On the Free Syrian Army-occupied streets of Aleppo, missionaries from Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation) distribute pamphlets, calling for the creation of a global Islamic caliphate. Fighters from the hardline and Al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra — recently designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the US, angering many in the opposition camp — travel in reckless caravans through streets, sitting atop pick-up trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns. The Kamikaze black bandanas wrapped around their heads are adorned with Arabic calligraphy reading: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his Prophet.”
The movement fights on all key fronts and has attracted a slew of recruits impressed by the group’s efficacy in battle and its fighters’ religious conviction. At rallies in Aleppo members of the brigade and their supporters regularly work themselves into frenzy. “Our leader is forever the Prophet Muhammad,” they chanted at a recent rally in Tariq al-Bab. Such chants are a far cry from the calls for “freedom, justice, bread and dignity” that defined earlier uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The sectarian dimensions of Syria’s long conflict, clear for so long, are once again in sharp focus as opposition fighters approach the Alawite hinterland. What began as a series of protests early 2011, demanding human rights and democratic reform, is unrecognizable, taking on an increasingly steely Islamist hue (most of the opposition are orthodox Sunni Muslims). The conflict has resembled a sectarian war for more than a year, further complicated (and probably sustained) by its international dimensions.
It is even questionable whether the opposition is mainly calling for democratic reform any more, as its activists insist.
The power struggle within the opposition — a struggle for the movement’s identity — has pitted liberal elements against more overtly Islamic factions. The new unified command of rebel forces, formed in Antalya (Turkey) earlier this month and dominated by Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood, indicates which side came out on top: Brigadier Mustafa al-Sheikh, a senior officer known for his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, was excluded from the meeting, as were others. How this dynamic will develop in the event Assad falls is unclear.
“We now say ‘when Assad goes, then the real war will begin’,” says Abu Saleh while sitting in an ice-cold, darkened Aleppo house. “It will start with a war between the FSA and the Islamists.” Abu Hassan, a fighter from the FSA, agrees, arguing that Islamist factions are hijacking the uprising, turning a nationalist movement into a religious one. “We used to say we are all Syrians. Now we think ‘is that person Sunni, or Alawite or Salafi’?”
It seems likely that there will some form of ethnic cleansing of the country’s Alawites, a Shia off-shoot to which the president’s family belong, if Bashar al-Assad does indeed fall: his forces and loyalist militia have committed numerous atrocities, and before the uprising began, attacks on Shia pilgrims in the country occurred with a degree of regularity. The fear is that once the revenge killings begin in earnest, Syria’s combustible ethnic and sectarian makeup may trigger a far broader Middle Eastern conflict.
In many ways, the conflict, which the United Nations now estimates has killed at least 60,000 persons, is partly a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — the two major Middle Eastern powers, both authoritarian theocracies with no interest in either human rights or democracy — and their respective allies. It must be asked to what extent international powers share responsibility for sustaining or, worse, agitating, the conflict? For example, Turkey has, according to Turkish press reports, struck Syria 87 times, killing 12 soldiers and destroying tanks, since a — likely — stray shell fired in Syria hammered into a home in a Turkish frontier town in October, killing five members of a family. Yet Turkey allows fighters and weapons to flow freely across its border — and was involved in organizing opposition forces and providing logistical support — and there are FSA bomb-making factories in and around Antakya. In essence, Turkey, which forms Nato’s eastern bulwark, has aggressively pursued a policy of regime change in Syria and subsequently has come dangerously close to igniting a regional war.
The coverage of the Syrian crisis has been hard due to propaganda and misinformation. In the case of Turkey, this culminated with Nato’s looming deployment of the Patriot missile defence system to “defend” the country from Syrian missiles, justified in an environment of misinformation and fuelled by fears that Syria could use chemical weapons in both strikes on Syria’s opposition and Turkey. In reality, Turkey realized that it had got ahead of its allies on the Syria point and was in need of further support to continue its policy of regime change in Damascus. Damascus has longer-range missile capabilities, hence the need for the Patriot system. Turkish aggression could prompt a more forceful response from Damascus.
Presently, received wisdom has it that Assad’s regime has reached “end game” or, at the very least, that the rebels are on the point of winning the conflict. Assad’s response to peaceful protests 21 months ago and his subsequent actions have certainly been monstrous. Yet predictions and assessments of his imminent downfall appear premature and seem part of a broader pattern since the Arab Spring of trying to impose a wished-for reality on events. (The Arab Spring was never an exclusively Arab affair anyway: Tebu, Berbers, Akhdam and Kurds all participated in the waves of insurgency to varying degrees.)
Assad retains significant support and it is almost impossible to accurately estimate the impact of rebel gains throughout swathes of the country. Most sensible analysts see these gains as the corollary of strategy in Damascus: to consolidate its forces and abandon strategically marginal bases.
As the crack of sniper rifles ring out under the ghostly howl of Assad’s warplanes high above, the suffering of Syria’s non-combatants highlights the real impact of this war. In Aleppo’s winter cold, children sift through sprawling mounds of rubbish. Electricity is intermittent. Pools of water from burst water mains cover the roads. Trucks have been dragged across streets, for protection from sniper fire. People queue for hours to buy bread, always watchful for attacks from above — leading human rights groups have accused Damascus of deliberately targeting bread queues — or listening for the whistle of incoming mortar rounds. Assad has increasingly employed jets and attack helicopters, bombarding districts under FSA control. And as with the regime’s assaults elsewhere, the attacks are often indiscriminate — a kind of scorched earth policy which has cut down scores of civilians and laid waste to infrastructure. Buildings stand in ruin, their fronts blasted off. The tips of minarets lay on the ground, shorn-off by missiles or mortar fire. On the city’s many frontlines, little moves save a few stray cats.
Mahmoud says he had a good life before the war, managing a hotel and owning property throughout Aleppo. Until July, he had supported neither side — typical among Aleppo’s merchant class. Then the FSA swept into Aleppo. A few weeks later, Mahmoud’s wife was killed by shrapnel during one of Assad’s bombardments, leaving him to raise their 7-year-old daughter alone. Mahmoud began supporting the rebels.
His daughter sits beside him as he approaches one of his properties, formerly rented out for wedding parties. A militia has set up camp in the property’s hall. The men are young and heavily bearded. Mahmoud introduces himself and asks to check on his property. The men become aggressive and suggest he works for the government, coming to the building to plant some kind of locator beacon. There’s a glimpse of its ransacked and looted interior. Mahmoud leaves, telling the unit to stay as long as they like. He says all he has left is his daughter, Adel. That he has yet to tell her that her mother is dead, instead insisting they will find her when the war is over. She bounces along the broken streets, singing quietly.