Syria’s Second Front
NARRATOR: Reporter Muhammad Ali is crossing into Syria as a violent new phase of the civil war is beginning. He is filming his journey into the north of the country under the protection of fighters from the Free Syrian Army, who began the uprising against the regime of Bashar al Assad but are now also battling radical Islamic factions, jihadists who want to take over the country.
MUHAMMAD ALI, Reporter: We have just crossed the Syrian border with Turkey. The jihadists don't like journalists. They don't like the FSA battalions because they are accusing them of being spies for the West. It's a very dangerous situation now.
NARRATOR: Muhammad and the rebels are picked up in a car and driven for seven hours through the night.
MUHAMMAD ALI: The situation is not that good as before. New groups came and they start stealing the revolution. So very important for me to tell what's happening on the ground. No Western media can get in.
HAZEM, Fighter: [subtitles] Peace be with you.
NARRATOR: He is taken to stay at a rebel base where a battalion has retreated after many of their comrades were killed fighting the jihadists.
After losing ground to the jihadists in recent months, more moderate rebels are now coming together to fight back. Muhammad is brought to a secret location for a heavily guarded meeting of opposition leaders.
MUHAMMAD ALI: They were very worried about the situation, concerned about suicide bombers. They checked my camera equipment. They checked my radio device, everything. They were asking me for who I am working. I was the only journalist.
NARRATOR: This meeting was one of the first times the leaders of different factions, religious and secular, had met since the war began. It would turn out to be historic.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Over three years of my covering the civil war in Syria, I've seen the rebels getting more and more divided. So when I saw them coming together, it was very shocking.
REBEL LEADER: [through interpreter] We've lost many men and shed a lot blood. Now even your own families who've lost loved ones are starting to give up. If we continue with this mentality, then I tell you from my point of view as a simple man, these faces are not the faces of victory. If we are able to join forces, then we can take a step forward. There is nothing more important than our cause and our land. And there is nothing bigger in history than our revolution.
NARRATOR: The group agreed to unite behind a new leader, Jamal Marouf.
MUHAMMAD ALI: He was one of the beginning leaders to lead this revolution. He was very famous and people like him.
JAMAL MAROUF: [through interpreter] Everyone, listen up. Listen up. We're trying to build an army, whether we like it or not. Today, we set up a structure for the military. What if the regime were to collapse? If the regime collapses, who's going to run the country?
NARRATOR: Marouf would lead a new movement called the Syrian Revolutionary Front, to fight against the Jihadists.
JAMAL MAROUF: [through interpreter] We're ready to fight every group that behaves like the regime. And if a group wants to use weapons against us, fight us, and their goal is to steal the Syrian revolution, we will not hesitate to fight back.
[www.pbs.org: More about Jamal Marouf]
NARRATOR: A young fighter named Hazem, who was a lieutenant in Assad's army before defecting, has signed up his rebel battalion to the new Syrian Revolutionary Front. He shows Muhammad what they are up against.
HAZEM: [through interpreter] We're driving along these farm roads to avoid being attacked by the jihadists. The jihadists are more ruthless than Assad's regime. They attack villages with artillery and shells. In that village, they just killed 15 civilians, including women and children. They use mines and car bombs as if we are their main enemy. But they are the enemy of the revolution and for Syria as a whole.
NARRATOR: The most radical of the jihadist factions to turn against the other rebels is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS. The group wants to establish an Islamic state in Syria. It claims an alliance with al Qaeda, but even al Qaeda has severed ties with them.
ISIS has been capturing territory all over the north, including the town of al-Atareb, a crucial location in the war.
MUHAMMAD ALI: If the jihadists control al-Atareb town, then the FSA will be stuck in the south between the jihadists in the north and the regime troops in the south. So it was a very important moment.
[Islamic State of Iraq and Syria( ISIS) video]
NARRATOR: In November 2013, ISIS staged a show of strength in the town, parading a group of rebels captured in battle, including a rebel commander, Hassan Jazra. Locals filmed it on their cellphones.
ISIS LEADER: [subtitles] The group leader Hassan Jazra has been found guilty of corruption and theft! After investigating the group, the court of ISIS has decided to apply Sharia law on them! [bound rebels are shot]
NARRATOR: Muhammad persuades some of the rebels to sneak him into al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: I was about to enter the town. The first thing i saw was the big flag of al Qaeda. The only thing was in my mind that scene of seven fighters of the FSA were executed. I was sure if they catch me and they suspect me, I will be killed.
NARRATOR: In the town square, ISIS is holding a public rally where fighters are pledging allegiance to global jihad. Muhammad wants to film it, but the rebels say it is too dangerous, so a local man agrees to film it for him.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Film it from many angles and get many shots.
LEADER: You promise our leader to listen and obey. If I order you to go to Khartoum, you go there. If I order you to go to Deir Alzour, you go to Deir Alzour. Understood? Good. Let's join hands. I say, and you repeat. I pay homage to ISIS.
FIGHTERS: I pay homage to ISIS.
LEADER: To listen and obey.
FIGHTERS: To listen and obey.
LEADER: God is a witness to what we are saying.
FIGHTERS: God is a witness to what we are saying.
LEADER: Praise God!
FIGHTERS: God is the greatest!
LEADER: Praise God!
