It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.
First, some basic related observations are in order.
The following video was uploaded by Syria - Civil State on June 18, 2013. The clip shows a protest in Raqqa, Syria in front of the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusrah (JAN) where protesters are calling for the release of prisoners that have been imprisoned by the takfiri group affiliated with Al-Qaeda. The clip shows many angry protesters chanting against Nusra, and decrying that their actions are "in the name of Islam." Notably, at the two-minute mark, the protesters begin chanting, "The Syrian people refuse to be humiliated," one of very first chants of the Syrian uprising.
[Protest in Raqqa against Jabhat al-Nusra.]
Such juxtaposition of words, critiques, and positions have become increasingly visible and ubiquitous in areas where JAN and like-minded groups have dominated.
This comes at a time when Raqqa has been experiencing tension and increasing public mobilization against Nusra and other militant Islamist factions. After Syrian rebels seized Raqqa in early March, 2013, and the city was declared totally liberated of Syrian regime forces, many reports started surfacing that Raqqa was now being ruled by militant Islamist groups such as JAN. Civilian resentment against Islamist rule in Raqqa has been growing as activists in Raqqa strive to provide alternatives and organize independent coalitions. The popular resentment against JAN in Raqqa mirrors a trend occurring in other regions under rebel control in Syria as well. For example, in Aleppo, protesters gathered in front of the house of a 14-year-old boy who was executed by takfiris for making a joke referring to the Prophet Mohammad. The protesters chanted "What a shame, what a shame, shabbiha have become revolutionaries," comparing the infamous paramilitary groups loyal to Bashar al-Assad to the armed rebels who executed the boy.
Other examples abound, as some of these images attest.
[“We used to ask what branch imprisoned the detainee? Now we ask which brigade!!!”]
[“The Sharia Committee = The Air Force Intelligence.” Signed, Revolutionaries of Aleppo. The Air Force Intelligence
is one of the most infamous and despised branches of the Syrian regime’s intelligence services]
[Protest by a Kurdish committee in Syria. Sign on the left reads: “The Sharia Committee is Assad rule in the liberated areas.”
Sign on the right reads: “Freedom to our detainees in the cells of the Sharia Committee…”]
[Graffiti in Aleppo: “Revolution of breaking heads.” A hammer that reads “the people” breaks the heads of a Salafi and a chauvinistic rebel.]
What Might Lie Ahead
[What follows is not a reduction of the uprising`s problems to one factor. It is a conscious treatment of one factor among many]
The growing power of a particular exclusionary strand of Islamists is beginning to be felt more markedly throughout various Syrian towns and city quarters. Aside from analyzing the causes--which have as much to do with the regime`s repression as other external factors--it is not a phenomenon that can or should be dismissed simply by understanding how it originated and developed: it is a reality that "revolutionaries" for a better Syria must contend with sooner or later, one that is a mixture of homegrown origins and foreign origins with ample power and finances, thanks to Qatar and, to lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. The fact that part of the outcome back-fired or was unintended—notably, the nature, level, and breadth of the radicalization—is besides the point.
In other words, it is not enough to understand that the regime and external players have wittingly or not contributed to this phenomenon. The proliferation of exclusionary and obscurantist groups within the Syrian opposition is a growing reality that has irreversibly asserted itself and is slowly becoming as much of a problem to the Syrian uprising as it has been to the Syrian regime.
[Protesters in Saraqib, Idlib express discontent against Sharia Committee]
[Protesters in Aleppo against the Sharia Committee, chanting: “The Sharia Committee has become the Air Force [Intelligence].”]
Those who hastily dismiss its import based on a lesser evil argument or in favor of a gradual stage-based conception of struggle where such groups/phenomena can be dealt with only in a post-Assad Syria are likely to be proven quite naïve. They either have little comparative knowledge of transitional processes in time and space, or misunderstand the development as a necessary/unavoidable reality that is temporary. This is reminiscent of tradition patriarchal patriotism that dismissed struggles for women`s emancipation until the nation has been "freed/liberated/etc"—the result has not be exactly enticing. The proliferation of such groups and their corollary demands is not temporary, and neither are simplistic calls for “secularism” (whatever this means) the answer. This is more about inclusion and exclusion, coexistence and acceptance of difference, before it is about democracy and other liberal tropes.
Too Close to See?
Alternatively, many are solely focused on the misery that has befell Syria to the point where such phenomena seem less pressing to engage or even address as a priority of any sort. Under bombs, bullets, and jet fighter missiles, not only is it "alright" to have "jihadists" fight along our side, but "we" actually "need" them and their vigor/resolve, regardless of the spectrum of their motives. After all, what else would one expect?
At some level, this kind of argument that is ubiquitous in some opposition circles (not all) is understandable. What is not understandable is to stop at such half-baked strategic wisdom and not rethink the question of ultimate goals and the motives of most Syrians at the outset of the uprising.
[Sign from Bustan al-Qasr, Aleppo addressing rebels: “Have you come to be victorious, or to dominate?”
That is, have the rebels come to help the people to victory, or simply to control and rule the people?]
[Activist from Deir-Ez-Zor: “No to extremism. No to terrorism. Yes to a national resistance to protect the people.”]
[“Syria is for the freedom fighters. Not for Zawahiri and not for Bashar.”]
[Sign in Saraqeb, Idlib referring to actions of the some of the rebels in the city:
“Masked + Armed + Raiding houses + Enemy of Freedom = He is a shabih.”]
Sooner or later, before issues of economic program, gender, rights, social justice, and mundane politics arise, and perhaps long before the regime is no more, this phenomenon will present itself as yet another hurdle to achieving the Syria many dreamt of, or even pondered, as they fought a herculean regime. When the time comes, many will revisit the days when such takfiri groups were not yet ubiquitous but were nonetheless encouraged or given a carte blanche based on the arguments above. Or, such groups were forgiven when compared to the decades-old brutality of the regime, as though revolutions are about revenge rather than liberation.
Perhaps these groups will go away or shed their exclusionary nature under different circumstances.
But when regional and international politics enter the scene, and when internal confusion/vulnerability/struggles are mixed with stable and time-tested regional and international interests of powerful actors/states in creating a “malleable” set of leaderships in the region, we will find that these groups are here to stay. They make for good proxies or instruments, or worse. The faster this is recognized, the better. The question is, who is doing the recognizing anymore when it comes to Syria? With whom does the power of initiative lie? Which group, institution, or state can one depend on to serve the interests of a majority of Syrians? It is true that one cannot wait until the perfect revolutionaries emerge to have a revolution, but what we are increasingly witnessing today is a profound and fundamental regression in all regards, not just a sub-optimal “revolution.”
If reasonable people can rightly assert that the Syrian regime is something of the past because of its domestic horrors, why are we not rejecting wholesale the repetition of such patterns today—ultimately of exclusionary/reactionary groups—in the name of liberation? Even if some of the answers are understandable from an analytical/explanatory point of view, they are increasingly unconvincing politically. Time is of the essence. Unless a more “revolutionary” attitude takes hold in Syria—one that is focused on liberation and not confined to revenge—what has been happening in Egypt during the past year in this regard, will prove to be a blissful picnic compared to Syria’s future, with or without this regime.
[I would like to thank Nader Atassi for helping procure images and videos for this post]