Volume 18: Islamist Forces in the Syrian Conflict: Doctrinal Deficit and Military Radicalization

Singapore Middle East Papers

Volume 18: Islamist Forces in the Syrian Conflict: Doctrinal Deficit and Military Radicalization

07 Mar 2016

by St├®phane Valter[1]


Prolegomena: Whither Islam?

The topic of Islam and Islamism is often confusing for various reasons. Islam is generally described by Muslims as encompassing both the social and religious spheres, as the famous expression says: din wa dawla, religion and state, and indeed both modern and pre-modern Islamic states have sought to legitimize themselves by propagating their own claims to religious orthodoxy.[2] After the rise of the Wahhabi movement in the eighteenth century, Islam became more offensive and politicized, a tendency accentuated in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the pan-Islamism of the renowned thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and by apologists like the Pakistani Mawdudi (the founder of the JamaÔÇÿat-i Islami) and the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood). Later on, from the 1970s onwards, many similar yet sometimes rival brands of activist Islam have competed to enrol and mobilize Muslims, in Muslim countries as well as in the countries to which they have immigrated (e.g. in Europe). These different forms of committed Islam have put forward moral, social, economic, political, and other claims to the extent that what was once quietist and atomized Islam has muted into a militant creed and combative behaviour aiming at the marshalling of peopleÔÇÖs energies so as to contest corrupt local regimes and aggressive foreign powers. Nowadays, one rarely can see Muslims living their own faith without bothering their coreligionists about what they should, or should not, do. The community-centred and shariÔÇÿa-oriented social pressure, often extremely ideologized, may be hard to evaluate, and even more to negate, both in Arab and western countries, since it appears to be a world-wide phenomenon (though with many counter-examples).

The Religious and Political Background

Syria is no exception, and the analyst may find it hard to differentiate between the ordinary implementation of Islamic norms and the coercive imposition of Islamist injunctions. This is all the more true when one speaks of a four-year-long bloody civil war that has antagonized communities and brought in international fighters professing extreme forms of Islam. Thus, analysing contemporary Islamist movements cannot be totally disconnected from reflecting upon the traditionally religious nature of society. Can Islamist movements theoretically exist in a genuine Islamic society? Or is it necessary to consider that Syrian society is not, quantitatively and qualitatively, purely Islamic if Islamism is ever to be so identified and described? Whatever the terminological subtleties, Syria somewhat resembles Lebanon, and to a lesser degree Iraq, with regard to its religious diversity, both within and outside Islam. It has also to be asked to what extent a group of armed men can be categorized as Islamist rather than simply criminal as far as they indulge mainly in destroying, torturing, killing, and the like, even if for what is claimed to be self-defence. From the authorÔÇÖs point of view, being an Islamist implies promoting a political agenda, even a radical one. But wielding extreme violence actually involves very brutal offenses against fellow human beings rather than sponsoring a new type of society. Although Islamic State (IS) is the most telling example, other ÔÇÿIslamistÔÇÖ armed factions certainly fall within this definition. Therefore, even when there is some kind of ÔÇÿprimitiveÔÇÖ ideological elaboration behind such or such an armed Islamist group, which is not always the case, speaking in terms of warring bands or criminal gangs ÔÇô i.e. armed forces rather than ideological currents ÔÇô may be often more appropriate. All the more so since the war has left no place for the exchange of ideas, but rather of ammunition. In this way, the ÔÇÿIslamistÔÇÖ forces operating in Syria may try to legitimize their actions via certain (subjective) interpretations of Islam, but they look more like military organizations than anything else.

A presentation of Syrian religious ÔÇô and also ethnic ÔÇô diversity gives the following numbers: Sunnis[3] form more than 70 percent of the population (Arabs and Kurds together), Christians are about 10 percent (probably even less with emigration due to the war), Alawites[4] are around 12 percent, Murshidites [5] stand for less than 1.5 percent, each of the Druse and Ismaili communities[6] represents around 3 percent, plus a very few Imami Shiites. As for ethnicity, Kurds are between 10 and 15 percent, Armenians about 1.5 percent (or even less), roughly as much as the Turkomans and the Tcherkesses united. Thus between 60 and 65 percent of the population are Sunni Arabs. When Islam is considered as a global entity, with all its sects, Syria can without doubt be defined as an Muslim country. The religion of the head of state must be Islam, according to the constitution adopted in the 1970s, although it is not stated that the religion of the state must be (Sunni) Islam, a slight difference introduced by late President Hafiz al-Asad to accommodate the Baath partyÔÇÖs secularizing ideology and reassure the Christian minorities. Apart from that, one may question the need for speaking about Islamist movements since state and society are already overwhelmingly Muslim.[7] Given the structure of the post-Ottoman Arab states, the government ÔÇÿnormallyÔÇÖ controls, or at least supervises, ÔÇÿreligious affairsÔÇÖ, Islamic education, the shariÔÇÿa courts (mostly for personal status law), awqaf (religious endowments), as well as appointments to preach in major mosques, and so on. In Syria, all this takes place in a Sunni context. For most of the period between 1963 and the mid-1970s, the paradox was that the Baathists were content to give the Sunni ÔÇÿulamaÔÇÖ more or less free rein. More generally, state funding of Sunni institutions has been an attempt to define what Islam should be (Pierret, 2013).[8] But if the Muslim minority denominations (Alawites, Druses, Ismailis, Murshidis, Imami Shiites) were not considered as authentically Islamic, the whole picture would obviously be different, and Syria could be considered by militant Islamists as a land to convert again to Islam, eventually through holy war (jihad).

