As the French make slow progress against Islamist militants in Mali, and Muslim hostage-takers that may include a Canadian continue to hold out at a gas plant in Algeria, Syria is of course suffering through a separate civil war in which the armed partisans of radical Islam are major participants. The BBC was enterprising enough to secure an interview with a high ranking member of what seems to be the leading jihadist faction in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.
The objectives of the group are rather unpleasantly clear:
“In the name of God, praise is to God and peace upon our Prophet Muhammad,” he began, “the people in Syria are religious by nature.”
“They like Islam. People here are fed up with socialist and secular regimes. They are all looking forward to an Islamic state. It is impossible there could be anything else in Syria.”
The interview includes a couple of odd exchanges, such as this one:
The United States calls you a terrorist group, I said.
“The West is afraid of our long beards – even though the Jews grow their beards, too.”
Somehow I don’t think it’s the beards that are the problem. The desire to establish an Islamic state in Syria might be more pertinent here, as might al-Nusra’s avowed willingness to resort to suicide bombings under the flimsy excuse that “many other factions” of the rebellion also employ this tactic. Strictly speaking, neither of those things amounts to terrorism, especially considering that the interviewee insisted that the suicide bombings were not directed at civilians. However, one can see why the Americans might find al-Nusra less than appealing.
Apparently al-Nusra, along with other Islamist factions among the Syrian rebels, has been setting up Sharia courts as a way of maintaining a semblance of order in the areas that are being “liberated” from the control of the Syrian government. The al-Nusra member interviewed by the BBC also insisted that his organization had no connections to the international al-Qaeda movement, and that its efforts represented “a Syrian fight, not part of a wider jihad”.
However, the BBC was also astute enough to speak to a 30-year-old rank-and-file al-Nusra fighter, who described al-Nusra as “the son of al-Qaeda” and certainly seemed to think events outside Syria were of some interest:
He would take the jihad to Somalia, Mali, Jordan, Iraq, “wherever there are Muslims”.
The first problem here is that al-Nusra has been not merely part of the opposition to the autocratic Syrian government headed by Bashar al-Assad, but a particularly prominent and effective part. The second problem is that the main secular component of the rebellion, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), were happy to describe themselves to the BBC as little more than bandits:
It is widely believed in Aleppo that the bread shortage was caused by the FSA stealing flour to sell elsewhere.
An FSA officer confirmed as much when I asked him if this had been done by individual fighters or was ordered by commanders to fund their operations.
“Both,” he said, “including my own brigade.” He added, ruefully: “We are all thieves.
It was a joke, and his men erupted in laughter, but he meant it seriously, too.
I don’t know exactly where this mess leaves ordinary Syrians. They appear to have three unpalatable choices: the theocrats of al-Nusra and its allies, the rogues of the Free Syrian Army, or the autocratic government of Bashar al-Assad. Fortunately, the outcome of the fighting in Syria may not matter all that much from a Canadian perspective. Even if al-Nusra aspires to threaten the West, it’s doubtful that this group will be able to do too much damage, and Canada could probably live equally well with the authoritarianism of al-Assad or the thievery of the FSA. However, let us be under no illusions about the nature of the opposition to al-Assad, and let us not pretend that the rebellion in Syria represents a straightforward struggle for democracy. If al-Assad pulls off a near-miracle and manages to crush the thieves and theocrats, we have no reason to shed tears.