A significant development in the Syrian struggle over the last six months has been the increased role of salafi-jihadist groups operating outside the framework of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). I use this awkward phrase salafi-jihadist in order to try and accurately distinguish different currents – not all jihadis – i.e. those who use the slogan of “jihad” – are salafist, and not all salafists are jihadis.
This phenomenon has been thrown into sharp relief by the by the U.S. decision to designate the most well-known of these groups – Jabhat al Nusra – as a “terrorist” organisation” and the widespread objections that this has evoked among the Syrian opposition.
So, how important are these developments and what problems do they pose for the future of the Syrian revolution?
I have worked my way through most of the sources on Syrian “jihadism” in English available on the internet, and this is my take on the issue.
The topography of military groups in Syria is very complex. The main unit of organisation is the katibat (usually translated as battalion), a small operational unit of fighters, usually drawn from the same locality, of which there are several hundred. These are sometimes coordinated by the formation of Liwa (brigades) made up of several katiba, but most often by the formation of local military councils (the main command structure of the FSA.) There are various efforts at wider coordination of the struggle – most recently in the formation of a “Supreme Military Council” on December 8 – but it’s not clear what authority, if any this has on the ground.
For example, in Aleppo, there is an FSA military council, a large group of fighters drawn from the moderate Islamist Liwa al-Tawhid, which is loosely associated with the FSA, a joint council between these two organisations, and a large number of individual katiba, many of whom have salafist views.
It’s difficult to establish precise numbers for these forces but drawing on various sources but my “best guess” would be that total rebel forces in Syria number around 50,000; of which some 30,000 come under the FSA military councils, another 10,000 are loosely coordinated with them, and further 10,000 are in autonomous fighting units. It’s in this latter group that loosely categorized “salafist” groups are to be found and they probably comprise about 5,000-6,000 fighters (some 10% of the total), including the vast majority of the 1,200-1,500 foreign fighters in the country. Beyond the salafist groups are a wide range of independent units who espouse a broad spectrum of Islamist values. (This is constantly shifting ground – for example, the moderate Islamist Liwa al-Umma, led by Irish-Libyan fighter and Tripoli Brigade commander Mahdi Harati, which claims 6,000 fighters, declared in September that they were coming under the FSA banner.)
Colonel Riad al-Asaad announces FSA is moving its headquarters into Syria flanked by FSA, Liwa al Ummah, and Tripoli Brigade flags
Even with these three cases some qualification is needed: only Jabhat al-Nusra identifies with the global jihadi movement and has a significant proportion (estimated at 20%) of foreign fighters. While it is frequently labelled an “al-Qaeda affiliate” the evidence for this is slim: only the fact that it been hailed by al-Qaeda figures and uses al-Qaeda jihadi Web sites to publicise its activities. The other groups seem to be somewhat eclectic, focused strongly on the situation in Syria, and combining nationalist symbols with jihadist ones.
What is more important than the number of fighters these groups embrace is the role they have taken on in the conflict. Bringing in military skills (especially in the use of explosives) from their experience in other conflicts like Iraq, and with a high degree of cohesion and discipline, they have been able to provide the FSA with a means of countering the armoured power of the Assad forces, and allowed them to be the authors of a number of recent striking military victories, like the capture of the Sheikh Suleiman airforce base. They have also been aided by the fact that many have a logistical advantage through privileged support from external supporters, particularly the Gulf states. This ready access to weapons and reputation for discipline has often proved attractive to the new wave of young fighters from rural areas, who entered the struggle without military experience after the Houla massacre of July 2012. It is this probably more than anything else that has altered the balance between the predominantly “nationalist-democratic” current who formed the original FSA and the new more “Islamist” forces.
This emergence of salafist groups takes place in the context of a wider “Islamisation” of the whole Syrian struggle – faced with such a bitter and asymmetrical conflict, young fighters have turned to their religion for courage and comfort, and for models of how to organise themselves and their communities (often embracing the notion of “jihad”).
