How Islamists Beat the Western-‘Backed’ Opposition for Leadership


Washington suspended its paltry non-lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Supreme Military Council (SMC) led by General Salim Idris after falsely accusing the newly-formed Islamic Front of seizing FSA warehouses at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border right before making yet another inelegant about face on Syria policy. Now, Washington says it is open to working with the Islamic Front but insists, “we want our stuff back.”

“To the victors go the spoils” is evidently not something Washington is familiar with.

The West’s refusal to provide heavy arms and meaningful political support to the so-called good guys (read: bourgeois English-speaking secularists and liberals dressed in suits and ties) has allowed the “bad guys” (read: plebian Arabic-speaking Islamists dressed in fatigues or clerical garb) to become the most important players in the armed struggle in Syria. Some so-called analysts have even drawn the conclusion that “The good guys have lost in Syria – only the bad guys are left fighting,” a thinly veiled recycling of the “revolution hijacked by Islamists”meme we have heard time and again from both the mainstream media as well as sneering liberal elitists and secular fundamentalists since “Allahu akbar!” was first heard on the streets of Syria in 2011. The latter are the same crowd who unilaterally decided that the unwashed, hopelessly backward, and religious masses in Egypt were actually not ready for elections and democracy since they kept voting the ‘wrong’ way — for the Muslim Brotherhood and salafists by margins of 65% or more — so they teamed up with the secret police, the army, and big business to oust popularly elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi and bring back military rule.

If anyone is guilty of hijacking revolutions, it’s these so-called liberals and secularists who constantly whine about ‘Islamist hijackers’ as if Islamists do not enjoy genuine broad-based support and grassroots popularity or as if liberals and secularists had some (secular) God-given right to a mass following.

All is fair in war and revolution and blaming the big bad West (or Saudi Arabia) is a convenient excuse to avoid the elephant in the room: Islamists are effectively and legitimately out-competing secularists and liberals for power and influence among the revolutionary masses in Syria and Egypt. In the case of Syria, the mistakes of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (Etilaf) are directly responsible for the formation of the Islamic Front.

To understand how and why Islamists are beating the Western-‘backed’ opposition, consider the personal trajectories of four men: Riad Mousa al-Asaad who founded the FSA and General Salim Idris who ostensibly leads it versus the late Abdel Qader Saleh (RIP) and Zaran Alloush who leads the Army of Islam. In early 2011, all of them were nobodies. Nobody outside their immediate circles of friends and family knew their names much less followed them politically or militarily or was sending them millions of dollars or weapons. They all started out at essentially the same place (well, Alloush started out in one of Bashar al-Assad’s Gitmos) but while the first two ended up mostly powerless and sidelined, the latter two are/were leaders of the most powerful forces fighting to defeat the Assad regime.

On July 29, 2011, Asaad and a small group of officers defected from the regime and announced themselves as the FSA. This began a wave of defections that more or less dried up by 2013 as the people’s war in Syria reached a state of what Mao Tse-Tung termed equilibrium. Asaad moved to Turkey in 2011 where he began working to procure weapons and funding from Turkish and other Western military and intelligence agencies without much success. In October 2012, he moved the FSA’s staff headquarters into Syria near the border with Turkey.

In December 2012, Asaad became less relevant when Salim Idris was elected to head the FSA’s newly formed SMC, the military component of Etilaf. Like Asaad, Idris spent most of his time acting as a go-between for units and brigades on the ground and the foreign powers whose support they needed to keep fighting. In effect, both men were trying to unite the FSA from above, from the top down using their control over a logistical supply chain that never materialized or became remotely reliable.

The completely dysfunctional nature of decision-making that crippled the Syrian National Council (SNC) was recreated by Etilaf (even though Etilaf was supposedly created to avoid SNC’s flaws) on a grander scale in largely because the exiles have more votes than the grassroots activists. The paralysis and indecision produced by this top-heavy set up compelled Saudi Arabia and Qatar to circumvent Etilaf and the SMC with arms and money, producing even more chaos in an already fractious opposition whose most pressing task was to unite.actual

Chaos at the grassroots filtered sideways (horizontally, between local groups) and upwards into coalitions and negatively effected all opposition groups, including Islamists; even al-Qaeda split into two groups, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL). The new Islamic Front itself is just the latest iteration of previously failed attempts at Islamist unity — the Islamist Alliance (September 2013), Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (November 2012), and the Syrian Islamic Front (December 2012).


Abdel Qader Saleh (RIP)

Saleh and Alloush took an entirely different approach from Asaad and Idris: they started from the grassroots and built upwards, from the bottom up, building and cohering small units and battalions slowly but surely into larger brigades and regional formations. Alloush’s Army of Islam was once the Brigade of Islam (anyone who accuses Alloush of being a ‘revolution hijacker’ should remember that his brigade nearly killed Assad and decapitated the regime in 2012; had they done so, the revolution and the Syrian people would both be much better off). Both men remained locally rooted and focused on day-to-day combat operations; trips abroad were infrequent and short because leading their men in battle was their top priority. Saleh’s al-Tawhid brigade is notable for its collaborative approach to both the FSA and SMC on the one hand and Islamist forces like Ahrar al-Sham and Brigade of Islam on the other (perhaps this should not be surprising; tawhid is Arabic for the oneness of God and their logo is of two hands clasped in unity).

Tawhid_BrigadesNot only have Islamist forces taken a more effective grassroots approach to unity than secularists and liberals, they have also done a better job of avoiding unnecessary dissension and acrimony. (See Michael Kilo’s mea culpa for hating on Riad al-Asaad for no apparent reason as an example.) The Islamic Front was founded only after Etilaf was given a chance to reform itself; the front’s founders met with Idris, demanding that the coalition be dominated by forces on the ground rather than exiles. Only after this went nowhere did they proceed to found the front. This indicates careful and sensible planning, another major missing element of what passes for leadership at Etilaf HQ.

The growing unity of revolutionary forces — even under the green flag of Islam — is undoubtedly a good thing, especially when the black flag of ISIS is excluded. The SMC’s reaction to Washington’s cover story about the warehouse theft is encouraging:

“In reference to what is being shared with regards to the raid and theft from the headquarters, we disapprove and deny the statements that are being linked to the Chiefs of Staff of the FSA and reported by social media and television channels. And we point that what actually happened was an attack conducted by an unknown armed ‘gang’ and we called for help from some of the factions in the area including the Islamic Front, who answered the call which we are thankful for. The headquarters were secured thanks to God first, and their help second. And we must point out also that all that is being eluded to regarding the issue besides what has been noted above is not the truth and has not been released by any side belonging to the FSA Chiefs of Staff.”

What is encouraging about this? One, it means Washington can no longer play kingmaker by crowning the “good opposition and blacklisting the “bad opposition without any push back. Two, the FSA’s SMC and Islamic Front are on good terms and collaborate. Add to this the formation of a new non-Islamist alliance, the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, which is aligned with the SMC.

The rest of the opposition can and should learn something from the growing success of the Islamists because the revolution needs all the unity it can get as it heads to its most difficult diplomatic battleground yet: Geneva II.


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