Syria’s Islamic Front Militias and How They Think about Minorities

Abdal Qadr al-Salih

C.J. Chivers of the New York Times in his, A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War, describes the virtues of the veteran commander of al-Tawhid, Mr Saleh, the most powerful rebel leader in Aleppo. He has a record of tactical success and is by all accounts revered by his men. Chivers explains that “For Western governments, outreach [to men like Saleh] is problematic, in part because of Washington’s policies, which… [are] shaped by fears of Islam.”

Not only are Washington’s policies shaped by fears of Islam, but they are also shaped by support for Israel. Many will hesitate to arm Mr. Saleh because of his enmity toward Israel. In this Arabic video, he insists that after liberating Damascus, Syria’s revolutionaries will liberate Jerusalem.

He conjectures that support for Israel is the principal reason that Washington has refused to arm his militia and destroy Assad. He posits that the US still backs Assad in its desire to protect Israel.

Abdel Kader al-Saleh and the Tawhid brigades do not belong to the Islamic Front; rather he belongs to the Supreme Military Command established shortly after the Syrian National Coalition was established in Doha in December of 2012. He is Assistant Deputy to the Commander-in-Chief for the Northern Region of the Supreme Military Command. See their order of battle.

A much clearer view of the ideology and organization of the Islamic Front militias is emerging thanks to the hard work of analysts like Sam Heller, Pieter Van Ostaeyen, and

Interesting characteristics of the Militias of the Islamic Front are:

1. They are Syrian nationalists and do not call for the unification of the Syrian Umma under a Caliph. This is different from Jabhat al-Nusra, whose help they welcome.

2. They adhere to a fairly dogmatic Salafist view of how Syria should be ruled. They insist on a “shura” council and abjure dictatorship. They do not call for democracy because God’s law and will must remain supreme. The state is to be theocratic but not intolerant. “The reference for all the actions of the Front is the Leadership Council (majlis al-qiyada). The Legitimate Body (al-hai’a al-shar’iya) is the legitimate governor of all the actions of the Front and its decisions are binding for the Front.”

3. The Islamic Front militias have a narrow attitude toward tolerance. The “avoidance of rule over Muslims through unbelief or heresy (bid’a)” suggests that the ghuluw [exaggerators or extremist sects] or gnostic sects, such as the Druze, Ismailis or Alawis may well be unacceptable and beyond the pale of religion, which is standard dogma of main-stream Islamic theology.

Here is  a bit from the Charter:

Non-Muslims:

  1. Islam is the religion of the state, and it is the principal and only source of legislation. We will work through all legitimate and possible means to ensure that there is no law that contradicts the set and confirmed principles (al-thawabit al-mu’tamada) of Islamic shari’a.

  2. Coexistence between the sons of one nation, however their schools [of thought] or creeds might differ. That entails mutual responsibilities and rights. It makes the principle of the sanctity of blood, money, and honor something shared by all and something upon which there can be no infringement except according to the rulings of Islamic shari’a and through [its] conclusive judicial rulings.

  3. Justice and fairness are the basis of the relationship in dealing with non-Muslims. Difference of religion is not a justification for injustice against anyone.

  4. All members of society can participate in realizing its general interest, however their schools [of thought] and creeds might differ.

  5. The call for the integration and mixing of religions and sects is rejected according to [religious] law. Moreover, it contains a kind of aggression against those religions and communities and is a sort of religious and cultural adulteration.

[Landis commentary: The phrase, “Difference of religion is not a justification for injustice against anyone,” would seem to be liberal and suggest that all religions should be treated well, but in actuality standard Syrian religious texts view any creed other than the three “revealed” monotheistic religions as not religions at all. Thus they are not covered by the phrase: “Difference of religion is not a justification for injustice”.

