Radical elements are true winners in Syria’s stalemate

  Jan 21, 2013

In an interview with Syrian state television on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem, said most Syrians have come to understand that what they are facing are not revolutionaries challenging the Assad regime, but foreign-backed jihadists who are targeting the country’s national unity. He is only partly wrong.

This threat of radicalism is slightly exaggerated by western countries, but at the same time largely underestimated by the Syrian opposition, giving way to misunderstanding of an issue that is complicating the process of finding a way out of this crisis. I have discussed this issue with several officials from western and regional countries involved in the Syrian crisis, as the situation developed in the country over the past 22 months.

Syrians need to understand that western and some regional governments are genuinely concerned about the rise of jihadi activities in the country. These concerns are not a mere pretext to justify inaction, as the opposition tends to claim. Therefore, a common understanding is necessary to address the issue.

Jihadis represent a fraction of the anti-regime fighters. Yet since the US designated Jabhat Al Nusra, a Salafi jihadist group believed to have links to Al Qaeda, as a foreign terrorist group, the narrative has shifted, with almost every report from inside Syria focusing on this group’s ideology or operations. Western governments must understand that as the situation drags on, jihadists and Islamists in general become more powerful – a fact that an overwhelming number of experts have consistently and clearly reiterated since the beginning of the conflict.

Jihadists with extreme Islamist agendas – including fighters said to hail from as many as 29 countries – are steadily building inroads in Syrian society by providing desperately needed services to local communities and demonstrating discipline that is lacking within the Free Syrian Army ranks. Radical Islamists are also efficiently organising and forming alliances to shape the future of the country. On Saturday, for example, the Syrian Islamic Front, an alliance of Islamist groups, released its vision for an Islamic state in the future.

This vision may be at odds with the future most Syrians desire, but jihadists are nonetheless given a pass because they are the most effective type of foreign intervention force operating. Many of the rebels in the Free Syrian Army have lately taken a back seat in the fight against the regime; jihadists, on the other hand, remain on the front lines.

Meanwhile, major supporters of the Syrian opposition appear to obsess about how to preserve the regime’s structure and have thus been detached from the realities on the ground. It is important to recognise that the current state of the regime – and how it is projected to be as long as the situation persists – will not be more helpful in combating radicalism than if the regime collapses and the rebels win. On the contrary, the country is a dangerous incubator for radicals, not only among the rebels but also among pro-Assad fighters.

The opposition does not intend to radically change the regime’s structure. It is important to distinguish between the state’s institutions and the regime’s tools of repression. Earlier this month, the opposition’s National Coalition released a plan for a transitional period that includes ensuring governmental institutions continue functioning, and a weapons collection programme.

Indeed, the army and the feared mukhabarat security services do not need to be dismantled because Alawites who control these forces represent a minority; concerns about the structure of the regime can be addressed with a careful change in the army’s command and the reversal of the mukhabarat apparatus’s dominance over state institutions.

But the Syrian opposition’s promises about “ensuring the collection of weapons” or the “function of the state’s institutions” are far from enough. The opposition must understand that the type of jihadists who have entered Syria are arguably the worst type because they have a sectarian agenda, committed to sectarian cleansing and indiscriminate violence.

These “sectarian jihadists” are particularly worrying because of the sectarian diversity of Syrian society. Yet, this sectarianism has not been duly addressed by religious and political leaders. According to a Syrian researcher who has recently met with numerous religious leaders, these leaders shy away from speaking out against sectarianism to avoid criticism from the public. There is an increasing tendency among opposition figures and activists to say what is popular rather than what is right.

The role of moderate religious leaders is essential to counter this trend. These religious leaders, however, find it difficult to criticise popular forces. Supporters of the Syrian uprising need to show that there can be an alternative. Instead of reminiscing over the demise of dictatorial, pseudo-secular rulers, it is imperative to face this threat head on and look for a solution through democratic means, awareness and public appeal. After all, Islamists are part of the new political reality across the Middle East.

Once the regime falls, many will find little reason to fight, while moderate religious and local leaders will have to join hands to speak out or act against extremism. But as long as Mr Al Assad remains in power, these moderate voices will remain outliers.

The bottom line is this: the longer this crisis goes on, the more time radical forces from all sides will have to dig in.
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