The Middle East Channel
Islamism and the Syrian uprising
James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on ...
James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.
Syria's uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria's demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.
Mosques became central to Syria's demonstrations as early as March 2011 and influenced the uprising's trajectory, with religion becoming increasingly more important. Often activists described how they had "corrected themselves" after the uprising started. Martyrs became important to a generation that had only seen martyrs on television from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. "People got more religious," one activist in Damascus's Barzeh neighborhood explained, "they got closer to death, you could be a martyr so people who drank or went out at night corrected themselves." Some Arab satellite news stations have also contributed to the dominance of Islamists by interviewing more of them and focusing on them as opposed to more secular opposition figures or intellectuals. In Daraa activists complained that satellite networks were marginalizing prominent leftists.
James Clapper, the United States Director of National Intelligence, warned last month of al Qaeda taking advantage of the growing conflict in Syria. The Syrian regime and its supporters frequently claim that the opposition is dominated by al Qaeda-linked extremists. Opposition supporters often counter that the uprising is completely secular. But months of reporting on the ground in Syria revealed that the truth is more complex.
Syria’s uprising is not a secular one. Most participants are devout Muslims inspired by Islam. By virtue of Syria’s demography most of the opposition is Sunni Muslim and often come from conservative areas. The death of the Arab left means religion has assumed a greater role in daily life throughout the Middle East. A minority is secular and another minority is comprised of ideological Islamists. The majority is made of religious-minded people with little ideology, like most Syrians. They are not fighting to defend secularism (nor is the regime) but they are also not fighting to establish a theocracy. But as the conflict grinds on, Islam is playing an increasing role in the uprising.
Mosques became central to Syria’s demonstrations as early as March 2011 and influenced the uprising’s trajectory, with religion becoming increasingly more important. Often activists described how they had "corrected themselves" after the uprising started. Martyrs became important to a generation that had only seen martyrs on television from Iraq, Palestine, and Lebanon. "People got more religious," one activist in Damascus’s Barzeh neighborhood explained, "they got closer to death, you could be a martyr so people who drank or went out at night corrected themselves." Some Arab satellite news stations have also contributed to the dominance of Islamists by interviewing more of them and focusing on them as opposed to more secular opposition figures or intellectuals. In Daraa activists complained that satellite networks were marginalizing prominent leftists.
Clerics were influential from the beginning in much of the country, but their authority is not absolute. Sheikhs have often played a positive role in the uprising, enforcing discipline and exhorting armed and unarmed activists to act responsibly. One reason why Homs has not descended into Bosnia-like sectarian massacres is because of the strong influence of opposition sheikhs.
"Sheikhs have a role," said a cleric active in the opposition in the cities of Hama and Latakia, "in an area where people are scared a sheikh in his sermon can encourage them to go out." As a result many sheikhs have been arrested while others have fled the country. Opposition supporters are also vocal when they disapprove of a sheikh’s positions. In November, in the Tadamun area of Damascus, a sheikh at the Ali ibn Abi Talib mosque condemned demonstrations and spoke about conspiracies in language resembling that of the government. A friend stood up in disgust in the middle of the sermon and walked out. Others followed him spontaneously and began demonstrating. After five minutes security forces arrived and they all ran away. "It’s forbidden to pray in front of him," my friend told me later that day, "either speak the truth or be quiet."
In the Damascus suburb of Arbeen, opposition leaders spoke sardonically of their local clerics. "The sheikhs here all belong to security and the Baath party," one leader there told me. "The sheikhs told us not to go out and not to watch the biased channels. We went out against the sheikhs, shouting down with this sheikh or that sheikh. There were no good sheikhs with the people here, either he was afraid or he was with the regime. The sheikhs described the youth as thugs." Revolutionaries threatened Sheikh Hassan Seyid Hassan, Arbeen’s top cleric, saying they would break his car and burn his house and office. In a sermon he apologized for condemning the uprising.
One of the main causes for the first demonstrations in Arbeen was the demand for the release of 21 local young men arrested in 2006. The young men, and some were boys, had come under the influence of Salafi jihadist clerics and were blamed by the regime for an attempted attack on the state television headquarters. "Here the main reason we came out was to demand the release of our prisoners" one local leader said. "We are religious and that’s why we are oppressed."
