by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
It is a truism that as the Syrian civil war has progressed, factions of a hardline Islamist inclination - most notably the Al Qaeda affiliates Jabhat Al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - have come to the forefront. This naturally gives rise to the question of what can be done to counter the rise of extremists?
One suggestion put forward by Hussein Ibish in The National last week is to arm factions under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to create an Iraq-style Sahwa movement against Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria. However, many of those advocating this approach rightly tell us that Syria is not Iraq.
It is true that the very beginnings of the Sahwa movement in Iraq were rooted in disillusionment with Al Qaeda brutality, but the main factor that caused it to become a viable ally for the coalition forces and the Iraqi government is the fact that from 2007 onwards, large numbers of Sunni insurgents realised that they were losing the war, which had been focused on a decisive "Battle for Baghdad" that saw most of the mixed neighbourhoods ethnically cleansed of Sunni Arabs.
Survival therefore depended on a willingness to cooperate against Al Qaeda, and it is fear of what could happen to Sunnis in another sectarian civil war that helps maintain Sahwa militias across Sunni areas of Iraq despite marginalisation by the central government.
The situation in Syria is not at all analogous. There is no decisive battle being played out over a single city. Instead, Syria is continually fragmenting into smaller shards, as the number of different militias has multiplied.
The concept of an FSA Sahwa is based on posing a strict dichotomy between FSA and JN/ISIS that does not actually exist and is primarily rooted in propaganda from the circles of the western-backed rebel Salim Idriss and his Supreme Military Command (SMC). The question of whether a battalion by the banner of FSA works with JN/ISIS goes beyond simple differences in ideology, and varies from locality to locality.
A good example is the recent fall of Mannagh airbase in Aleppo Governorate to rebels. Analysts have disputed which battalion was the main actor, though the fact that jihadi media circles have released photos of the ISIS banner flying high over the main tower would suggest it played the decisive role. In any event, the more important observation to draw is that ISIS worked with a number of groups under the banner of the FSA, including the FSA Military Council of Aleppo.
Later in his piece, Ibish argues that the continuing conflict between Kurdish forces and mujahideen illustrates "how fluid and dynamic Syrian realities are". Indeed, but if it is his hope to arm factions deemed more moderate to take on ISIS/JN, then the Kurdish dynamic has pushed the trend somewhat the opposite way. For the conflict has actually drawn some FSA battalions to take ISIS/JN's side against the PYD/PKK Kurdish forces.
For example, at the beginning of this month a number of battalions in rural northern Aleppo province issued a joint statement against the PKK, denouncing it as a regime agent. The battalions included ISIS and some under the banner of the FSA, like Liwa Al Tawheed.
More dubious is Ibish's idea that members of the Salafist Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) could be won over as allies. Of course Ibish is right that not all SIF fighters are necessarily hardline ideologues, but there is a risk of downplaying the ideological component of the SIF's outlook.
While it is common to refer to the SIF as "Salafi nationalist", the reality is that the boundaries of nationalism/transnationalism are blurred in SIF thought at best. This is most apparent in statements by SIF battalions that talk about the Ummah and the notion of artificial borders imposed on it.
As a result of their ideological bent, SIF battalions as a rule never side with non-Islamists against JN or ISIS. This has been apparent in the SIF groups coordinating with JN/ISIS in Hasakah and Raqqa provinces against Kurdish forces, and in Raqqa where Ahrar ash-Sham supporters have rallied with JN/ISIS backers in light of sit-in demonstrations held by civil activists to protest kidnappings.
In short, it does not make sense at this stage to talk of arming more moderate factions to create a Sahwa movement against Al Qaeda forces in Syria. The dynamics at work in the country are far too complex for analogies with Iraq.
If the goal is to counter extremist influence, then there needs to be a better understanding among analysts and policymakers of why Al Qaeda affiliates have gained influence and been able to appeal to locals. While there is understanding of JN's outreach, I have come across too many pundits who seem mystified by ISIS' expansion in Syria.
Since ISIS contains a large number of foreign jihadists, it is often assumed that they are incapable of winning local support.
On the contrary, pro-ISIS media output shows that it is actively reaching out to locals. This has included days of fun and games in conjunction with da'wah meetings in the suburbs of Aleppo (including tug-of-war and musical chairs), provision of iftar dinners and food aid during Ramadan, and Eid gatherings with the handing out of presents for children. These forms of outreach are hardly removed from JN's tactics.
Only by appreciating that Al Qaeda fighters in Syria have been adapting and learning from their predecessors can one hope to devise strategies of countering their influence, such as encouraging more moderate factions to try to counter widespread perceptions of corruption and criminality.
For now, besides provision of aid, the most viable form of outside intervention remains some kind of no-fly zone in the hope of reducing the civilian death toll and reducing the Assad's air power advantage.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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