In the battle to win hearts and minds in the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, al-Qa’ida has found a new weapon: ice-cream.
An event organised by al-Qa’ida’s branch in Iraq and Syria produced the bizarre sight of an ice cream eating competition between two young boys, while the militant group’s black flags hung in the background.
The event was part of a family fun day of sorts put on by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) during Ramadan, videos of which were posted online over the weekend.
The day’s activities included a tug-of-war between ISIS and members of Jabhat al-Nusra, another Islamist rebel group based in Syria, and a Quran reciting competition for girls.
Aleppo has seen some of the heaviest fighting in Syria’s civil war since rebels mounted a large-scale offensive on the city more than a year ago. The city is now divided into rebel-held areas and areas that the government still controls.
Reports have emerged in recent weeks of food shortages in rebel-held parts of Aleppo. A lack of supplies caused by the ongoing fighting has been exacerbated by a rebel siege of a supply route into the city used by government forces. That siege has prompted protests by residents already beleaguered by the fighting.
The weekend event –unprecedented for the group, which has throughout its history operated under the radar – may be an attempt to win hearts and minds in northern Syria, where it has been expanding its operations in recent weeks.
“Holding a Ramadan party in Aleppo fits well within the increasing awareness within jihadist groups in Syria of the need to acquire and maintain popular civilian support,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
“Events such as the one on Sunday provide the ISIS with the politically-valuable and localised opportunity to show their other side. The clear hanging of the ISIS flag and the availability of ISIS pamphlets and other propaganda-type products means the group was keen to show the soft-power side of jihad combined with attempts to sell their objectives and thus legitimise their localised presence.”
In other areas of rebel control, Islamist groups have been quick to realise the importance of providing basic essentials such as bread to the civilian population. This support is all the more essential as the groups complete for influence in the rebel-held north.
“Events such as these, though often small in scale, show a willingness to spend finances outside of fighting, thereby overtly suggesting an intent to remain in the area long-term,” Mr Lister adds. “As a force composed largely of foreign fighters, this aspect to their activities is vital.”