No one really seems to know for certain who Abdullah Issa is, except that he was beheaded by members of the Syrian rebel group, Nour Al-Din Al-Zinki, in a video that began circulating on July 19, 2016.
On July 20, 2016, Mint Press News reported that Issa was a ten year old Palestinian boy who was captured by the rebels and accused of being a child soldier for the Jerusalem Brigade—a Palestinian militia that fights on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Al Jazeera reported similar details, initially claiming that Issa was a ten year old Palestinian boy, and later amending this to reflect that he was, in fact, twelve years old. Other sources, like Mirror, reported Issa as being eleven years old.
These labile accounts appear to rely on the Syrian regime’s assertion that Issa was “a 12-year-old Palestinian civilian who was on his way to [the] hospital for treatment” when he was captured and killed by the rebels, according to The New Arab. Al Jazeera also cites as evidence a statement posted by the Jerusalem Brigade on its Facebook page, which states that Issa was neither a child soldier nor in any way affiliated with the group’s military activities. Notably, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, claimed that while Issa is likely no older than thirteen years old, there is not enough evidence to confirm whether or not he was a child soldier or even Palestinian, according to Middle East Eye.
On July 21, 2016, The New Arab challenged these conclusions when it published new evidence suggesting Issa was neither between the ages of ten and thirteen, nor a child soldier for the Jerusalem Brigade, but rather a nineteen year old Syrian “who volunteered to fight with the regime’s National Defense Forces militias” and had the appearance of a young boy due to a growth defect. The report cites the testimonies of various Syrian activists, an image of Issa’s national ID card, photos of Issa handling a machine gun in military garb, and Facebook posts from Issa’s alleged cousin and sister praising him as a martyr, among other sources.
Despite all the contradictory narratives that emerged about Issa in the earliest hours of the story, critics of the Syrian revolution rushed to blame not only Al-Zinki, but virtually the entire Syrian opposition for his beheading, rather than treat the crime as a heinous anomaly at worst. Evidently, the incident was a perfect indictment of the rebels they had for so long homogenized as crazed, Islamist barbarians.
Critics also largely disregarded the fact that in the immediate aftermath of Issa’s beheading, Al-Zinki condemned the actions of its fighters as an isolated act that betrays its policies and principles. Al Zinki’s promise for accountability—which it maintained even after reports suggested that Issa might not be a child after all—was essentially shrugged-off as an empty political gesture.
For example, political scientist Max Abrahms tweeted that “[t]he rebels’ beheading of that little boy is so damning because it was captured on video & those rebels have been seen as ‘the moderates.’” He also tweeted that “[t]he difference between Nour al-Din al-Zinki & other moderate rebel groups is it was stupid enough to share its video of the child beheading,” implying that this is a regular occurrence among all rebel factions. Abrahms’ statements were roundly endorsed by others on Twitter who referred to the entire Syrian opposition as “cannibals” and rejected the idea that they could in any way be considered “moderate.”
For Abrahms and those who endorse his views, very little (if anything) distinguishes a group like ISIS from the Syrian rebels; the former is just an aggrandized manifestation of the “inherent evil” harbored by the latter. But, painting rebel groups (like Al-Zinki) and ISIS as coequals is not only Islamophobic and Orientalist, it also signals an attempt to delegitimize the entire opposition and their fight against the Assad regime. Seeming concern for Issa’s death is arguably nothing more than a capitalization on this attempt.
Even the most well-meaning critics channeled similar assumptions. One example is Islamic scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, who interrupted his long silence on Syria’s tragedies in order to express outrage at Issa’s beheading. In a statement on Facebook, Abou El Fadl strongly condemned the beheading, repudiated Al-Zinki’s claim that the incident was an isolated oddity, and called the rebels “demons in human form.”
While not intentional, Abou El Fadl’s remarks effectively emulate Abrahms’ insofar as the ideational, so-called “jihadi” or “Islamic” threat is highlighted, and the concrete and overwhelming threat of the Assad regime—which is responsible for the largest share of death and destruction in the country—is overlooked.
Genuine concern over war crimes is honorable, but not in the form of selective indignation that disproportionately focuses on the sporadic war crimes of rebels factions. This is especially so given that Assad and his allies are constantly murdering, starving, and torturing innocent men, women, and children in ways that make Issa’s fate seem relatively benign.
If these premature reactions to Issa’s death were truly out of concern for Syrian lives, then perhaps we would have heard more about the countless other children murdered daily at the hands of the regime. Rather, it seems the world took a heightened interest in Issa because the abstract image of a child dying at the hands of “crazed Islamists” fulfills the dogmatic, a priori belief that all rebel factions are different parts of the same evil.
Moreover, obsessing over the crimes of the opposition while saying almost nothing about the Assad regime’s bombardment of Aleppo or its starvation siege of Madaya—which have been far more catastrophic—inevitably feeds into a Western-centric understanding of the war, in which fears of a “jihadist takeover” in Syria trump all else.
Whether by rebel forces or the regime, war crimes are war crimes, and wanton killings like Issa’s certainly occur. Regardless, the idea that an incident like this one represents the will of the Syrian opposition, or the spirit of the revolution, is plainly false. Instead of demonizing the entire opposition on the basis of Issa’s death, we would do well to remember that it is perfectly within reason to unequivocally support the rebels’ fight for freedom against Assad while condemning any crimes committed by those who purportedly struggle toward that end.