Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Yesterday’s ally, today’s enemy

Jihadists who flocked to Syria to fight against the regime may have gained power in doing so, but they have also lost their friends, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

In the early months of the Syrian conflict, jihadist fighters coming to the country were greeted with enthusiasm by a Syrian opposition desperate for help against a heavily-armed and heavy-handed regime. Now, the mood has changed.

During the last year, the Al-Nusra Front, the largest of all the radical militant groups, has received a steady stream of weapons and funds from hardline Islamist donors, allowing it to emerge as a dominant combat force on the ground.

But the initial accolades the Al-Nusra received from the other opposition groups are now a fading memory. The group, listed as a terror group because of its connections with Al-Qaeda, has stepped on too many toes.

At first, the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) tried to cooperate with the Al-Nusra fighters, mainly because of western reluctance to send military assistance to the opposition.

But the presence of the jihadists gave the Syrian regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad the opportunity to portray the entire opposition as extremists. And the intransigence of Al-Nusra alienated many of its former friends.

The two main jihadist groups in Syria are the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Both have connections with Al-Qaeda, and both employ foreign fighters with combat experiences in other conflicts around the world.

The sources of funding for both groups are unclear.

The home-grown Syrian armed opposition groups are largely affiliated with the FSA or other moderate Islamist outfits, not to forget the independent, non-Islamist units which prefer to stay outside the FSA. 

During the past few months, the jihadists have succeeded in seizing several areas which the FSA had wrested from the regime. But soon afterwards, the jihadists insisted on imposing their laws and way of life on the local population, a move that alienated the Syrian public.

 The more the jihadists have acquired military strength, the harder they have tried to repress freedoms in their areas of operation.

Now other members of the Syrian opposition have come to the conclusion that the jihadists are after power, not democracy.

In several Syrian cities, demonstrators have taken to the streets to voice their impatience with the jihadists. In the city of Al-Raqqah, one piece of graffiti reads “Go back to Afghanistan. You have already wrecked the revolution.”

Tensions between the Free Syrian Army and the jihadists are also on the rise.

Last month, fighting broke out between the jihadists and the FSA, and dozens were killed in clashes during which the two sides tried to gain control of arms depots, oil wells, and main roads.

In Latakia, ISIL fighters assassinated senior FSA commander Kamal Hamami a few days ago.

In Idlib, the ISIL ordered all other armed opposition groups to lay down their arms.

As both sides committed mutual acts of murder and abduction in Al-Raqqah, the Al-Nusra fighters destroyed media offices run by secular activists.

The jihadists not only detained Syrian opposition members and charged them with attempting to create a secular state, but they also imprisoned local council members for failing to obey their orders.

FSA spokesman Louay Al-Miqdad told Al-Ahram Weekly that the murder of Hamami was a declaration of war by the ISIL. “The ISIL wants to destroy the FSA or push it aside and take its place,” he said.

Al-Miqdad denied that talks were underway with Al-Nusra or ISIL officials. “We haven’t met with them and don’t intend to do so. What they did was a major crime against the Syrian revolution,” he added. 

The infighting among the revolutionaries is hampering the opposition’s challenge to the government. It is also causing concern to the Americans and the Europeans, who were thinking of sending weapons to the opposition.

Many western countries are now going back on their promises to arm the Syrian opposition for fear that weapons sent to Syria may fall into the hands of anti-Western Islamist extremists.

Western officials are said to have asked the FSA to expel jihadist groups from the country before weapons are delivered to the opposition.

Large numbers of jihadists, Arab and non-Arab, are believed to be operating in Syria. Some Syrians believe the number of jihadists to have reached 17,000.

Haitham Manna, deputy president of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), told the Weekly that about 1,500 foreign fighters, all radical Islamists, had arrived in Syria via Turkey in the past two weeks.

“They come into Syria in small groups. The FSA monitors their movements but avoids confronting them. They are now stationed in northern Syria, and they are all non-Syrians.”

According to Manna, hundreds of Saudis and Chechens have joined jihadist groups in Syria.

The National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) did its best to reassure the US and the West that it would screen combatants fighting under its flag.

The NCSROF also promised to keep all weapons in the hands of the moderates. But the West is still reluctant to send weapons to the Syrian opposition just in case.

UK officials believe that Al-Qaeda in Syria poses a direct threat to Britain itself, for example. If extremist groups take control of chemical weapons and Syria, they could use these weapons to attack the UK and the West, the officials pointed out.

Local coordination committees in Syria say that the ISIL is actually “helping the regime”. Members of the coordination committees claim that the jihadists are working for the Syrian intelligence and that their aim is “to frighten the Syrians and the world away from the revolution”.

The coordination committees pledged to resist the jihadists, saying that “the people who have revolted against injustice and demanded their freedom and dignity will not allow tyranny to come back under any name.”

However, the Syrian opposition says that the regime is not above using the extremists for its own ends.

In the first year of the revolution, the Syrian regime released more than 60,000 prisoners, including jihadists.

NCSROF member Walid Al-Bonni, did not rule out confrontation between the FSA and the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organisations in Syria.

“Is it possible that such groups have been able to grow and form their own mini-states without the knowledge of brotherly and friendly nations,” Al-Bonni asked, adding that “Syria is now a frontline for international conflict and its people will be the fuel of this conflict.”

The refusal of the US and the West to send weapons to the Syrian opposition does not mean that such weapons will not arrive from elsewhere.

A few days ago, FSA commander Salim Idriss said that he had received sophisticated weapons, adding that the weapons did not come from the West or the US.

It is fair to say that unless the West takes tangible steps toward ending the Syrian crisis through political or non-political means, arms and foreign fighters will keep flowing freely in the country.

It is also likely that the regime will continue to attack Syrian cities and destroy them one by one, using weapons obtained from Russia and Iran.

Foreign diplomats, meanwhile, are concerned that Syria may become a “primary destination” for jihadists from all over the world.

The Syrians, those who oppose the regime and those who support it, now have one thing in common: they don’t want their country to turn into another Afghanistan or Somalia.

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