Nonstate actors, including a number of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS and JAN, controlled portions of the country’s territory and continued to be responsible for killings, physical mistreatment, kidnappings, and arrests of members of religious groups they suspected of opposing their rule. Many rebel groups’ explicitly self-identified as Sunni Arab or Sunni Islamist and drew on a support base made up of almost exclusively Sunnis. ISIS publicized executions of individuals it accused of violating its interpretation of Islamic law. Religious offenses ISIS deemed punishable by death included blasphemy, apostasy, and cursing God. ISIS also punished individuals with lashings or imprisonment for lesser religious offenses, such as insulting the Prophet Muhammad or failing to comply with standards of grooming and dress. JAN and some allied rebel groups targeted Druze and Shia minorities in the northern part of the country, claiming responsibility for numerous bombings, including suicide attacks, which JAN continued to describe as reactions to the government’s “massacres of Sunnis.”
According to the media reports, ISIS executed prisoners it described as Shia and Alawite in multiple media releases throughout the year. In October ISIS released a photo series depicting the execution of an individual it said was a captured Shia government soldier in Homs. In September ISIS released an execution video featuring either a Shia or an Alawite “spy.”
The Alawite population faced attacks by some elements of the armed opposition, including ISIS, JAN, Jund al-Aqsa, and other extremist groups, reportedly because other minority groups believed government policy favored Alawites. Alawite leaders said they continued to fear a sectarian cleansing would follow a fall of the government. For example, in May ISIS claimed responsibility for bomb attacks in Latakia Province that killed approximately 150 people and said it meant to target Alawites.
According to ISIS reporting and other sources, in areas under its control, ISIS police forces, known as Hisbah, continued to administer summary punishments for violations of the ISIS morality code. Men and women continued to face public beatings and whipping for smoking, possessing alcohol, listening to music, having tattoos, conducting business during prayer times, not attending Friday prayers, fighting, and not fasting during Ramadan. Alleged homosexuals faced execution. In July, August, December, and January, ISIS executed multiple men for alleged homosexual acts in Aleppo and Deir al-Zour provinces, according to the group’s own materials.
ISIS continued to attack Syrian Kurdish civilians as part of its ongoing fight against the People’s Protection Unit (YPG), a Kurdish-dominated militia with an ideology described by journalists and think tank reports as secular. ISIS characterized its fight against many Syrian Kurds and the YPG in sectarian terms, describing their targets as “atheists” and “apostates.” A large truck bomb blast killed approximately 50 people July 27 in Hasaka Province. The attack struck near a Kurdish security force headquarters and was the deadliest of its kind in recent years. In October an ISIS suicide bomber killed at least 22 people at a wedding in a YPG-controlled area of Hasaka Province. An ISIS suicide bomber killed 16 people at a bakery in the YPG-controlled area of Hasaka Province in early July. ISIS took responsibility for the attack in an online statement saying “it targeted the Kurdish YPG militia.” The attack followed a pattern of ISIS attacks on civilians perceived as supportive of a secular armed group.
ISIS also jailed and executed Sunnis in its areas of control for violating regulations based on its strict interpretation of Islamic law. In September ISIS beheaded 15 civilians on charges of “apostasy” in Deir al-Zour Province. In July ISIS executed a man by crucifixion in northern Aleppo province for apostasy for refusing to join prayers, according to ARA News. In May ISIS executed three civilians in Raqqa also on charges of apostasy for spying and fighting against the self-declared caliphate, according to activists. Similar executions in ISIS-controlled territories were reported throughout the year by Syrian activists, local media organizations, and in ISIS-released materials depicting the executions and explaining the religious justifications for them.
JAN and other rebel groups continued to subject the surrounded Shia villages of Fu’a and Kafraya to periodic violence in order to pressure the Syrian government and Iran, according to journalists in touch with the rebels. Observers, including UN officials, stated that political and military considerations overlapped with sectarian and religious motivations. JAN and other rebel groups have treated the villages as hostages targeted for their religious affiliation, their pro-government political orientation, and because of Iran’s interest in protecting Shia coreligionists to deter the Syrian government and Iran from subjecting other besieged Sunni enclaves to violence and starvation, according to observers of the conflict. Rebels continued to refer to the villagers in Fu’a and Kafraya as “rawafid,” a derogatory term used to refer to Shia Muslims.
JAN continued to mistreat and threaten non-Sunnis on the basis of their religious affiliation. JAN continued to force residents in a majority Druze area of Idlib Province to convert to Sunni Islam and enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. In September the group released a threatening statement “reminding” residents of Kaftin, one of the Druze villages in the area, to “comply with the law of God Almighty [and] make “women wear [Sunni] mandated clothing,” to comply with JAN-mandated prayer rituals, and to participate in a number of other religious and social rituals. JAN also taught a Salafi-jihadi interpretation of Islam to Druze children.
