BEIRUT – The jovial tug of war and children’s ice-cream-eating contest wouldn’t look out of place at any town fair. But the family festivities in the battle-scarred Syrian city of Aleppo had a surprising organizer: al-Qaida.
The media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida affiliate, has been churning out videos featuring community gatherings in Syria during the holy month of Ramadan as the group battles to win hearts and minds. It is a far cry from the group’s usual fare of video offerings, which includes public executions.
The attempt to soften Islamic State’s image comes as it struggles to win support in the areas of Syria that are outside government control. Many residents view the group as a foreign force more concerned with imposing Islamic law than with fighting against President Bashar Assad and his allies.
On Sunday, Syrian government forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah militants fully captured a key rebel district in the central city of Homs, known as the “capital of the revolution.”
The push on Homs is part of a broader government offensive on rebel-held areas that has seen regime troops retake some of the territory they have lost to opposition fighters.
Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said the Islamic State is “well aware that people out there on principle don’t like lots of foreign fighters coming in to fight jihad in their country. They are aware they need to reassure people their presence isn’t negative. Ramadan parties and ice-cream-eating competitions are one localized example of that. Whether they will be successful remains to be seen, will depend on other armed groups and how they portray them.”
Islamic State has rapidly risen to prominence in Syria since emerging in April. Analysts say the group, which includes established jihadist factions that now fight under a common banner, comprises 2,500 to 3,000 men nationwide. It is most influential in Aleppo and its countryside to the north, in Idlib and in Latakia.
The group, however, is facing increasing isolation as others try to distance themselves from Islamic State’s hard-line tactics.
In Aleppo, which has seen a year of horrific fighting, the Islamic State has been working to expand its influence. But it was the target of protests this month after imposing a blockade on a key checkpoint that divides rebel-held and government territory.
Some rebels complain that headline-grabbing events such as the recent assassination of a moderate rebel commander, which was blamed on the Islamic State, have withered support for the opposition. Hard-line Islamist fighters have also harassed residents for not adhering to strict Islamic codes.
“They give all of us a bad name,” said Mohammed Faizou, a rebel from the Islamist Ansar al-Din Battalion in coastal Latakia province, where the Islamic State has a significant presence.
In the face of growing discontent, the Islamic State’s efforts to improve its reputation have included Ramadan food distribution, residents of Aleppo say.
In many of the group’s videos, a curly-haired Islamic State member, who introduces himself as Abu Waqas from Tunisia, entertains the crowds. In one, he dons a glitter-covered eye mask as he describes the day’s competitions and games. In another, filmed at an Aleppo event last week, he oversees two children racing to eat ice cream with their hands tied behind their backs.
But the videos are also used to spread Islamic State’s core message. In one, Abu Waqas explains Islamic State’s reason for coming to Syria: “to establish the laws of Allah.”
Children shout “God is great” as the speech turns to deeply sectarian rhetoric lambasting “dirty Shiites.”
“We stopped them in Iraq, and now we’ve come for the Nusayreen,” he said, using a derogatory term for Alawites, the Shiite offshoot to which Assad belongs.