the Levant Front.

After liberating the northern countryside, the fighters of Tal Rifaat headed, along with rebels from other cities and towns, to the city of Aleppo, where they managed to conquer its eastern neighborhoods. By mid-2012, the average number of rebel fighters in Tal Rifaat was about five thousand, which would later decrease but is still close to this figure.

While the overwhelming majority of Tal Rifaat fighters are affiliated with FSA factions, a meagre number joined jihadist groups, such as Daesh (no more than 150) and An-Nusra Front (no more than 400). Osama Hadba attributed that to “the predominant patterns and forms of religiosity which contributed to the reluctance of most of them to join extremist organizations such as Daesh.”

Daesh’s Grudge Against Tal Rifaat

Perhaps the most prominent incident in the city’s revolutionary phase, one that had a significant impact as to what has happened later on in Tal Rifaat, is the death of Haji Bakr, a founding leader of Daesh.

The story started in mid-2013, when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced his self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. An-Nusra Front (currently Tahrir al-Sham) rejected the claim and declared its secession. Some fighters affiliated with the Front pledged allegiance to the State, wherein some of the Front’s locations became the State’s, with the former maintaining only a few. Daesh fighters were nearly 500, most of whom were not native to Tal Rifaat, with a large presence of non-Syrian emigrant jihadists.

The clashes with Daesh took place immediately thereafter, as its fighters sought to penetrate all sectors, starting with interference in the distribution of FSA checkpoints, and not limited to involvement in the civil activities of the Local Council and other institutions. They sought to control everything: bakeries, electricity, water, education, occasionally having to verbally quarrel with locals and FSA fighters, without the situation escalating to armed conflict.

At the end of 2013, a Daesh fighter shot and killed an FSA fighter for refusing to stop at one of their checkpoints. That killing had major consequences, increased tensions, and coincided with Idlib’s FSA factions launching large-scale campaign against Daesh to expel it from their areas. Tal Rifaat fighters took part in that campaign and executed similar attacks on Daesh command centers, managing to expel the extermist organization and rid their city of its presence.

According to Osama Hadba’s account of the killing of Haji Bakr: “During the fighting to liberate the city, the FSA took control of its majority, whereby Daesh forces were trapped in its northern districts. FSA forces then managed to launch a final assault to expel them. One of the houses, which was known as being inhabited by a leader in the organization, was raided without the fighters knowing who that leader is. After asking him to surrender, he refused and began firing, and after an exchange of fire for half an hour, an FSA fighter was able to fatally shoot him, after which his two sons and wife were arrested.” Later on, the dead person was found to be Haji Bakar, the senior strategist responsible for the expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq into Syria, and a former colonel in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence services.

Shortly after, Deash announced its determination to avenge Haji Bakar, launching a battle it called “Revenge for the Chaste Women,” which listed clearly among its goals the capture of Tal Rifaat specifically, given that Haji Bakr had been killed there. The purpose of the operational name seems to be the incitement of its fighters by alleging that the Free Army had abused the women of Daesh.

The fighters of Tal Rifaat, as well as Marea and many other towns and villages in the north, resisted the attack waged by Daesh, forming a strong barrier which halted the substantial territorial advance that had been achieved by the organization until that time. Daesh had been sweeping the areas one after the other, and no place withstood its invasion whether in Iraq or in Syria. It was finally stopped at the cusp of the northern countryside of Aleppo.

The British Journalists Rescue

Another prominent incident that Tal Rifaat has witnessed and gained international media coverage was the rescue of British journalists Jack Hill and Anthony Loyd, who worked for The Times, a few hours after their kidnapping.

This story began after the two journalists, who were arriving from Turkey, passed through Bab al-Salameh border crossing accompanied by a Syrian man called Mahmoud Basha. They all ventured into Aleppo city, and after they finished their work there, they headed back to the border crossing. However, it was late in the evening and the Bab al-Salameh would only open within working hours, so they decided to go to Tal Rifaat to spend the night there.

They all went to the house of one of Mahmoud’s friends, whom they did not find there. As they waited for the friend, an FSA commander, with whom they had conducted an interview earlier, happened to pass by. He asked them to join him for dinner and stay the night in his place, which they gladly accepted. In the following morning, they told him of their intention to go to the crossing border, and so he sent a car to accompany them.

Before arriving in the border city of Azaz, 2km away from the Turkish border, two cars blocked their way, and masked men stepped down and arrested everyone inside. They handcuffed Mahmoud and the two journalists, threw them in the trunk of the car and closed it.

Mahmoud narrated what happened with them later: “After they handcuffed us and put us in the the trunk, they rode us around for half an hour, then stopped. One of them would come every now and then and bang on the trunk of the car, as an indication that he is there.” He continues: “I heard the sounds of cars, and some noise, so I deduced that we were in a populated area; not in the middle of nowhere. I decided to try to escape, and the closer journalist encouraged me to do so. When the guard came to check on us, and as he slightly opened the trunk, I pushed the lid, which struck him on the face and knocked him down. I grabbed an iron rod from the car and struck him with it on his head, and he lost consciousness. We took the cuffs off and opened the door of the warehouse, and to our astonishment, armed guards were at the door. I ran with my fellow journalists, and the militants began to chase us before shooting at us, injuring one in his leg and causing him to fall to the ground. But I was able to escape.”

