Syria's Fragmented Extremists
01 Apr 2014
With the failure of peace talks, western fears of powerful Islamist groups in Syria left many unsure of a solution, but the importance of ideological unity for these actors is overstated, argues Peter Welby
Last week I went to a presentation by Emile Hokayem hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. In the course of a truly fascinating, but rather sombre talk on the intractability of the Syrian Civil War, he alluded to two things that went somewhat beyond the usual focus on how complex the situation is. The first related to the failure of the peace talks in Geneva: his contention was that they failed because of their irrelevance to the situation on the ground – a situation of fragmentation on all sides. The second was in response to a question about Western counter-terrorism strategy: Hokayem argued that engagement with Assad is not the way to defeat jihadist forces in Syria – rather, engagement must be with rebels more favourable to Western interests, enabling them to out-compete the jihadists.
These two points help clarify an important issue – that in the West our fear of the Islamist monster could be blinding us to the reality that they are as fragmented as everyone else, and this undermines our response. As in much of the Middle East, 'Islamist' means many things, and the victory of such groups could have a huge variety of actual outcomes. Groups are expanding, morphing, merging, dissolving and dividing, for ideological and other reasons. In Syria, the ground of global jihad is shifting. The development of two groups – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – demonstrates this.
ISIS grew out of al-Qaeda's Iraqi franchise - a group of notable brutality even by the Hobbesian standards of the Iraqi insurgency. When the Islamic State of Iraq – comprised mostly of al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the forerunner of ISIS – was founded in 2006, it was more than a rebranding exercise; it was a clear indication of their ideological position. These were no mere insurgents pushing for a form of government aligned to their beliefs, nor even revolutionaries seeking to remould the state in their image. These recognised no government but that of God, and no state but the Caliphate - which was, as their name suggested, embodied by the group itself, at least in embryonic form. This left the group's relationship with al-Qaeda somewhat ambiguous. Al-Qaeda, with many other jihadi groups, fought for the establishment of a universal Islamic Caliphate, but here was one of its franchises claiming that they had established it. Their leader even gave himself the title 'Commander of the Faithful': the title of Caliphs and other Islamic rulers. By contrast, the head of al-Qaeda was known simply as 'Commander' of the organisation.
The leader of the Islamic State of Iraq – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – created Jabhat al-Nusra in late 2011, in order to expand into Syria. However, in early 2013 he announced the dissolution of the group, which was showing signs of independence, in favour of a newly expanded Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Proving al-Baghdadi's fears to be well founded, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra – Abu Muhammad al-Jolani – appealed to al-Qaeda's central leadership, declaring his allegiance directly to them over al-Baghdadi.
The commander of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, attempted to mediate between the two groups, declaring them both to be at fault and ordering ISIS to withdraw into Iraq. The response of ISIS was clear: al-Baghdadi declared that the group would endure "so long as we have a vein that pulses and an eye that bats". His spokesman went further, stating that al-Zawahiri had sinned in attempting to divide the jihadi movement, and that recognising the borders of Syria and Iraq was un-Islamic. But a crucial reason for the rejection of the ruling by ISIS was that Jabhat al-Nusra's leader had declared his allegiance to al-Zawahiri, thereby breaking his prior allegiance to al-Baghdadi. Demonstrating the group's break with al-Qaeda, a spokesman for ISIS claimed that Jabhat al-Nusra's leader was a traitor for his change of allegiance – rendering his testimony invalid. He argued that al-Zawahiri shouldn't have ruled on the basis of Jabhat al-Nusra's appeal at all.
As ISIS has advanced into Syria, it has attacked other rebel groups as well as government forces. Its belief in its supreme authority as the Islamic State allows no opposition or compromise to be legitimate. Groups do not have to oppose it to be its enemies, they merely have to be independent. The choice is simple: submit, or fight. A shared ideology can, if anything, lay opponents open to a greater charge – their failure to submit is treasonous. While the group has, from time to time, entered into tactical alliances, they have been broken whenever it became advantageous. The fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups has led to serious ( though very unlikely) accusations that ISIS was in cahoots with Assad. Whatever the reality, it soon came to hold and administer substantial amounts of territory – territory governed according to strict principles of Islamic law, including imposing dhimmi pacts on minorities (guaranteeing protection in exchange for a special tax and some fairly onerous conditions).
Low-level violence with other rebel organisations continued until January this year, when ISIS captured, tortured and murdered one of the leaders of the prominent and powerful Islamist group, Ahrar al-Sham. The subsequent fighting pitted Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups against ISIS across much of Syria, driving the group out of many areas - though it remains strong in parts of the country. Finally, in February, al-Zawahiri announced emphatically that ISIS was "not a branch of al-Qaeda, has no links to it, and (al-Qaeda) is not responsible for its acts".
All of this makes little mention of the myriad other groups, large and small, fighting the Assad regime and each other. But a focus on Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS demonstrates something important: ideologies and religious allegiances count for less than one might think. Al-Qaeda is frequently described as more an idea than an organisation and, though the reality is probably a bit of both, the idea is important - that of jihad to bring about an Islamic state. The claim by ISIS that it is the embodiment of that state is appealing to jihadis across the world, and yet groups that share its ambitions are seeking to drive it out - even those, such as Jabhat al-Nusra who once swore it allegiance. If such groups cannot cooperate towards shared goals, then one should not expect a great deal from the totality of the opposition with all its diverse ambitions.
As Hokayem indicated, if we want a simple, diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict, we are deluding ourselves. Peace talks that treat the regime and the rebels as two opposing blocs are doomed to failure; the rebels are too divided for any representative to carry the whole movement with them. Indeed, many parts of the opposition have a worldview that leaves no room for compromise and removes any incentive to negotiate at all. These divisions leave openings for Assad to exploit - but even if he fails to do this (Hokayem thought his victory improbable), peace is unlikely until one group is sufficiently dominant to take the others with it.
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