Near Harasta, in Duma, I met with Abu Musab, an insurgent commander. He claimed he had been fired from his job as an imam for "speaking the truth" and talking about dignity. The strict Hanbali school of Islam dominates Duma and not a single woman can be seen on its streets without her face fully concealed by a burqa. Piety was one of the reasons why Duma was so revolutionary, he told me. "A sheikh does not have to say fight Bashar," he said, "he can just refer to a chapter from the Quran and everybody will understand. Because they are religious they have more motivation and ethics." But he stressed that most people in Duma did not seek an Islamic state. According to Abu Musab, he supported an armed struggle against the regime from the first day and most others only did after Ramadan. He took me to a funeral for two martyrs of the revolution, one of them an armed fighter. As the crowd of hundreds left they chanted, "The people want a declaration of jihad!"
Many of the names chosen for Friday demonstrations are religious in connotation and many of the insurgent groups who misleadingly call themselves the Free Syrian Army have names that are particularly Sunni Muslim in nature. The insurgent groups’ names are increasingly Islamic and even Salafi in their tone, such as the "Abu Dujana Battalion," the "Abu Ubeida Battalion," the "Muhajireen wal Ansar Battalion" and even a group named after Yazid, a divisive figure in Islamic history who is hated by Shiites but respected by hardline Sunnis (who do not like Shiites).
What about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)? Syria saw MB inspired uprisings in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In the 1980s a radical group that found the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) too moderate split off and called itself the Fighting Vanguard. They were responsible for much of the violence that was blamed on the Brotherhood that traumatizes Syrian society to this day, much as the regime’s attack on Hama where the armed Muslim Brothers concentrated also left permanent scars that have been reopened in the last year. SMB members fled into exile and remained active in the opposition, which also led them to dominate the Syrian National Council (SNC). During the administration of President George W. Bush the United States reached out to the SMB in order to undermine the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Within the SNC, the SMB is behaving in a very authoritarian fashion and is facing growing criticism from both secular and Islamist opposition. The divides in the SNC are not Islamist versus secular. The secularist SNC President Burhan Ghalioun walks with the SMB. Other Islamists like the Imad al Din al Rashid’s Syrian National Movement are hostile to the SMB.
The regime has sought to conflate the opposition with the SMB of the 1980s, knowing that if it succeeds it can legitimize dealing with them with violence but if it fights them on the political front it will lose. "The ideology of the Muslim Brothers has remained quite influential in Syria, but as an organization, they completely ceased to exist inside the country in the early 1980s," Thomas Pierret, a lecturer in contemporary Islam at the University of Edinburgh, said. "A proof of that is that the Islamist cells dismantled by the authorities over the last decades were linked to the Islamic Liberation Party or to Jihadi networks, but never to the Muslim Brothers." In reality popular mobilization does not require the orders of the SMB, but for some in the opposition the uprising is revenge for the 1980s and the SMB is indeed playing a role. Most Syrian supporters of the opposition associate the 1980s with a time of draconian regime repression and collective punishment while regime supporters and minorities associate it with sectarian violence and terrorism.
In January, I spoke with a knowledgeable official from a different national branch of the MB who was based in Beirut. "The revolution in Syria today has nothing to do with the MB of the 1980s," he said, but he told me that the SMB was involved in the current uprising. Individual members of the SMB played a role organizing the uprising in Homs, Hama, and in the coastal areas, he said. The SMB and its Lebanese branch, the Jamaa Islamiya, were sending money and aid via Tripoli in Lebanon. They were also hosting families fleeing from Syria, providing them with food, clothing and shelter while sending aid to their relatives left behind in Syria. "The Jamaa Islamiya has a very clear loud position on Syria," he said, "they are against the regime and supporting revolution. And the Brotherhood does not just support with words. It might be money and it might be some tools and facilitation. And if the Lebanese Brotherhood is doing it, it is with the cooperation of the Brotherhood of Syria." The Jamaa Islamiya was playing a role via the SMB, he explained. "The Brotherhood shares the same school of thinking of Hassan al Banna," he said, "so I hold the same ideas that a Lebanese, Jordanian, Yemeni, Libyan, Tunisian Brotherhood or even in Jakarta. Every group has the same thoughts. We share ideas and thoughts. We are an organization looking for a new era so we are organized and ready to deal with a new situation in the region. The Brotherhood has a huge responsibility on their shoulders. If they succeed they will have legitimacy to be leaders of Muslims and Arabs and if they fail they might lose their opportunity. We are preparing ourselves for 80 years. We are not dreaming we are dealing with reality."
