Islamic Extremists Alter Dynamics In Syria's War Civil

The extremists have emerged as the best armed and financed opposition to the regime of Bashar Assad — eclipsing the opposition groups favored by the West. The surge is having a profound impact along the Turkish border with Syria.

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We're gonna take a look now at the changing dynamics in the Syrian civil war. It's been going on for two and a half years now. Well over 100,000 people have died. In that time, Islamist extremists have emerged as the best armed and financed opposition to the regime of Bashar al Assad, eclipsing the opposition groups favored by the West.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been covering the course of the war. She just traveled along the Turkish border with Syria. There she saw how the extremist surge is having a profound impact. She joins us now from Beirut. Good morning, Deb.


WERTHEIMER: This is your first trip to the border in six months. How has it changed? Where have these extremist al-Qaida linked groups moved in?

AMOS: Linda, the most powerful group is known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, which means Syria, and they're in control on Syria's northern border in some places that are less than five miles from Turkey. This al-Qaida group has become very adept at seizing ground from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. They are just not strong enough to challenge them.

So they've been expanding their territory, in particular on the border, because what ISIS then can do is set up checkpoints. They can control who comes in and out of Syria from the Turkish border. They can monitor humanitarian aid. Sometimes they seize it for their own purposes. They control resources in this border area, the oil fields, the grain storage in the North, so they're also becoming self-financing.

ISIS is a force to be reckoned with on that border.

WERTHEIMER: Essentially they are closing the door between Turkey and Syria?

AMOS: They aren't closing the door, but they certainly are controlling the door. They've set up checkpoints in towns on the Syrian side of the border and they can do what they like with impunity. They arrest civilians who break their rules. I talked to activists who say that you are picked up by someone who speaks Arabic with an accent. These are foreign fighters who have come to Syria for jihad and they've joined this al-Qaida linked group.

They have very extreme views. They want to impose them on Syrians and their first target are Syrian media activists who reported on regime violations. Now these same young Syrians want a report on ISIS, but they have been threatened. Some of them have been kidnapped, arrested, maybe dead.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any sense of how many of these young activists are still able to work in the northern part of the country?

AMOS: Linda, you know, the most striking thing about my return to the border is the number of activists who now have fled for Turkey. They say they've lost twice, once to the regime and now to the radicals. I talked to a young Syrian woman. She was traveling with a Danish journalist in the Syrian town of Azaz. She said she was stopped by a car full of extremists. They jumped out, seized them both, bound their hands, blindfolded them, took them to their headquarters.

She was charged with bringing an infidel into Syrian, a non-Muslim. She was threatened with death. She was astonished that her captors weren't Syrian, but they were Tunisians. Finally, she was let go, but the Danish journalist is still held by that group. He's charged with spying. She doesn't dare go back to Syria, and that's the case with so many Syrian media activists.

WERTHEIMER: Deborah, you've been reporting on the Turkish side of the border, which obviously has already been greatly affected by this revolution. What effect are the changes having on Turkey?

AMOS: I'll give you an example in the Turkish border town of Kilis, which is about five miles from the border. Now, the radicals control the Syrian town on the other side, Azaz, so Kilis has become a transit. I walked into a hotel where radicals stay before they cross the border in a cafe across the street. You can actually order something called jihadi tea and it's a drink called karkade.

It's an herbal tea. It's made out of hibiscus flowers. I've never seen it in Turkey before, but it is very popular in Pakistan. So these cafes are catering to this new clientele. They know who's coming through their towns. These are foreign fighters from Europe. They are foreign fighters from Pakistan, Tunisia, Algeria, and this is having an effect in Turkey because these people stay in safe houses in these small border towns, and the week I was there, some of our colleagues even discovered that there were some American radicals on their way to the jihad in Syria.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Deborah.

AMOS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: That was NPR's Deborah Amos.

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