[Marxism] Jihadists and Secular Activists Clash in Syria

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jan 27 10:00:02 MST 2013


NY Times January 26, 2013
Jihadists and Secular Activists Clash in Syria
By HANIA MOURTADA and ANNE BARNARD

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The tensions had been simmering for months in the 
northern Syrian town of Saraqib. Civilian antigovernment activists had 
complained of rebel fighters who needlessly destroyed a milk factory and 
treated residents disrespectfully. A growing contingent of jihadist 
fighters from the ideologically extreme and militarily formidable Nusra 
Front was suspicious of the activists’ secular, nonviolent agenda.

On Thursday, mistrust erupted into confrontation. Masked men believed to 
be with Al Nusra raided the headquarters of two secular civilian 
grass-roots organizations — setting in motion one of the most dramatic 
tests yet of the makeshift system of local governance that civilians and 
fighters have established in Saraqib, a rebel-held town.

The dispute also tests the clout of jihadist fighters and the ability of 
civilian opposition groups to stand up to them. The increasingly 
prominent role of jihadist battalions on the battlefield worried the 
United States enough to blacklist Al Nusra last year as a terrorist 
organization, an effort to isolate it that may have backfired. The 
Syrian opposition is ambivalent about the group: while many 
antigovernment activists oppose its vision of an Islamic state and 
complain of attempts to enforce pious practices, its relatively steady 
arms supply and string of battleground victories have brought it respect.

The dispute in Saraqib began when a group of masked men raided two 
organizations run by local activists, a new cultural club and a social 
work office, the activists said. At the second office, where Danish 
journalists and two visiting female Syrian activists were staying, the 
men seized fliers advocating nonviolence and ordered the group to leave 
town by sunrise, according to activists and one of the journalists, a 
filmmaker. The masked men were angry, the witnesses said, in part 
because the visiting Syrian activists were not covering their hair in 
accordance with the practice of many pious Muslims. The men also 
declared that they preferred foreign journalists entering the country to 
be men.

Northern Syria is socially conservative, and many people there, 
regardless of their feelings about extremist groups, might expect female 
visitors to cover their hair. One activist in the area said the Syrian 
women had upset people with their dress and behavior. The filmmaker, who 
asked not to be named for safety reasons, said the women were respectful 
and came from a group called Waw al-Wasel that had produced an ethics 
guide for rebel fighters, quoting the Koran and other sources.

A number of Saraqib activists were enraged by the masked men’s 
interference with Syrian civilian activities. They denounced the 
fighters on social media. “Shabiha,” one activist, Ahmed Kaddour, called 
them in a Facebook post, using a term usually reserved for 
pro-government militias. But they also decided to fight back more 
concretely.

A contingent of local activists and 40 other residents went to the 
town’s court of Islamic law and filed a complaint. They insisted on 
holding accountable the local council, whose security committee the 
masked men claimed to represent, and the town’s military command, the 
Revolutionary Front of Saraqib. Both groups denied involvement and 
refused to confront the attackers. That further angered the activists, 
who said that they had recognized the intruders as Nusra members and had 
complained that the local council and military commanders were either 
sanctioning or ignoring abuse.

“We are currently waiting for the court to finish its investigation,” 
Assaad Kanjo, 21, a local activist with both Islamist and secular 
contacts, said in an interview via Skype. “We hold the Revolutionary 
Front of Saraqib responsible for the safety and well-being of all Syrian 
civilians and foreign and Arab journalists living in Saraqib.”

Members of Al Nusra later took a conciliatory tone, Mr. Kanjo said, 
sending mediators to the activists and calling for “extinguishing 
strife” and uniting against the government. Emboldened, the activists 
went a step further, demanding an official apology from the local 
council and the attackers’ brigade, and asking them to take disciplinary 
action against the attackers.

“I won’t put up with their intimidation tactics anymore,” said Iyas, a 
civil activist in Saraqib and the owner of the cultural club, who 
provided only his first name for safety reasons.

Although he is not a fighter, he said, he found himself using violent 
language. “Next time they dare come within five meters of this area, we 
will kill them,” he said in an interview. “I sent them a warning today. 
They are trying to make the problem go away.”

On Friday, dozens of men demonstrated against the raid, carrying signs 
protesting the “masked men” and the foreign fighters in Syria, according 
to a video that Mr. Kaddour posted titled “Down With Tyrants in All 
Their Colors.”

They chanted: “Oh freedom, where are you, where are you? Terrorism is 
between you and me. Oh freedom, where are you, where are you? Prejudice 
is between you and me.”

Similar concerns have echoed across the country. In the eastern suburbs 
of Damascus, civil activists have reported recent troubles. Fighting 
among various jihadist battalions frustrates civilian activists, who say 
they wish that rebels would be more cautious about accepting the help, 
however effective, of extremist groups with foreign fighters who may 
ultimately threaten secular Syrians.

“I’m wondering how the rebels are accepting foreign fighters among 
them,” said Karam, a civilian activist in one suburb, East Ghouta, using 
only one name for safety reasons. “Rebels always repeat, ‘We just want 
to finish up this war.’ It makes me crazy. These people will slaughter 
us with knives.”

In Saraqib, the foreign journalists were not the main targets — the 
civil activists were, the Danish filmmaker wrote in a post on a Facebook 
page for a private group. “Being female and uncovered is a problem that 
I didn’t experience before,” she wrote, adding that she was in Saraqib 
six months ago. “The city is undergoing a huge transformation these 
days,” she said, with Al Nusra gaining control over the city and the 
local rebel brigades.

Activists like Iyas see the dispute as a test case to push back against 
bullying by extremist groups and challenge local governments to be 
accountable to Syrians, not to foreign fighters.

“The president of the security committee in Saraqib is not even Syrian,” 
Iyas complained. “He’s Jordanian.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.





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