The civil war in Syria has attracted a wide range of young fighters trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But there are increasing signs of beards and black flags among the rebel battalions, raising concerns that the push for democratic reforms might turn into a holy war against western influence.
If there is a significant jihadist movement developing in Syria, its impact could linger long after the fighting ends. Following the liberation of a town in Idlib province, for example, the New York Times reported
that the newly elected members of a town council debated a request by some jihadi fighters who wanted to fly their black flag displaying “There is no god but God”. The council compromised with a 20-minute flag-raising display.
Looking for jihadis
According to Elizabeth O’Bagy, author of the recently published “Jihad in Syria,” the United States needs to decide soon which rebel factions to support in Syria. If it doesn’t, she says, others could strengthen the more radical elements among the rebels and “threaten Syria’s future stability.”
The “others” O’Bagy has in mind include Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, whose funds are getting a welcome reception from the rebel forces.
“The opposition is weak, so they are open to any kind of help,” said Thomas Pierret
, a lecturer on Islam and the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh.
The black flag is usually the flag of the Prophet,” said Pierret. “It’s not necessarily because they are global jihadists
But figuring out which rebel factions could pose a jihadist threat isn’t easy. The presence of long beards and black banners can be misleading.
“I’m not sure these are actual people affiliated with al Qaeda,” Pierret said of the bearded fighters with black banners. “These may be Syrian opposition who adopted the most radical, most frightening symbol for the regime and it supporters.”
Some fighters, he pointed out, grow beards simply because they couldn’t under the Assad regime.
“The black flag is usually the flag of the Prophet,” said Pierret. “It’s not necessarily because they are global jihadists.”
O’Bagy, a Syria specialist at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., observes there has been an increase in the number of non-Syrians and religious conservatives among the rebels, but says their motives are not easily defined.
Moderate Sunnis predominate
“The important thing to keep in mind,” O’Bagy said, “is that the Syrian opposition is mostly Sunni Muslims, which means that to an extent they are being driven by religious principles, they are being inspired by Islam and they draw on Islamic cultural concepts and symbols.”
O’Bagy calls them religious nationalists who “see the fight in terms of trying to establish a democratic process, political parties, plurality and fight for Syria as a state.”
“You hear a lot about jihad, and specifically when you talk to Syrians they use these terms quite frequently, but they … use it in terms of how they understand an Islamic struggle, and the Islamic concept of a struggle against injustice, “ she said.
That view of the Syria’s opposition is similar to the one described by the International Republican Institute, which published a survey
of more than 1,100 Syrians – 30 percent of them still living in Syria. The Syrians surveyed ranked minority rights and religious freedom the highest of all goals of a post-Assad Syria.
You hear a lot about jihad ... but they … use it in terms of how they understand an Islamic struggle, and the Islamic concept of a struggle against injustice
“Islamic extremism is truly the exception,” wrote David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy when he cited the poll recently in a Washington Post op-ed
Watching the Syrian rebel brigades
Analysts who study the Syrian uprising also agree that some of the non-Syrian units among the rebels are making a very useful contribution. One they cite is the Umma Brigade,
led by Libyan-Irish commander Mahdi al-Harati, which brought in its military experience from fighting in Benghazi.
The Umma Brigade is not radical and doesn’t seek global jihad, said Pierret. It fights under the flag of the Syrian opposition. Al-Harati, he says, “sees Syrians in the same situation [as Libya] and he wants to help.”
O’Bagy, however, cites two rebel groups that need to be watched closely.
One is the ultra-conservative Salafists of Ahrar al-Sham that O’Bagy says is seeking “a new world order modeled on early Islam that poses a threat to both democracy and the notion of statehood.”
The second, which she describes as an even greater threat, is the homegrown Salafist-jihadist group, Jabhat al-Nusra
. O’Bagy and Pierret say this self-proclaimed Syrian branch of al Qaeda has its origins in the Assad government that for decades has fostered terrorists groups operating within the region.
“Salafists are more conservative and see the origination of a community of the Prophet as the ideal for government,” O’Bagy said. Jabhat al-Nusra believes in imposing strict sharia law under a caliphate and rejects the notions of nationalism and statehood.
“These are the rebel groups that are going to be very influential in the long-term and that contradict U.S. interests to the greatest degree,” said O’Bagy.