Jihadist contingent now bolstering anti-Assad forces
Palestinian Salafi Muslims in the Gaza Strip chant slogans at a February demonstration against Syria's President Bashar Assad. The flag reads: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger."AP FILE PHOTO
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HWAIDA SAAD The New York Times
Monday, July 30, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.
As the uprising against President Bashar 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-Qaida, 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 Sunday exhorting new 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."
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 Gulf 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. For example, Al Farouq Brigade, a seemingly Salafist organization prominent in the fight for Homs several months ago, has all but disappeared.
There is, however, 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.
One recent such video, highlighting the storming of a police station hear Aleppo, featured a pistol, the Quran and a song about fighting. "The Quran 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.
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 bold 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 popular television show as well as 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."
Abu al-Khatab, in his late 20s, said he was a former fighter for al-Qaida in Iraq, as was his father, before he joined Ahrar al-Sham. He belongs to an Idlib branch called the Suleiman Unit, named after their wealthy benefactor, an international meat dealer.
"I agree with al-Qaida 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 Qaida 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."