JAN also continued to characterize its fight against the government in derogatory terms aimed at delegitimizing and dehumanizing government supporters on the basis of their Alawite religious identity. For example, in August JAN named an offensive against the government in Aleppo after Ibrahim al-Yousef, a Syrian insurgent and member of the “Fighting Vanguard” who massacred Alawite cadets in Aleppo in 1979. In official media releases, JAN threatened to cleanse Aleppo of Alawites and mutilate their bodies. JAN and other rebel groups also used sectarian language to describe the Kurdish-dominated YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces.
Terrorist and other armed groups continued to convene ad hoc sharia courts in areas under their control, where each group reportedly implemented its own interpretation of Islamic law. According to opposition armed groups and media reports, this included the authorization of public executions and physical abuse of minorities accused of working with the government, particularly Alawites. Armed groups, including those linked to JAN, continued to establish sharia courts in Aleppo and Idlib Governorates and elsewhere, replacing government courts as well as courts organized by other opposition groups. AI reported in July that a number of lawyers were abducted or threatened with abduction for opposing torture in sharia “courts” run by rebel groups including JAN and al-Shamia Front, or more broadly for criticizing their rule. Two of the lawyers told AI that early in the year they publicly criticized what they described as “the incompetence of judges working at the “court” run by the al-Shamia Front.” One was verbally threatened with “disappearance” and the other was abducted and detained for several days by al-Shamia Front forces. The latter was released after pledging not to interfere in or publicly speak about the affairs of the “court.”
Yezidis, the UN, the Iraqi government, and others continued to report ISIS sexually enslaved thousands of Yezidi women and girls, as well as some Turkmen women, in Raqqa and other parts of ISIS-controlled territory. A June report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed abuses against thousands of Yezidi woman and children still held captive in the country. ISIS kidnapped these women and girls in Iraq and then trafficked them to Syria to be sold or distributed to ISIS fighters as “spoils of war” because of their religious beliefs. Escaped captives continued to report systematic rape, sexual violence, and domestic servitude by ISIS members, which ISIS documented in its own videos.
NGOs and media outlets reported the release in February of 42 Assyrian Christians, mostly young women and children, who had been abducted by ISIS in 2015 and held until their religious community raised a ransom payment. The status of other individuals kidnapped because of their religious affiliation remained unknown. Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi, kidnapped in April 2013, remained unaccounted for at year’s end. The condition of Jesuit priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped by ISIS in July 2013 in Raqqa, remained unknown.
Activists, media, and ISIS sources reported ISIS continued to force Christians in areas under its control to pay a protection tax, reported by a Christian organization to be 164,000 Syrian pounds ($318) per person; convert to Islam; or be killed.
ISIS continued to teach new curricula based on its interpretation of Islam in schools throughout territory under its control. According to observers, the group banned several subjects it considered contrary to its ideology, including music, art, and aspects of history it deemed nationalist. ISIS schools justified its declaration of a so-called caliphate and described other forms of governance as un-Islamic. The textbooks also justified ISIS practices, including excommunication and other punishments for apostasy, heresy, and other religious crimes, according to multiple media reports and the group’s own reporting. ISIS publicized efforts to “re-educate” teachers who had previously taught in government schools. ISIS maintained a number of “Cubs of the Caliphate” youth training camps throughout its areas of control, releasing several videos documenting the training, including footage of weapons training. According to activists from Raqqa and former educators in the city, many families refused to send their children to ISIS schools, choosing to homeschool them instead. Resistance to ISIS education was reportedly so widespread that ISIS eventually implemented regulations requiring families to enroll their children in ISIS schools, according to activists and the group itself.
JAN and affiliated groups also used schools, youth training camps, and other means to teach children their Salafi-jihadi philosophy in areas under their control. In “proselytization sessions,” a term used by JAN, the group invited children to participate in games whose content was based on al-Qaida’s religious beliefs. In other areas in the north, the Nusra-affiliated Salafi-jihadi NGO Callers to Jihad Center (CJC) engaged in similar activities. For example, in May the CJC held a proselytization session in which dozens of children were encouraged to join violent extremist groups to fight the government. In April Salafi-jihadi preachers gave religious lectures to adults and children, and children were quizzed on their religious knowledge in a CJC session.
The ISIS police continued to punish individuals for accompanying “improperly dressed” female relatives. The al-Khanssaa all-female police force of ISIS continued to enforce prescribed moral regulations, sometimes violently, on women. For example, in November ISIS officials, including police, publicly whipped 39 people in al-Mayadeen, Deir al-Zour province, for fighting over agricultural land, according to activists.
In a recorded speech released in May, ISIS’ late senior leader and spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on Muslims throughout the Middle East to rise up against Jews, “Crusaders,” and their “apostate” agents elsewhere in the region. In the speech, he implored followers all over the world to “terrorize” and “make examples of the Crusaders [i.e., Westerners]” by carrying out terrorist attacks, advising that “targeting those who are called ‘civilians’ is more beloved to us and more effective, as it is more harmful, more painful and a greater deterrent to [the infidel West].”