Syria in the Wake of ISIS
Three heavy circle bolts hang from the ceiling in a dark basement, at the end of a long hallway, under the municipal soccer stadium here. The rope bindings cut short and frayed have turned brown with blood and age. This execution room used by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria during its three-year reign of this ancient city saw untold horrors. Tortures. Rapes. Beheadings. Now it is an empty shell, a memory of violence with broken and blown-out walls, stained ropes, rusted chains; there’s a lone plastic sandal caked in dust in one corner and a faint smell of bleach.
By one account, 2,000 prisoners were executed here. Locals called it “The Black Stadium” because of its dark stone construction. Under ISIS, the name felt all the more fitting. Yazidi women were sold as sex slaves to ISIS emirs on the stadium field above. At Na’eem Square, not far away, wrought-iron fence posts were used as pikes to display decapitated heads. The stadium track is cut with the heavy scars of tank treads and the cometlike marks of trailing small-arms fire. There is no stone wall or surface anywhere untouched by gunfire. Three days into our two-week-long road trip across this war-torn country, we entered this city of 300,000, the sixth-largest in Syria, and the self-proclaimed capital of the ISIS caliphate during its reign from 2014 to 2017, before Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the ground and US air power in the sky took it back.
A poster for an upcoming soccer match taped near the stadium entrance is a small sign things have changed. Hurdles down the track are pushed off and half-stacked to one side — like hurdles before a high school track meet anywhere. There is a small stone monument to the martyrs who gave their life in the Battle of Raqqa, but outside that — aboveground — it looks like an old football stadium anywhere in the developing world, worn out, but ready for play.
This recovery, what has become an island of democracy in hostile, violent seas, is the greatest untold story in the modern history of the Middle East. The people of Syria have survived wars and occupations and untold violence, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and twice that wounded or grieving.
They live in the face of rocket attacks, terrorists, and a threatened invasion by the second-largest army in NATO. Yet despite it all, they’re practicing democracy with a new government they call the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, or the AANES. Without the world watching, these resilient people, who occupy territory that covers a third of Syria proper, are practicing democracy.
“It’s a permissive environment,” said Brandon Wheeler, CEO of Freedom Research Foundation, a US nonprofit, who’s worked in Syria since 2006. “You have to be situationally aware. You have to be smart. But it’s not a war zone,” he said of north and east Syria under the AANES.
“The people here want stability, and they’re doing it. Democracy has to be a behavior before it can be a form of government.”