FIGHTERS: Praise God!
MUHAMMAD ALI: We left the rally and the rebels were all worried. Hazem told me, "If we're going to leave the situation like this, all of us will be under their control."
HAZEM: [to Muhammad] These are our soldiers.
Hopefully, everything is OK with you, Khaled.
FIGHTER: [to other fighter] Stay there near the barricade!
We want some cigarettes for the guys.
HAZEM: OK, OK. Later.
NARRATOR: Muhammad and the rebels have returned to their base just outside al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Are they firing at us?
FIGHTER: Yes, but don't worry. They always do that.
[fighters, radio traffic] [gunfire]
Come on, come on!
Go back! Friendly! Friendly!
MUHAMMAD ALI: The bomb went off at 2:00 AM. We were thrown out of our beds.
Go back, go back! I'm in an ambulance coming to you!
Shoot them! They're over there!
NARRATOR: The next morning, the rebels show Muhammad where an ISIS suicide bomber had blown himself up by a local farm. It destroyed houses and killed two of Hazem's men.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Suicide bombs were going off almost every day. Hazem told me he'd had enough.
NARRATOR: Later that day, Hazem and the new rebel movement prepare to launch one of their first major attacks against ISIS.
FIGHTER: Am I going to become a martyr tomorrow?
HAZEM: God willing. I hope we all become martyrs.
FIGHTER: I hope you guys become martyrs together.
HAZEM: Don't say that. God willing, we'll kill them all.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Are you worried about tomorrow?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] Yes, kind of. I'm thinking about how God is going to help us win this battle.
MUHAMMAD ALI: [subtitles] Do you think it will be a difficult mission?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] ISIS is very tough. They're animals. They're not real Muslims.
NARRATOR: The rebels tell Muhammad that because they have not received military support from the West, they are relying on equipment captured in battle.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Peace be with you. Did you get the munitions?
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Yes, they're here.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] We're coming to get you ISIS. You're Assad's stooges. We're coming to get you, ISIS, stooges of the regime, of the West. They're dogs! They're filth!
HAZEM: [to fighters] [through interpreter] Whoever dies will go to heaven, God willing. Just put in your head and heart that they are extremists. We're fighting them because they killed our families and our children. We have God on our side.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] What about the loot?
HAZEM: [through interpreter] The loot is for everyone. But remember, looting should be the least of your concerns. Don't die a meaningless death.
[drawing map on the ground] [subtitles] This is the command headquarters. Here's the arms depot. Here are the guards. In a synchronized move, we're going to advance on the battalion. There are two tanks here, and another that's not working. These two are not working, either. They have to rely on guns. May God keep you safe.
NARRATOR: Many of Hazem's men are devout Muslims, but they say ISIS are extremists who are distorting Islam. Before they go into battle, they are addressed by a young cleric.
CLERIC: [through interpreter] If ISIS declares themselves a state, then what will we have? We will end up with a group of states fighting each other, with hate being their only common denominator. These people are savages, not humans at all.
NARRATOR: Hazem has 100 men in his unit, but he is one of the few with any military experience before the war.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Don't you know the way? Go towards al-Atareb. There is a gas station there.
NARRATOR: These were farmers, barbers, shopkeepers, ordinary working men who'd been fighting in a revolution that has turned into a war against Islamic extremists.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Victory or martyrdom! We will be victorious over ISIS! God is great!
NARRATOR: Hazem leads his men towards the ISIS base just outside al-Atareb. He orders them to surround it. One of the fighters films the battle. A sniper covers the rebels as they advance.
Are you going to shoot?
When you're ready, tell me.
NARRATOR: Hazem and his men move in.
HAZEM: [subtitles] Be careful over there, guys. There might be landmines.
NARRATOR: When they get inside the base is empty. The surviving ISIS fighters have fled.
FIGHTER: [subtitles] Raise your voice, Syrians. We don't fear death. Today ISIS, tomorrow Assad!
[graffiti: "Attention! ISIS banned!"]
NARRATOR: Having taken the base, the rebel forces now had control of al-Atareb.
[www.pbs.org: More on the battle for al-Atareb]
HAZEM: [through interpreter] Just like we fought Bashar, we fought ISIS. They're even worse than the regime. If we had waited to attack any longer, they could have controlled the whole country. Once we finish with ISIS, we can return to fighting Assad and deliver a serious blow to the regime.
NARRATOR: With ISIS gone, Muhammad returned to al-Atareb.
MUHAMMAD ALI: Big moment, you know, that— to see people, you know, free again and speaking without, you know, any fears from anyone.
BOY: [to merchant] [subtitles] Allow me to light your cigarette.
1st TOWNSMAN: [through interpreter] Since we were freed, we live in safety. Their hobbies include sabotage, kidnap and murder in cold blood. The ones who pay for this are the weak civilians. Only over our dead bodies will we hand the town back to ISIS.
2nd TOWNSMAN: [subtitles] Yes, only over our dead bodies will we let them take over.
NARRATOR: He went back to ISIS headquarters, where the seven rebels were executed.
MUHAMMAD ALI: The slogans were still there, but the building was empty. It was eerie being back there. The town was still in the middle of a war, but life seemed almost normal.
[On January 29th, the Assad regime began bombing the town of al-Atareb.]