A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tools for Making Sense of the "Syrian Jihadis On the Rise" Theme

It's an important question: is Jihadism increasingly making itself felt in the Syrian rebellion? Are arms intended for the rebels reaching Jihadi groups ahead of more moderate ones? David Sanger in The New York Times reported the latter recently, citing classified reports:
“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
I have no great expertise on the subject under discussion, but wanted to call attention to some detailed resources that provide background, and perhaps balance, to this report (which I have no reason to doubt accurately reflects the classified documents it cites).

One always needs to keep in the forefront of the mind that the regime is eager to persuade the world that the rebels are radical jihadis, Salafis, sectarian bigots, and terrorists. No doubt some of them are. I assume readers of this blog are here because they appreciate nuance and background, and two recent reports seem to offer both detail and nuance.

One is Aron Lund's contribution at Foreign Policy, "Holy Warriors: A Field Guide to Syria's Jihadi Groups"  Lund (who often comments on this blog, though we've never met) recently published a longer study at Sweden's Foreign Policy Institute , "Syrian Jihadism," (PDF) which provides much greater detail. A shorthand conclusion from the first link:
Jihadis still make up a minority of the Syrian rebel movement and do not represent the opposition as a whole, but they punch far above their weight in terms of both military effectiveness and ideological influence. As such, they will play a role in the battle for Syria's future, though it remains to be seen just how large of a role that will be.  
Another recent effort to address the question in nuanced detail is Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group's latest report,  "Tentative Jihad: Syria's Fundamentalist Opposition."  (Link is to the Executive Summary. The full report in PDF is here.
Prematurely and exaggeratedly highlighted by the regime, belatedly and reluctantly acknowledged by the opposition, the presence of a powerful Salafi strand among Syria’s rebels has become irrefutable. That is worrisome, but forms only part of a complex picture. To begin, not all Salafis are alike; the concept covers a gamut ranging from mainstream to extreme. Secondly, present-day Syria offers Salafis hospitable terrain – violence and sectarianism; disenchantment with the West, secular leaders and pragmatic Islamic figures; as well as access to Gulf Arab funding and jihadi military knowhow – but also adverse conditions, including a moderate Islamic tradition, pluralistic confessional make-up, and widespread fear of the kind of sectarian civil war that engulfed two neighbours. Thirdly, failure of the armed push this past summer caused a backlash against Salafi groups that grabbed headlines during the fighting.
This is not to dismiss the Salafis’ weight. The opposition has a responsibility: to curb their influence, stem the slide toward ever-more radical and confessional discourse and halt brutal tactics. So too do members of the international community, quick to fault the opposition for fragmentation and radical drift that their own divisions, dysfunctionality and powerlessness have done much to foster. For as long as different countries sponsor distinct armed groups, a bidding war will ensue, and any hope of coordinating the rebels, disciplining them and restraining their most extremist members will be in vain. The issue, in other words, is not so much whether to arm them – and, if so, with what – but rather to rationalise and coordinate the support provided to the opposition in order to make more likely the emergence of a more coherent, structured, representative and thus effective interlocutor in what, sooner or later, must be a negotiated outcome. Even those who side with the regime would stand to benefit from that development, if they wish to see today’s devastating military stalemate evolve toward a political solution.
The wisest course in Syria is far from clear, but those making policy need accurate and nuanced information to make it. These sorts of studies help provide that.

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