Why Syria’s Islamists Are Gaining


Why Syria’s Islamists Are Gaining

Published: February 14, 2013


A YOUNG fighter for the Free Syrian Army sat at a checkpoint on a couch taken from an abandoned house. He cradled his Kalashnikov and waited on the empty street for a car to inspect, or a pedestrian to pat down. If only the future of Syria would reveal itself to him as easily.

The rebels in the Free Syrian Army don’t doubt that they will drive President Bashar al-Assad from power — eventually — but they have no idea what will happen afterward: Democracy? An Islamic republic? An Islamic dictatorship? The fighters I met on a recent visit here were unable to articulate any long-term political vision.

While the young rebel sat at his checkpoint, and while Americans continue to debate whether to intervene in Syria or just look the other way, Islamist militants are exploiting the uncertainty here. They have a clear mission: imposing an Islamist state in place of Mr. Assad.

“The people who believe in a strict Islam will do anything, fight anybody, do anything for Islam,” a barber who recently reopened his shop told me. “They are like the U.S. Special Forces. They like death more than life.”

The grass-roots supporters of the Islamists whom I spoke with were a mixture of devout fundamentalist Muslims, returning merchants struggling to make ends meet, parents of dead fighters for the Free Syrian Army, and some of the fighters themselves.

They insisted that they wanted only a “pure” Islam, not a Taliban-style government, to replace the Assad family’s regime, which has ruled Syria since 1971. But they offered examples of purity that sounded Talibanesque: Women must cover their entire bodies. Everyone must pray five times a day. Dancing should be prohibited. Differing interpretations of Islam would be tolerated, they say, as long as those beliefs remained “a secret” — a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

What the Islamists conveyed most clearly, however, was a firm sense of direction. They also managed to deliver much-needed social services in the rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

Perhaps their determination and efficiency were meant to silence qualms about their ultimate goals; if so, the tactic seemed to be working. Just as Afghans welcomed the Taliban in the 1990s — not for its harsh interpretation of Islam, but for the prospect of respite from decades of dislocation — some Sunni Muslims in this ancient, multi-sectarian city are now embracing Islamists out of sheer exhaustion from the conflict, which is nearly two years old.

“I had a shop,” one man told me, “but when the revolution came to Aleppo I couldn’t stock it, so I sold everything. Islamic youth organizations now give us flour. We need bread, at least, just to live. We support the Free Syrian Army, but the Islamists let us eat.”

If the West and moderate Arab nations want to prevent a Taliban-style dictatorship from replacing the current Baathist regime, it’s time for them to offer Syrians more hope. The Syrians I met here seemed ready to support anyone, or anything — except negotiations with Mr. Assad — that could restore normalcy to their lives.

The United Nations recently reported that record numbers of Syrians have poured into Jordan and Lebanon. But as of late January, the United Nations fund for Syrian refugees had collected less than 20 percent of the $1.1 billion it had sought from donor nations to care for the refugees. And even that money would not begin to address Syria’s shattered cities and ruined economy, even if the war were to end today.

So Syrians feel abandoned and increasingly skeptical of Western expressions of concern.

“Why did America go into Libya and not Syria?” asked Abu-Mohammad al-Husen, a Free Syrian Army commander. “In my opinion, America wants to maintain the war so Al-Assad won’t have a huge army to attack Israel. America only cares about Israel. That’s why we say only Allah and the jihadists support us.”

The Free Syrian Army soldiers, meanwhile, seem content with fighting a war with no clear end in sight.

One afternoon, I stood with a rebel commander as he rocketed a building that housed government soldiers. After he and his men fled the area shouting, “God is great,” he returned to his wife and children and considered watching a “Lord of the Rings” DVD. He had no firm plan to follow up the assault. “Possibly tomorrow,” he told me, “when they won’t expect us.”

His strategy embraced a skewed kind of logic, I suppose. Why rush? Without war, without guns, many of these fighters would most likely be unemployed or back at school. Their bravery and passion can’t be denied, but the longer the war lasts, the longer they have a purpose. “I don’t know what will happen when the war ends,” Akran Ahmed, a 16-year-old rebel, told me. “I just have my gun.”

The belief that the enemy of my enemy is my friend has allowed the Free Syrian Army and the Islamists to cooperate — but only for now. Disappointment about American disengagement seemed to grow by the day. “Nobody there cares,” Khaled Sandah, 49, whose son, a rebel, was killed in the fighting. “They just talk and talk.” He added: “We will keep going with our own power and our guns and Allah. We will make victory ourselves and have freedom and an Islamic country.”