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Rings of War and Black Flags: Who Is Fighting in Syria?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Nabiollah Ebrahimi
Assistant Professor of International Relations; Tarbiat Modarres University

Salafist ideology and Salafist elements in Syria have practically switched from their previous discourse, which supported political reforms, to the discourse of “Jihad.” Today, there is no sign of the reformist movement of Syria, which in the far past and during the 19th century, was limited to the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Instead, the Jihadist Salafist elements have mushroomed in the midst of the recent crisis to engulf the entire Syria. As a result, they no more seek reforms, but have taken on a totally Jihadist façade. The Jihadist Salafism which is currently at work in Syria is a totally foreign entity which has nothing to do with the cultural and political texture of the Arab country. Al-Nusra Front, which represents the third generation of Salafists in Syria, has been linked to the global network of Al-Qaeda and is currently fighting the state institution in Syria.

The Salafist ideology in Syria has undergone many changes since the end of the 19th century. The original Salafist movement in Syria was, in fact, a reformist movement influenced by the ideas of the Egyptian religious scholar, jurist, and liberal reformer, Muhammad Abduh. The theoretical leaders of Salafism in the Levant included Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902), Jamal ad-Din al Gosaibi (1914-1966), and Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Rida (1865-1935). Politics was the main concern of these scholars. The first influential Salafist organization in Syria was established in 1924 by Sheikh Abdul Ghani al-Daker and was called Al-Jam’iah Al-Gharra (The Radiant Assembly). The Islamic Civilization Society was another Salafist institution which was established by Ahmad Mazahir Al-Uzma in 1930, and maintained its original identity as a reformist Salafist institution until the Syrian Baath Party staged its military coup d’état in 1963. The domination of the secular discourse which was advocated by the Baath Party in Syria gradually inclined the reformist Salafist groups in the Levant toward the ideas of Jihadist Salafism.

The first seeds of Jihadist Salafism were actually sown during tenure of the late Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad. In addition, the regional and international developments have had a powerful effect on the subsequent growth of Jihadist Salafist ideas in this Arab country. The second Persian Gulf War in 1991, the military coup d’état against the Islamist politicians in Algeria after they secured a striking victory in the country’s elections, the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and before that, the massacre and severe suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood by the government of Hafez Al-Assad in the Syrian city of Hama, were major factors which prompted the Salafist elements in Syria to give up their reformist discourse in favor of a new, Jihadist one. The fact that Arab militants had been involved in Jihad against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan showed to the Syrian youths and the new generation of the country that Jihad would open a new avenue for the continuation of their political life and activities.

Syria is one of those regions which have been chosen for the jockeying by the Salafist elements. The Syrian Salafists have longstanding and profound ties to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Since the Salafists are also attached, one way or another, to Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, they are actually considered to be the connecting link between the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, on the one hand, and Saudi-Salafist Wahhabis in Syria and the neighboring Jordan, on the other hand. In the meantime, the noteworthy point is that the Syrian Salafists have regularly rejected the country’s Alawite minority, considering them “infidels” who can be easily killed on ideological grounds.

The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria is also the most important Salafist group active in the country. The group launched its armed struggle against the Alawites and the political system in Syria in 1982. In the course of armed clashes between government and the Muslim Brotherhood, a serious conflict broke out in the city of Hama and several other important cities as a result of which 30,000 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were killed at the hands of the Syrian troops. Even now, the Salafist elements blame political currents and social groups affiliated with the government for that massacre and are trying to exact vengeance on the Alawite minority.

Saudi Arabia has been practically nurturing Salafists in Syria since 1982. A similar approach has been taken by Riyadh to Salafist elements not only in Syria, but also in Jordan and Yemen as well. In Syria, Saudi Arabia has provided Syrian Salafists with ample financial aid. It has even used March 14 Alliance in Lebanon, which is headed by the country’s former prime minister, Saad Hariri, to channel a flood of arms toward Salafist groups. The main goal was to ignite the flares of crisis in Syria in a bid to pave the way for the final overthrow of the Syrian government.

