Extremists are increasingly dominating the Syrian rebellion, especially since the beginning of this year. This has significantly strengthened the position of the dictator, Bashar Al Assad, by validating his narrative about “Islamic terrorism” – that began as a fiction during the period of peaceful, unarmed protests but is now a reality that he is instrumental in shaping and driving.
Extremist prominence has also badly divided the opposition and the Syrian public, allowing for a string of significant government military gains in strategic locations. What is to be done about these radicals?
There are at least two clear, plausible approaches. Both can address this conundrum and improve prospects for a “least bad” outcome. And both involve concerted efforts to strengthen the Free Syrian Army (FSA) combined with other measures to de-radicalise or combat extreme Islamists.
Those who argue against arming any of the rebels because of the strength of radical movements are citing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and grim logical consequences, of their own consistent “hands-off” policy recommendations: reluctance to support the FSA for fear of the emergence of extreme Islamists has inexorably and inevitably led to precisely that development.
Extremists became disproportionately important because they received far more financial and material support from their backers. Meanwhile, nationalist groups associated with the FSA suffered neglect from western and Arab powers that should have recognised their strong interest in a strong FSA.
The most extreme rebels are Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS). But these Jihadist groups and their Al Qaeda allies have become embroiled in a damaging internal power struggle. The big winners from that quarrel are factions associated with the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), a coalition of Salafist groups.
Al Nusra and the ISIS are not only a boon to Mr Al Assad, they are at least as much a threat to the future of Syria as he is. One potential counter to them is the development of a Syrian version of Iraq’s “sahwa”, or awakening, that pitted former Sunni insurgent groups against their erstwhile Al Qaeda allies. This kind of population-based asymmetrical warfare will be harder for external powers to conduct with the limited and clandestine “boots on the ground”. But since these effects are largely driven by financial and material support, there is no reason it cannot produce significant results.
Such an effort could be intimately tied to a programme to fund, arm, train and provide intelligence, logistics and command and control support to the FSA. Or it could be a parallel, independent track.
A more intriguing possibility, and one too lightly dismissed, is that some groups or fighters who have drifted into the SIF orbit could be “winnable” to a more tolerant, inclusive and less dogmatic orientation. Unlike Al Nusra and others that imported an Al Qaeda ideology, most SIF groups emerged spontaneously in Syria. They grew because of intensive foreign backing combined with their nationalistic, but religious, stance. Large numbers of embittered young men have drifted into their orbit, in many cases probably for want of a better alternative.
No doubt many SIF leaders and some fighters already were, or have now become, committed Salafists and may be unlikely to shift from their unacceptable, and untenable “goal” of establishing a Sunni Islamist, Sharia-based, Syrian state. But how strongly committed are all of these groups and fighters to that decision?
The SIF’s standard rhetoric is indefensible, sectarian and intolerant. Unfortunately, it is also an effective rallying cry to arms against an Alawite-dominated regime and plays well with wealthy extremist patrons in the Gulf. However, it also runs counter to most traditional culture and lived realities of modern Syria, which is a heterogeneous and typically tolerant society. Salafism doesn’t come naturally to, or fit well with, most normative Syrian socio-cultural attitudes.
Counterterrorism observers often assume that online statements and videos tell the whole story. But the way these groups have rapidly developed and how they have used videos to raise money from extremist foreign backers, as well as the likelihood that many of their cadres were drawn to them for want of a more attractive alternative, suggest that a concerted programme to reorient or undermine them could produce results.
Syria’s socio-political reality is fluid, not neatly indexed into immutable, fixed categories. It is possible that many fighters and even entire groups, given sufficient incentives, could be drawn away from hard-core Salafism, just as they were drawn to it. Westerners who have met SIF types typically report a very different reality from that depicted in strident videos and statements.
In the present Syrian context, it’s defeatist, unimaginative and dogmatic to assume that “Salafist by name” definitively or irreversibly means “Salafist by nature”, or once a Salafist, always a Salafist. How many of these young men were armed two years ago, or even politicised? How committed are rank-and-file SIF cadres, or even some leaders, to a rhetoric that incongruously and unworkably conflates Salafism with nationalism?
The clashes between Kurdish fighters and Jihadists in recent weeks demonstrate how fluid and dynamic Syrian realities are. Western and Arab neglect facilitated the rise of extremist groups in Syria. There is every reason to believe that a more robust engagement could intensify the degradation of the Jihadist groups and provide viable alternatives for those currently in the Salafist orbit. In both cases, the big loser would be Mr Al Assad.