By the end of the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, nearly every party had allied with and subsequently betrayed every other party at least once. The age-old pattern is the same: groups like ISIS began in Syria by ingratiating themselves with the local population, as they are doing in Mosul now, offering free fuel, electricity supplies and appearing to restore security to the streets. Next they will provide food and medical services. At first, in such charm offensives, they seem to be a godsend, then in stages, the reality reveals itself and their hard-line Islamist agenda comes to the fore, with compulsory Quranic schools, summary public executions and enforced veiling of women. But just as this was not the real Syria, neither is this the real Iraq. Women will pull their headscarves out of their handbags to put them on at black-bannered checkpoints, then stuff them away again.
In the early months of the Syrian Revolution extremist rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra accounted for no more than 3-4 per cent of the rebels overall, maybe reaching 10 per cent around Aleppo. While most fighters in Al-Nusra are from Syria, the extremist group ISIS which appeared over a year later than Al-Nusra in April 2013 is both foreign-led (by an Iraqi) and foreign-dominated. Its fighters come mainly from Saudi Arabia, Libya and Tunisia, though there are also Chechens, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Iraqis as well as a few Pakistani Taliban and even Chinese. Dressed in their Pakistani-style tunics and menacing black balaclavas, brandishing their weapons, they form a stark contrast to the conservative but moderate Sunni Muslims who make up 74 per cent of Syria’s resident population. Typical communiqués use language like: ‘Our army is full of hungry lions who drink blood and eat bones.’ It is hard to imagine their ideology ever taking root in Syria, despite their ceaseless propaganda videos on YouTube and their thousands of tweets – all the rebel groups have their own highly active Twitter accounts.
Many Syrians told me long before the revolution that the Syrian brand of Islam is close to the tolerant Sufi Islam of Ibn Arabi and Al-Ghazali – open to all and with no coercion. Yet groups like ISIS are so intolerant they even started to ban tobacco as un-Islamic in areas they controlled in Syria’s north, not just alcohol and what they called ‘immoral entertainment’. The kind of Syria they are trying to usher in would end up destroying the country’s very identity, its tolerant character. Moderate Syrians have begun social media campaigns against them with slogans like: ‘DAESH [Arabic for ‘ISIS’] GO OUT. Bashar and DAESH are one. We didn’t have a revolution against a tyrant for another tyrant to come and control us in the name of religion! Those who belong to Syria, Syria is for all of you. Those who belong to Al-Qaeda, go to Afghanistan!’ Dozens of Arabic language Facebook pages have been set up rejecting ISIS, its Islamic credentials and its brutal tactics.
The rebel group ISIS now controls the oil fields in Syria’s north eastern provinces. They have broken the pipelines, creating environmental disasters, then welded on crude taps from which they fill queues of tankers. The valuable cargo is then trundled mainly into Turkey and sometimes even into regime-held areas of Syria, where prices rocket. It is a money-making exercise, free of overheads, that has turned the bearded chiefs into millionaires. Thousands of amateur refineries have sprung up, converting the crude oil to petrol, diesel and mazout heating oil, sold in smaller canisters to anyone who has the money. None of them will give that up without a fight. As the ISIS accounts captured in recent days have revealed, the rebels have accumulated huge funds from this oil and from looted Syrian antiquities, enabling them to pay good salaries to new recruits and to acquire proper weaponry for them. From their Syrian headquarters in Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, they have in recent days swept east into Iraq and taken the second city of Mosul along with vast tracts of adjoining territory, capturing along the way much heavy weaponry from the American-supplied Iraqi army.
So now the equation has changed. Assad and ISIS should be mortal enemies ideologically, yet they have never fought each other. ISIS militants have slept sound in their beds without fear of regime air strikes and barrel bombs. Whereas the Assad regime was before quite happy to turn a blind eye to ISIS and its atrocities in the north and in Al-Raqqa, content that its energies were being directed towards fighting the more moderate rebels, now ISIS has become a real threat.
Therefore it should come as little surprise that as The Times today reported, Syrian government forces for the first time bombed ISIS bases in eastern Syria and Al-Raqqa ‘acting in co-ordination with the Iraqi government’. The Assad regime has re-done its calculations, and is now banking on the expectation that its air-strikes against ISIS will also earn it grudging gratitude from the West. Bashar al-Assad must even be thinking this is his chance to become rehabilitated in the eyes of the international community, and undergo a transformation from ‘murderous dictator’ to ‘saviour from Islamist barbarians’.