In Syrian textbooks, required in the religion class of all schools and read by all Syrians, creeds other than Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not considered religions and are forbidden. The ninth grade textbook states that all other belief systems [than the revealed religions of the Abrahamic tradition], “contradict the principle of freedom of belief.” This is because “Islam gives freedom of belief only within the limits of the divine path,” or the religions revealed by God, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam. People following “inferior” forms of belief that reflect an “animal consciousness” must “convert to Islam” or “be killed.” (9 grade textbook: p. 128).] Not too much ambiguity there.

Here is an excerpt from my article: “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism,” which should have increased importance today because Islamic norms will take on new importance in Syria. The religion textbooks taught from first to twelfth grade have formed notions of identity in Syria.

Atheists and Pagans
At the very bottom of the hierarchy beneath the revealed religions of the “people of the book,” are the belief systems of the rest of humanity, who are categorized as “Atheists and Pagans.” Only one paragraph is devoted to them in the twelve years of Syrian schooling and it is tucked away in the ninth grade text under the subtitle, “Islam Fights Paganism and Atheism.”

It explains that “pagans are those who worship something other than God, and atheists are those who deny the existence of God.” Islam must fight these two belief systems because they “are an assault to both instinct and truth.” We are told that these belief systems “contradict the principle of freedom of belief.” This is because “Islam gives freedom of belief only within the limits of the divine path,” which “means a religion descended from heaven.” Because pagan religions were not revealed by God, they are considered an “inferior” form of belief that reflects an “animal consciousness.” How should Muslims deal with these peoples who comprise half of humanity? Students are instructed that “Islam accepts only two choices for Pagans: that they convert to Islam or be killed (9 grade textbook: p. 128).”

The Islam of Syrian texts does not have a happy formula for dealing with non-believers. Perhaps in recognition of this failing, the ministry of education has buried a mere six sentences on the subject into the middle of its ninth grade text.

Said Hawa

Said Hawa

To understand how the Muslim Brotherhood defined Alawites and other gnostic sects of Syria as worse than unbelievers, one should read these two articles by Itzchak Weismann about Sa’id Hawwa, the Brotherhood’s principal ideologue of the last century.[They were first published here]

4. Shiites would also presumably be rejected because they do not follow the major recognized “(al-madhahib) among ahl al-sunna.” Shiites embrace the Jaafari madhab.

5. Christians and Jews would presumable be protected because they follow the revealed region, which was sent down by God. But they would remain second class citizens because, through their arrogance, they reject God’s final revelation, the Qur’an and Mohammad, the seal of the prophets.

A must read is this translation of The Charter of the Syrian Islamic Front done by @AbuJamajem

He writes:

The Syrian Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist brigades working to topple the Assad regime. (Original document here, posted January 21.)

Most immediately evident is that the Front is essentially fighting a two-front war: it’s looking to topple the Assad regime, but it’s also aiming for the establishment and reform of Islamic morals in Syria. In that sense, the Front is fighting with one eye on what will follow the collapse of regime authority.

Among (many) other noteworthy points is the Front’s envisioned place for religious minorities. Non-Muslims are nominally accorded equal rights, but those rights are strictly circumscribed by Islamic shari’a. By my reading, the status of Shi’ites and Alawites is ambiguous. The document makes clear (largely through omission) that the scope of acceptable diversity in Islamic thought and practice is limited to variations on Sunnism. As non-Sunnis perceived as heretics, then, Shi’ites and Alawites exist outside that Sunni consensus. It is unclear if they would be accorded the same baseline protections as Christians or if they would instead be dealt with more harshly.

Section Four: The Relationship between the Elements of Syrian Society

Muslims:

  1. The unification of Muslims in righteousness and the condemnation of division, dispute, and extremism.

  2. The enlargement of the sanctity of the Muslim. The avoidance of rule over him through unbelief, wantonness, or heresy (bid’a); rather, rule only through the guidance and evidence of the ’ulama (ahl al-’ilm).

  3. The recognized schools of Islamic thought (al-madhahib) among ahl al-sunna are a great intellectual wealth left to us by the umma’s (Islamic nation) scholars. We adhere to them but do not cling to them fanatically….

