A gunman who said he was a member of a jihadist group near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Syria. The signs read “The solution is Islam,” left, and “There is no god but God.”
As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government grinds on with no resolution in sight, Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.
The past few months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.
Idlib Province, the northern Syrian region where resistance fighters control the most territory, is the prime example. In one case there, after jihadists fighting under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad staged significant attacks against Syrian government targets, the commander of one local rebel military council recently invited them to join. “They are everywhere in Idlib,” said a lean and sunburned commander with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo. “They are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”
Tension came anyway. The groups demanded to raise the prophet’s banner — solid black with “There is no god but God” written in flowing white Arabic calligraphy — during the weekly Friday demonstration. Saraqib prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote — the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.
In one sense, the changes on the ground have actually brought closer to reality the Syrian government’s early, and easily dismissible, claim that the opposition was being driven by foreign-financed jihadists.
A central reason cited by the Obama administration for limiting support to the resistance to things like communications equipment is that it did not want arms flowing to Islamic radicals. But the flip side is that Salafist groups, or Muslim puritans, now receive most foreign financing.
“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harding, the Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, adding that it was troubling all the same. “You have secular people and very moderate Islamists who join Salafi groups because they have the weapons and the money. There tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground.”
But jihad has become a distinctive rallying cry. The commander of the newly unified brigades of the Free Syrian Army fighting in Aleppo was shown in a YouTube video on Sunday exhorting men joining the rebellion there by telling them: “Those whose intentions are not for God, they had better stay home, whereas if your intention is for God, then you go for jihad and you gain an afterlife and heaven.”
What began as a largely peaceful, secular protest movement in March 2011 first took on a more religious tone late last summer as it shifted into an armed conflict waged by more conservative, more rural Sunni Muslims whose faith already formed an integral focus of their daily lives.
But greater attention has been focused on a Qaeda involvement in the uprising since mid-July, when fighters professing allegiance to the terrorist organization appeared during the opposition takeover of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. In one video, five fighters declared their intention to create an Islamic state. (Mainline Qaeda ideology calls for a Pan-Islamic caliphate.)
Still, there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The Saraqib commander estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.
An activist helping to organize the Syrian military councils said there were roughly 50,000 fighters in total, and far fewer than 1,000 were foreigners, who often have trouble gaining local support. “If there were 10,000, you would know, and less than 1,000 is nothing,” said the activist, Rami, declining for safety reasons to use more than one name.
Not all foreign fighters are jihadists, either. One Libyan-Irish fighter, Mahdi al-Harati, who helped lead the battle for Tripoli, Libya, organized a group of volunteers for Syria, noted Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Syrian Islam at the University of Edinburgh. “He is not a jihadi; he sees himself as a Libyan revolutionary there to help the Syrian revolution,” Mr. Pierret said.
Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.
Further, as the sectarian flavor of the uprising deepened, pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the ruling minority, the Alawites, it attracted fighters lured by a larger Muslim cause. Alawites, the president’s sect, dominate Syria, but many orthodox Muslims view them as a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Understanding the military players in the Syrian opposition has become remarkably more difficult in recent months through the proliferation of brigades, battalions and fronts, many bearing religious names. Plus they change all the time, and some have all but disappeared.
But there is a marked trend in videos not displaying the revolutionary banner — Syria’s independence flag with a green, white and black stripe and three red stars. “The issue of the flag really is key,” Mr. Pierret said, “They are on their way to a more Salafi, jihadi agenda and a rejection of the national framework.”
One recent such video, highlighting the storming of a police station hear Aleppo, featured a pistol, the Koran and a song about fighting. “The Koran in our hands, we defy our enemy, we sacrifice with our blood for religion” were some of the lyrics.
The commander in Saraqib said that when he invited jihadists into his military council, they rejected several proposed names for the expanded group that included references to Syria. “They consider the entire world the Muslim homeland, so they refused any national, Syrian name,” he said.
The attitude prompts grumbling from fighters used to the gentler Islam long prevalent in Syria. Adel, a media activist from Idlib interviewed in Antakya, Turkey, in June, complained that “the Islamic current has broken into the heart of this revolution.” When a Muslim Brotherhood member joined his group in Idlib, he said, inside of a week the man demanded that the slogans that they shouted all included, “There is no god but God.”
“Now there are more religious chants than secular ones,” Adel groused.
Behind the surface tussling over symbols lies a fight for power and influence. Those attacking the government in the name of religion want more say, while those who preceded them want to limit their role. As in Iraq, the longer the fight, the more extremists will likely emerge.
For now, both fighters and analysts said not all the jihadist symbols could be taken at face value. The scarcity of weapons and ammunition in the unbalanced fight with the government inspires much more tension than ideology.
Some Syrians who seek a more secular revolution blame the lack of Western support for driving the rebellion into the arms of the extremists, either by not supplying arms or by not forcing a solution. “The radicalism is the result of a loss of hope,” said Imad Hosary, a former member of the nonviolent, local coordination committees inside Syria who fled to Paris. “The jihadists are those that say heaven awaits us because that is all they have left; the international community is responsible for not finding a solution.”
The most prominent emerging homegrown groups include Ahrar al-Sham and Sukur al-Sham, which field various chapters in Idlib and elsewhere. Jibhat al-Nusra, an organization that has claimed several suicide bombings, is considered weak on the ground, the experts said.
Ahrar al-Sham in particular enjoys the support of Sheik Adnan al-Arour, a Sunni Muslim media star in exile, who blasts Shiites and Alawites on his television show and on what appears to be his authentic Twitter account. “We buy weapons from the donations and savings of the Wahhabi children,” said one recent Twitter posting, referring to the Islamic sect prominent in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, “and not from the Americans like the Shiites of Iraq did.”
He has also lashed out against Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the militant Shiite organization that backs President Assad. “I ask Hassan Nasrallah how many wounded Syrians has he healed? Because I know how many he and his party killed.”
Members of the main homegrown groups denied harboring extremist tendencies, like declaring other groups or individuals apostates. Abu al-Khatab, in his late 20s, said he was a former fighter for Al Qaeda in Iraq before he joined Ahrar al-Sham. “I agree with Al Qaeda on certain things and disagree on others,” he said. “Suicide bombings should only be against the security forces, not civilians, for example.”
Abu Zein, a spokesman for Sukur al-Sham, said the organization included Syrians plus other Arabs, French and Belgians. “The Qaeda ideology existed previously, but it was suppressed by the regime,” he said in a Skype interview.
“But after the uprising they found very fertile ground, plus the funders to support their existence,” he added. “The ideology was present, but the personnel were absent. Now we have both.”
Rami, the activist, thinks the jihadi tendencies mark both the length of the fight and the fact that society in many areas has become male-dominated and unstable, with the elderly, women and children having fled. Syrian Islam, he said, tends not to sympathize with extremism. A broad fatwa issued via Ahrar al-Sham against all Alawites was so widely condemned by other fighters that it was later diluted to focus on government figures.
Rami described one local leader in Binnish, a town near Saraqib, questioning the religion of Ahrar al-Sham members who he thought were kidnapping too many local Shiites.
“He told them, ‘Damn your religion — who is this God of yours you are bringing? I have been a Muslim for 40 years, and this is a God we don’t know,’ ” Rami said.
-This report was published first in The New York Times on 29/07/2012
-Dalal Mawad contributed reporting