Following the military occupation of Iraq by the United States in 2003, the Salafist elements of Syria joined ranks with their Salafist counterparts in Iraq to proclaim Jihad against the occupier infidels. Subsequently, Sheikh Mahmoud Qul Aghassi, a mufti in the Syrian city of Aleppo, established Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Group of Monotheism and Jihad) of the Levant. Jund al-Sham lil-Jihad wa al-Tawhid’ (Levantine Army for Jihad and Monotheism) was another group directly associated with Al-Qaeda in Syria, which was established in 2005. Of course, the Arab revolutions soon revealed the true colors of the Salafist forces. In Libya and Syria, they practically entered into a deal with the Western secret services in order to gain power and, in practice, turned their back to their original ideals. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia and Qatar served as mediators between Takfiri Salafists and NATO and the West. The military current led by Abdelhakim Belhadj in Libya represented a progressive Salafist front which has been able not only to pursue its Islamic tenets, but to take advantage of the Western assistance in order to gain power.

After major Sunni Arab powers of the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, started sending military and financial aid to militants in Syria, two other neighbors of Syria, namely Turkey and Jordan, also turned into a conduit for channeling aid to the opposition fighting against the government in Damascus. Of course, due to the role that the Muslim Brotherhood is playing against the government in Jordan, the country has recently stopped sending aid to the opposition groups affiliated with Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, though on a temporary basis. The United States believes that the Muslim Brotherhood is the best alternative to replace King Abdullah II of Jordan. Of course, Washington’s real priority is to make way for the transfer of power within the Hashemite royal family of Jordan.

The political current represented by Takfiri Salafist elements in Syria is mostly an offshoot of the radical Salafist current in post-Saddam Iraq. Carrying their black flags around, they seek to achieve their main goal in Syria after having failed to do so in Iraq. Establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is among topmost goals of these Takfiri Salafist organizations. As the sectarian aspect of the ongoing conflicts in Syria becomes more prominent, Sunni Jihadist forces are flocking to Syria from all across the region. Iraq, which has practically become fragmented following its occupation by the United States and its allies in 2003, is one of the main bases from which Islamist militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda are sent to Syria. These militants form the core of the notorious Al-Nusra Front. This group rapidly turned into one of the most important driving forces behind the crisis in Syria and has been a constant partner to many successful operations carried out by the militants in Syria. Al-Nusra Front has practically come on top as the main leader of militancy in northern Syria and has practically marginalized the Free Syrian Army. The presence of about 35,000 militant affiliated with Al-Nusra Front prompted the government of Turkey to establish closer ties with Takfiri Salafists for security reasons and in order to guarantee the security along its southern border with Syria. However, by the end of the day, the cooperation over security and intelligence issues between the Turkish government and Salafist militants in Syria would not serve the strategic interests of Turkey.

At present, the government forces in Syria are facing a mixed front of enemies which is an amalgamate of various opposition groups and currents following different theoretical paths. According to various direct quotes and reports, Al-Nusra Front is one of the most important of those groups whose name has been frequently heard on various occasions, at least, during the last year. This group, whose complete name is Jabhat al-Nusra li-ahl al-Sham (the Support Front for the People of the Levant), has at least 35,000 militants in its ranks and its activities are focused mainly on armed and terrorist operations in Syria. Like other Salafist groups, this group carries black flags and its members usually wear black clothes. Although Al-Nusra Front is not the biggest opposition group fighting against the Syrian government, at the present juncture, it is known as the most active and the most effective of those groups.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia is actually in control of this group through the chief of its secret service, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Of course, there are some apparent rifts among various groups that form Al-Nusra Front. Some groups have emphasized their ideological allegiance to Al-Qaeda, which are better known as Al-Nusra til Qaeda, while there are other groups that give priority to having extended relations with Saudi Arabia and are better known as Al-Nusra til Saudi.

Although Al-Nusra Front has been known as the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda since a long time ago, neither the leaders of Al-Qaeda, nor those of Al-Nusra Front had taken a clear stance on this issues until a few months ago when their relation came into the light with no ambiguity. Issuing an official statement on April 10, 2013, the leader of Al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, declared that the group had sworn allegiance with Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda, choosing him as their supreme commander and leader.

