Syria: civil wars in the civil war

The Free Syrian Army has been at open war with the jihadists for months, but now fighting is reported between the two leading jihadist factions in the Syrian war, the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Clashes are reported between the two in Shaddadi, Hasakeh governorate—apparently over control of the Jibsa oil field. The two groups split earlier this year over whether to accept the Iraq-based leadership of the ISIS. (AINA, Sept. 23) The news comes just as the Syrian National Coalition, the official civilian leadership of the FSA, was publicly repudiated in an open letter by 13 rebel factions. These include both the newly formed 19th Division of the FSA, and jihadist groups including the Nusra Front and Liwa al-Tawhid. The statement called for the imposition of Islamic law throughout Syria. (The Telegraph, Sept. 26) In very ominous news, Al Jazeera reports Sept. 21 that the FSA's 11th Division has defected to the Nusra Front. A video purported to show hundreds of 11th Division defectors parading through Raqqah with Nusra fighters.

Yet last Dec. 7, Reuters reported that the new 30-member unified command for the Syrian rebels, elected at a meeting in the Turkish city of Antalya, was itself "Islamist-dominated," including many figures "with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists," and excluding the high-level defectors from Bashar Assad's military. One anonymous delegate protested that the new body was a "result of Qatari and Turkish creations." The report did not make clear if this body represented only FSA affiliates, or a broader circle of rebel militias. We also wonder if it has survived, given the current centrifugal tendency.

Assad's Internet partisans have been trumpeting these news stories as evidence that the opposition is overwhelmingly jihadist (and, by implication, that we should all be rallying around the regime). Assad's Internet opponents, meanwhile, have resorted to a conspiracy theory—that the regime is secretly backing the jihadist factions to divide and discredit the opposition. This essentially means Iran is backing them too. Dexter Filkins in the current edition of The New Yorker identifies the Syrian regime's most important military commander as Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani of Iran's elite Quds Force. (NPR, Sept. 25) Given that Iran faces its own internal threat from Sunni extremists, we find the notion that it is backing Salafists or "takfiris" in Syria very unlikely.

And the evidence has been scanty. On July 24, 2012, Long War Journal reported on the death in a rebel bombing of Assef Shawkat, the deputy defense minister and former head of Syrian military intelligence. The account claims: "Leaked State Department cables show that Shawkat was one of al Qaeda in Iraq's (AQI) most important patrons. And he played this role on behalf of his brother-in-law, Bashar al Assad." Could be, but just because Assad was backing al-Qaeda in Iraq to fight the US occupation doesn't mean he is backing them now to fight himself—any more than the fact that the US backed the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan a generation ago means that it continues to back al-Qaeda today to keep the world paranoid (a favorite trope of the conspiracy industry).

While online propagandists make hay (from the safety of the US or Europe, usually), Syria's secular civil resistance continues to demonstrate courage and heroism—this time in response to the growing jihadist attacks on Syria's Christians. This statement was posted Sept. 26 to the Syrian Nonviolence Movement Facebook page:

The armed group we Syrians belittlingly call "Da'esh" [the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] desecrated the Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Raqqa, Syria, felling its great cross from the roof. Civilians of Raqqa protested on Sept. 25, rallying to rescue the cross—and to send a message of Syrian nonsectarian unity. Here's a description by respected rev figure Khalil al-Haj Saleh of that protest in his hometown of Raqqa:

Women and men of Raqqa protested today against this message... They revived a chant from early in the revolution, "One, one, one, the Syrian people are one" today, and sang, "Muslim and Christian, we want NO SECTARIANISM." They lifted the cross from the ground in an effort to raise it back to its place… Some sixty people participated in this demonstration, out of loving outrage for the symbol of the background of their fellow citizens, but given who they demonstrated against and held accountable for this action, these sixty may have been participants in the bravest, most profound, noblest, and boldest protest yet in modern Syrian history.

So please let's be done with the cynical argument that the fact that there are jihadis in Syria means we shouldn't support the secular civil resistance... If the "left" in the West had its head screwed on right, we'd realize that it means we should support the secular resistance more

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Syrian civil resistance confronts jihadists

Another inspiring Facebook post from the Syrian Nonviolence Movement notes the courage of local woman Suad Nofal, who has been standing every day outside the jihadist-occupied municipal building of Raqqa with a protest sign demanding the release of two abducted men, Father Paolo of the  Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation and activist Firas al-Haj Saleh. Suad and her comrades, calling themselves the Free Women of Raqqa, have of course been accosted by the jihadsts, who are said to be Tunisians. Yesterday, the jihadists seized and tore up her sign, and threatened her with assassination if she continued her protest. The Syrian Nonviolence Movement appeals to the world: "DO NOT LET SUAD NOFAL STAND ALONE. SUAD STANDS FOR US ALL."