Why do pro-Assad Alawite soldiers insult Islam as they torture Sunni detainees in Syria?
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This anti-Islamic hostility in turn lends credence to the narrative of jihadist groups that the Assad regime and forces aligned with him are “waging war on Islam,” and thus gives legitimacy to the concept of a “defensive jihad” (to be distinguished from “offensive jihad,” which in much of traditional Islamic jurisprudence is the expansion of the domain of Islam through warfare by the caliph) to protect Muslim brethren from persecution.
To reinforce this notion of “defensive jihad,” jihadist groups like the Saudi-backed Salafi jihadist Ahrar al-Sham and the al Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are generally avoiding the tendency of militant Islamic organizations in other countries (e.g. the Islamist insurgents in Mali, Somalia, and Iraq, where a concept of “defensive jihad” is tenuous) to overtly brutalize ordinary fellow Muslims, and have devoted some effort to winning popular support with distribution of humanitarian aid, particularly bread.
Indeed, recently Ahrar al-Sham released a propaganda video emphasizing this very aspect of their activities (accompanied by a benign-sounding nasheed) while allegations of looting on the part of groups recognizably operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Aleppo have become all too apparent.
In this context, it should be noted, as Twitter user “Syrian_Scenes” (an account well worth following) points out, that Arabic news channel al-Jazeera has routinely misrepresented the likes of JAN, Suqur al-Sham, and Ahrar al-Sham as operating as part of the FSA, when in fact they are clearly separate from such identification.
Indeed, it does not follow from an emphasis on “defensive jihad” that the jihadist groups are maintaining trouble-free relationships with non-jihadist rebels opposed to Assad (or even among each other, for that matter). In fact, the tensions between JAN in particular and other rebel groupings are finally coming to more widespread media attention, with a number of northern rebels interviewed by Martin Chulov of the Guardian already speaking of the need for an Iraq-style Anbar Awakening (a key aspect behind the weakening of al-Qaeda’s power in Iraq from the days of 2005-6) against the likes of JAN.
On occasion, hardline foreign fighters and al-Qaeda supporters have denounced the Free Syrian Army as “apostates” (takfir), contrasting with the complete rejection of takfir on the part of other jihadist groups like Liwaa Islam (hat-tip: “Syrian_Scenes”). JAN has thus far refrained from invoking takfir against ordinary Sunni civilians, but that situation will probably change in a post-Assad environment if it finds people unwilling to accept strict imposition of Islamic law.
In any case, JAN makes its anti-Alawite sentiment clear, referring to Alawites as “Nusayris” — a term that is now considered offensive among Alawites. For instance, in this recent JAN video, the speaker in the middle of the video refers to Assad and the “Nusayri apostates [from Islam].”
In short, the above evidence should illustrate that the notion of a Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is not the only perceived dichotomy at play in the Syrian civil war, significant as that concept is in a number of respects. An Alawite identity mainly based on bloodline but with hostility to Islam is one strand at work here, and jihadist groups in Syria are well aware of it and have exploited it to bolster support for a struggle to overthrow Assad framed as a jihad to defend Islam.
At the same time, one should not be sensationalist and conclude that a jihadist takeover of Syria is imminent after the fall of the Assad regime. At most, I expect jihadist groups to have a foothold in parts of the north and east (particularly Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor) similar to al-Qaeda’s foothold in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Instead, the point is to look beyond single paradigms even when it comes to examining issues like Sunni-Alawite tensions. Further, the personal rivalries among rival rebel groups — jihadist and non-jihadist — are becoming ever more intense, and will make the task of maintaining a united Syria after Assad’s fall all the more difficult.
To paraphrase pundit Michael Weiss, a “civil war within the civil war” beckons, but media commentary has paid insufficient attention to this looming prospect.
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