Pieter Van Ostaeyen gives an overview of the Ahrar al-Sham , one of the main Islamist militias, which was responsible for overrunning the Sheikh Said neighborhood of Aleppo near the city’s airport this past Saturday – and presumably responsible for assassinating ex-Parliamentarian Ibrahim Azzouz along with his wife and their two daughters yesterday. Ex-Syrian Parliament Member Killed in Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham ~ The greater Islamist union in Syria
Feb2 by pietervanostaeyen

On January 31st Syrian Islamist groups announced they would unite in one single group; known as Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (The Islamic movement of freemen of Greater Syria)….

Syrian Jihadist Groups Take Conflict To Lebanon
By: Jean Aziz for Al-Monitor Lebanon Pulse. Posted on February 2.

On Friday, Feb. 1, the Lebanese army lost two soldiers, a sergeant and a captain, who were part of a strike force unit that belonged to Lebanese Army Intelligence. The two soldiers died during a clash between the army unit and armed Sunni fundamentalists in ​​Arsal, which is near the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley. Jabhat al-Nusra is now in Lebanon and that the group’s activities are about to become public…..Several press reports said that the town’s mosques issued calls for all gunmen to pursue the army unit and block its escape. In a short period of time, the Lebanese army unit found itself surrounded by hundreds of fundamentalists and jihadists. The long gunfight resulted in the killing of the army sergeant and captain and the wounding of eight soldiers. Although the jihadists knew that they were fighting Lebanese army soldiers, they captured the bodies of the two dead soldiers, as well as the wounded and the remaining soldiers and took them to Arsal’s main square in what looked like a jihadist ceremony that involved celebratory gunfire and other practices, according to Lebanese press reports….

The jihadist forces today have strategic depth that provides them with support, supplies and sanctuary. That strategic depth is represented by the Sunni jihadist groups that are fighting in the Syrian civil war against Bashar al-Assad. Second, the area where the incident took place is geographically linked to several dangerous areas. It is connected to the Damascus and Homs countryside, which is where an Al-Monitor research report predicted will be the main area of a Lebanese-Syrian war. It is also connected to the tense demarcation line between pro-Hezbollah Shiites in Baalbeck and Hermel and certain Palestinian armed locations.

A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War
By C. J. CHIVERS, February 1, 2013, NYTimes

Mr. Saleh leads the military wing of Al Tawhid, the largest antigovernment fighting group operating in and near Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo — a position that has made him one of the government’s most wanted men…Western governments have long worried that its self-declared leaders cannot jell into a coherent movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles…..

Mr. Saleh’s long-term intentions are not entirely clear. He says he is focused solely on winning the war, and promotes a tolerant pluralistic BY last summer, the fighting units near Aleppo had chased most government forces from the countryside and seized control of a border crossing to Turkey. Simultaneously, Mr. Saleh was emerging as the main leader of Al Tawhid. His anonymity ended.

He was soon seen as pragmatic and accommodating, an active commander who was able to navigate the uprising’s sometimes seemingly contradictory social worlds. A friend of the Islamists fighting beside him, he also spoke of avoiding the nihilism of sectarian war.

One of his subcommanders, Omar Abdulkader of the Grandsons of Saladin, a Kurdish fighting group, described how Mr. Saleh welcomed him and fellow fighters into Al Tawhid — though they were not Arabs.

“He has supported us since we have formed our battalion, and he bought for us some weapons and ammunition,” he said. “We’ve never heard or seen any bad acts from him — all good deeds all the time.”

He added: “Hajji Marea told us there is no difference between Muslim or Christian, Kurdish or Arab or even Alawi. We are all brothers.”
These days, when Mr. Saleh appears in public, his supporters treat him with reverential deference. In the summer, Mr. Saleh arrived at a meeting of commanders in another hidden command post. Several seasoned battalion leaders almost sat at his feet.

