Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Assad Wants

Magazine article The Spectator

The Enemy Assad Wants

Article excerpt

A new Islamist alliance among Syria's rebels leaves the West's friends in the country weaker than ever.

Amman - Beirut - Istanbul I recently bumped into a senior officer with the rebel Free Syrian Army who was waiting in the passport queue at the Turkish border. I didn't recognise him at first, out of uniform and without his entourage, and I told him so. He was following the example of the 7th-century Second Caliph, Omar bin al Khattab, he replied. The caliph was so humble he took turns with his servant riding a horse to Jerusalem to receive the city's surrender.

There was no imagery from Islamic history when I first met the officer a year ago.

He was one of those 'rebels' western officials have in mind when they describe a 'secular, moderate' armed opposition. But more and more, rebels pepper their conversation with quotations from the Koran. With their lives on the line, perhaps people are turning to God. Perhaps, with the jihadis in the ascendant, such talk is politic. Later, the officer appeared on YouTube next to a notoriously bloodthirsty Chechen commander. 'We kiss the hand that holds the trigger against Assad, ' he said.

It should not have been a surprise, therefore, when last week several FSA brigades issued 'Communique No. 1' announcing an alliance with the Nusra Front, al-Qa'eda's Syrian subsidiary. The communique rejected the Syrian National Coalition, the SNC, the body promoted by London and Washington as the 'sole legitimate representative' of the Syrian people. It gave voice to the fighters' deep and long-held contempt for the SNC's exiled politicians, who have spent the past two years squabbling in five-star hotels as Syria burned. 'If any of them come here, ' a rebel commander told me, 'I will hang them.'

Most importantly, Communique No. 1 says the rebels are fighting not for democracy, but for Sharia, 'the sole source of legislation'. It was signed by what is probably the FSA's biggest brigade, with thousands of men, Tawheed, or 'one God'. Its leader, Haji Marea, is the FSA's commander for northern Syria. Balding, in his thirties, and with a mild manner that belies his reputation for bravery, he told me he was a 'moderate Islamist'. 'We stand for a tolerant Sharia, one that gives proper rights to all threads of the Syrian social fabric, ' he said.

Haji Marea sits on the FSA's Supreme Military Council, the National Coalition's military wing, also backed by western governments. It is not clear if he thinks he can remain on the council but in a sense that doesn't matter. The FSA that London and Washington speak to has been revealed as a reassuring fiction, irrelevant to the real alliances on the ground, where most fighters believe they are waging a religious war. As well as the pact with the Nusra Front, Haji Marea has friendly relations with an even more extreme al-Qa'eda group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Isis. 'Anybody against the regime is our ally, ' he said. 'And Isis is fighting the regime.'

Everyone in rebel-held areas will tell you that the Islamists, of whichever stripe, are making gains because of the 'secular' FSA's corruption and opportunism. That and the fact that most of the money and guns are going to the Islamists, sent by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. 'Ali' had been a flight attendant with Emirates before the war, living in Dubai and going to bars to pick up girls. Now he was in a Nusra Front brigade, he told me, but only because he thought they were really taking the battle to the regime. …

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