As US weighs war, fears of power of jihadis in Syria

The dominance of jihadi groups in some rebel-controlled parts of Syria has some there wondering if they've traded one dictator for another.

AP Photo
Smoke rises over the outskirts of Damascus in this citizen journalism image from September 1.

When Mahmoud al-Ahmed returned to his battle-scarred village in the Aleppo countryside after seven months away, he found it filled with people he didn’t recognize – some of them foreigners, and almost all of them conservative Islamists.

Even though he’s now safe in Gaziantep, Turkey, he’s reluctant to speak openly with strangers about the Islamists he encountered in his village.

At first, all he will say is, “They are very friendly. I wish more people are like them.” It is only after talking for some time that he opens up and speaks freely about bans they’ve imposed on cigarettes and alcohol, and women being forced to were a full niqab, which covers the entire face. His once moderate hometown no longer feels like home.

“I agree with them about forbidding alcohol, but if I’m not praying or fasting [during Ramadan] they’ll come and make me. I just wish it was the way it was before the war,” he says. “I’m afraid that if I talk badly about the Islamists, not them personally, but their ideology, they will arrest me and maybe beat me. First there was Assad and now we have the Islamists.”

US President Barack Obama called on Saturday for Congress to approve military action against the government of Bashar al-Assad for what US officials allege was a chemical weapon attack on civilians on Aug. 21. But Obama has also insisted that any attack will be limited, and not designed to remove Assad from power. The growing strength of jihadi groups within Syria's rebellion against Assad is a key reason for Obama's ambivalence.

Syria has a reputation as one of the more religiously moderate countries in the region, making a shift like the one observed by Mr. Ahmed particularly jarring for many Syrians. As conservative groups have become entrenched in northern, opposition-controlled areas, many now worry that they've traded one dictator for another.

Rebel military groups like the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have become the de-facto government, replacing President Assad's regime and often imposing new forms of repression, say many residents.   

“Most civilians don’t accept the Islamists. In many areas the Islamist groups impose themselves by force,” says Abu Hamam, an unemployed merchant now living in Gaziantep. Like all Syrians in this article, he uses a nickname for security reasons.

In the past year, conservative Islamic groups have experienced a meteoric rise in influence within the Syrian opposition. Protests against the government began in March of 2011, but it wasn’t until last summer that serious and sustained fighting erupted – three-quarters of those killed in Syria have died within the last year alone.

In the early days of fighting, rebel military groups reflected the country’s history of secular politics. At the time the opposition had no shortage of recruits, but it lacked significant outside backing to get the ammunition, weapons, and the supplies it needed to advance.

Meanwhile, hardline Islamist groups on the sidelines of the conflict began to make significant battlefield gains, thanks in large part to support from ideologically motivated private donors, many of them in Persian Gulf. The groups also used their resources to provide much needed humanitarian aid to the civilian population. Now they are increasingly calling the shots in rebel-held territory.

Early this spring, Hani Halabi managed to defect from the regime forces. Once he made it to opposition-held areas in the north, he considered joining one of the rebel fighting groups. He’d heard rumors about the Islamist groups, but he wanted to judge the character of the jihadists for himself.

In a meeting with a mid-level leader for one of the conservative groups, Mr. Halabi says he was immediately deterred when the commander told him that if they captured Sunni soldiers from the government army, they were investigated and given a chance to defect. Alawite soldiers, members of Mr. Assad’s religious group, were immediately executed.

“He told me the revolution is not about what the people want; it’s what God wants,” recounts Halabi. “I don’t think that all the Islamic groups are helping Syria and the revolution. They don’t see Syria as a nation just as part of the global Islamic community.”

A war after the war?

Like most Syrians, he worries that there will eventually be a war between secular-leaning Syrians and jihadis. After the meeting with the Islamist commander, Halabi decided he’d rather flee to Turkey than take a side in such an amorphous conflict with the possibility of devolving into a second civil war.

In the areas under jihadist control, a number of residents complain that conservative militants have started to impose strict rules, banning smoking and alcohol, forcing people to pray, arresting those caught breaking the fast during Ramadan, and requiring women to be completely covered.

“Islam is not like this. This is basically against the freedoms that we have died and been martyred for,” says Hussain Ahmed, a construction worker who left his town in rural Aleppo about a year ago. Since then he’s visited his home several times and says he’s been dismayed by what he finds each time he returns.

“We’ve moved from a revolution to more repression. Now we have thousands of Assads. The situation before Assad was better than it is now. Assad was the worst leader ever, but now we have many of the worst leaders,” says Mr. Ahmed, who adds that many people are afraid they might be killed for speaking out against Islamist groups.

Law and order jihad?

Inside Syria, the issue is less black and white. The Islamists may impose strict social values, but at a time when theft, kidnapping, and crime are skyrocketing, Islamist groups have developed a reputation as the most honest of the armed groups.

Some Syrians who don't share their views nevertheless say that they don’t necessarily have a problem with sharia, or Islamic law.  In Aleppo, Abu Ahmad Al-Tibani spent three days with Ahrar al-Sham, one of the largest Islamist groups in Syria, before deciding to join a less religious fighting group.

“Ahrar tries to be strict and impose shariah. This is not acceptable for everyone,” he says. Though he’s not necessarily against Islamic law, he says that it must be implemented step-by-step to avoid overwhelming those who are not accustomed to it.

After a recent visit to Syria, Rajul Hour argues that Islamist groups, ISIS in particular, haven’t been as heavy handed with social matters as they’ve often been made out to be, choosing instead to take an approach closer to what Mr. Tibani recommends.

“For me what they do is not intervening in personal matters. They only advise you. They don’t force you to do anything. They tell you that instead of spending money on cigarettes, you should spend money on your family. With regard to women wearing the veil, I think this is just part of Islam,” he says. “I think ISIS is the true Islam.”

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