"The Brotherhood is not like they were in the past," said one leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council (HRC) who receives money from them among many others. "There are Muslims Brothers in groups of two or three and they are giving support to people inside Syria. They are not organized like they were before." Leaders of the SMB in Saudi Arabia do not have good communication with the SMB in other places. Abu Mohammed al Rifai, an SMB leader in Lebanon gives support to some groups in Homs and elsewhere. The SMB does not have cadres on the ground, nor does it have much ideological influence. Most people I spoke to admitted that their role was limited to sending money but they were not sending it as the SMB, only as individuals who happened to belong to the SMB. In Homs some leaders view their role as positive but they did not see it as the SMB acting as an organization, which it did not have the capacity to do anymore. Homs receives help only from members of the Syrian wing of the MB who are based in the Gulf, Lebanon, or Jordan. Most of the money has gone to aid and medical support. In late 2011, the SMB had a meeting in Saudi Arabia during which they decided against supporting the armed groups. As the SMB they did not want to be involved in this, perhaps as a result of their experience in the 1980s, but individual members of the SMB send money that is channeled to insurgent activities as well.
I met Syrian activists who met senior SMB leader Melhem al Drubi in Turkey, where he was giving money to activists. Members of the Drubi family who live in Saudi Arabia are also important financiers of the uprising. "We told him we want money for weapons when we met him in Turkey in May," one activist told me. "He said no money for weapons this is peaceful revolution. We asked for money for hardship funds, he said we have people on the ground but we have not organized ourselves yet. He gave nobody that he met in Istanbul any money. He just wanted to know the situation on the ground. He wanted to know level of support for the Brotherhood. Now the Brotherhood controls a lot of access to money in Homs and the Damascus suburbs. But just because people take money from the Brotherhood does not mean they support it. The Brotherhood wants to improve and increase its name. They are not scary but they are trying to control. Some people are not happy about how the Brotherhood is financing on the ground. Some people who buy weapons are not ready to deal with the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood only gives certain people money for hardship or weapons."
Abu Abdu, a field commander who deals with military and civilian elements of the opposition in the Damascus suburbs told me that he had received calls from people in Jordan, Turkey, London, and the United States who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. "People offer us money but there is a hidden agenda to it and we refuse it," he said. "This is a popular revolution, I work for God and the nation. I come out against oppression." He picked up his cigarette pack. "I’m not going to replace Marlboro with Gaullois."
"The Brotherhood doesn’t scare me," said one leading activist from the Ismaili sect. "They don’t have representation on the ground that can endanger democracy." A Christian activist he worked with on delivering weapons and aid throughout the country agreed with the assessment, adding that, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." One prominent Druze activist in Damascus said, "I am not afraid of the Brotherhood. They have been outside, they became more secular. Syrian Islam is moderate and Sufi." Sufi brotherhoods are mystical groups organized around a sheikh who is believed to have a personal connection to God. Sufism is very mainstream in Syria, since most of the country’s Muslim scholars have received some Sufi training and often specialize as Sufi sheikhs.
Many other members of the opposition are less sanguine about the role of the SMB. One young activist in Barzeh told me he did not want the Brotherhood. "I don’t want women to be completely covered up," he said. "This is not nice." But like many people in the Arab world, he associated the word ‘ilmani, or secular, with anti-religious, and as a result was also against Ghalioun. "I want something in the middle," he said. An older opposition supporter in the same neighborhood told me he wanted a civilian Islamic government "like in Turkey," he said, "but not Islam by force." The Brotherhood made a mistake in the 1980s, he continued. While the SMB in Damascus was engaged in peaceful proselytization, the Brotherhood in Aleppo and Hama took up arms. "It’s a mistake to take up arms against a brutal regime. In reaction the regime thought anybody who prayed was in the MB. This is a revolution of the youth and it was good for the Brotherhood to deny that they are behind the revolution. The Brotherhood have no presence on the ground."