The UN Chemical Weapons deal last autumn only happened because there was a rare consensus in the international community and no blame was attributable. Maybe such a consensus can be found again, this time to rid both Syria and Iraq of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels too can find a common cause and unite against this greater Al-Qaeda-affiliated menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria and Iraq’s future but the future of the entire international community. Maybe it will be Syria’s second revolution, a revolution in which even the ‘silent majority’ may find its voice.
In the meantime we can expect more Syrian air strikes against ISIS bases – their ‘marriage of convenience’ is over.
[This post includes extracts from the book My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution ]
This post includes extracts from the book.
Also this morning, British Foreign Secretary William Hague speaking in London on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, was extremely bold and even outspoken, in the way he referred to the Syrian regime and to President Bashar Al-Assad. Hague always chooses every word with great care, so he made the British government’s position very clear when he declared it ‘inconceivable’ that a future Syrian transitional government could be led by the same person who had been responsible for blockading aid and thereby starving his own people.
Yet, for all Bashar Al-Assad’s stupid mistakes in the early mishandling of peaceful demonstrations in Dera’a and elsewhere, he has been nothing if not clever in how he has handled matters more recently. From the start he announced to the world he was fighting ‘terrorist gangs’ and ‘sectarianism’. Under the guise of an amnesty he then slyly released around 1,000 jihadi and Al-Qa’ida fighters from his own jails, a fact which has now been corroborated by many sources including defectors. Bashar knew exactly what he was doing, that these fighters would go on to spearhead and swell Islamist groups. In other words he set out to make his own prediction come true. As a result the regime can present itself at Geneva II as a government that is fighting foreign terrorism, a fact reflected in the composition of its delegation – all foreign affairs people. It is worth noting an irony here, incidentally, that many of the released jihadis had been languishing in regime jails since they were arrested to please America, but before that the regime had itself sponsored them to cross over into Iraq to fight the Americans following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. It is a move that would have made Bashar’s wily father Hafez proud.
Last September’s Chemical Weapons deal has also worked in the regime’s favour, enabling it to present itself as a responsible partner, cooperating with the UN and the West, struggling valiantly to get the CW out of the country through rebel-held territory. Everyone forgot that just months earlier the regime was denying it even possessed CW. No matter, it is the image of cooperation that has stuck with the world’s media.
Now with the humanitarian agreements on Homs, and maybe elsewhere in coming days, the regime will once again be able to portray itself as ‘the responsible partner of the West’. UN aid agencies and Red Cross workers are only permitted under international law to work with the ‘recognised government’ of a country, so the Syrian regime will relish the attention and take all the credit, playing it for all it is worth. With the massive sum, rumoured to be over $50 million, that they have allocated for media ‘coverage’ of Geneva II, the world needs to have its eyes wide open and not allow Assad to hijack public opinion. If anyone is in danger of believing the regime’s self-publicist and conciliatory rhetoric, they should remember the report released just ahead of Geneva II by three highly respected war crimes prosecutors, detailing the systematic ‘industrial-scale killing’ of 11,000 detainees in his prisons – the ones whom it served no purpose to release.
Arguments will rage about numbers of fighters belonging to this or that group in Syria’s opposition rebels and about who is allied to whom. But does it really matter?
Western analysts are obsessed with putting rebel groups into boxes and labelling them. Are they linked to Al Qa’ida is always the first question? Are they jihadis? What is their ideology? How Islamist are they? But it has become increasingly difficult to determine accurate numbers, as allegiances are shifting all the time, new groups are emerging or blending with others. The IHS Jane’s analyst Charles Lister thinks there are up to a thousand rebel groups who together make up a body of some 100,000 opposition fighters. He categorises only 30-40,000 of them as moderates. Other sources put the figures higher, at 120-150,000 opposition fighters, with around 50,000 of them categorised as Free Syrian Army fighters. By these sorts of reckonings something between a third and a half of the fighters are moderates, which means that something between two thirds and a half are labelled extremists.
