by Ryan Mauro
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is on his way out and the best he can hope for is to create an Allawite mini-state for his loyalists. Al-Qaeda smells blood in the water and wants a piece of the pie once Assad falls. The Muslim Brotherhood, like Al-Qaeda, envisions an Islamic State of Syria. Some of the secular rebels determined to overthrow Assad are worried, warning that the Islamists are pulling the rug from under their feet.
The Assad regime began directly supporting Al-Qaeda as the U.S. invasion of Iraq neared, though the Hezbollah networks supported by Assad worked with Al-Qaeda before that. Now, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has turned its sights on its former sponsor, just as General David Petraeus predicted. One low-level Al-Qaeda operative in Iraq says, “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic State for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”
Saudi Wahhabists are recruiting and dispatching fighters to Syria and the regime is worried enough about Hamas to apparently assassinate one of its leaders. A Libyan Islamist militia leader with Al-Qaeda ties met with the Free Syria Army in November and is almost certainly responsible for the arrival of Libyan fighters afterwards. The Free Syria Army, consisting largely of army defectors, is generally regarded as a secular force but jihadists sometimes operate under its banner. For example, a video has surfaced of fighters claiming to belong to the Free Syria Army with the flag of Al-Qaeda in the background. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Mike Rogers, says there are about 300 different rebel groups in Syria and as many as one-fourth may be Al-Qaeda supporters.
The biggest foreign supporters of the rebels are Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia—all three of which support Islamists. One Islamist fighter belonging to a group called the Revolutionary Shield says he and 100 of his colleagues have been getting $120 per month for three months. He believes the funding comes from the Gulf countries and is distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar’s role is worrisome because it used its influence to help the Islamists in Libya. Secular Syrians accuse Turkey of doing the same thing, with one Kurdish leader explaining, “Turkey supports the Islamists in Syria and puts them out front.”
The opposition umbrella body called the Syrian National Council is based in Turkey and is being used by the Muslim Brotherhood to meet its stated “desire to coordinate the position of the opposition.” After the SNC was formed, it immediately sent a delegation to Qatar to meet with Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood cleric. Syria expert Thomas Pierret believes about half of the leaders in the SNC are Islamists and they are in charge of distributing the funds provided by the international community.
Many secularist opposition figures have left the SNC because of the Islamist influence. One, Kamal Labwani, complained to RadicalIslam.org about how the U.S. is pressuring the opposition to unite under the SNC. Another secularist, Walid al-Bunni, said, “We [secularists] became like extras.” Sherkoh Abbas of the Kurdistan National Assembly pit it bluntly: “[The SNC has] a hidden agenda to bring an Islamist, Sunni Arab nationalist regime to Syria by excluding the Kurds and other minorities.”
One of the leaders of the SNC is a prominent member of the American Muslim Brotherhood, Louay Safi.
He has worked as a top official in at least two Muslim Brotherhood fronts and was labeled an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the case against Sami al-Arian, a Brotherhood operative who served as the chief of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the U.S.
The Brotherhood allowed secularists to take the top post in the SNC in order to have an “accepted face” while controlling the body behind the scenes, as a top Brotherhood official explains here. It’s worked. The Friends of Syria, including the U.S., endorsed the SNC on April 1. Before that, on September 24, a State Department official took part in an event with an SNC representative that was organized by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a member of the American Muslim Brotherhood. For the past six months, the U.S. Institute for Peace has been meeting with 140 opposition officials in Germany with funding from the State Department. The U.S. Institute for Peace works closely with John Esposito, one of the foremost advocates of the Brotherhood and its fronts.There are plenty of Syrian secularists that could have been embraced by the West. On September 17, the Coalition of Secular and Democratic Syrians launched in Paris. “We are all against totalitarianism in any form and that includes Islamist rule,” a spokesperson said. Its President, Randa Kassis, says that at least half of the population wants separation of mosque and state.
“The Islamist groups, which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves. Syrians who are taking up arms against the dictator but not putting themselves under the jihadists’ command are being branded as unpatriotic and as heretics,” she said.
The good news is that the Free Syria Army is, by far, the most popular opposition force and it has butt heads with the SNC. One reporter writes that FSA soldiers, many of which defected from the secular regime, “do not appear to consider themselves mujahedin or otherwise fit the stereotype of Islamic extremists. Accordingly, individuals…[say] Islam does provide them with inspiration and strength but they do not fight for Islam and their goals are generally secular.”
It’s common for Free Syria Army officers to express their disdain for Al-Qaeda and Islamism. “Al-Qaeda is not welcome here and everybody knows it. Their ideology is not accepted and their help will be refused,” said one officer operating along the Turkish border. Former SNC President, Burhan Ghalioun, predicts that a free Syria will end its alliances with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
There are visible Syrian secularists inside and outside the country, such as: Riad al-Assad, Riad al-Turk, Kamal Labwani, Michel Kilo, Walid al-Bunni, George Sabra, Burhan Ghalioun, Fawaz Tello, Abdulbaset Sieda, Suhair Atassi, Fayez Sara, Randa Kassis, Sherkoh Abbas, Ammar Abdulhamid, Farid Ghadry, Zuhdi Jasser and countless secular defectors. Some of them are part of the SNC and others are not.
The demographics of Syria are often regarded as a barrier to the Islamists. About 10-13% of the population is Allawite, 10% are Christians, 10% are Kurds and 3% are Druze. These are all secular minorities. The majority Sunni population is divided between secularists and Islamists. This leads Dr. Barry Rubin to conclude that “Syria isn’t likely to see an Islamist takeover.” Others argue that the percentage of minorities is much lower than this, with the Christian population as little as 3.5%, Druze being only 1.7% and the Allawite population has been said to be as low as 6% by the Washington Post.
One problem in understanding the makeup of the opposition is the Assad regime’s years of deception. It has long worked hard to make the opposition appear to be wholly Islamist. Christians are persecuted but also pro-regime outlets are responsible for pushing stories, such as on claiming that 90% of Christians in Homs are being ethnically cleansed.
No one can tell what Syria will look like in one year or even a few months from now. It could be governed by Islamists or by democratic secularists. There may be a shaky balance between the two. Assad may carve out an Allawite refuge. Syria could descend into chaos, ravaged by sectarian violence and proxy warfare. There is simply no way to know.Ryan Mauro
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