Another Damascus activist worried that many demonstrations in the Damascus suburbs had Islamic slogans. Indeed in Harasta I heard songs about Muslims and infidels. In Duma and Sanamein I heard demonstrators calling for jihad while in Zamalka in evening demonstrations people prayed in the middle of a busy commercial street. The activist told me that in Homs’s Dir Baalbeh neighborhood, the Brotherhood’s slogan of "Islam is the solution" was raised. "In the last months the Brotherhood became strong on the ground," he said. "Communists told me they won’t go out in demonstrations that say ‘God is great’ and religious things. A lot of demonstrations in Daraa, Homs, Idlib are led by clerics and it scares secular people." He complained that the SMB chose the names for the Friday demonstrations. "’So National Unity’ Friday became ‘Khalid bin al Walid’ [the early Muslim leader who conquered Syria in the 7th century] Friday and ‘We won’t Kneel’ Friday became ‘We Won’t Kneel Except before God."
Many Syrians with ties to the Brotherhood fled in the 1980s. Now, like the Attasis of Homs and the Abazeeds of Daraa, they send money back home. Throughout Syria I heard concerns from the opposition that money from SMB members was ending up in the hands of the wrong people. In Homs some funds were going to former criminals or to armed groups who acted without consulting with the local civilian political leadership of the uprising. In Hama and Idlib I heard similar complaints.
"We don’t work with anybody," said Khaled Nasrallah, a leader of an armed group operating in Hama and Idlib, "not with the Brotherhood. We are a popular revolution. They want to control you and we are nationalists. We won’t finish this oppression so somebody else will come and tell us what to do. We are worried about the future, after the revolution, worried about the Brotherhood or Salafis or other parties. We don’t want somebody to tell us what to do in the future." A senior leader of the Homs Revolutionary Council told me "there is no organization called the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria. This is the difference between Syria and other Arab countries. The sheikhs in Homs who have a revolutionary role are Sufis. None of them belong to movements."
In the Jabal Azawiya town of Fleifil people still recall the three times the Syrian army raided the area by helicopter and arrested locals. "They raided every village," according to one local leader. "From 1980 to 1988 they would constantly raid the villages." They also point to a massacre committed by the regime in the main square of Jisr al Shughur in 1980. In Idlib’s Jabal Azawiya I met Yusuf al Hassan, a powerful former cigarette smuggler who leads an armed group and has been fighting the regime since June. Hassan, who is said by other insurgent commanders to receive some help from Turkish military intelligence, crossed the border into Turkey and met with SMB Secretary General Riad al Shaqfa. But he didn’t trust the SMB, he told me, and as a result the SMB now opposed him as well. "I asked for five representatives from the whole area to distribute aid through them," Hassan said. "The Brotherhood was against this. This was cause of my problems with the Brotherhood in Jabal Azawiya. The Brotherhood are not accepted among us, they are racist, thieves, corrupt. We are the middle Islam. They divided the revolution, sent money to a few people. People came to me and I gave weapons and bullets to everybody without discrimination. When our revolution got weaker in the summer four or five months ago, the Brotherhood intervention appeared." A fighter from Jisr al Shughur agreed with him. "We are Muslims, not Muslim Brothers," he said, provoking the laughter of other insurgents with us.
In rural Hama leaders of various armed groups resented a man called Abu Rayan who received help from the Brotherhood in Turkey and Jordan to fund his armed group. I met with him and other leaders of armed groups in a mountain safe-house bordering Hama and Idlib. Abu Rayan had a gray beard. He wore a pistol under his armpit. As we talked Abu Rayan sent a group of his men from his Abu Fida brigade to help men from Hama’s Salahedin brigade who were besieged in the city’s Hamidiya area. Other commanders resented him for not cooperating with them. Bassim, a commander from Hama told me that he had asked Abu Rayan for help in the past but had not received a single bullet. He only helped Hama city, the other leaders told me, while others cooperated as needed, including across the line into Idlib. Abu Rayan said he had met with Turkish intelligence. He was a vulgar man, whose cursing made the other men uncomfortable. "We kiss one thousand asses just so they can send us money for a satellite phone," he complained. The other men told me he was a former drug dealer in Hama city. "It made me hate the Brotherhood even more that they support a man like this," said a Sufi sheikh from rural Hama called Sheikh Omar Rahmun who also had an armed group which operated in rural Hama and Idlib.
