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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

Video Secret Service Chief Under Fire for White House Security Breach

Julia Pierson faces tough questions from lawmakers after recent intrusion at White House, says: 'It is clear that our security plan was not executed properly' More

Frustrated, Liberian Students Want Ebola Fight Role

Thousands have volunteered to go to counties, rural villages to talk to people in their language about deadly virus More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihadi
X
Mahi Ramakrishnan
September 30, 2014 2:16 PM
Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid