Sunday, 13 March 2016

'Curse your soul, Jolani': The inner-struggle of Syria's opposition

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  'Hundreds of anti-regime demonstrations have taken place in Syrian opposition towns over the past week after a five year hiatus.

 One of the most surprising twists to this tale has been how the Syrian population have remained largely "unradicalised", despite nothing more than superficial support from democratic powers. 

 Popular songs have even take aim at the jihadi fighters in the neighbourhood.

 [The revolution] was hijacked by the bearded men,

 Curse your soul Jolani [Nusra leader] and your soul Hassoon [pro-regime Sunni cleric],

 Curse your soul Baghdadi [IS leader] wherever you are too!

 This combined with the fact that, in many areas, Islamist fighters such as the Nusra Front - al-Qaeda's Syrian franchise - are their only lines of defence against pro-regime militias is proof that Syrians have not fallen victim to Stockholm Syndrome. Chants in support of the Free Syrian Army accompanied by energetic singing and dancing relive the heady days of 2011. The relative peace means the war - but not the fight - has been temporarily put on hold.

 Such secular "slights" to the puritanical sensitivities of local Salafi-jihadi fighters have rattled some elements within Nusra, which angrily broke up one demonstration in Idlib province this week, threatening to shoot at protesters.

 "Both fundamentalist extremists and Assad regime supporters have been embarrassed by the protests. Supporters of both groups have claimed that the protesters are being paid by foreign agents," said Oz Katerji, a Middle East analyst. "Democracy and free speech terrifies reactionary counter-revolutionary forces more than anything else."

 "As soon as the bombing lightens then immediately the jihadists are weakened," said Robin Yassin-Kassab, a British-Syrian writer and co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War. "Assad produces jihadists. When a battle takes place, Nusra is seen as a friend of the revolution because it is fighting the regime. When a battle isn't taking place then Nusra is seen as an authoritarian power trying to enforce an unjust political project. Nusra's project is not democratic and it must be upset that after five years of trying to embed itself in revolutionary Syria, still the people on the streets are calling for freedom, democracy and the Free Syrian Army, and not the jihadist militias."

  Michael Karadjis, from the University of Western Sydney College and a writer on Syrian affairs, believes that a reduction in bombing has given moderate revolutionary forces a shot in the arm. "The FSA supporters and civil uprisings were very tactically wise in coming out all over the country as soon as there was a lull in the bombing... or perhaps people spontaneously came out," he said. 

 If Russia and the regime re-launch major bombing raids on rebel towns to suppress these protests, as has been reported today in eastern Ghouta, then it would no doubt backfire and likely trigger a more unified and extreme military response from the opposition, particularly if international condemnation remains muted. Groups such as Nusra, which have been among the best-performing armed opposition groups, would no doubt be among the main benefactors. The West and regional powers would also be in no position to ask rebels to cut ties with the extremist groups.

 "It is futile to demand the FSA not to have military coordination with groups like Nusra to fight the regime as the US has demanded for years. I'd go further, it is a call for mutual destruction of anti-Assad forces," Karadjis added. "With a regime like Assad's, some military element in [the resistance] is almost essential. But the greater the response, the less the civil component of the FSA's military struggle can raise its hand."

 The longer the bombing continues, the greater the potential that groups such as Nusra have to expand their ranks. "The ceasefire does have an isolating effect on groups like Nusra precisely because they thrive on the extremist atmosphere that inevitably comes from war," said Karadjis. "That is why Assad pushed for civil war from the moment the civil uprisings began." '

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