Friday,17 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013
Friday,17 August, 2018
Issue 1144, 18 - 24 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Unholy battles

The looming battle between “moderates” and “radicals” in the Syrian opposition is likely to decide the shape of things to come in Syria, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Al-Ahram Weekly

When prominent Syrian thinker Sadek Jalal Al-Azm was asked in a recent interview about what future awaits Syria, he expressed concern about “political Islam” because “it could lead to reproducing the same despotic military regime but with a religious attire and sectarian fanaticism.”

Al-Azm’s remarks, posted this week on a website that chronicles the Syrian uprising, lend credence to recent dramatic developments on the Syrian front that saw Al-Qaeda joining the Syrian fray for the first time publicly. Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced that Al-Nusra Front was one of its branches, and that the two were merging into a single Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (the Levant).

The front, a radical faction comprising a few thousand fighters, both Arab and Syrian, was said to have made territorial gains against the state army and was held responsible for a number of bombings targeting state institutions. Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohamed Al-Jolani, pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri, a move that news reports said caused ire among Free Syrian Army (FSA) leaders. The FSA issued a statement in which it expressed its opposition to Al-Nusra’s allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

The FSA, says one Syrian analyst, found itself engaged in a battle against “radicals” in the armed opposition barely a week after it faced a similar situation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is this battle, analysts argue, between the Syrian opposition’s moderates and radicals, that will decide which Syria will come out of the ashes of a post-Assad era.

On Sunday, the Syrian National Coalition, the body representative of the Syrian opposition in exile, issued a statement protesting against the declaration of allegiance made by Al-Nusra. “This move only goes to serve the interests of Al-Assad regime and not the revolution itself,” said the statement. The statement added that any behaviour that contradicts the Syrian people’s choices of dignity, freedom and justice only serves Al-Assad regime and inflicts damage on the revolution and will therefore be rejected by the Syrian National Coalition and the people.

According to Syrian analyst Ghassan Al-Muflih, the row over Al-Nusra allegiance to Al-Qaeda is “a battle we expected to come along, but not that soon”. “We thought this battle between the radicals and ultra-conservative armed opposition and the more moderate elements was bound to take place at some point after Al-Assad falls. However, Al-Nusra pushed us into it earlier.”

Opposition figures argue that many signs were leading in this direction. Since its inception Jabhet (Front) Al-Nusra raised the Al-Qaeda flag, hardly making references in its discourse to symbols of the Syrian revolution. More importantly, its leadership is still located outside of Syria in Afghanistan. This explains the reason why Al-Muflih and other analysts close to opposition circles viewed the declaration as “a tactical victory” for the regime. Al-Muflih, however, advised the FSA not to engage in a war of words with the front.

While FSA leaders expressed concern about the front’s ultra-conservative outlook, its leaders argue that they still “need those fighters now against Assad”, suggesting that this is only a transition period and after Assad they — the radical fighters — “will move to other battle fields in Afghanistan and probably Gaza”.

The FSA appears to be spearheading a battle for the core of the opposition. Last week, it engaged in a war of words against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it in a statement of being “responsible for delaying victory and [for the] fragmentation of the opposition”. The FSA charged that the Brotherhood has been confronting “secular, national, political and military forces”. The statement went so far as to accuse the Brotherhood of “hijacking the revolution”. “You don’t own this revolution and you have not made it,” the statement concluded. The eight-point FSA statement, signed by Fahd Al-Masri, the Joint Command’s official spokesman, shed light on the in-fighting taking place behind the scenes among the Syrian opposition.

In a response posted online, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson said there was no evidence for its claims and that the organisation was playing a proportionate, constructive role both in opposition politics and on the ground. “All of these attempts to deform the Muslim Brotherhood will not succeed and will not stop our patriotic role in the Syrian revolution,” said the statement.

Such verbal jousts provide hard evidence of the deteriorating relationship among factions of the Syrian opposition and the impact of this on the future of the Syrian crisis. But also raised are questions about the timing of bringing the dispute out into the open, which will likely only serve the Bashar Al-Assad regime.

It could also be linked to the dictates of international actors who upped the ante recently, ordering their proxies in the region to increase arms supplies and training to what has been termed “moderate” elements within the Syrian opposition. One analyst suggested that Al-Qaeda’s statement was the result of being “cornered” — and hence retaliation by tainting the whole opposition to deter the West from supplying arms to so-called moderate elements so that radical forces can keep their control on the ground.

Al-Azm expects a period of score settling and vendetta to dominate among groups and individuals. He nonetheless remains hopeful that Syrians will “restore the simple, tolerant and popular mode of religiosity they once embraced”. The type of Islam that will prevail in the post-Assad phase, argues Al-Azm, will be the “business Islam” — that of businessmen, entrepreneurs and the business elite. “This does not resemble the political Islam we fear. In such a context, the Islam of business is expected to absorb currents of political Islam, including the most radical, and dilute them”.

Syria, affirmed Al-Azm, is not poised to be ruled by the kind of Islam that forbids singing in schools and deprives women of education and work. “If this revolution brought us to the polls with relative safety, I don’t think that any of the currents of political Islam in Syria would be able to sweep the election results the way they did in Egypt or Tunisia.”


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