During the 1990s, my small village which felt like it was cut off from half the known world experienced a strange new phenomenon. A big mosque was built by donors from the city of Hama, the cost of which at the time outstripped the earnings of the residents of the whole village combined. The thing I remember most about the mosque was the huge quantities of rice and olive oil deposited in front of the mosque to distribute among the regular visitors. We began to see a few of the men from the village let their beards grow while some women started wearing the hijab.
For those residents of the village it was worth changing certain life-long habits and modes of dress in exchange for a freely available source of much-needed nutrition. It mattered little to them whence it came. However, with the passing of time the children of that generation have adopted conservative Islamic ideas in a way in which their parents never had. Growing up at that time, the notion of Islamic conservatism is strongly wedded in my mind to long queues of impoverished people waiting in line at the door of the mosque for their winter supply of olive oil.
Sunni Muslims account for approximately seventy percent of Syria`s population. The success of conservative Islamists in spreading their ideas is intimately related to their closeness to the day-to-day essential needs of these ordinary people. Meeting these needs is the most important way of spreading ideologies and religious ideas among the public. This is precisely what Islamists in Syria and proselytizers in all societies do to achieve political and authoritarian goals. Despite the spread of conservative Islam in Syria, there had proved to be no fertile ground for Salafist and Jihadi ideas such as those of al-Qaeda. This, at least, was the case until the events of the past year.
In a small village in the province of Idlib near the Syrian-Turkish border, Khaled, one of the residents had just returned from a month-long campaign in rural Damascus with the National Unity battalion of the FSA to see his family. He was surprised to see a picture of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri on the wall of the living room: but the greater shock was to hear the people of the village talking about the figureheads of al-Qaeda in glowing terms as if they were living saints.
Khaled`s village can be any of a number of conservative villages in Syria; butthis does not necessarily mean that they support fundamentalist ideas in the mould of al-Qaeda. However, now the people of the village find themselves indebted to Jubhat al-Nusra – an armed group affiliated with al-Qaeda–which led the battle to liberate the village and its surrounding areas from the brutal bombing campaign of the forces of the Syrian regime.
According to local residents, a fighter from Jubhat al-Nusra blew himself up while targeting a key military checkpoint which had until then been able to withstand pressure from other FSA fighters. This action opened a window of opportunity for the FSA to raid the local military base and liberate it. Whether this is entirely true or an embellished account of reality, its impact has made a difference on the way the local residents think about Jubhat al-Nusra and this shift cannot be underestimated.
We are faced not only with a shift in the needs and priorities of rural communities in Syria, but also the ways in which they now perceive themselves. Such communities have borne the brunt of much of this armed conflict. Achieving relative security and stability has become the overriding priority of local residents in villages such as Khaled`s. Moreover, military victories seen to be putting the regime on the back foot are highly prized.
In areas under the control of the FSA, fighters from Jubhat al-Nusra can be found at the frontline battling the regime forces as well as taking responsibility for most of the critical attacks on regime forces thus far - such as the series of high profile explosions targeting key state institutions in the heart of the capital. This has engendered overwhelming feelings of respect and admiration towards Islamist extremists and Jubhat al-Nusra.
When Ahmed, a resident of al-Ghouta al-Sharqiyeh in Damascus province, conveyed his gratitude and admiration for the courage of the Jihadi fighters to me, he said: "Although I myself haven`t adopted the ideology of al-Qaeda, and I don`t agree with many of their ideas, we have to admit that they are the best equipped to take on the fight against the Assadi regime because they have strict principles. You never see any of them making a song and dance in the media about what they have done – not like the others. Most of the FSA battalions want to show themselves off as being the most effective force on the ground. They`re always releasing videos boasting about their power and achievements, however futile these actions may be. It`s all done to get more funding, but the truth is that Jubhat al-Nusra are the real heroes".
This isn`t just the personal opinion of one individual but an opinion shared by many and is growing by the day, particularly with the revelation of increasing corruption within the ranks of some FSA groups. There is a real fear that many more Syrian Islamists may deviate towards extreme positions in the coming period. The accumulated successes of Jubhat al-Nusra and their recognition as heroes by ordinary Syrians may lead to the adoption of extreme ideas in the near, not the distant future.
Jubhat al Nusra has recently been placed on the terrorist list by the US State Department, yet at the same time on the ground in Syria a united military command has been established as an umbrella for the many diverse strands of the FSA. This has brought the FSA semi-international acceptance so that it is considered a legitimate actor by a number of states. By separating the combatants against the regime in such a way there is a danger in creating greater fissures between the two groups. The FSA may refuse to co-operate with Jubhat al-Nusra for fear of losing its recently-acquired international standing. This will result in a weakening of its fighting capabilities. Moreover, the two groups will have less co-ordination in their actions leading to the increased possibility of armed confrontations between them. The split may extend to ordinary Syrians who may find themselves split between their loyalties to Jubhat al-Nusra or the FSA. This is an option we can ill afford; such a cleavage would be too much for Syria to bear.
The events of last week in the Bostan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, which saw Jubhat al-Nusra fighters attack peaceful protestors, is a scandalous indicator of the infighting between the armed groups – taking them away from the principles of the revolution. Witnesses at the protest told me that Jubhat al-Nusra combatants fired live bullets in the air and attempted to arrest an activist because the protesters were heard shouting "kull jaysh harami, nizami, hurr wa islami" [all armies are thieves: regime, FSA and Islamist`s]. The FSA failed to intervene despite being present at the protest. Social network forums were replete with angry criticism from both sides.
We need a great deal of maturity and awareness to overcome the differences and competing interests in Syria. It has become evident that the armed conflict in no shape or form is directed towards the interests of the Syrian people. We cling to the hope that time will eventually bring forth a genuine Syrian leadership which is able to save the revolution from the paralysis of opportunism.
[This article was originally published on Open Democracy.]