Syrian opposition driven into arms of Islamists

Peter Harling, Project Director for Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, talks to Deutsche Welle about the role of Islamist groups within the Syrian rebellion.
Also available in German

A study from the International Crisis Group shows that anti-government rebels in Syria have been undermined by Islamists. Yet for many fighters, the Islamist alliance is only a marriage of convenience.

DW: Peter Harling, you are the project director of the International Crisis Group for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. You have just published a paper entitled “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s fundamentalist opposition.” In it you document the presence of various Islamist groups in Syria. Who are they?

Peter Harling: First, they are forces that come from Syrian society itself. These originate predominantly in a conservative stratum of Syrian society that provides most of the local fighters. They are members of a socially neglected, impoverished class. The resistance there is more informal and is largely self-organized. The people in it tend to have a very conservative view of the world. And this has helped shape the character of the armed opposition.

Then there are also the decidedly Islamist groups – for example, the “al-Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham” (“Support Front for the Syrian People”). As it says in our paper, this group is not just concerned with the end of the Assad regime. Rather, it aims to enforce a militant Salafist agenda. It also has been blamed for suicide attacks in the predominantly civilian areas.

You write that the group is more similar to Al Qaeda in Iraq than to the original Syrian opposition. How do the Syrian rebel fighters view this and other pro-jihadist groups?

Many forces are more secular in outlook. They have no great interest in religion. Even so, they have moved closer to the armed Islamic forces, as they receive support from foreign Islamic networks. This comes mainly from the Gulf region. It should be pointed out that these people are in a battle. They need weapons and ammunition. They receive the money for this from the Gulf states, especially through Islamist networks that are organized around the mosques. The money also comes from wealthy Syrian businessmen who live there. All of this shapes the identity of the armed opposition – and in a way that is sometimes highly opportunistic. Often the fighters are not very convinced of what they say in public. But in this way they are meeting their sponsors’ demands.

How did Assad’s Syrian opponents become involved with the Islamists?

Originally, the Syrian uprising was inspired by the Arab Spring. They hoped large demonstrations would show the illegitimate character of the regime, which responded to the demonstrations with force. In these circumstances, the rebels decided to resort to self-defense. They secured a few places where they could continue to demonstrate. For this purpose they created the Free Syrian Army.

Looking for more options, the insurgents came into greater proximity to a religious fundamentalist worldview. They also resorted increasingly to violence. So they used bombs, which caused considerable casualties among civilians. There were kidnappings and criminal behavior, which were justified in terms of resistance to the regime.

So a somewhat involuntary movement towards religious militancy?

Yes. Overall, the development of the opposition was strongly influenced by the way the regime responded to the initial protests. This development gained a momentum of its own. But the more the opposition followed an Islamist course, the fewer people were willing to support it. However, we also observed an opposite development: In some places the Syrians faced such violent force from the regime that they supported anyone who fought against it.

Does that also mean that the lack of support from the West drove the Syrians toward Islamism?

The Syrian air force continues its attacks on rebel strongholds

Yes. The Syrians initially assumed that the international community would intervene at some point. They assumed that, in the end, it would not leave them to fend for themselves. In the event, too many signals came from the international community that encouraged armed opposition groups to escalate the situation. There were numerous indications of international support. But words were not followed by deeds. All that followed were sanctions. But these hit civilians harder than the regime. And when there was practical support, it did not help the groups get the arms they needed to take up the struggle against the military. There were nevertheless many signs from the international community that encouraged the rebels not to make any concessions that could have set a political process in motion.

And now the presence of jihadist groups stops the international community from supporting the insurgents.

Yes. So Russia, Iraq and Iran are pointing to the jihadist forces to justify their positions. Yet their positions go back to a time before these jihadists existed in Syria. But even in the West we tend to use these holy warriors to excuse our unwillingness to intervene. In this context, we then say Syria is a complicated case, the country lies in a highly unstable, sensitive region. All this makes it very difficult for there to be the almost instinctive kind of intervention that there was in Libya.

What can be done politically to end the violence in Syria?

The government responded to protests with massive force

Currently, mediation, dialogue and negotiation are impossible. The hatred is too great; too much blood has been shed. It will take some time before the two parties can sit down together at the table. For this to happen, their foreign allies must change their positions. The armed opposition is very fragmented. On the one hand, the individual groups form a front. But on the other hand, they are also in competition with each other.

It would be helpful if the international community could better coordinate the different armed opposition groups. The resource flow to them could then possibly be brought under control. But the armed groups have meanwhile turned to very different sponsors and are pursuing very different programs. And this is in large part due to the split within the group of international opponents of Assad.

Could Assad’s supporters also contribute to stopping the violence?

Yes. They could help to institutionalize the forces of the regime and incorporate them into a formal framework. That’s because the regime has recruited many mercenaries, who have taken control of the business of security. To this end, these fighters have a completely free hand. As a result, they behave in the worst possible way. They have committed massacres and have not been held accountable. Here the allies of the regime could exert much greater pressure. This would help to force it to moderation.

Peter Harling is project director of the International Crisis Group for Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. The International Crisis Group is a private, independent institution for preventing and resolving large-scale violent conflicts.