Varied Islamist Voices
But it must be emphasised that this “Islamisation” of the struggle does not mean its dominance by salafist organisations or ideas. The predominant values here are the conservative Sunni Islam of the Syrian countryside:
“Most rebels don’t have clear answers for what they mean when they say they are Islamist or want an Islamic state. ‘We want to build a state where our citizens are equal, Muslims and minorities,’ said the young rebel Anwar, as he watched an Islamic TV station from a safe house in Aleppo. ‘We want to be able to choose our own future, not have it be determined by poverty or our religion.’ ”
Indeed, many who espouse those values are openly hostile to the salalfi-jihadists, and eschew sectarian visions of Syria’s future:
“Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Christians, all of us are in one state and are one people, and we are all equals like the teeth of a comb. We are all one, there are minorities but they have rights, just as I have rights … there is no difference between a Christian or [anyone else] … they all have the right of citizenship in this land”. (Abd al-Qader al-Saleh of the Liwa al-Tawhid quoted in ICG Middle East Report 131)
Here’s another voice:
“I spoke to the regional commander of the Farouq brigade [usually listed as among the Islamic groups], a muscular young lieutenant from the southern province of Dara’a called Abdullah Abu Zaid. ‘I will not allow the spread of Takfiri [the act of accusing other Muslims of apostasy] ideology,’ he told me in his military compound a few kilometres from the border post. ‘Not now, not later. The Islam we had during the regime was disfigured Islam and what they are bringing us is also disfigured. The Islam we need is a civil Islam and not the takfiri Islam.’ ” (Guardian, Sept. 23 2012)
There appear to be only three significant groups fighting in Syria which can clearly be considered “salafist-jihadist”:
The Ahrar al Shams Brigades, Syria’s largest jihadi grouping, with up to 2,000 members.
The Jabhat al-Nusra Front, referred to above, which reportedly has 300 or so members fighting in Aleppo, suggesting that its total numbers are less than 1,000.
The Liwa-al Islam, which emerged in the Damascus region in 2012, and claimed responsibility for the bombing of the National Security Office in Damascus on 18 July, which killed three senior officials, including the defence minister and Assad’s brother-in-law.
Syrian Realities and Western Myopia
I’d like to close this discussion by referring to the experience of Jacques Beres, the co-founder of the medical charity Medicins sans Frontieres, which tells us a bit about the situation in Syria and a lot about western preoccupations. Beres has visited Syria three times since the start of the revolution to provide surgical skills in the combat zones. In August 2012 he spent two weeks in the centre of war-torn Aleppo and on his return he gave several interviews to the media in France and Britain. He discussed at length his experiences – calling attention the bombing of queues outside bakeries, and the large-scale loss of life; he also made the observation that half of the combatants he treated appeared to be jihadists. How were his remarks reported?
- “Jihadists join Aleppo fight, eye Islamic state, surgeon says” (Reuters)
- “Jacques Beres treated French jihadists” (French radio)
- “Most of Aleppo’s fighters are foreigners” (Breaking News Network)
(For the record Beres treated two French jihadists out of several hundred injured, and repeatedly insisted that the combatants he treated were jihadists not foreigners.)
It took more than 10 days until Mary Fitzgerald of the Irish Times managed to tell it like it was: “The world has blood of the Syrian people on its hands”:
Beres has operated in war zones, including Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq, for 40 years, but he says the carnage in Syria is among the most horrific he has ever seen. …
“The main reason why the jihadists are coming, and why the Salafists will probably have influence after Assad falls, is that nobody else has helped the Syrian people.”
I can’t think of a better epitaph for this piece.
More from The North Star:
- “Jabhat al-Nusra: Threat to the Syrian Revolution” by Free Halab
- “Syria: Neither Riyadh nor Tehran but Popular Revolution” by Jamie Allinson
- “National Unity Brigade of the FSA: an Interview” by Darth Nader
Brian Slocums is a retired social scientist and was a militant in the Canadian and British Trotskyist movement over many years. He is now politically unaffiliated but retains a firm commitment to socialist values, while accepting the need to rethink the means through which they can best be realized.