The city of Hama was still a reservoir for the SMB, he told me, but the resistance was taking place in the rural areas surrounding it and Abu Rayan was not helping out the rural insurgency. "Abu Rayan doesn’t fight," said the sheikh. "He is a leader. Abu Rayan gets help from the SMB but the people in his group don’t know this. Ninety percent of Abu Rayan’s men would leave if they knew he works with the SMB. We want the revolution to win. We want the people who get help not to put it in their pocket but to give it to the people in need. People have empty ammunition clips. Abu Rayan has money, we don’t."
"The U.S. won with an alliance with the Brotherhood in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt" he said. "America cooperates with the Brotherhood. But the alliance has to be studied. This alliance is failed. There was a long information war against the Brotherhood and it is now an expired product. It is being treated as bigger than its size on the ground. The Brotherhood does not have a presence on the ground but it gave some money and communication devices to some groups. They give you money now so they can ride on your shoulders in the future. After June or July groups and parties started to appear. ‘I am from this party or that party.’ Our disaster is the Brotherhood in particular. The Brotherhood don’t have future in Syria without coercion. In Syria one party cannot win over other parties. We refuse to work under any party. We don’t want a party that society doesn’t accept. We don’t want people to be coerced. Syria is a Sufi society. With two beats of the of miz-har (a Sufi drum) you can get all of Syria behind you, but they won’t follow Salafis after fifty years."
The word "Salafi" haunts the Syrian uprising. The regime has turned this conservative practice of Islam into a smear of the opposition, hoping to associate them with jihadist Salafis like those of al Qaeda in Iraq. In nearly every demonstration I attended opposition songs dismissed the notion that they were Salafis. But in Syria, as elsewhere in the Middle East, some practices associated with Salafis have become popularized even if people do not identify themselves as such. In part this is thanks to the influence of Saudi Arabia. And it is Syrians in Saudi Arabia who play a major role in financing the uprising, giving them additional influence. In four months traveling through Syria, I found Salafis to be a minority within the uprising, but nevertheless they play a growing role.
Last November, I first met one of the most powerful men in Damascus’s urban suburb of Harasta. Tough looking activists in tracksuits who arranged our meeting were contemptuous of the local opposition coordination committee. "The Sheikh," or Abu Omar, was not from the committee, said one, "he is from the group that fears God." The men explained to me that it was not the coordination committee that was in charge of Harasta, it was the "shabab," the guys like them. Abu Omar was a thick man wearing a dish dasha and leather jacket. As we spoke over dinner, he asked me if I knew what a Salafi was. I said it was somebody who followed the righteous companions of the Prophet Mohammed. "It’s somebody devoted in his religion who doesn’t stray to one side or another," he said. "Now they use Salafi to mean al Qaeda or terrorist. The Syrian regime is trying to persuade the West that it is fighting terror like the West," adding that "they failed." We sat in a room full of religious books and talked about the very active armed opposition in Harasta. "Violence has bred violence," he said. Abu Omar explained that their struggle against the regime was a jihad, but without foreign military intervention (and he did not care from where), the regime would not fall.
Abu Abdu, a military leader in Harasta confided that many people hoped there would be a declaration of jihad against the regime. "But they don’t want to be accused of being Salafis." He did not expect such a declaration because the regime was not led by infidels and there were many Muslims in it, while the opposition also feared being accused of sectarianism.
In the Ghab area of rural Hama I spent many hours sitting with insurgents and local sheikhs. "We don’t meet in mosques because the revolution is Islamic but because mosques are the center of gathering for people," said sheikh Amer, an imam in the town of Qalat Mudhiq. Men in the room dismissed the government’s accusations that they were Salafis. "Some of these guys drink," one of them told me. "Our religion Islam is tolerant," one said, "we won’t be like them," meaning Alawites. "There will be no mercy for the Alawites who carried weapons or were shabiha," the sheikh told me.
In March, Sheikh Amer gave a sermon about speaking right in front of an oppressive sultan. A demonstration followed the prayer. Syrian security called him in and asked why he was inciting people. Sheikh Amer is now a spiritual and moral advisor to the armed men. I was told, "he teaches the guys what is permitted and forbidden, values, don’t harm Christians and Alawites, don’t steal."
