Middle East

Syria crisis: Discord grows between Islamist and secular rebels

Oct. 24, 2012 A Free Syrian Army fighter from Liwwa Al-Tawhid carries out a military operation in the Karmal Jabl neighborhood, Aleppo, Syria
Islamist opposition groups are reported to be better funded and armed than their secular comrades

Um Ahmad was the first woman to join the protests in Douma, a town on the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

She is 22 years old and Um Ahmad is not her real name, but nobody likes to give their real name in Syria these days.

Wearing a veil under her pink coat, she lights a cigarette and recalls the first days of the movement.

"I used to go door-to-door knocking on women's houses to encourage them to take to the street," she said.

Though Um Ahmad presents herself as a member of the conservative Islamist Salafi movement, she and her fellow protesters were not calling for a state ruled by Sharia law.

"We were going out for our call for freedom, democracy and a civil state," she explained.

Lack of unity

Um Ahmad has been detained before and is now in hiding after joining Free Syrian Army (FSA). "The only way forward is to fight this regime with weapons," she said.

She joined the ranks of the Ghouta Revolutionaries brigade, part of the Damascus suburb's military council, helping with logistics.

"I joined the Ghouta Revolutionaries because this brigade doesn't have a conservative Islamic name, not like the rest of the brigades across the country," she explained.

A Syrian woman holds a pre-Baath national flag, which was adopted by the opposition, during an anti-government demonstration after the Friday prayers in the city of Binnish in Idlib province on June 29, 2012.
At the start of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad, women and different religious groups participated in protests

The eastern suburbs of Damascus, known as Eastern Ghouta, have always been seen as the conservative part of the city. In most parts it is hard to find a woman who is not veiled.

That is especially true in Douma, a town that has around 800,000 inhabitants.

Douma was the first area in the suburbs to witness anti-Assad demonstrations back in March in 2011, only one week after protests were broken up by the authorities in the flashpoint town of Daraa.

On 24 March, the people who demonstrated in Douma were not only townspeople but young students of different religious and social backgrounds from across the country. They met at the university dormitory and went out to protest together.

But now the scene is very different.

"There are various FSA brigades in Douma and most of the time they don't coordinate with each other," Um Ahmad said.

"The one that is most powerful and more organised is Liwaa al-Islam. They are the ones with the biggest funding and more weapons".

Sharia courts

Liwaa al-Islam is a conservative group applying Islamic Sharia. And this is what many in Syria - including many in the the opposition - do not want to see.

"They have set up a Sharia court and they prosecute whoever they suspect as an agent of the regime or amongst the security themselves. In most cases they are killed," Um Ahmad said.

Liwaa al-Islam is getting most of its funding from Saudi Arabia, mostly from Syrians living in the kingdom.

They are also reported to have weapons which they have taken from regime forces.

Abdulwahed, who is close to the group, recently joined the FSA after his home was destroyed by government shelling. "We have got nothing else to lose, we have to fight and we only have hope in God to help us topple this regime."

When asked about Islamic law being implemented, he did not see a problem in that.

"They now have judges who are looking into each case and they are not killing the captured anymore, but referring them to the Sharia court".

But there are growing concerns within opposition groups about the potential spread of Sunni extremism in a country with a diverse religious make up.

"The rebels who refuse to hold the al-Qaeda flag and don't have an extremist ideology are poorly funded," Um Ahmad said.

"I am a Salafi by belief but I don't have the extremist ideology that's being imposed on the rebels by the Saudis. I fear these Islamist are going to prevail with their own extremist ideology in Syria."

Those are the fears of an opposition Salafi woman. The concern is much greater amongst secular political opposition.

"The violence has got us nowhere," said one opposition activist with a secular background who has been working on peaceful means of change.

"The regional players are manipulating our revolution and arming those who would only accept radical ideologies."

Extremism fears

This is exactly what the government in Syria has been warning its supporters and the world about.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the regime has claimed that Salafis and extremists groups are threatening the secular state that it is protecting.

It recently started talking about an al-Qaeda presence in Syria and foreign jihadis coming to carry out acts of terrorism.

What started out as scare-mongering on the part of the government has now become a reality, with al-Qaeda elements and foreign jihadis fighting in Syria.

Members of the Free Syrian Army celebrate on a tank that belonged to pro-government forces after they took over the site from them early Monday in Salqin city in Idlib October 22, 2012.
Western governments and secular Syrians fear conservative Islamist groups are gaining the upper hand in Syria

It is something Western governments who want to see the fall of the Assad regime are alarmed by.

Mark C Toner from the US State Department told the BBC: "We've been very vocal about our concerns that the kind of environment that the Syrian government has created leads to these kinds of groups exploiting the situation and trying to gain a foothold.

"We stand clearly on the side of non-violence. We want to see the Syrian opposition make a peaceful political transition, and that's where our support is focused."

But there is nothing on the ground at present that suggests anything is being done to achieve that. Meanwhile Gulf states who are allied to the US are the ones being blamed for focusing their funding on extremist groups.

"Those men with the FSA who refuse to follow the radical Islamist ideology are poorly armed," the secular opposition activist told me. "Sometimes they can't even find enough money to feed themselves."