On Tuesday the UN announced that it was seeking an unprecedented influx of cash to facilitate aid operations in Syria and for Syrian refugees. More than 60 percent of the aid is to be spent on the burgeoning refugee camps of Syrian civilians in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. The refugees are currently suffering through harsh winter conditions and unprecedented sums are needed to support several million Syrians.
The tragedy of the refugees is underscored by increasing failure of the Syrian rebels to make any gains against the regime. Since the summer, and especially after Hezbollah fighters began to flow into Latakia in northwest Syria, the regime has scored impressive victories against the rebels and is increasingly inching forward in the battle for Aleppo. On December 13 the BBC asked whether it was “time to rethink a future with Assad.” Another BBC article noted, “Western hopes of helping construct a unified, moderate, politically obedient rebel movement, sidelining Islamist hardliners and leaving them to wither away, could hardly be further from realization.”
The rebel command in Syria is falling apart. This was apparent to anyone who saw the graphic Al-Jazeera published several months ago that claimed to show all rebel groups in Syria. Browsers could click on any area, which would lead to dozens of dots appearing in each town showing the various groups involved. From Kurdish nationalist groups to al-Qaida affiliates, the gaggle of little groups supposedly fighting the regime were endless.
Recently six of these groups formed a new alliance called the “Islamic Front” which has sought to displace Free Syrian Army positions along the Turkish border in order to control the supplies funneled to the rebels. This Sunni Islamist alliance is anti-democracy and anti-secular, but is supposedly made up of “non al-Qaida” affiliates. According to reports, even the al-Qaida affiliated “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” is forced to fight with the “Nusra Front” for the title of who is the “real” al-Qaida. This fracturing of the opposition has resulted in western governments withdrawing aid from the FSA .
When we look at the Syrian rebel experience what is clear is that the increasing Islamisization has put the focus on Islamic purity as opposed to actually fighting the government. Reports are not always accurate, but what is clear is that there is a grotesque underside to these rebels. First there were videos of them beheading and ethnically cleansing minorities. There were also numerous kidnappings of journalists undertaken by them, journalists who were usually there to show the rebels in a good light. One report claimed that radical Islamists were recruiting innocent girls in Tunisia to wage a “sexual jihad” by being mistresses of the “pure Islamic” fighters, who were evidently spending more time raping Tunisian beauties than fighting.
In a recent case Islamists kidnapped a rebel commander and filmed his beheading, only to then issue an apology for having beheaded the wrong person. A more telling story related the experiences of foreign, mostly European-born, jihadists who were transferring through jihad-hostels on their way to loaf around in Syria. “We are all al-Qaida… there are thousands of us, literally from every corner of the world,” boasted the fighters. One former student from France claimed he served with a brigade of 8,000 foreigners.
According to the FSA these foreign jihadists are not very effective fighting Hezbollah or the regime, but are good at sitting behind the lines and murdering FSA fighters.
One commander claimed his unit was captured by members of the Islamic State of Iraq. “They told us we were not true Muslims” he told a BBC reporter. “I saw how they beat my friends with iron bars, smashed their faces with ammunition boxes and then killed them.” The picture painted is of unknown numbers of French students, disaffected British youth and former football hooligans from all over the EU are taking part in the “glorious jihad” of slaughtering actual FSA fighters while ostensibly fighting the Syrian regime.
The savage, blood-drenched story now playing out in Syria, in which the rebel movement is cannibalizing itself, has played itself out among many Islamic movements. It is the natural tendency of radical movements to be outflanked by radicalism.
Wherever there is a Hamas there is an Islamic Jihad and Salafi movements to the right of it. In Egypt there are the Muslim Brothers, and then the “real” Muslims of the Salafi Al-Nour party, which supported the military in its toppling of Mohammed Morsi.
WHEN WE think of the life-cycle of the radical Islamic movement and its tendency toward implosion, it bears clear resemblance to the failure of the “popular front” in Spain’s Civil War. The war broke out in June when Francisco Franco led an army revolt against the Popular Front government of leftists running Spain in 1936.
Ostensibly united as “Republican Spain” opposing “Fascist Franco,” the Spanish government was deeply divided between its socialist leaders, and the communists, anarchists, social revolutionaries, regional nationalists (Basques and Catalans), trade unionists, workers’ collectives, international brigades and Trotskyists (termed Workers Party of Marxist Unification-POUM) that made up its supporters.
After a year of fighting, the Republicans began to disintegrate. An uprising in Barcelona by anarchists and POUM members was brutally suppressed by the Republican government. A mark of worse to come, the POUM leader Andres Nin was arrested along with other Trotskyite Spaniards, at the behest of the Communist party and their Soviet supporters (the Soviets were supplying the Republic). Nin was secretly tortured to death and “disappeared” by Soviet agents.
As the Republic weakened in 1938 and 1939 its leadership spent as much time on internal “ideological purity” as they did fighting the fascism they claimed to oppose. Franco didn’t win just because of his soldiers, whose best contingents were made up of Moroccan Muslims he brought from Africa, but because the Republic crumbled internally due to Communist zeal that sought ideological purity over the larger goal.
The Syrian Civil War is similar: An ostensibly democratic fight against a tyrannical regime is being undermined by ideological Islamist extremism. Western governments are cutting off aid, as they did to Spain’s Republic, and Syrian President Bashar Assad is drawing on foreign soldiers, as Franco did. As in Spain, brigades of “international volunteers” are coming to fight.
It is unfortunate, for those who thought Syria might emerge better from this, that the rattlesnakes took over the war and are in the process of killing themselves. It is most horrific for the refugees suffering through the winter. They are being let down by extremists who are more interested in beheading each other, beating each other with iron bars and accusing one another of not being good Muslims.