Ex-Syrian Parliament Member Killed in Aleppo
ABC News

A former Syrian parliament member and three members of his family were killed Sunday in a rebel-held area near the northern city of Aleppo… [Rebels] fired at Ibrahim Azzouz’s car in Sheik Said neighborhood near the city’s airport, killing him along with his wife and their two daughters.

Rebels captured the strategic Sheik Said neighborhood southeast of Aleppo on Saturday. It was a significant blow to regime forces because the area includes the road the army has used to supply troops.

News Round Up follows

White House rebuffed Clinton-Petraeus plan to arm Syrian rebels: report

A plan developed last summer by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus to arm and train Syrian rebels was rebuffed by the White House, The New York Times reported on Saturday….The White House rejected the Clinton-Petraeus proposal over concerns it could draw the United States into the Syrian conflict and the arms could fall into the wrong hands….

Guardian via Tara

On Saturday, the US vice president gave his full support to the opposition stance that Assad has so much blood on his hands he could not be part of a transition government. Joe Biden said the White House was “convinced that President Assad, a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead Syrian people and he must go”.

Washington Post’s David Ignatius: The hard work ahead of John Kerry in Syria
2013-02-01

John Kerry’s first task as incoming secretary of state should be to develop a coherent policy for Syria, where U.S. sanctions are proving counterproductive, the fighting around Damascus is deadlocked, the economy is in ruins and the country is U.S. sanctions are proving counterproductive, the fighting around Damascus is deadlocked, the economy is in ruins and the country is headed toward a sectarian breakup.

This grim prognosis for Syria is based on the latest reports provided to the State Department by opposition forces working with the Free Syrian Army.

The military situation in Damascus is described as a stalemate. The regime controls the city center and the northern suburbs, while Free Syrian Army rebels are strong in the eastern, western and southern suburbs. Corruption is spreading in the liberated southern suburbs. As Syrians pass through regime and Free Syrian Army checkpoints, “sometimes you hardly know which is which, and you lose track of what FSA are trying to achieve,” notes a summary of the report.

With these fluid battle lines, it’s possible to move stealthily throughout the capital. Main streets are guarded by checkpoints manned by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, the report states, “but there is always [an] alternative that opposition [forces] can use to reach almost any point in Damascus.” I found a similar ease of movement in northern Syria when I traveled there with the Free Syrian Army in October.

As rival Free Syrian Army battalions recruit fighters, they “buy them with money,” notes the summary, explaining: “This is what [the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra] is doing to increase their supporters; now people become an open market, you pay, and you can sell your ideology. . . . People are easily signing up to something they did not dare to do before.”

Doctors who work in military hospitals report that most casualties are from the regular army, “which indicates that the regime is still keeping the 8k to 12k Republicans Guards as last resort,” the report says.

U.S.-led economic sanctions appear to have backfired, much as they did in Iraq in the 1990s, hurting poor and middle-class people while allowing regime loyalists to get even richer. The report calls this effort “the epitome of failure,” explaining: “The regime is capable of bypassing most sanctions by using non-U.S. and non-Western productions. . . . High-ranking regime figures have sophisticated networks to channel and move their large accounts.”

“It’s the Syrian people who do not have the means and the connections to bypass these sanctions,” the report continues. “These conditions have produced the largest transfer of wealth from the people to the government supporters. Under the current shortages and rising prices, the only businessmen who can sustain a profitable business are the ones who have military might at their disposal to protect their convoys. . . . The middle class and most of the wealthy have lost their cash flow.”

The Assad regime is rationing access to fuel and electricity to reward friends and punish enemies. “The number of hours [of electricity] each neighborhood receives is directly proportional to their level of support for the government. . . . Lucky ones get 18 hours of power every day. Not-so-lucky ones get 3 hours of power every day, defiant ones get no power or cellphone coverage at all.”

The U.S.-led embargo on imports of diesel fuel is also “very ineffective,” the report explains. “Of course the military gets first dibs on it, and the civilians bid up the price of what is left.” Desperate for heating fuel, poor people are burning plastic and tree leaves.

