Is Fighting Extremism in Syria Compatible with Opposing Assad?
06 Oct 2016
Amid another failed ceasefire attempt, Syria's rebels are as enmeshed as ever, with the line between jihadis and moderates blurred. Assad claims to be fighting 'terrorists,' but is it possible to fight the regime and stop extremists shaping Syria's future? Three Syrians have their say.
Throughout the Syrian revolution, Assad's regime has pushed a narrative that the original nonviolent protesters, many of whom were children and youth calling for freedom and dignity, were "terrorists." The message he has sent to the international community is that the choice is for Assad to stay in power, or the so-called "terrorists" would run Syria.
One of the first steps the regime took in 2011, the year that the revolution began, was to create this self-fulfilling prophecy by releasing former Syrian foreign fighters, some of whom had fought in al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) a decade earlier, from the infamous Sednaya prison in Damascus. These are the same individuals the Assad regime had helped join the fight with AQI against the US to deter America's "War on Terror" from reaching Syria. According to the US State Department, which has had Syria on its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism since the late 1970s, Syria's "awareness and encouragement for many years of violent extremists' transit through Syria to enter Iraq, for the purpose of fighting Coalition Troops, is well documented." It was these networks which "became the seedbed for the violent extremist elements, including ISIL, which terrorised the Syrian and Iraqi population." The Assad regime has manipulated and exploited terrorism to its benefit, whether exporting it abroad or incubating it locally.
This injection of radicals into the protest movement had the effect of radicalising elements of the opposition. Simultaneously, Assad's army cracked down on peaceful protesters and rebels. In this way, the regime continued to survive, as extremist groups also targeted the revolutionaries, hollowing out legitimate opposition to Assad.
As a consequence, jihadis such as ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) were able to flourish in Syria. On top of this, due to the regime's poor fighting performance against the revolutionaries, it accepted help from allies in Iran, Lebanese Hizbullah, and other foreign Shia militias. This further projected a sectarian nature to the war, radicalising the opposition and mobilising Gulf states with their own sectarian geopolitical agendas to help fund what had been an extreme fringe element of the rebel spectrum. Without much international support, over time many of the revolutionaries fled or defected to extremist elements. This has led to a blurring between moderates and extremists.
Syria's story has become distorted: from a peaceful revolution to a bloody civil war with a religious extremist nature. This was in part a consequence of Assad's policies for survival and legitimacy. Therefore, a fight against extremism is also a fight against the Assad regime, a US-designated state sponsor and enabler of terrorism in its own right.
It may seem unrealistic, but yes, it is possible to fight extremism in Syria while fighting the regime. President Bashar al-Assad is backed by armed Shia militias, made up of thousands of foreign fighters. After five years of conflict, Assad largely depends on Russian air power and ground troops from Iran and Shia fighters.These Shia groups believe in Wilayat al-Faqih, the extremist ideology of Ayatollah Khomeini, founding father of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Wilayat al-Faqih was his vision for an Islamic state governed by his strict interpretation of sharia. Going after Assad should involve going after Shia extremists in Syria, alongside jihadi rebels.
Even after the suspension of bilateral talks between the US and Russia this week, following yet another failed ceasefire attempt, targeting Shia militias on the ground is still possible. Analysts may argue that the situation would escalate, with Russia hitting back against US-led coalition jets. But how much can Russia stand against the US and its regional allies, along with NATO forces?
Secretary of State Kerry has justified not targeting Hizbullah in Syria because the group is not "plotting against" the US. But Iran injecting its own version of anti-Western Shia extremism onto the scene with groups like the Lebanese militia has helped Assad tighten his grip. It has helped him defeat the armed "opponents" he refers to as "terrorists." Kerry's comments indicate there is little understanding of the dangers Shia extremists who fight for Assad pose, along with Salafi-jihadis. One of the reasons the recent ceasefire failed was the international community failing to identify all the spoilers. Both Sunni and Shia militias believe their violence is in the name of their faith.
There is an urgent need for the US and its allies to revisit their strategy. Moderate armed rebels should be empowered to fight groups like ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, as well as Assad and his Shia militias. Rebel groups have been pushed into collaboration with extremists by the regime's campaigns. With intelligence cooperation between Western and Arab allies on the ground, however, it would be possible to work with moderates alone.
At the regional level, the US should work closely to restore the trust of allies like Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf states, as well as involving European partners in talks for a solution. The aim would be to ensure moderate rebels make military gains. These could then be used as a leverage in negotiations with Assad and his allies to reach a peaceful settlement for Syria's future, without religious extremists calling the shots.
The release of Islamist detainees from Sednaya prison was the first nail in the coffin of Syria's revolution, giving Assad the legitimacy to target opposition forces on the basis that he was targeting terrorists. This is the excuse he has used to bombard rebel-held Aleppo since the failed ceasefire agreed last month. The second nail was Assad's soldiers and the Shia militias fighting on his side using sectarianism to provoke a rebellious Sunni majority in Syria.
In 2013, many of the brigades fighting Assad's forces shifted towards a Salafi-jihadi approach. This came amid increasing recruitment of Shia militias to support the regime. Some 60,000 Shia fighters are deployed throughout Syria under the banner of martyrdom and protection of holy sites. On both sides, Shia and Sunni extremists have much in common when it comes to ideology.
However, Jabhat al-Nusra, recently rebranded as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, and a few other Islamist groups led by those released from Sednaya prison, have fought together against Assad on numerous occasions with non-jihadi groups. Their victories have garnered sufficient sympathy from the opposition 'street,' including from non-Muslims.
Things changed after a wave of assassinations of a number of Islamist leaders by ISIS and forces allied with the regime. New leaders have emerged seeking to distance themselves from al-Qaeda or any group on a designated terrorist list. There have been battles by rebel forces against these groups in Deraa and Damascus. Idlib has seen large demonstrations against them. Meanwhile, a new grassroots movement has been launched in Damascus to fight extremist groups.
But extremists still retain a great deal of power, fighters, and public support for two reasons: Assad's staying power and the introduction of more radical Iran-backed Shia militias. With every attempt of the Syrian opposition to free itself of extremist control, Assad replies with a new bombardment, or a cross-border Shia group declares its sectarian plans, reinforcing Assad's strategy of turning what was a fight for freedom into sectarian warfare.
International fears of extremists taking over the country if Assad goes only reflect a lack of knowledge of Syrian society. Throughout the war, Syrians have been out protesting against al-Qaida, ISIS, and other extremists, despite such groups beating, imprisoning, and executing them as a result. And all this amid violent attacks from the regime.
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