Mahmoud said he knew the moment he left the warehouse that he was in Tal Rifaat. He asked a passerby on a motorcycle for help. He gave him directions to the dwelling of his friend, who was a media activist in the Islamic Front at the time. He reached his friend and told him what had happened. His friend immediately informed the Islamic Front’s security committee, which was quick to take action and raided the headquarters and rescued the British journalists. They were later transferred to the field hospital for treatment of the gunshot wound one of them had sustained, and the bruises the other had. Those who had kidnapped them fled as they saw the security committee cars approaching their outpost. The journalists then went to Bab al-Salameh crossing border and crossed to Turkey, where a representative from the British Embassy was awaiting them.

I asked the Islamic Front media activist who assisted in the rescue operation: “How could a commander in the FSA do such an egregious thing as kidnapping a journalist? Are these the ethics of the FSA?” to which he promptly replied: “A grape is innocent of the wine’s misdeeds. Their claim to belong to the FSA does not automatically mean that he is a Free Army commander. He was but a common criminal and thief who rode the wave of the rebellion for his own personal gains. I would thank you to distinguish between those who claim to belong to the Free Army and those who really are FSA rebels.

The Complex Political and Military Situation

On October, 20th 2016, several formations of the FSA announced the launching of the battle to liberate Tal Rifaat from the YPG militias. Intense clashes broke out between the two sides, which lasted for two days, but then suddenly halted the area returned to its previous calm.

One of the FSA commanders, who asked to remain anonymous, mentioned the great pressures exerted on them. He stated that such a battle needed a political decision, and it could not be initiated without a green light from several powers, notably Russia, the United States and Turkey. In his words, Tal Rifaat is the “barometer” for the entire northern countryside.

He went on to explain recent developments: “Before the outbreak of fighting between the FSA and YPG at the end of 2015, the Kurdish militia offered several leaders to be involved in their joint operations command for fighting Daesh. The FSA leadership declined the offer for several reasons. One was that the operations command excluded itself from fighting the regime, opting to concentrate only on Daesh, which is contrary to the principles of the revolution that considered fighting both Daesh and the regime to be the only fruitful path. Another reason is the nationalist separatist tendency within YPG leadership. Tensions became overwhelming, until hostilities broke out again by the end of 2015. In February 15th, 2016, the Kurdish fighters took control over Tal Rifaat with the help of Russian air support.” The rebel leader concluded, “Northern Syria cannot be in peace until Tal Rifaat is returned to its locals, and the tensions will continue to arise as long as YPG stay stubborn in their refusal to withdraw from the city. The return to battles is only a matter of time.”

Displacement and Demographic Change

Up to early August of 2016, the city of Tal Rifaat was all but empty and desolate. When Syrian Democratic Forces took control of Tal Rifaat, all the residents left the city to the neighboring FSA-controlled camps and villages, especially the city of Azaz, Sajo camp, and Turkey, for fear of reprisals or operations of ethnic cleansing. Tal Rifaat was utterly devoid of any human being.

The leadership of the Syrian Democratic Forces there reiterates that they are not purely Kurdish forces, and that there are Arab fighters affiliated with them, particularly in Tal Rifaat area and its surroundings – those fight in the Army of Revolutionaries (or Jaysh al-Thuwar). Facts on the ground, however, contradict this. The Kurdish YPJ constitute the backbone of the Democratic Forces, and they are the people in de facto control of Tal Rifaat. This is confirmed by the subsequent treatment the people of Tal Rifaat receive at their checkpoints, and their haste to re-name the city to the ancient pre-Turkification name, Arpad.

Three months later, several groups of displaced residents attempted to return to their city after they grew unable to sustain living in exile. However, YPG security checkpoints refused to allow them in, stating that Tal Rifaat is a military zone to which civilians are not allowed entry. Since the beginning of last September, the YPG has allowed approximately 1,000 people to move into the city, all of whom had fled earlier, specifically to the Kurdish-majority city of Afrin, or those who have a relatives or family members fighting within the ranks of the regime’s army or working in one of its security branches. Those who had fled to FSA-held areas were not allowed to return at all.

Abu Waheed, a displaced citizen from Tal Rifaat, believes that the YPG militia seeks to enact demographic transformation in the region. The evidence for that is that the first thing it did was change the names of many of the cities and towns. “Tal Rifaat is one of the obstacles that hinder the establishment of a Kurdish entity that YPG dreams of accomplishing in the north of Syria,” Abu Waheed added. “The youth of Tal Rifaat are replete with the spirit of the revolution, and the Kurdish militias are aware that they will not cease their resistance to their agendas and might well prevent them from succeeding. This is why they are keen to being courteous as they allow some to return to their homes. But they have allowed only those whose areas had not witnessed any anti-regime activities, considering them to be posing no danger to them in the future.”

“The YPG policies are seriously catastrophic” in Osama Hadba’s opinion: “They are sowing hatred in the hearts of Syrian citizens who had remained side-by-side for decades, without disputes of this nature ever arising among them. How could people forget their martyrs? How could they forget displacing of residents and looting of property? All of these actions will shape future social relations. This militia is tampering with the fate of an entire people in order to achieve goals that are, if not malicious, suspicious to say the least.”

Tal Rifaat has been a small town in the northern countryside of Aleppo, and perhaps not many Syrians have even heard of its name in their lifetime. Now, the cataclysmic events that have taken place in the city have made it a significant name, known by almost all Syrians regardless of their political views. Certainly, “the story is yet to conclude, and Tal Rifaat has yet to fight the glory rounds,” as said the teacher Mohammed Walid.

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