News / Middle East

    Will Syria’s Civil War Turn Into a Jihad?

    Islamists wave an Islamic flag and protest against the Assad regime at a demonstration in fron of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on July 18, 2012. (AP)Islamists wave an Islamic flag and protest against the Assad regime at a demonstration in fron of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on July 18, 2012. (AP)
    x
    Islamists wave an Islamic flag and protest against the Assad regime at a demonstration in fron of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on July 18, 2012. (AP)
    Islamists wave an Islamic flag and protest against the Assad regime at a demonstration in fron of the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, on July 18, 2012. (AP)
    David Arnold
    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.

    You May Like

    Syrian Torture Victim Recounts Horrors

    'You make them think you have surrendered' says Jalal Nofal, a doctor who was jailed and survived repeated interrogations in Syria

    Mandela’s Millions Paid to Heirs, But Who Gets His Country Home?

    Saga around $3 million estate of country's first democratic president is far from over as Winnie Mandela’s fight for home overshadows payouts

    Guess Which Beach is 'Best in the US'?

    Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay tops an annual "top 10" list compiled by a coastal scientist, also known as Doctor Beach

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trendi
    X
    May 27, 2016 5:57 AM
    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Chinese-Americans Heart Trump, Bucking National Trend

    A new study conducted by three Asian-American organizations shows there are three times as many Democrats as there are Republicans among Asian-American voters, and they favor Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. But one group, called Chinese-Americans For Trump, is going against the tide and strongly supports the business tycoon. VOA’s Elizabeth Lee caught up with them at a Trump rally and reports from Anaheim, California.
    Video

    Video Reactions to Trump's Success Polarized Abroad

    What seemed impossible less than a year ago is now almost a certainty. New York real estate mogul Donald Trump has won the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect has sparked as much controversy abroad as it has in the United States. Zlatica Hoke has more.
    Video

    Video Drawings by Children in Hiroshima Show Hope and Peace

    On Friday, President Barack Obama will visit Hiroshima, Japan, the first American president to do so while in office. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city to force Japan's surrender in World War II. Although their city lay in ruins, some Hiroshima schoolchildren drew pictures of hope and peace. The former students and their drawings are now part of a documentary called “Pictures from a Hiroshima Schoolyard.” VOA's Deborah Block has the story.
    Video

    Video Vietnamese Rapper Performs for Obama

    A prominent young Vietnamese artist told President Obama said she faced roadblocks as a woman rapper, and asked the president about government support for the arts. He asked her to rap, and he even offered to provide a base beat for her. Watch what happened.
    Video

    Video Roots Run Deep for Tunisia's Dwindling Jewish Community

    This week, hundreds of Jewish pilgrims are defying terrorist threats to celebrate an ancient religious festival on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The festivities cast a spotlight on North Africa's once-vibrant Jewish population that has all but died out in recent decades. Despite rising threats of militant Islam and the country's battered economy, one of the Arab world's last Jewish communities is staying put and nurturing a new generation. VOA’s Lisa Bryant reports.
    Video

    Video Meet Your New Co-Worker: The Robot

    Increasing numbers of robots are joining the workforce, as companies scale back and more processes become automated. The latest robots are flexible and collaborative, built to work alongside humans as opposed to replacing them. VOA’s Tina Trinh looks at the next generation of automated employees helping out their human colleagues.
    Video

    Video Wheelchair Technology in Tune With Times

    Technologies for the disabled, including wheelchair technology, are advancing just as quickly as everything else in the digital age. Two new advances in wheelchairs offer improved control and a more comfortable fit. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Baby Boxes Offer Safe Haven for Unwanted Children

    No one knows exactly how many babies are abandoned worldwide each year. The statistic is a difficult one to determine because it is illegal in most places. Therefore unwanted babies are often hidden and left to die. But as Erika Celeste reports from Woodburn, Indiana, a new program hopes to make surrendering infants safer for everyone.
    Video

    Video California Celebration Showcases Local Wines, Balloons

    Communities in the U.S. often hold festivals to show what makes them special. In California, for example, farmers near Fresno celebrate their figs and those around Gilmore showcase their garlic. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the wine-producing region of Temecula offers local vintages in an annual festival where rides on hot-air balloons add to the excitement.
    Video

    Video US Elementary School Offers Living Science Lessons

    Zero is not a good score on a test at school. But Discovery Elementary is proud of its “net zero” rating. Net zero describes a building in which the amount of energy provided by on-site renewable sources equals the amount of energy the building uses. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, the innovative features in the building turn the school into a teaching tool, where kids can't help but learn about science and sustainability. Faith Lapidus narrates.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora