“Beware the jihadists.” This is the phrase that the international community keeps repeating as an excuse to avoid supplying the Syrian opposition with arms. They mean to say that extremist elements are entering Syria and that they should not be given arms. But an examination of the Islamic groups in the Syrian north reveals the true situation.
The jihadists in this area are few, but the effectiveness of the Salafists and the quality of their operations has made society support them more than they do other combat battalions, which follow a more moderate discourse and which sometimes act as exclusive rulers.
“Not everyone with a beard is a Salafist.” This is how a media activist from the town of Bench, near Idlib, begins his discussion about Islamist fighters in the north. He said that calling most groups Salafists is inaccurate, and that this will eventually become clear. Even though most, if not all, battalions in Idlib and Aleppo and their countrysides have a religious bent, it is not accurate to characterize them as jihadists. In fact, they can be classified into three groups:
- Battalions with a moderate Islamist philosophy. This is the philosophy of most of the north and in fact all of Syria. Many of these are not seeking leadership positions. They are civilians who had to take up arms. They formed military groups based on family or geographic ties. Despite the Islamist discourse which appears in their media declarations, many of those fighters don’t care about the jihadist/Salafist discourse when you get down to it. According to those we have met, many fighters have beards because it is a general symbol among the fighters, who know little about the jihadist doctrine, and even the Salafist ideology. Those military groups often have organizational and financing problems, particularly in Aleppo. They are sometimes joined by criminals, bandits, kidnappers and those who fight on the basis of regional or sectarian hatred. In some cases, these criminals use the banner of revolution to justify kidnapping, theft, killing and even mutilation, as was the case with the “Storm of the North Battalion” in Azaz.
- Salafist Battalions. These battalions have a declared commitment to the Salafist philosophy. They also plan their operations without coordinating with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). These battalions are more organized and some of their fighters receive a monthly salary, such as the Storm of the North Battalion. Those battalions are wary of minorities. Each one of them has its own “Shariah officer” who issues religious edicts, or fatwas, regarding battles or jihad. Some of those “Shariah officers” have studied Islamic law but others hold that position simply because they are well read. Their fighters consider themselves “newcomers” to religious life but have devoted themselves for “jihad for Allah’s sake and for the establishment of the Islamic state.” The contact of those battalions with the outside are limited to financing by outside individuals or groups. They also have not declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda or any other organization. But there is a glaring contradiction when those groups say to the media that they want a civil state and that they will return to normal life once the conflict ends, while at other times they do not hesitate to assert their support for a religious state as they mount scathing attacks on liberals and other sects.
- Al-Nusra Front. This battalion is thought to have fewer members than those described above, but it is highly organized. It is hard for volunteers to join it. It does not allow its fighters to smoke cigarettes. Its leaders refuse to talk to the media. It has declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda and its late leader Osama bin Laden. Some of its fighters have fought in Iraq during the American occupation and are therefore familiar with jihadist ideology, which they consider their main calling. Therefore, their uncompromising goal of establishing a religious state and their rejection of all opposition groups is not surprising. The battalion’s members have recently attacked the new opposition coalition for appointing Munther Majos as its ambassador to France on the grounds that he belongs to the Alawi sect.
No battalion has openly declared its allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Syrians, including fighters, have used social networks to launch scathing attacks on the Brotherhood’s leaders and also on the military leadership and religious figures based inside Turkey near the borders. Some have even described those in Turkey as “cowards.”
What’s common among these three battalion types is that most of their fighters come from among the inhabitants of the areas in which they operate, especially in the Idlib countryside. Of course, a fighter’s degree of religiosity has played a role in determining what battalion he joins. Most battalions, except the reclusive al-Nusra Front, are tied to the social fabric of their areas.
Syria’s conservative society has embraced the armed battalions. The Salafists’ high level of discipline may have been the reason why society has embraced them. But in Aleppo, discipline seems to be somewhat lacking. The relationship between Aleppo’s fighters and inhabitants is awkward because of the former’s “irresponsible operations,” so much so that an activist in Shahbaa said that he “wishes that all FSA were Salafists,” which he considers highly disciplined.
In areas other than the north, most battalions have fighters that defected from the Syrian army. The fighters joined the battalions that secured their defection. Some battalions also include civilians who decided to join because of the coordination between the provinces. So it is common to find a fighter from Hama in an Idlib battalion or a fighter from Homs or Latakia in a battalion in Jisr al-Shoughour and Aleppo. There seems to be few fighters from other Arab countries. Most them come from Libya, followed by Saudi Arabia and then Tunisia. Many of those foreign fighters belong to al-Nusra Front, which is disliked in Aleppo by both the civilians and the other military groups.
Many expect a fierce battle to break out between the Salafists and the al-Nusra Front on one hand and the other armed groups on the other, under the pretext of uniting the FSA. That, according to an activist in Aleppo, was what happened with the Christian militias in Lebanon during the 1980s. The FSA cannot unite without settling the Salafist and jihadist issue once and for all. That may happen if the West puts this as condition for sending arms, some believe.
There is also growing tension between combatants under military leadership — such as the Syrian Military Council or the Revolutionary Military Council — and Salafists and al-Nusra Front, who do not recognize the military leaders.
In conclusion, it seems that the armed groups in the Syrian north are divided into three categories. They all have religious tendencies but differ widely on degrees of religious commitment, arms, discipline and popular support. The political opposition, be it the Syrian National Council or the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is also glaringly absent in the north.