Author: As-Safir (Lebanon) Posted December 4, 2012
“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:
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.
Read More: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/politics/2012/12/islamist-fighters-syria-fsa.html