I drove through many "liberated" villages where insurgents had their own checkpoints and patrols. I met Abu Ghazi, a self-proclaimed "moderate Salafi" and the representative of the Ghab coordination committee on the Hama Revolutionary Council. Abu Ghazi was respected by other militia commanders in the Ghab. He was in his 30s and had a short beard with no mustache. His house had just been attacked by regime security forces for the third time and destroyed. He complained that the committee was neglected. "The Brotherhood support their group, Salafis support their group, secularists support their group. I am buying a satellite phone with my own money. I have a farm, so I make money from that. People are selling fish so I can buy bullets for the guys. We have a national agenda. I don’t want the agenda of the Brotherhood or Salafis. I want a national agenda, even if I am a Salafi. I know the situation here better than somebody in Europe, Saudi, or UAE. I don’t want a sectarian war here. We would get a lot of help if we gave our area to one current. The Salafi jihadi current offered help. Salafi jihadis have a lot of money but need an oath of loyalty. The man who gives weapons doesn’t give them for free." He feared chaos in the future if such parties gained influence. "I want law and order," he said.
I was in the Ghab when Syrian security forces raided nearby villages. Hundreds of fighters from village militias in the area gathered on the mountains above in case they were needed. Among them were insurgents from the Saad bin Muadh brigade, led by a Salafi called Abu Talha, who had links with groups outside Syria. "Abu Talha’s group only works for themselves," a local militia commander complained. "They don’t share and don’t cooperate much." Abu Talha was originally from the village of Tweina in al Ghab. Like many Syrian Salafis he had spent time in the Sednaya prison. "They are all graduates of Sednaya," he said.
A Salafi commander of an armed group called Abu Sleiman united the area against him. "When people heard he wanted to make his own emirate all the mountain turned against him," said a local village militia leader. "We are all brothers from here to Daraa. We are revolutionaries and that’s it. No parties."
"Salafis like Abu Suleyman in Jabal Azawiya offer to loan you weapons for specific operations," other insurgents told me. But they had refused. Abu Suleiman was a former drug dealer, they said, who became a Salafi after spending time in the Sednaya prison. "Abu Sleiman had conditions for helping others," said a fighter from Kafr Ruma village in Jabal Azawiya. "He said ‘be under my emirate and give me back the weapons when the operation is over.’ But we won’t remove Bashar to be under somebody else. So Abu Sleiman is rejected by the mountain. We expelled him, he was extreme." He was now in Turkey, they told me.
In quiet evenings the fighters of Jabal Azawiya gathered for large meals in different houses. One night I was with them for an immense tray of knafeh as they watched the nightly talk show with the sectarian exiled opposition cleric Adnan al Arur. He was very popular in the region, they said. Al Arur, whose anti-Shiite rants were divisive long before the uprising in Syria and whose name is often chanted in demonstrations, famously warned Alawites who participate in the repression that they would be chopped and that their flesh would be fed to dogs. Arur has not often spoken about Alawites and his popularity does not stem from his sectarianism but because he has religious credentials and speaks in an angry colloquial voice when praising the demonstrators every day. But his popularity has encouraged secular Sunni and minorities to prefer the regime.
"We are grateful to the Salafi fighters," said the Sufi Sheikh Omar Rahmun who led an armed group in Hama. "But I am against canceling people, I am against canceling you and you canceling me. Of the fighters, Salafis are less than one percent." One night Sheikh Omar led a group of fighters in a Sufi style of singing called a Mulid. "Its good that Sufis raise their head a little bit so people won’t think the revolution is Salafi," one of the local fighters told me. The role of Sufi clerics in the opposition should not come as a surprise. I have seen Sufi insurgent groups in Falluja and other parts of Iraq and as well as armed Sufis in Somalia and Afghanistan.
Further north, rural Aleppo has hundreds of fighters in the insurgency. In the town of Anadan, slogans for "the Faruq revolution" are written on walls. Faruq is another name for Omar, a figure revered by Sunnis. On other walls people sent their greetings to Omar as well as Abu Bakr and Uthman, who are also revered by Sunnis. Many men from the area volunteered to fight in Iraq. While most of the activist leaders in Anadan have university degrees in subjects like chemistry, mathematics and Arabic, all of them are Islamists and some are Salafis.
A 48-year-old man called Abu Jumaa leads the uprising there. His son spent one year in an Air Force intelligence prison, accused of belonging to the jihadist group Jund Asham and enduring severe torture. Before the revolution many of Anadan’s youths were accused of Islamic extremism and arrested. One Friday in February demonstrators shouted, "the people want a declaration of jihad!"
