A few weeks ago, the Syrian army arrested several operatives from the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Salafi group, in Idlib suburbs. After that one of the group’s leaders decided to kidnap a man who had ties with the Syrian regime in order to swap him with the detained militants. He headed with his men to this man’s house in Idlib and stormed it. The man was not at the house. Only his wife and children were there. One of daughters was recently widowed and was still in her Islamic three-month waiting period (Iddah) in which she is not supposed to meet strangers.
Residents of the town were infuriated that men that are not related to the widow had entered the house so they decided to interfere. With the help of Free Syrian Army officers, the men were kicked out of the town. This incident had a negative impact on the group’s image and the men who stormed the house were dismissed soon after.
This incident explains a lot about the relationship between Syrians and Salafi/jihadist groups that took advantage of the chaos that pervaded the country. Those groups clashed with the religious identity of Syrian and will remain to do so. Residents of the countryside have been Muslims long before organizations like al-Qaeda came into being and that is why they will not accept such groups to teach them about Islam. For them, those groups have nothing to offer except violence and that is why they will do their best to get rid of them. Take for example the incident of the Lebanese Walid al-Bustani who was killed in Homs by the Free Syrian Army after accusing several of the city’s preachers of apostasy. The same happened in the Iraqi governorate of al-Anbar where residents and clans kicked al-Qaeda out.
The past two weeks have witnessed extensive warnings of al-Qaeda’s presence in Syria. According to a film on Aleppo aired in a French channel, there are 800 non-Syrian fighters taking part in the clashes there. The Guardian published a report on the presence of al-Qaeda in Aleppo and Idlib. Former head of the Syrian National Council Borhan Ghalioun said that an “international jihadist” phenomenon is emerging in Damascus and northern Syria.
The problem is that any mention of al-Qaeda is made in a way that implicates the revolution while this is not the case. The Syrian regime is exerting a lot of effort to give those militant groups the chance to wreak havoc in the country so that they will eventually become equated with the revolution. For example, the army withdrew in several places in the countryside in order to allow those groups to prevail then use them as a pretext for bombing those areas. The regime is also aware of the numbers of militants sneaking into Syria from Lebanon and Iraq and is turning a blind eye to that. Isn’t this what happened with the Fatah al-Islam group in Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon?
Jihadists coming into Syria under the nose of the regime and while regional and international powers are watching will always clash with the locals. They only managed to recruit small numbers of youths in the area and who either suffer personal problems that make them fall prey to extremist ideologies or were previously involved in similar activities like smuggling Syrian youths into al-Anbar in Iraq.
The revolution is at the center of the Syrian countryside while Salafi groups hardly occupy the margins. The brigades of the Free Syrian Army are named after martyrs who came from cities and towns in this area while those militant groups choose names that are alien to them. Add to this the fact that local jihadist operatives constitute no more than 3% of the total number of fighters in the area.
Therefore, al-Qaeda phenomenon is one in which only strangers and non-Syrians are involved. This is a fact that Turkey, which is carefully watching the developments in Syria across the border, is well aware of. But many warn that the margins are now infringing upon the center and they cite the example of the city of Saraqib where the number of foreign fighters did not exceed 10 two months ago and have now reached 20 according to local activists.
The writer is a columnist at the London-based al-Hayat, where this article was published on Oct. 1, 2012