But how meaningful are these distinctions? As more and more stories come out via journalists who spend time embedded with various rebel groups, a common thread is emerging. Many moderate fighters in the so-called extremist groups like Jabhat An-Nusra are fighting to free Syria from the Assad regime. They will join whichever group is the most effective and best-funded to achieve that end. If that means growing a beard and adopting Islamist names and slogans, so be it. There is also the important fact that these extremists groups in the north have seized much of the country’s oil, gas and grain supplies in Syria’s northeast Jezira region and can therefore distribute them to ‘loyal subjects.’ But such allegiances are temporary and are based on the economics of war. Very few such fighters and local residents are likely to remain ‘extreme Islamists’ after the objective has been achieved. The vast majority will revert to their previous moderate positions once a charade of extremism is no longer necessary.
The most interesting development of recent days has been the increasingly vocal rejection by the Syrian Coalition and by other opposition fighters inside Syria of the behaviour and ideology of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Shaam, the new extremist group which emerged in spring this year. Its summary executions, seizing of churches as military headquarters and random slaughter of anyone who is not like them are drawing more and more criticism, not just from international commentators abroad, but also from Syrian opposition figures inside and outside the country.
All these developments lead me to hope that, in some future democratic system of free elections inside Syria, Syrians will finally be free to speak out against Islamic extremism and expel it from their country. By having a taste of the reality of an ISIS-led Islamic state in areas around Aleppo and Raqqa, Syrian citizens have seen for themselves how it works on the ground.
As for the recent announcement by the 11/13 rebel groups rejecting the leadership of the Syrian Coalition in exile, that too may be less significant than it first seems. The ever-shifting dynamics among rebel groups on the ground are clearly impossible for outside powers to control, but by the same token are equally difficult for the Assad regime to control, forcing it to realise it cannot win this fight. And that makes the chances of a UN-sponsored peace agreement infinitely more hopeful than before.
After more than two years of sitting on the fence, the West is being forced to decide. The trouble is the West is split, with some elements jumping off the fence on one side, and others jumping off on the other – and some are still clinging to the fence desperately trying to avoid having to make a decision at all. Countries are split, political parties are split, even families are split. There is no clear or easy option.
Islam’s greatest thinker, the medieval theologian Al-Ghazali, told the story of The Donkey Between Two Carrots. The donkey agonised over which carrot might be juicier or bigger for so long that it ended up dying of starvation in the middle. And the moral of the tale? Indecision is a form of decision and its consequences can be fatal.
But the Syrian tragedy is being prolonged not just by one but by two metaphorical donkeys. It is not just our indecision in the West. The indecision of Syria’s own population is also a big factor. The ‘greys’, ‘the silent majority,’ after living for so many decades under repressive Ba’athist rule, have been silenced by fear, fear of reprisals, arbitrary arrest, imprisonment or worse.
In terms of numbers ‘the silent majority’ makes up at least 70% of Syria’s 22 million population – in other words over 15 million people. How do I work that out? Because the people actively involved in the fighting are an absolute maximum of one million on either side, those employed by the regime in government, military or intelligence positions are a further 2 million maximum, so the remainder, leaving 2-3 million aside who are now refugees in neighbouring countries, are ‘undecided’.
It is easy for us in the West to blame this ‘silent majority’ for their apparent quiescence in the current situation. But we have not lived through what they have lived through, not come anywhere near experiencing the pervading culture of fear they have endured since the 1970s when the Ba’athists and Hafez Al-Assad came to power. We have not had family members abducted and threatened, or worse.
They need our help. They need our courage to liberate them. They cannot liberate themselves. The overwhelming majority of them are moderate Sunni Muslims with decent human values and principles who want nothing more than to earn their living and look after their family. Yet the media has got hold of the kind of sensationalist scare stories it so loves, so that we now imagine them to be ‘cannibals’ to use Putin’s words, or fanatical Al-Qa’ida types intent on terrorizing the West. How can we be so misled by the media?
Of the 100,000 or so fighters opposing the Assad regime, a maximum of 5,000 could perhaps be labelled ‘extremist’. Most are in the Aleppo and Idlib area, where there are certainly some extreme groups who have been able to thrive thanks to the power vacuum we have left through our inaction. In Homs there are less than 50 such fighters, and in Qusair there were none at all.
Instead of obsessing about this 5% of extremists, who are too small in numbers to have any real say in a post-Assad era, we should be focusing instead on the 95% who desperately need better arms to a
void being slaughtered by regime forces. If we do not, they, like Al-Ghazali’s donkey, will die a long slow death while we, like Al-Ghazali’s donkey, do nothing but agonise in the middle.