Are there jihadists in Syria?

I wake up with a poignant article by Nagib Aoun drawing a parallel between what is happening in Syria and the magnificent novel by Jean Paul Sartre “Les mains sales” (“As for myself, my hands are dirty. I have plunged my arms up to the elbows in excrement and blood. And what else should one do? Do you suppose that it is possible to govern innocently?”). According to the author, the “Arab Spring” is being kidnapped by jihadist groups (definition of the BBC: “those committed to establishing an Islamic state by violent means“) with only one ambition in mind: replacing dictatorships with theocracies and removing any little remembrance of what could have been a civil society, eventually turned into an homogeneous mass following the Sharia’s dictates. Are we facing the possibility of what some call an “Arab Autumn”?

This has also been the ongoing warning (and justification) of the Syrian regime since the outset of the uprising. As we can read in a recent interview with Al-MonitorSyrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, on behalf of its Government, casts the current (and past) violence as acts of war against Salafi terrorists, who are backed by Sunni Arab nations (that is, mainly Qatar and Saudi Arabia) that “expected the Bashar al-Assad regime to fall quickly amid the Arab uprisings that swept Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen”. In the event things take a turn for the (even) worse, I admit I would not be able to stand a despicable Assad saying “I told you so!”. This New York Times’ article was amongst the firsts to raise the alarm (even though it has been accused of exaggerating too much). Indeed, recent moves (headed by Turkey, France and others) pushing the Syrian opposition for greater unity have been mainly driven by growing international concern over divisions within rebel ranks and fears that funds and weapons could be falling into the hands of extremists, even though the rebels themselves deny such need (in that respect, Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the FSA military council, however told the Financial Times “we want to remove the idea that we are not united, which is used as an excuse not to help us”). 

There seems to be a pinch of truth to this. For instance, it was a jihadist group (Tajamo Ansar al-islam or “gathering of the supporters of Islam”) that claimed responsibility “in collaboration with honourable soldiers” for the terrorist bomb-attacks that took place last week in Damascus. They targeted the headquarters of the Syrian Army and triggered intense fighting between the regime’s soldiers and the rebels. It seems the jihadists were also mainly behind the spectacular attack that killed key members of both the Army and the Government (extremely intertwined, though) back in July. For its part, the group Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham (“Front for the Protection of the Syrian People”) has claimed responsibility for several attacks against the Syrian army, security and shabiha. Tiny local groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are operating on a local-basis. And even foreign groups are also carrying out attacks on Syrian ground, such as Lebanon-based Fatah al-Islam and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades. Adding to this, there have been reports of a small number of Libyan and Tunisian fighters dying in Syria, despite declarations from Syrian rebels that they don’t need foreign manpower, just weapons and ammunition. Al Qaeda apparently has something to do with all of this: in February, its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called in a video message on militants in Arab countries to “rise up” and support what he called “their brothers in Syria”. 

Despite the Islamists’ declarations, authorities within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have repeatedly tried to play down this threat and insist on the secular nature of the uprising. Ahmad Al-Fajj, an FSA general, recently affirmed to Le Monde that “these fighters are not in high numbers, they amount to approximately one thousand throughout the whole country”, adding they do not hold any kind of power: “if Western countries had supported us from the beginning, they wouldn’t even be here”. As Charles Levinson wrote for The Wall Street Journal, and more or less following the same pattern of what happened in both pre and post-war Iraq, rebels in Syria seem to be clearly divided between Islamists and non-Islamists, and that has sparked serious infighting within several divisions. More worryingly, “the splits also offer a glimpse into the nascent political forces that would vie for power in a post-Assad Syria“.

The United Nations Human Rights Council already concluded there are some jihadists fighting in Syria in its August “Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic“, where it accused both fronts of having committed crimes against humanity of murder and of torture. The report leaves no room for doubt: “Several radical Islamic armed groups have emerged in the country”. According to Paulo Sergio Piñeiro, head of the independent commission carrying out the investigation, some of these “Islamist radical groups” fight along the FSA and others are “freelance jihadists” that try to further radicalise the struggle.

According to The Telegraph, millions of dollars (indeed, mostly from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but apparently also from France) are being poured into the country, and in particular into the most active warfare regions, to pay for weapons, training and support to the Free Syrian Army (remember we talked about them?). But who is exactly receiving this kind of money and/or weapons? The Arabist tackled this issue and found important data. Above all, he concluded that Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly back different factions among the groups – including various shades of secular and Islamist militias. The Arabist itself showed back in July its opposition to the possibility of jihadist groups dominating the rebel front, even though nowadays the issue seems to need further nuances. 
Update: The Arabist himself recently published a worrying article: Jihadists are receiving most of the arms received by Syrian rebels (and worst of all, the U.S. Government seems to be aware of that!).

So, there are jihadists in Syria. But for now, they all are fighting along their Syrian brothers for a sole cause: the ousting of Bashar Assad and his allies. It remains unclear what a post-Assad scenario may bring with it. Moreover, we may have to be careful and not draw conclusions ahead of time: as the Lebanese Abu Mathesen said to El Pais: “not all of us growing a beard and praying to Allah are terrorists” (in fact, not Everyone’s an Islamist right now). They are mostly youths fighting for freedom, and evidently feel lonely in that ordeal.

It is beyond doubt Islamists were not the main drives of the Arab revolutions that brought down several authoritarian regimes back in 2011. Nor were they the ones to start the fight against Assad in Syria. But, as (amongst others) Fernando Reinares, has often said over the last months, they are clearly taking advantage (and thus gaining strength) of the instability and lack of security that ensued from the “Arab Spring”: smuggling of arms, money and drugs (the Sinai stands as a perfect case in point); deterioration of the economy and lack of jobs leading to desperation and mounting of extremism(s), end of repression for both moderate and radical Islamist orators… It seems (according to the American themselves) the killing of U.S. Ambassador in Libya is an example of that, together with blatant waves of violence that have been taking place in Libya itself, Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.





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