Woman keeps school go­ing in Qaeda-run re­gion

Kisar keep­ing mil­i­tants’ in­flu­ence at bay

Arab Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

IS­TAN­BUL, July 17, (AP): When Syria’s up­ris­ing broke out, Ra­nia Kisar left her job in the United States and re­turned home to join what she dreamed would be the ouster of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad and the build­ing of a new Syria. Her main fo­cus these days has been to keep al-Qaeda-linked mil­i­tants from tak­ing over the dream.

Syr­ian-Amer­i­can Kisar runs a school in the last main en­clave in Syria held by the op­po­si­tion, the north­west­ern prov­ince of Idlib. The strong­est power in the ter­ri­tory is al-Qaeda’s af­fil­i­ate, and it is in­creas­ingly in­ter­ven­ing in day-to-day af­fairs of ad­min­is­ter­ing the prov­ince. That means Kisar has had to be­come adept with deal­ing with them to keep her school run­ning.

Some­times that means mak­ing con­ces­sions to them, some­times it means push­ing back. Through­out, she knows why the mil­i­tants keep try­ing to get their way: “If they don’t in­ter­fere, they won’t be con­sid­ered pow­er­ful.”

Al-Qaeda’s branch leads an al­liance of fac­tions known as Hayat Fatah alSham that dom­i­nates the op­po­si­tion ad­min­is­tra­tion run­ning Idlib. But the group has to tread care­fully, bal­anc­ing be­tween its aim to con­trol and its wari­ness of trig­ger­ing a back­lash from res­i­dents and other fac­tions. So far, it has stayed rel­a­tively prag­matic: it takes ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to show it is in charge but has shown no in­ter­est in a wide-scale im­po­si­tion of an ex­trem­ist vi­sion of Is­lamic law.

They halted public killings of crim­i­nals; there are no re­li­gious po­lice pa­trolling streets, ar­rest­ing or beat­ing peo­ple — and they haven’t forced women to wear the niqab face veil.

That is a sharp con­trast to the Is­lamic State group in the stretches of Syria and Iraq where the ri­val mil­i­tant group has ruled the past three years.

In­stead, al-Qaeda ad­min­is­tra­tors and fight­ers try to en­force some rules on a smaller scale while avoid­ing heavy-handed con­fronta­tion and pre­sent­ing them­selves as the cham­pi­ons of Syria’s “rev­o­lu­tion” against As­sad.

Idlib now stands in a tenuous po­si­tion among the in­ter­na­tional and re­gional pow­ers that are ef­fec­tively carv­ing up Syria. As­sad’s Rus­sian-backed mil­i­tary is fo­cused on fight­ing Is­lamic States mil­i­tants fur­ther to the east, as are the United States and its Kur­dish led-al­lies. Tur­key and its al­lies have seized a pocket of ter­ri­tory neigh­bor“The ing Idlib. Even­tu­ally, all these forces will turn their at­ten­tion to the fate of the op­po­si­tion en­clave.

In the mean­time, Idlib, swelling with more than 900,000 Syr­i­ans dis­placed from fallen rebel en­claves else­where, is the refuge of an op­po­si­tion move­ment that only a few years ear­lier ap­peared to have the mo­men­tum in the con­flict.

Now Kisar and oth­ers like her are try­ing to keep al-Qaeda’s in­flu­ence at bay.

“Ev­ery­one sold us out,” she said in a re­cent in­ter­view in her of­fice in Is­tan­bul, where she reg­u­larly trav­els.

Kisar said the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s fear of rad­i­cal Is­lamists tak­ing over Syria is ex­ag­ger­ated and re­flects a lack of un­der­stand­ing of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. She and oth­ers ar­gue that the mil­i­tants are needed, they pro­vide ser­vices and in­fra­struc­ture as well as skilled fight­ers for now, but will not have sup­port later.

From the start, Kisar has been a true be­liever in the up­ris­ing. Af­ter the re­volt be­gan in 2011, she left her ad­min­is­tra­tive job at a Dal­las univer­sity and joined the op­po­si­tion.

She trav­eled with fight­ers on the front lines, help­ing dis­placed peo­ple. She or­ga­nized ser­vices in op­po­si­tion ter­ri­to­ries. Along the way, she sur­vived an airstrike and lost a col­league who was kid­napped by Is­lamic State group mil­i­tants and was later be­lieved killed.

Fi­nally, she set­tled in Maaret al-Nu­man, Idlib’s sec­ond largest city. It was one of the few strongholds of the mod­er­ate Free Syr­ian Army, the um­brella group for the in­ter­na­tion­ally-backed op­po­si­tion fac­tions. In re­cent years, rad­i­cal fac­tions like al-Qaeda have grown in in­flu­ence and gained a foothold. But Maaret’s res­i­dents largely con­tin­ued to sup­port the FSA. They held re­peated protests when­ever al-Qaeda fight­ers went too far, ar­rest­ing jour­nal­ists or crack­ing down on op­po­nents.

In 2015, Kisar launched her foun­da­tion — SHINE, or the Syr­ian Hu­man­i­tar­ian In­sti­tute for Na­tional Em­pow­er­ment.

It pro­vides classes for adults in com­put­ers, pro­gram­ming and web de­sign. Reg­is­tered in Dal­las and funded by do­na­tions from Tur­key and pri­vate cit­i­zens in Amer­ica and else­where, the foun­da­tion has so far grad­u­ated 237 stu­dents.

Kisar takes great pride in the re­sult: a “geek squad” of tech-savvy men and women who can fix smart phones and com­put­ers. That is vi­tal in op­po­si­tion­held ar­eas, where there are no tele­phone lines and the pop­u­la­tion re­lies on satel­lite in­ter­net for com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“There are no pri­vate in­sti­tutes, no uni­ver­si­ties, there are no hos­pi­tals,” she said. “It is us, a bunch of lo­cals, vol­un­teers, step­ping for­ward and say­ing, OK, I am go­ing to clean the street, I am go­ing to go vol­un­teer in a hos­pi­tal and I am go­ing to build a school . ... This is my part. This is my honor.”

Her first brush with the mil­i­tants came when she had to ex­plain her work to gain ac­cred­i­ta­tion from the bu­reau­cracy they con­trol.

She bick­ered with one of­fi­cial, ar­gu­ing that armed groups should not con­trol civil­ian af­fairs. He wouldn’t look her in the eye since she’s a woman. But “when he heard I am from Amer­ica, he said: ‘We have ev­ery honor that an Amer­i­can Mus­lim is here and wants to be here’,” she re­called.


In this March 13, 2017 photo, Syr­ian-Amer­i­can Ra­nia Kisar, talks to The As­so­ci­ated Press, in Is­tan­bul, Tur­key.

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