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No fighting ‘moderates’ in either Syria or Iraq

Jan 08,2014 - Last updated at Jan 08,2014

On Tuesday, Al Jazeera aired video images of a walled site in an insurgent-held district of Aleppo where 50 activists were reported to have been slain, and of a man being beaten with a length of cable on his bare back for failing to attend Friday prayers.

Those said to be responsible for the massacre and the whipping were not from Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said to be the most radical of the jihadist groups fighting in Syria.

These outrages were committed by Ahrar Al Sham, which is currently battling ISIL for control of strategic villages and towns near the Turkish border and the city of Raqqa, the only provincial capital in insurgent hands.

Nevertheless, the Western press writes as if Ahrar Al Sham were a “more moderate” faction than ISIL.  Ahrar’s immoderate actions speak louder than misleading characterisations.

Indeed, it is ironic that the Western powers are supporting the Ahrar “moderates” against the ISIL extremists when Ahrar militants are behaving as badly as those from the ISIL.

Ahrar is the prime mover of the Saudi-sponsored Islamic Front, a six-faction alliance bringing together fundamentalist groups involved in the ongoing “revolution”, the campaign to drive the ISIL from territory it holds. 

But none of its opponents is what most people would call “moderate”. It is “politically incorrect” to point this out.

This becomes clear when one reveals that among the front’s partners in the anti-ISIL campaign is Jabhat Al Nusra, an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq before it crossed the frontier into Syria and added “and the Levant” to its name.

Jabhat was the first of the mainly foreign jihadist factions to make its debut in the battle for Syria, opening with bombings in Damascus that killed dozens of civilians in December 2011 and 26 in Aleppo in early 2012.

This being the case, it is wrong and wrongheaded to characterise the current inter-insurgent conflict as one between “moderates” and “extremists”.

There is little or no real difference between the behaviour of the ISIL and its antagonists, who are simply engaged in an old-fashioned power struggle involving turf, weapons, funds and prestige.

There is, however, a difference in ideology and approach between the ISIL and the others, with the exception of the Jabhat, which remains a child of the ISIL.

On the ideological plane, the ISIL seeks to transform Syria into a launchpad for radicals determined to transform the entire region into an “Islamic Caliphate”. 

For the ISIL, therefore, the protracted battle for Syria is only a phase in a grand enterprise.

By contrast, the Islamic Front and most of its allies strive to turn Syria into an “Islamic state”, although they may have very different ideas about what this means and involves. 

On the ground, the ISIL ideology translates into the creation of “Islamic” mini-states ruled by “emirs”, wherever the ISIL exercises control. Insurgent groups that participated with the ISIL in operations to secure territory are squeezed out or marginalised.

ISIL commanders take the view that they and their men are usually in the vanguard of an operation and take the most casualties, therefore they should run the show once a village, town or city falls under insurgent control.

The ISIL establishes or takes over existing Sharia courts and assumes security duties and the administration. 

The group metes out harsh punishments to militants and civilians not following ISIL rules, angering other insurgent factions and alienating the population.

A middle-aged bedouin woman from embattled Raqqa said that a couple of ISIL fighters told her she had to cover her face although she normally wears a scarf, long sleeves, long-skirts and shawls.

When one of the men who accosted her pushed her shoulder, she told him: “Don’t touch me.  You have no right to tell me what to do. The regime never did this.  I prefer the regime to you.”

The woman, who is lucky to have escaped with her head, is now living in a hotel in Damascus, giving the gentle Kurdish staff a hard time.

Unlike the rest of the insurgent formations, the ISIL sees itself as the sole legitimate prosecutor of the struggle against the secular Syrian regime.

ISIL refuses to recognise that it is one among hundreds of disparate, disputing groups.

In order to impose its will, the ISIL attacked groups deemed to be rivals, kidnapped and detained their fighters, stealing weapons and belongings. 

After it captured the headquarters and warehouses of the rebel Free Army at the Bab Al Hawa crossing on the Turkish frontier, ISIL members took away main battle tanks, missiles, computers, medical kits and ammunition. The US and Britain promptly suspended non-lethal aid to the Free Army because these powers do not want even non-lethal items they donate winding up with Al Qaeda.

ISIL also kidnapped and detained civilians, aid workers, activists, doctors and journalists.

 It is reported that it holds hundreds of prisoners. Fifty were liberated on Monday when its opponents drove ISIL fighters from a headquarters on the edge of Raqqa, which was overrun last year by ISIL and Ahrar fighters.  Ahrar’s men were soon sidelined or driven out.

The recent murder by ISIL of Hussein Suleiman, a physician and Ahrar commander, was the last straw for that group, the dominant force in the Islamic Front, which actually takes a less aggressive approach to the ISIL than others. 

Among the most antagonistic is Jabhat Al Nusra, which ISIL tried and failed to absorb last year.

This won it a rebuke from no less a figure than Al Qaeda central chief Ayman Al Zawahiri who proclaimed the Jabhat, not the ISIL, the official franchise in Syria.

Indeed, he also told ISIL to pack up its bedrolls and weapons and go back to Iraq where it is now stirring up major trouble in the western Anbar province just across the Syrian border.

The more Syria’s Islamic Front and its allies succeed in driving the ISIL from the Syrian field of battle the greater the danger it poses to the fragile and fragmenting Iraqi state.

The outcome of the Islamic Front-led anti-ISIL campaign is likely to be a victory for equally radical fundamentalists like Ahrar in Syria and an ISIL “surge” in Iraq.

There are no moderates-at-arms in either country.

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