If the goal of the war being waged in Syria is to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad and his government, what is much less clear is the shape and make-up of the power structure which would replace that of the existing regime. Among those leading the anti-Assad campaign are predominantly moderate Sunni forces, but other fighters appear to represent the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists of all stripes, even al Qaeda. Are jihadists part of the mix and what is today the greatest threat for Syria?
VOA’s David Arnold spoke on the subject with Thomas Pierret, a lecturer on Islam and the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh. Below are highlights of his remarks. Click on the sound file below for a fuller version of the interview.
Jihadists in the context of Syria
…the term ‘jihadists’ is a bit problematic because… the term jihadist was coined to describe Islamic groups that were in favor of armed struggle… [in contrast to], for instance, the Muslim Brothers who were for most of their history involved in outreach in the community … so in a context like Syria where everybody has a gun, I think jihad is… the term itself doesn’t mean much. So, let’s speak of ‘radical Islamists’ which is more accurate in this context. And a rather important distinction is – do they have a local or a global agenda? I mean what defines al Qaeda is not merely that it is a radical group, but that it has a radical agenda.
Role of Jabhat al-Nusra
Of the groups you mentioned the one that is apparently the closest to that definition of a global radical or global jihadist is Jabhat al-Nusra … which is represented as a Syrian branch of al Qaeda. In reality, it’s very difficult to find who’s behind that… it is in Aleppo, it is there, and it is fighting the regime sometimes in coordination with other groups.
“[The greatest threat for Syria is] the disintegration of the state into semi-autonomous territories run by warlords – whatever their ideology – as happened in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets.” – Thomas Pierret, University of Edinburgh
Libyan support for Syria’s opposition
However, the Liwa or the Umma brigade, I think it’s completely different. I would not categorize it, I mean neither global jihadi or radical Islamist… in ideological terms, as far as I know …[their ideology] is very close to the ideology of the mainstream battalions among the Syrian opposition…. the leader is a Libyan, but I don’t think he has the same global agenda like al Qaeda, for instance. He really looks like someone who is experienced in warfare against Kadhafi and he just sees Syrians as being faced with the same situation and he wants to help. But a very revealing detail and an important one is that the symbol of Liwa Umma is the (revolutionary) Syrian flag, although the leader is a Libyan…. If you look at all the symbols used by Jabhat al-Nusra, you will never find the Syrian flag. You know a characteristic of these global radical groups is that they reject national symbols… basically, they reject nation-states.
Warlordism as greatest threat
I think the greatest threat for the future of Syria is not so much global jihadism… but it is warlordism…. It’s the disintegration of the state into semi-autonomous territories run by warlords – whatever their ideology – as happened in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviets. So, in my view, this is maybe what makes it most urgent for Western countries to deal with the situation and try to put an end to the conflict.
Listen to full interview with of Thomas Pierret (4:58):
David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.