Whose side are they on anyway? Syria's Islamist groups
Where does one place the assassinations targeting leaders and fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)? What are the motives behind those assassinations? And to whose benefit are they being carried out? It has become clear, after it had been expected, that the parties carrying out those attacks are traveling armed groups that bear different names, but all seek to become affiliated or identified with the Al-Qaeda organization. This is after members of those groups appeared in video recordings published on social media websites, in which they engaged in acts, such as whipping or killing in accordance with “ascertained rulings of Sharia law”, in addition to chasing youngsters and women for “reasons pertaining to Sharia law”, as well as destroying cultural sites and artistic or historical artifacts under the pretext of “combating polytheism”. In other words, those affiliated with such groups have shown that their “jihad” in “the Levant” aims at destroying everything the Syrian people have accumulated throughout their history, and everything they hope for in terms of a future free of tyranny. They represent the complete opposite of what the popular movement in Syria had represented, and of what the Syrian people aspire to from getting rid of the current regime.
This is an image that the Syrian regime has worked to make of the popular movement, with all of the experience in propaganda – for which it is renowned. Thus, according to its media machine, the peaceful protesters were in fact terrorists hiding behind “a few rightful demands” in order to do away with “defiance and resistance” in Syria. Indeed, this war waged by the regime, against flesh and stone all over the country, can only be justified by entrenching this image and making it that of Syria’s future.
The Syrian regime has been able to instill in the minds of many, especially in the West and in the United States, the notion that there are terrorists fighting to overthrow it, and that the success of these terrorists would mean turning Syria into another Afghanistan. This time however, this would happen at the West’s doorstep, and without anyone having the ability to keep in it in check. Thus, while the misguided political debate was erupting about the Al-Nusra Front and the extent of its proximity to Al-Qaeda, and while FSA battalions were finding ways to organize and arm themselves without any help, the regime was focusing its entire military machine on subjecting the Syrian people. It did so by destroying, killing and displacing, while completing in parallel the formation of its “joint forces” (regular army troops with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard). The image of the Al-Nusra Front thus played an important role in buying the regime this valuable time.
There are two factors making the task easier for the regime: the first is the Western stance, which hesitates to adopt a decisive strategy towards Syria; the second is the fact that certain people with the ability to provide funds, especially in the Gulf, have continued, on the basis of religious conviction, to donate money to such terrorist organizations.
The image of the Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group began to recede. Also, the military and political Syrian opposition unified General Saff and reached a compromise on representation in the National Coalitions, which enabled it to carry on the battle to overthrow the regime. On the other hand, the issues of recognizing the opposition’s political representation and of the necessity of providing the FSA with weapons that would restore a minimum of balance on the field against the regime’s forces and allies began to be dealt with more seriously; In light of all what preceded, the killing machine represented by the groups linked to Al-Qaeda returned to target the leaders of the FSA. Needless to say that exhausting the FSA with this kind of attrition benefits the regime politically as well as on the field.
The question here is about the extent, to which these terrorist groups are linked to the regime, since they are fulfilling its goals. It would be difficult to conclude that these groups are part of the regime’s apparatus. Yet past experiences, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, have shown that the regime’s apparatus was facilitating the activity of groups such as these, in order to further the goals of Syrian policy. Iran has similarly embraced elements of Al-Qaeda who had fled Afghanistan for the same reasons. These experiences have clearly shown that the regime’s apparatus (in collaboration with Iran) had steered the activity of these groups away from targeting the Americans and towards targeting the leaders of Sunni “Awakening” movements, when the time came to establish a new political equation in Iraq… and the rest is history. Something similar happened in Lebanon, after the withdrawal of the Syrian army. Indeed, Damascus’s apparatus had spurred on Fatah Al-Islam in the Nahr El-Bared refugee camp, in order to exhaust the Lebanese army to punish it for its neutrality during the wave of popular movements in Lebanon, as well as to exhaust its Lebanese opponents. These organizations, which declare themselves linked to Al-Qaeda, have played a major role in undermining the opponents of the Syrian regime and of its allies in Iraq and in Lebanon. And that is what they are doing today by targeting the leaders of the FSA in Syria.