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

    Top US General: Turkish Media Report ‘Absurd'

    General Dunford rejects ‘irresponsible' claims of coup involvement by former four-star Army General Campbell, who led NATO forces in Afghanistan before retiring earlier this year

    Video Saving Ethiopian Children Thought to Be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at efforts of one African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children

    Protests Over Western Troops Threaten Libyan 'Unity' Government

    Fears mount that Islamist foes of ‘unity' government plan to declare a revolutionaries' council in Tripoli

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunitiesi
    X
    VOA News
    July 25, 2016 5:09 PM
    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
    Video

    Video Recycling Lifeline for Lebanon’s Last Glassblowers

    In a small Lebanese coastal town, one family is preserving a craft that stretches back millennia. The art of glass blowing was developed by Phoenicians in the region, and the Khalifehs say they are the only ones keeping the skill alive in Lebanon. But despite teaming up with an eco-entrepreneur and receiving an unexpected boost from the country’s recent trash crisis the future remains uncertain. John Owens reports from Sarafand.
    Video

    Video Migrants Continue to Risk Lives Crossing US Border from Mexico

    In his speech Thursday before the Republican National Convention, the party’s presidential candidate, Donald Trump, reiterated his proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border if elected. Polls show a large percentage of Americans support better control of the nation's southwestern border, but as VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from the border town of Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, the situation faced by people trying to cross the border is already daunting.
    Video

    Video In State of Emergency, Turkey’s Erdogan Focuses on Spiritual Movement

    The state of emergency that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared is giving him even more power to expand a purge that has seen an estimated 60,000 people either arrested or suspended from their jobs. VOA Europe correspondent Luis Ramirez reports from Istanbul.
    Video

    Video Calm the Waters: US Doubles Down Diplomatic Efforts in ASEAN Meetings

    The United States is redoubling diplomatic efforts and looking to upcoming regional meetings to calm the waters after an international tribunal invalidated the legal basis of Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. VOA State Department correspondent Nike Ching has the story.
    Video

    Video Four Brother Goats Arrive in Brooklyn on a Mission

    While it's unusual to see farm animals in cities, it's become familiar for residents of Brooklyn, New York, to see a little herd of goats. Unlike gas-powered mowing equipment, goats remove invasive weeds quietly and without adding more pollution to the air. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this is a pilot program and if it proves to be successful, the goat gardener program will be extended to other areas of New York. Faith Lapidus narrates.
    Video

    Video Scientists in Poland Race to Save Honeybees

    Honeybees are in danger worldwide. Causes of what's known as colony collapse disorder range from pesticides and loss of habitat to infections. But scientists in Poland say they are on track to finding a cure for one of the diseases. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Wall Already Runs Along Parts of US-Mexico Border

    The Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, gained the support of many voters by saying he would build a wall to keep undocumented immigrants and drugs from coming across the border from Mexico. Critics have called his idea impractical and offensive to Mexico, while supporters say such a bold approach is needed to control the border. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from the border town of Nogales, Arizona.
    Video

    Video New HIV Tests Emphasize Rapid Results

    As the global fight against AIDS intensifies, activists have placed increasing importance on getting people to know their HIV status. Some companies are developing new HIV testing methods designed to be quick, easy and accurate. Thuso Khumalo looks at the latest methods, presented at the International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
    Video

    Video African Youth with HIV Urge More Support

    HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is the top killer of teens in sub-Saharan Africa. But many youths say their experience with the virus is unique and needs to be addressed differently than the adult epidemic. VOA South African Correspondent Anita Powell reports.
    Video

    Video Pop-Up Art Comes to Your Living Room, Backyard and Elsewhere

    Around the world, independent artists and musicians wrestle with a common problem: where to exhibit or perform? Traditional spaces such as museums and galleries are reserved for bigger names, and renting a space is not feasible for many. Enter ArtsUp, which connects artists with venue owners. Whether it’s a living room, restaurant, office or even a boat, pop-up events are bringing music and art to unexpected places. Tina Trinh has more.
    Video

    Video Scotland’s Booming Whisky Industry Fears Brexit Hangover

    After Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Scotland’s government wants to break away from the United Kingdom – fearing the nation’s exports are at risk. Among the biggest of these is whisky. Henry Ridgwell reports on a time of turmoil for those involved in the ancient art of distilling Scotland’s most famous product.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora