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Hichem Karoui: Syria’s great unknown
June 30, 2013
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Is there a growing schism between civil activists and military fighters in Syria as some reports suggest?

Assumedly, such a rift has always accompanied revolutions, conflicts and movements of liberation. The History of the USA as the contemporary history of decolonisation proves it.

In the USA, as J.M. Bradsher observed, the military prevalence has been precluded because of the ideological and historical background of the American revolution with respect to American fears of power, anarchy, standing armies, and military despotism; the American’s faith in their militia; and their insistence on civil supremacy being the guiding principle of the civil-military relationship. However, the Third World’s movements of liberation have a different history in which we see military prevalence. This is due to the lack of adequate political culture and faith in the benefits of civil guidance.

In Syria, the issue is more complicated by the emergence of sectarian conflict and jihadist fighters (Sunnites and Shiites).The rift also emerges out of the differences in defining the objectives of the struggle.

For most civil activists, particularly the secularists, democracy based on non-sectarian citizenship and a sense of justice are the purpose of the struggle. The armed groups do not necessarily share the same view. Some of them, like Jabhat Al Nusra, display their belief in the Jihadist principle, purporting that Syria is just a station on the way of implementing the great Islamic state of the Caliphate. Some others have a hidden agenda, probably dictated by their weapons and funds’ supplier. Some observers pointed to the way armed groups use the revolution for looting, kidnapping, executing, and bombing without much discrimination.

The New York Times recently said,  “Syria’s rebel fighters — who have long staked claim to the moral high ground for battling dictatorship — are losing crucial support from a public increasingly disgusted by the actions of some rebels, including poorly planned missions, senseless destruction, criminal behaviour and the cold-blooded killing of prisoners.”

The participation of Hizbollah in the fighting makes Syria a field for violent sectarian conflict. Henceforth, the lines are divided, between civil and military activists on the one hand, and Sunni and Shiite fighters on the other hand. Al Qaeda could not stay away from such a field.

In February 2012, Ayman Al Zawahiri generated headlines with a video message calling on Muslims to support jihad in Syria.

A Quilliam strategic briefing noted that “many cadres of Jabhat  Al Nusra come from the jihadist network of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, which was built during the 2000s and solidified in Hai Al Jami’a, Baghdad, in 2002, following Al Zarqawi’s arrival from Afghanistan via Iran. Syrians who had been with Al Zarqawi in Herat, Afghanistan, in 2000 were sent to build branches of his network in Syria and Lebanon, with Al Zarqawi exercising control from Iraq. These jihadists established ‘guesthouses’ in Syria to channel would-be fighters to Iraq, and the infrastructure flourished.”

The network survived after the assassination of Sheikh Abu Al Qaqaa in 2007 by the Syrian Mukhabarat. The Syrian jihadists relocated to Iraq and returned to their country after the beginning of the protests in 2011.

The objectives of Jabhat Al Nusra were clear since 2011:

1. Establishing a group including many existing jihadists, linking them together into one coherent entity.

2. Reinforcing and strengthening the consciousness of the Islamist nature of the conflict.

3. Building military capacity for the group, seizing opportunities to collect weapons and train recruits, and creating safe havens by controlling physical places upon which to exercise their power.

4. Creating an Islamist state in Syria.

5. Establishing a ‘Caliphate’ in Bilad Al Sham (the Levant).

The leader of Jabhat Al Nusra is a man called Abu Mohammad Al Julani. His real identity is well protected and his face is always covered in meetings. Al Julani is thought to be a Syrian jihadist with suspected close ties to Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

It is certainly not exaggerated to assert that this is a major reason for the Western self-restraint regarding arms’ supply to the rebels. Providing weapons to the rebels has been a long-sought goal of advocates of a more aggressive American response to the Syrian civil war. A proposal made by David H. Petraeus, when he was director of the CIA, and backed by the State Department and the Pentagon to supply weapons was rejected by the White House because of President Obama’s deep reluctance to be drawn into another war in the Middle East.

No wonder. As a recent report of ICG put it, “Jabhat Al Nusra distinguished itself with its unabashed Salafi-jihadi imagery and rhetoric, its warning against seeking Western help and its attacks against the Turkish government for being both insufficiently Islamist and a US pawn.”

Against this bleak background the international community took a long time before taking steps to mobilising support to Syria. During his June trip to Doha, Mr Kerry met with foreign ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The discussion was about what concrete steps could be taken to strengthen the Syrian opposition militarily.

Noticeably, Mr Kerry said, “What is different is that this is now a response to what Iran and Hizbollah are doing.” In other terms, military support was decided not just because Western intelligence had concluded that Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons, but also because of intervention by Hizbollah and Iran on the side of the Assad government.

Still, the problem undermining the opposition is the same. Additionally to the civil-military rift, ICG reported that “by early 2013, it appeared all too clearly that the newfound coalition was riven by the same rivalries that had dogged the opposition from day one; the West displayed customary hesitancy;  and, in some regions, the military situation began to tilt toward the regime. The rebels’ radicalisation and criminality, coupled with enhanced influence of fundamentalist groups, became more manifest, attracting the attention of the mainstream media; more importantly, they triggered mounting public hostility, notably among minority groups and members of the urban elite.”

Thus, while military support to the opposition has been decided , the  great unknown remains: what kind of situation will we have on our hands when the regime collapses?

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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