Abu Jumaa arranged for the armed and unarmed needs of the revolution in Anadan. In his house he has Kalashnikovs, shotguns, and improvised explosive devices. One of the spiritual leaders of the revolution in Anadan is a sheikh called Yusuf who is not a Salafi. The Muslim Brotherhood still has influence in Anadan, which suffered in the 1980s during the Brotherhood’s uprising and many residents were banned from state employment.
Armed locals in Anadan claim that security forces have not raided the town "because if they come security will be massacred." Non-Sunnis were removed from the military security headquarters in Anadan so that they would be less likely to be killed by insurgents. One Friday morning in December opposition activists tore down a large picture of Assad in the main square. One of the guards in the nearby security headquarters cheered them on. By February, the security forces had been expelled by the insurgents from Anadan and its men were working on helping their brethren in Aleppo city.
Another pan-Islamist movement, Hizbultahrir, or the Party of Liberation, is also reappearing. In Sanamein, the second largest town in Daraa province, I met with Abu Khalid, one of the political leaders of the uprising there who also often led demonstrations. Sanamein was a conservative town. Most people prayed. All its sheikhs were Shafii, there were no Sufis, and it seemed as though everybody loved sheikh Adnan al Arur. Abu Khalid belonged to Hizbultahrir, a utopian pan-Islamic organization committed to reestablishing the caliphate through peaceful means. Despite his affiliation with this movement Abu Khalid was against the involvement of any political party. "I am against giving a religious tone to the revolution." He added, "It’s a popular revolution."
In January, leaders of armed groups in Homs including those from the opposition’s Faruq Brigade sent messages to the Muslim Brotherhood complaining that the Brotherhood was smuggling weapons into Homs but hiding them or burying there. "They avoid to use their weapons now to fight and we are afraid that they want us to defeat the regime and then they will use their arms when we are tired." The Brotherhood had no people on the ground, all leaders in Homs agreed, but there were signs they were trying to recruit from other groups. The discovery that they were hiding weapons had created a crisis of trust. The utopian group Hizbultahrir has long had a presence in Homs. Many of its members were arrested over the years, but it was not a violent group and hence they spent less time in prison than others. They have recently made their presence felt in Homs once again, building a network and financing some armed groups.
In late December, some men belonging to Hizbultahrir tried to raise the black and white flag of Islam in the Inshaat neighborhood of Homs. They also distributed leaflets in Inshaat saying it is religiously prohibited to deal with the Americans or ask for support from NATO, people should only depend on God. The local political opposition committee in Inshaat told them they did not want these things in their neighborhood. Likewise HRC activists stopped the Hizbultahrir men from raising the flags, explaining that only flags approved by the HRC could be raised. The HRC leadership warned their people in Inshaat to be careful because Islamists could use this incident to say the HRC is against Islam. But others complained to the HRC about their refusal to raise the flag of Islam.
"Islamists are going so fast," a leader of the HRC told me. "They are not waiting. A few days ago Hizbultahrir put up flag of Islam, but everybody knows that this slogan is for Hizbultahrir. Hizbultahrir started recruiting, they were arrested in previous years, and now they started again building their networks. They started working with armed groups. Financing them. Other Islamists also started working, they believe the regime is about to fall and they started building their relationships."
"This generation is enlightened and was not raised in Salafi education, unlike Egypt," said one leading activist from Homs. Salafi satellite television stations like Safa and Wesal are popular in Syria because Syrians were deprived of being religious for years, he told me. "Syria was the kingdom of silence for a long time," he said. "Arur was the first to speak with this courage. People don’t like Arur because he is Salafi or Sufi. I watched him in the beginning. He was a sheikh and the words that came from him were trusted and he spoke with courage."
He spoke of Syria’s most senior cleric Said Ramadan al Buti. "If Butti spoke in one hundred degrees less than Arur he would be more popular than Arur," he said. "Buti’s thoughts are good, if he was with the revolution and spoke then Bashar would have left a long time ago. We want a man who is enlightened and a thinker. People liked Burhan Ghalioun at first. They stopped liking him not because he was secular but because they feel like he didn’t deliver. I respect him because he is enlightened and stood with the people. The people are more simple than the parties, the want a program, to eat to live freely, not to live under oppression and a security member will mess up the neighborhood, and they want something tangible and something to be proud of. This generation is not Muslim Brothers, Hizbultahrir, or Salafi. They want somebody who will serve them. But we can’t deny that this is an Islamic society so somebody could take advantage of Islam for electoral purposes."