Apart from Al-Nusra Front, there are other predominantly Salafist groups that are currently operating in Syria. However, not all of these groups have become practically involved in political processes which characterize other opposition groups which fight against the government of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Liwa al-Tawhid [Unity Brigade], Kata'ib Ahrar al-Sham [Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant], Ahrar [Free Men of] Syria Brigade, Katiebat as-Sultan Muhammad [Sultan Muhammad Battalion], Liwa Halab Ash Shahbaa Al Islami [Islamic United Aleppo Brigades], Harakat ul Fajr al Islamiyyah [Islamic Dawn Movement], Dar Al Ummah, Liwa Al-Adnan [Adnan Brigade], Kata’ib Al-Islam [Battalion of Islam], Liwa Jaish Muhammad [Army of Muhammad Brigade], Liwa Al-Nasr [Victory Brigade], Katiebat Al-Baz, and Liwa Dara Al-Islam are other Salafist groups that are currently operating in Syria.

Al-Nusra Front was established in Turkey by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and under the oversight of a military council headed by Farouk Tayfour, the former deputy head of the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood who is currently the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. Tayfour was among the top commanders of the battle of Hama in 1981, who led the militants at that time and managed to make it out alive. He is now taking revenge on the Syrian government for what happened in Hama many years ago. Since Mohamed Riad Al-Shaqfa [Secretary General of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood] was not strong enough in political and leadership areas, the militants fighting for Al-Nusra Front took their orders directly from the office of Tayfour in Istanbul as well as the international operation room which was established close to Turkey’s common border with Syria. According to French weekly, Le Canard Enchainé, this operation room is run by French, American, Qatari, and Turkish military officers.

According to the analysts, the Muslim Brotherhood is currently trying to attribute Al-Nusra Front to Al-Qaeda. For two reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood has decided to organize a massacre of the supporters of the Syrian government: firstly, in revenge for what happened to its own supporters in past decades, and secondly, to establish its control over cities and villages that its militants conquer in Syria. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders are aware that at the present juncture, attributing the operations of Al-Nusra Front to Al-Qaeda will relieve the Brotherhood of the responsibility of crimes committed by Al-Nusra Front. This is true because the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to grab the political power in case the government of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is toppled. Therefore, by incriminating Al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda, it is trying to exonerate itself from the responsibility of the mass murders carried out by anti-government militants. The opposition Syrian sources have noted that any change in the political equation and the existing government of Syria will lead to a parallel change in the name of Al-Nusra Front because its current name is meant to serve the ongoing policies of the Muslim Brotherhood in this stage of the Syria conflict.

In view of the ongoing developments in Syria and taking into account that the war launched by the Salafist forces in this country has been construed as a war against an Alawite government, and also given the fact that fighting against Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement is the final goal of Takfiri Salafist forces in the Levant that are supported by Saudi Arabia, the issue of Syria crisis will become a national security concern for Iran in the long run. As a result, the Islamic Republic should carefully monitor developments related to Salafist forces in the Levant. Due to the historical alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist forces, these developments have been able to create new dynamism among all the regional movements. The Salafist forces have also shown in Syria that to gain power and eliminate their archrival, that is, Shiism, they are ready to cooperate extensively with the West. Therefore, it is quite possible for the political currents affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which are positioned along the Iranian borders to reach an alliance with their Sunni Salafist followers inside the country.

In addition, the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Levant can serve as a role model for other Salafist currents in the region. The Syrian militants have been organized in more than 1,000 different groups. Out of about 100,000 insurgents, almost 10,000 are fighting for the powerful groups, which are affiliated to the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization. Many of these forces have been transferred to the sites of conflict in Syria from other countries. Such militant groups as Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are very active. Moreover, between 30,000 and 35,000 radical Islamist forces are currently present in Syria and are similar in tenets to the Jihadist forces. About 30,000 militants are close in their beliefs to those groups with Islamic ideas which have not been involved in terrorist activities. Finally, only a small part of the opposition groups have taken up arms in order to defend their political and national ideas.

In view of the recent agreement between Moscow and Washington for dismantling Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons, the Salafist current is sure to become more powerful in coming months as a result of which, the attacks by Salafist forces on Syrian cities will increase. With this possibility in mind, the Syrian army will embark on preemptive measures against the Salafist forces and this state of affairs will finally enter Syria into a new stage of war of attrition.

Key Words: Syria, Salafist Ideology, Jihadist Salafism, Al-Nusra Front,   Black Flags, Al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood, Alawite Minority, Ebrahimi

Source: Khabaronline News Website
http://www.khabaronline.ir/
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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