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)
TEXT SIZE - +
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

Multimedia Relatives of South Korean Ferry Victims Fire at Authorities

46 people are confirmed dead, but some 250 remain trapped inside sunken ferry More

War Legacy Haunts Vietnam, US Relations

$84 million project aims to clean up soil contaminated by Agent Orange More

Wikipedia Proves Useful for Tracking Flu

Technique gave better results than Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu Trends More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
X
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.
Video

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.
Video

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.
Video

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.
Video

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.
Video

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.
Video

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.
Video

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
AppleAndroid