"Some people are disappointed," said another leader of the HRC. "And don’t expect anything from the Arab League which is a League of Arab dictators and the security council did nothing for us so some Islamists think we have to depend only on god and call on jihad. Those depressed people now blame the sheikhs because sheikhs do not call for jihad and people try to pressure sheikhs to make call for jihad." But he disagreed with this. "Why should we announce jihad? Just to give regime excuse to kill us?"
The Syrian uprising’s reliance on outside help will only increase radicalization. In January officials from the HRC complained to me that the live broadcasts of Homs demonstrations shown on networks like al Jazeera Mubashar were controlled by a Salafi, Abu Yasir, who falsely claimed he was in Homs and was causing problems for them. During a January sit-in in the Homs neighborhood of Khaldiyeh the HRC tried to arrange for a senior member and founder of their council to speak to protesters live from his exile in Jordan. This member was a Sufi sheikh from the Bab Assiba neighborhood who had played a key role from the first days of the uprising encouraging people to demonstrate and maintaining discipline over the armed groups. "We wanted him to talk to the crowd because the people of Homs love him and they will obey him," an HRC official told me. "But the guy on the laptop said first I want to ask the coordinator (Abu Yasir) and the coordinator said no we don’t want him, we want Arur, so Arur spoke to the crowd." He complained that in Homs too many of the media coordinators were in Saudi Arabia.
Unlike places I visited in Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, in opposition strongholds the residents do not live in fear of Salafis and there are no armed Salafis imposing themselves on the population. But the alleged suicide bombings of December and January in Damascus and February in Aleppo do raise the possibility that the regime’s propaganda will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. "The more time the revolution extends the Salafis will be stronger," one activist told me. "Each month that goes by the movement turns more Islamic and more radical Islamic. If it had succeeded in April or May of 2011 there would be more civil society."
The Americans and Europeans assess that the regime was not behind the attacks. A western official based in Damascus said the bombings were both against "known staging grounds for mukhabarat and shabiha. Where they gather and get their assignments. Our defense attache used to see hundreds of mukhabarat in front of the branch buildings every Friday morning." A senior western diplomat told me, "The car bombs are a murky matter. If my time in Algiers and Baghdad is any guide, we may never know the full story." Before the December 23 attacks a senior western diplomat told me that al Qaeda was in Syria and he was very worried they might conduct attacks. Syria was a major source of jihadists and suicide bombers in Iraq, as even Syrian security officials often admit. It was a transit point for other foreign fighters going to Iraq. One senior western diplomat worried that veterans of the Anbar campaign would use their expertise in Syria.
Residents of Daraa, the suburbs of Damascus, or other opposition strongholds feel like they live under occupation. Opposition supporters talk about "occupied" or "liberated" areas. Opposition strongholds that are "occupied" are surrounded and divided by checkpoints. Security and soldiers demand identity cards from passers by, ask men to get out of their vehicles, enter bus and check the identity cards of all men on the bus, conduct armed patrols through neighborhoods, kick down doors, and arrest military age men. I was reminded of the feeling I had in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and southeast Turkey. While security and soldiers in Syria are not foreign, they are not local either and often have an Alawite accent. It is enough to create a sense of occupation. Occupation is a major cause of suicide attacks. On Fridays, which is when the suicide attacks occurred, security men gather in large groups at the same places every week so they can chase demonstrators, beat them, and shoot at them. They are a tempting target, easy and unprotected. While Syria is indeed a security state, its security apparatus has been overwhelmed lately and it is very easy to smuggle anything or anybody into and around the country.
One colonel from the political security branch complained that before their primary job was to prevent al Qaeda activity but now they allocated all their resources to repressing activists and responding to the armed opposition. Between 2005 and 2008, while I was researching my book "Aftermath" jihadi Salafis in Jordan and Lebanon from the Zarqawi network told me the final battle would be in Sham, the classical name for Syria. They hated Alawites. They are an experienced bunch who would support suicide bombings against security forces working for a regime they could describe as infidel who attacked people coming out of mosques. As the crackdown increases, as the local opposition’s sense of abandonment by the outside world increases, and the voices calling for jihad get louder, there will likely be more radicalization.
Nir Rosen, author of "Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World," spent four months in Syria reporting on the uprising for al Jazeera.
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