Michael Weiss

The civil war within the civil war

Islamists in Syria

Though the possibility of Bashar al-Assad ever regaining control over all of Syria seems remote, the longer he hangs onto Damascus or other regime strongholds, the more likely it is that the opposition will fracture and splinter, perhaps fatally so. The Syrian opposition, never exactly cohesive or unified to begin with, is now demonstrating the telltale signs of an imminent internal deterioration owing to an ideological conflict that was inevitable only so long as the West chose to remain an idle spectator in a civil war. Thanks to a disastrous US policy wedded to the fantasy of a “political solution”—a policy that the Obama administration shows no sign of altering and that administration apologists continue to defend even while admitting their own defeat—Syria is fast headed for the next phase of its overlong tragedy: a civil war within a civil war. Depending on when and how this develops, it could spell the end of the March 2011 revolution altogether and mark the beginning of a broader regional crisis, which no amount of Patriot missiles or border fences can contain.


The evidence here is starkest in the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra, unmistakably the reconstituted Syrian brand of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was recently blacklisted as a terrorist entity by the US Treasury Department. About 10 days ago, Thaer al-Waqqas, the northern commander of the al-Farouq Brigades, the most formidable nationalist-Islamist rebel group, was perforated with bullets at a food supply depot in Sermin, near the Turkish border. Suspicions fell immediately on Nusra, a commander of which, Firas al-Absi, was murdered by al-Farouq several months ago at the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Turkey in what was then seen as more of a turf war than an ideological struggle. (The al-Farouq Brigades and its allies seek monopolistic control over Turkish border areas not only to keep an eye on who enters and leaves Syria, but also to exact tolls for financing their military activities.) An unnamed al-Farouq rebel told Reuters that Absi’s brother, another Nusra commander based in Homs, was likely behind Waqqas’ assassination, although the Brigades’ official line was that he was done in by the regime (owing more to public relations than to privately accepted belief).

But revenge killings aren’t all. The Guardian’s Martin Chulov has further elaborated how Nusra’s predominance is leading to resentment among civilians and rebels in Aleppo who now see the jihadists in their midst as more tenebrous than the romantic-revolutionary heroes they were just a few weeks ago, when Syrians denounced the US blacklisting. “The situation is now very clear,” a senior rebel commander told Chulov. “They don’t want what we want.” Plans to fight Nusra on the day after the regime falls are being mooted as Free Syrian Army units now exclude the group from major operations, such as the raid of Battalion 80, near Aleppo’s international airport.


Nusra, which is notoriously well-financed (presumably Gulf Arab countries and what remains of its cohort in Iraq), is also blamed for stripping Syrian state assets that other rebels say belong to the people. Then there’s the creeping Sharia-minded thuggishness that defined, and ultimately undid, Zarqawism: promising brides from local villages to new fighters, desecrating grave sites deemed insufficiently Islamic and so on. Nusra is transforming itself from a popular vanguard of the armed opposition into a blundering sectarian enforcer. And this, even before Aleppo has fallen. I’m told that Nusra’s sights are next set on Latakia, the Alawite heartland, where takfiri politics is sure to antagonize the mainstream population even faster.


Chulov’s dispatch, compiled from a 12-day tour of northern Syria, confirms what a rebel source of mine privately said to me two weeks ago when he phoned me in a panic. What was wrong? He wanted urgently to be connected to someone in the United States government because his new objective was to form a battalion solely dedicated to combating “these fucking jihadis.” Nusra’s recruitment drive, the rebel said, is the most impressive in the country; the group had even begun siphoning men he had trained up.


Whereas six months ago, when the siege of Aleppo was in its infancy, Nusra was said to have had a mere 2-3,000 fighters under its command, today that number is closer to 10-15,000; still a minority within the insurgency, but with more than enough self-confidence to make up for the fact. Everywhere you travel in the north, the black flag is conspicuous.

“At some point these guys are going to impose strict Islamic laws and behave the way they did in Anbar,” Joel Rayburn, a US Army intelligence officer at National Defense University with extensive battlefield experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, told me. “Sharia courts, shooting women, you name it. There are already signs that Nusra is headed this way in the Jazira, in Deir Ezzor, for example.”


Rayburn predicts three developments in the near future, assuming the regime endures. First, the confrontation between Nusra on the one side, and secular, nationalist and more moderate Islamist forces on the other, will escalate in a manner similar to what happened between al-Qaeda in Iraq and competing Sunni insurgent brigades. Second, Nusra will eventually branch out into Jordan where, Rayburn says, the terrain is fertile for sympathizers. “They can’t help themselves. They have Jordanians in their ranks, and Jordan is such a vulnerable target because it’s currently politically unstable.” (If this does come to pass, then the Saudis should start to worry: It would mean that al-Qaeda would be operating on both its southern and northern borders.) Third, Nusra will establish safe havens in the Jazira from which they’ll plan and launch terrorist attacks in Iraq just as they did in the mid-2000s.


Given the quaky political landscape in central and southern Iraq, and the renascent threat of al-Qaeda-inspired jihadism there, the prospect of cross-border operations and renewed “rat lines” from Syria—only this time minus the interdiction of any Petraeus-led coalition forces—could mean a return to the chaos we associate with the pre-surge period of a war that only ceased to exist on the front page of the New York Times. There is now an “Iraqi Free Army,” said to be modeled on the FSA and yet dedicated, according to one of its masked fighters in Fallujah, to the more Nusra-like goal of “bring[ing] down the Iranian sponsored Shiite regimes in the region,” namely Nouri al-Maliki’s “Safavid” government.


Consider, too, the propaganda video, which might as well be titled “Accident Waiting to Happen,” showing Shiite fighters kitted out like Iraqis, defending the Zaynab shrine in Damascus. This amounts to an open provocation for Nusra, which ranges itself against the “nusayri” infidels of the Assad regime and its proxies, and could well bomb this Shiite holy place the way al-Qaeda in Iraq unleashed a sectarian hell by bombing the Al-Askari Mosque in Samara in 2006.


So, then, in order of magnitude: Jihadism, regional spillover and Sunni-Shiite sectarianism. Only a year ago, these were the three oh-my’s advanced in favor of keeping the United States both directly and indirectly out of the Syrian conflict. Yet now they’re all there anyway, absent any external means of mitigation or preemption. If the current stalemate continues, and Syria is indeed plunged into exactly the kind of cocktail of Hobbesian horrors that the US spent a decade trying to counter, then we run an excellent chance of intervening at a later date not to dismantle the remnants of Assadism but to destroy the most virulent form of the anti-Assad opposition. Thus will the regime’s narrative from day one—that it was fighting objectively on the side of the West in the global war on terror—have become a self-fulfilled prophecy. As one defector is said to have told a US official in early 2012: “You can send aircraft for a no-fly zone over Syria now, or you can send drones over Syria later.”


Read this article in Arabic

Islamists in Syria are gaining ground, which doesn’t bode well for Syria or the US. (AFP photo)

Nusra is transforming itself from a popular vanguard of the armed opposition into a blundering sectarian enforcer.

  • Vlad Tepes

    What are you talking about? The US armed rebels and bombed the government in Libya and still....mass chaos and fighting. Give me a break!

    January 25, 2013