Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1130, 10 - 16 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Islamic emirate or democratic state?

Islamists are playing a key role in the Syrian uprising, but are they seeking to create an Islamic emirate or a genuinely democratic state, writes Bassel Oudat

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Islamists are playing various roles in the uprising against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, part of a spectrum of political forces that have turned to religion as a way of confronting oppression and corruption writes Bassel Oudat . The most influential of these groups are the armed Islamist forces, most prominently the Al-Nusra [Victory] Front and the groups associated with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.

The armed opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), mostly composed of military personnel who have defected from the regular army, is not an organised force with a clear chain of command, but instead consists of various decentralised brigades. Among these are groups from various ethnic, religious, and political backgrounds, and the Islamist groups are prominent among these.

Since early in the uprising, the Syrian regime has been trying to convince the outside world that the revolution has been infiltrated by religious fundamentalists and extremists, repeatedly referring to the Al-Nusra Front, until recently an unknown entity, as allegedly being linked to Al-Qaeda. The regime has also accused the front of carrying out bombings that have killed dozens of civilians.

However, some of those paraded on official Syrian television as members of the Al-Nusra Front and responsible for attacks were later found to be members of the security apparatus or of regime militias. Analysts believe that the regime has let the Al-Nusra Front claim it is entering a sectarian war, aiming to partition the country on a sectarian basis, in order to discredit it.

The front has carried out various operations inside Syria against the regime, most notably bombing the headquarters of the crisis cell in the capital Damascus last year, which killed several senior security and intelligence officers, the bombing of the Ministry of Interior building that seriously injured the minister and killed the army’s chief of operations in Damascus, and several suicide attacks on security, military and civilian targets.

As a result, Al-Nusra has become one of the most prominent combat units within the armed opposition to the regime.

In September 2011, Washington added the Al-Nusra Front to the US terrorism list, claiming that the group was trying to present itself as part of the legitimate Syrian opposition while in truth being an Al-Qaeda affiliate aiming to hijack the struggle of the Syrian people for its own goals.

The US move was criticised by the Syrian opposition because it views the front as part of the armed opposition and partners in attempts to overthrow the regime. However, it has also rejected statements by Al-Nusra to the effect that after the fall of the Al-Assad regime Syria will be under the control of Islamist forces.

Members of the country’s opposition say that this is not in line with the wishes of the Syrian people, though they are not minded to clash openly with Al-Nusra, given the need to combat the incumbent regime. This could happen once the regime is overthrown and if the group continues its strategy, however.

Al-Nusra fighters are described as being particularly fearless in battle, and they insist on being sent to the frontlines. They also only appropriate weapons and ammunition and offer humanitarian relief to all without discrimination. They do not like media attention, and they cover their heads with black bandanas similar in design to Al-Qaeda’s black banner.

Al-Nusra includes many Arab fighters and a small number of foreigners, but its structure is mainly Syrian. Some estimates put the number of combatants at 5,000, and most non-Syrians in the Al-Nusra Front entered Syria across the border with Turkey, now under the control of the FSA.

Their crossing could not have happened without the knowledge of the US, which has made observers wonder why the US changed its designation of Al-Nusra fighters from “jihadists” to “terrorists”. Perhaps the West will use the presence of the Al-Nusra Front in Syria to justify later military intervention under the pretext of combating terrorism, observers say.

The Al-Nusra Front works independently of the FSA and is present in most Syrian cities, coordinating no more than 20 per cent of its operations with the FSA. Observers say clashes between the two sides may well take place after the fall of the Al-Assad regime because of ideological differences in a possible future power struggle.

In August 2011, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood announced that it was forming armed brigades in Syria to combat the regime, saying that the brigades’ mission was to defend the oppressed as part of the FSA. These brigades have since been deployed across Syria, and they were most likely created in cooperation with members of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC).

The aim of the Brotherhood brigades is to build a civil state on Islamic foundations in Syria and to raise awareness about jihad. Although the Brotherhood has been banned in Syria for three decades, and the number of its members is unknown since membership is officially punishable by death, it has been able to attract many Syrians who view it as capable of transforming the country into a conservative Muslim society.

The Brotherhood in Syria declared a few years before the uprising began that it had revised its political outlook, declaring its support for democracy and equal citizenship. It has also appeared flexible regarding leftist and secularist currents in Syria.

Once the uprising started some two years ago, Brotherhood members insisted on the revolution’s peaceful nature and cooperated with other opposition forces. However, there has been concern that the group merely wishes to build political bridges and that it will reveal its true intentions once the regime falls.

The funding of the Islamist brigades has remained secret, though their most important source of weaponry is equipment seized from the Syrian army. Observers say that the main source of funding for the Al-Nusra Front and the Muslim Brotherhood brigades, together with the source of their automatic weapons and anti-armour rockets, is likely to consist of Syrian, Saudi and Qatari Islamic groups and the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

In addition to the armed brigades, there are other Islamist groups that follow religious scholars and advocate non-violence. These come under the heading of the democratic Islamist current. There is also the popular Islam of the country’s rural areas and the poorer areas of the cities. For people living in such areas, religion is a form of social cohesion and a value system that protects morality.

Such people, not necessarily identifying themselves as Islamist, do not follow religious political parties or champion a specific project or political programme.

It has been this segment of the population that has played the greatest role in the popular activism in search of dignity and rights. The participation of those belonging to it was boosted when Fridays were chosen for demonstrations and mosques became gathering points for protests.

Several independent Islamist figures have emerged who have high credibility and popularity and have taken the lead in confronting the regime’s oppression.

Syrians are trying to draw a distinction between moderate and extremist Islamist movements, saying that there is a great difference between “signs of religiosity” and “extremism”.

It would be unfair, many say, to conclude that the Syrian revolution includes extremist jihadist elements. On the contrary, Salafist influence is very limited in Syria, and it is mainly the preserve of small groups influenced by international supporters.

They add that the regime has itself fabricated the fear of armed Salafist and extremist groups to suppress peaceful demonstrations against it and to bring about a climate of fear about what could happen were the regime to fall.

Some observers say that the Al-Nusra Front wants to create an Islamic emirate in Syria and that the Brotherhood intends to create a state built on Sharia law alone. However, for the time being all the groups have denied that they have any intention of monopolising the revolution, indicating that Syria is a complex ethnic, religious and sectarian blend in which no one group or party can monopolise power.

The Islamists in Syria must convince those inside the country before those abroad that they are moderate and are concerned to combat extremism and fanaticism. They have to prove their commitment to the revolution’s values of freedom, dignity and respect for human rights in order to counter fears that Syria could become a breeding ground for religious fanatics in the future.

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