The news out of Syria continues to worsen: According to the U.N., over the past two days 200,000 people have fled Aleppo (Syria’s largest city, of 2 million inhabitants), as government forces have subjected the city to large-scale attacks with armor, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopter gunships. Prior to the assault, U.S. officials had suggested that the world was about to witness a massacre like the one in Benghazi, Libya, that was narrowly avoided by NATO’s intervention. It will be a while until we find out if this is the case, though the secretary general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, has already speculated that there are “war crimes” being committed by both sides within the city.
Meanwhile, a number of news stories increasingly prove the presence of significant jihadi elements in the rebel forces. This shouldn’t be a real surprise: On NRO in March, John Rosenthal warned of early signs of al-Qaeda’s presence among the Syrian opposition, but now we’re beginning to get a better sense of how Islamist militants are infiltrating what began as (supposedly) a secular protest movement. The New York Times reports that Islamist rhetoric and jihadists are increasingly salient among the rebels, giving one example:
In one case . . . after jihadists fighting under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad staged significant attacks against Syrian government targets, the commander of one local rebel military council recently invited them to join. “They are everywhere in Idlib,” said a lean and sunburned commander with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo. “They are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”
Tension came anyway. The groups demanded to raise the prophet’s banner — solid black with “There is no god but God” written in flowing white Arabic calligraphy — during the weekly Friday demonstration. Saraqib prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote — the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.
The Times ascribes some of the growing Islamist influence to its usefulness as a funding draw:
A central reason cited by the Obama administration for limiting support to the resistance to things like communications equipment is that it did not want arms flowing to Islamic radicals. But the flip side is that Salafist groups, or Muslim puritans, now receive most foreign financing.
“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harling, the Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, adding that it was troubling all the same.
Further, an AFP story from last week explained that there are active international efforts to recruit jihadists into Syria, even as domestic rebels continue to claim that foreigners make up a very small portion of their forces and exert little influence. Regardless of how accurate these denials and explanations are, it’s obvious, as the Times explains, that the jihadi dynamic was basically inevitable:
Fighters, activists and analysts say that jihadi groups are emerging now for several reasons. They generally stand apart from the Free Syrian Army, the loose national coalition of local militias made up of army defectors and civilian volunteers. Significantly, most of the money flowing to the Syrian opposition is coming from religious donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region whose generosity hinges on Salafi teaching.
Further, as the sectarian flavor of the uprising deepened, pitting the majority Sunni Muslims against the ruling minority, the Alawites, it attracted fighters lured by a larger Muslim cause. Alawites, the president’s sect, dominate Syria, but many orthodox Muslims view them as a heretical offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Given the limits of what we know, it’s possible still to claim that the jihadist elements of the opposition are minor or marginal, but it’s obvious that their presence is more than “troubling all the same,” or can be ascribed to a lack of targeted Western support for the right rebels: The factors allowing Islamists to insinuate themselves in Syria now will likely be what makes them important players after Assad’s fall.
Amidst the Obama administration’s near-complete refusal to address the Syria situation, they have made public one sensible recommendation: warning the rebel forces, after they triumph, not to completely destroy Assad’s national security apparatus, and avoid the “de-Baathification” of Syria. That policy has been cited in retrospect as one factor in the chaos following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. At best, Western interests could benefit from some military and intelligence institutions’ remaining to counter or contain the sectarian forces that will emerge in the vacuum Assad leaves behind; at the very least, the people of Syria would be better off if some competent government institutions and bureaucrats survive the transition period.