Behind the Lines: The revolt of Islam in Syria

The emergence of the Syrian National Coalition means that the West and its regional Sunni allies are now backing a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated coalition as the preferred replacement for the Assad regime.

FREE SYRIAN Army fighters pose on a tank 370 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
FREE SYRIAN Army fighters pose on a tank 370 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
The United States this week became the latest country to recognize the Syrian National Coalition, formed in Qatar a month ago, as the legitimate leadership of the Syrian opposition.
The formation of a joint military council aligned with the coalition was also announced in Antalya, Turkey. At the same time, Washington designated Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful Salafi armed group in Syria, as a terrorist organization.
All of these moves indicate that a coherent US and Western policy toward the rebel side in the Syrian civil war is now emerging. This policy is in line with the Obama administration’s broader regional orientation and meets with the approval of key EU governments It is also the preferred direction of Turkey and Qatar, the two countries that led the international response to the Syrian rebellion during the long period when the West preferred not to get directly involved.
The intention is to align with and strengthen Muslim Brotherhood-associated elements while painting Salafi forces as the sole real Islamist danger.
At the same time, secular forces are ignored or brushed aside.
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This dynamic is plainly visible in the composition of the new military council. The founder of the Free Syrian Army, secular former Syrian Air Force colonel Riad Asaad, is notably absent. Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh, the first of his rank to defect to the rebels, is not there either. Sheikh is known for his fierce opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Hussein Haj Ali, the highest ranking officer to defect so far, is absent as well.
A Reuters report on the new joint military council calculated that the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies account for about two-thirds of the 263 men who met in Antalya and formed the new body. Salafi commanders are also there.
The new council is headed by Brigadier Selim Idriss, who is described as a non-ideological military man. But his deputies, Abdel-basset Tawil of Idlib and Abdel-qader Saleh of Aleppo governate are associated with the Salafi trend.
The domination by the Muslim Brotherhood of the new military council mirrors the movement’s leading position in the new civilian leadership body – the Syrian National Coalition. The leader of this coalition is Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib, former imam of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.
Khatib is closely associated with the Damascus branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The leader of the new coalition has a long history of anti-Semitic, anti-Western and anti-Shi’a remarks (he praised Saddam Hussein, for example, for “terrifying the Jews” and wrote an article asking if Facebook was an “American-Israeli intelligence website”). He is also an admirer of the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood preacher Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
Within the body headed by Khatib, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council controls around 27 of the 65 seats on the executive body of the new coalition. There are also Islamists and fellow travelers among the non-SNC delegates.
The Brotherhood is by far the best organized single body within the coalition. One secular delegate at the first full meeting of the coalition accused the Brotherhood of “pushing more of its hawks into the coalition, although it already has half of the seats.”
So the emergence of the Syrian National Coalition and the associated Joint Military Council means that the West and its regional Sunni allies are now backing a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated coalition as the preferred replacement for the Assad regime.
The al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra organization, now designated a terror organization by the US, is a powerful jihadi force on the ground.
The Western desire to declare this group off limits is entirely understandable. But the attempt to build it up as a kind of bogeyman to be contrasted with so-called “moderate” Islamist groups has little basis in reality. The difference between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups is one of degree, not of kind.
Exemplifying this, the US designation has led to a furious response across the board among the Syrian rebels. Twenty-nine rebel groups have now issued a statement saying “we are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”
Their perception is that the US sought to avoid contact with the armed rebels, but now wants to be involved because it glimpses the possibility of a rebel victory. The jihadis of Jabhat al-Nusra, on the other hand, have been there since the start and have proven themselves among the most militarily capable of the rebel units. This perception largely accords with the facts.
The media focus on Jabhat al-Nusra may well be exaggerated. Even those articles claiming it is now playing a dominant role in the fighting admit that it constitutes only a small fraction of the total number of rebel fighters (nine percent is the number often quoted, though it is difficult to see on what basis this suspiciously precise figure was reached).
The focus on Jabhat al-Nusra should not obscure the fact that the better-organized, non-Salafi, home grown Muslim Brotherhood elements that the US is backing are no less anti-Western and no less anti-Jewish.
Could things have been different? As with Egypt, perhaps, if the West had perceived the risks and opportunities clearly at the start. This might have triggered a vigorous policy of support for non- Islamist opposition and fighting elements, which were there.
A counter-argument could also be made according to which in the Arab world in 2012, a non- Islamist popular force able to rival the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis in commitment and organizational capacity would be highly unlikely.
In any case, such a policy was never tried and is not being tried now.
The result is that the force now facing the retreating Assad regime is split between differing brands of Sunni Arab Islamism – some aligned with the West, some directly opposing it, but all holding fast to fundamentally anti-Western ideologies.
Given the level of life that has been lost in Syria, and the presence of chemical and biological warfare programs now in the vicinity of Islamist terror groups, it does not seem hyperbolic to recall a stanza from Percy Shelley’s famous poem “The Revolt of Islam”: “Their complicating lines did steep the orient sun in shadow... and all around, darkness more dread than night was poured upon the ground.”