U.S. policy to deal with the Syria disaster has been idling for months, as the administration waited out the presidential election and then the appointment of new secretaries of state and defense and a new CIA director. Kerry is seen as the person most likely to galvanize a clearer, tougher U.S. policy, but President Obama is said to be skeptical, asking, “Can we make a difference?,” in a recent interview with the New Republic.

Rebel military sources argue that the most effective step the United States could take would be to train hundreds of elite commando forces, which would be well-armed and have the strong command-and-control that has generally been lacking in the Free Syrian Army. These disciplined paramilitary forces, like groups the CIA has trained in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, could shift the balance on the ground — away from the Assad forces but also away from the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Many people now have lost hope with everything,” writes one of my Syrian sources. “Many people now hate Assad, but they hate the FSA as well. They just want a way out.”

Syria Considers Taking Up Dialogue With Opposition
By: Antoun Issa for Al-Monitor. and Antoun Issa Posted on February 1.

The Syrian government may be receptive to opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib’s offer for dialogue earlier in the week, with one official calling it a “positive change.”

Syrian official sources are considering taking up the offer for talks with opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Antoun Issa reports from Damascus.

Khatib — head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces — surprised colleagues with a public announcement on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Jan. 30, offering dialogue with the Syrian regime.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), a member of the coalition, quickly rejected Khatib’s call, but regime sources have not ruled out dialogue with Khatib.

“There’s been no official statement from the regime, but some individuals within the regime are saying ‘OK, why not?’,” a Syrian government official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity….

Robin Yassin-Kassab on the unfolding al-Khatib strategy: “Assad’s scorched-earth policy precludes real negotiations”

Khatib told Reuters in Munich: “The fighters have high morale and they are making daily advances.” …

Suddenly It Looks Like Bashar Al-Assad Could Win The Syrian War
Michael Kelley | Jan. 29, 2013 | Business insider

Many of the latest reports out of Syria indicate that President Bashar al-Assad has regained the upper hand against the rebels.

And the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said as much on Tuesday when he acknowledged that the regime “may be able to hold onto power for now.”

Assad reportedly told visitors that the Syrian army has “regained the initiative on the ground to a very high degree and achieved important results” as “armed groups received several hard blows recently,” according to Lebanese daily Al Akbhar.

Akbhar’s report makes it sound like Assad regime’s new tactics — leaving non-significant areas only to bomb them and force the population to live under rebel rule without basic necessities — are going according to plan. Assad reportedly said the regime has “stopped fighters from controlling whole [provinces]” and all of the key strategic points around Damascus have “remained safe, especially the airport road.”

There are also reports that the Syrian Army has launched counteroffensives in the north in Homs and around Hamas as rebels struggle to resist because of a lack of ammunition. Meanwhile rebels in the northeast are clashing with Kurdish rebels — an example of rebel infighting that Assad is increasingly counting on.

The changes on the ground forced French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to acknowledge last week that there are no signs that Assad is about to be overthrown, which is a significant backtrack from last month when he said he thought “the end is nearing for Bashar al-Assad.”…

On the other hand, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev recently said Assad’s chances of staying in power are “shrinking by the day,” and Martin Chulov of The Guardian reported that rebels are now camping out in the hills above Assad’s ancestral homeland and sanctuary.

Furthermore, Al Arabiya reported that “Assad’s mother Aniseh Makhlouf and other members of his inner circle have fled to the United Arab Emirates [UAE].”

So perhaps Assad remains defiant and a little crazy because he knows, as a Russian diplomat said last month, that he will be killed by his own people or the opposition unless he successfully puts down the revolution.

But maybe his newfound aplomb comes from the fact that rebels appear much less capable of toppling him right now, and the West knows it.

The Consequences of Intervening in Syria
January 31, 2013 | Stratfor By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis

The French military’s current campaign to dislodge jihadist militants from northern Mali and the recent high-profile attack agains