This is certainly the case in the context of the current terrible civil war, since the regime is mainly supported by Alawites and ÔÇô nolens volens ÔÇô by other non-Sunni Muslim minorities (plus the Christians who try to remain neutral to avoid being dragged into the chaos). In spite of many defections within the army and the security apparatus on the part of Alawite officers and servicemen, the regime relies profoundly on the Alawite community to defend itself (through elite troops, security services, militias, and civil defence forces) and thus, the assumption that there is a kind of isomorphism between the ÔÇÿofficialÔÇÖ armed forces and the presidentÔÇÖs sect is difficult to discard. This analogy is reinforced by the huge presence of Shiite foreign fighters, volunteers or mercenaries, perhaps amounting to 40,000, coming from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, plus Russian military (identified as cynical imperialists and contemptible new crusaders) operating overtly since September 2015. On the other side, the armed opposition is essentially made up of Sunni fighters: some of whom are politically committed in the sense that their primary aim is to get rid of the regime and its henchmen, but without harming the Alawite community per se, in a (still distant) perspective of national reconciliation. This is the case of the Free Syrian Army (FSA, the historically first armed rebel group), although the attitude of some of its affiliated brigades oscillates between nationalism and Islamism, with a marked preference for the latter. At the other end of the spectrum, others ÔÇô and they are numerous ÔÇô are more religiously minded and combine a detestation of the Asad regime with an aversion for what they view as intolerable heterodoxy. The two groups that represent these tendencies most emphatically are the Front of Victory (Jabhat al-Nusra, JN, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria) and Islamic State (IS, al-Dawla al-Islamiyya, a terrorist organization independent from al-Qaida since 2013), the most frightening of them all.

The Historical Sunni Accusations Against Alawites

TodayÔÇÖs Islamist aggressive rhetoric against non-Sunnis ÔÇô political divergences apart ÔÇô has its roots in medieval history. Although Sunni contempt and oppression probably dates back to the founding period of the sect (in the late eighth century), the first landmark condemnation came later, through a fatwa (juridical opinion) promulgated in 1305 by a Sunni theologian of the Hanbali rite, Ibn Taymiyya.[9] In order to revile what he considered as outrageous doctrinal deviancies deserving capital punishment, he anathematized the Alawite community (pejoratively called Nusayri) and called for its extermination on the ground of conspiracy with the Crusaders and apostasy (Friedman, 2010: 188-197).[10] Some passages of this fatwa sound like a warlike appeal for collective murder:

ÔÇÿ[ÔǪ]┬áThese people called Nusayriyya,[11] they and the other kinds of Qarmatians,[12] the Batinis,[13] are more heretical than the Jews and the Christians and even more than several heterodox groups [ÔǪ] since they [Nusayris and other Batinis] are pretending before the uneducated Muslims that they are Shiis and loyal to the People of the House [ahl al-bayt] but in reality they do not believe in God, in his messenger, in his holy book, in obligation or prohibition, [they do not believe] in reward and punishment, in paradise and hell, or in any of the messengers prior to Muhammad [ÔǪ] nor in one of the previous religions [prior to Islam] (Friedman, 2010: 189). [ÔǪ] These Durziyya and Nusayriyya are heretics according to [the judgment of] all Muslims; their [methods] of slaughter are not permitted for eating nor [can a Muslim] marry their women. They refuse to pay the jizya [poll tax] and are considered murtaddun [apostates]. [ÔǪ] They do not accept the obligations of the five prayers, the fast of Ramadan or the pilgrimage (Friedman, 2010: 192). [ÔǪ] These [Nusayris] should be fought as long as they resist, until they accept the law of Islam. [ÔǪ] Their fighters should be killed and their property should be confiscated. [ÔǪ] They should be compelled to obey Islamic law; if they refuse they must be killed (Friedman, 2010: 194).┬á[ÔǪ]ÔÇÖ

This uncompromising call to genocide, under the guise of theology and jurisprudence, has left profound and indelible traces within the more reactionary realms of the Sunni mentality, which is the ideological breeding ground of contemporary speeches and actions of Islamist movements. Another fatwa cast in the same mould was issued in 1638 by Nuh Afandi al-Hanafi al-Hamidi, the Ottoman stateÔÇÖs shaykh al-islam. Although this fatwa was initially decreed in the context of the fierce rivalry between the Sunni Ottoman caliphate and the Shiite Safavid empire, then bloodily confronting each other in Iraq with mutual sanguinary sectarian cleansing, and was therefore directed in the first place against Imami Shiites, the condemnation has been progressively widened by Sunnis so as to include all the Shiite sects. In SyriaÔÇÖs recent history, Sunni anathematizing currents have relied, explicitly or not,[14] on this juridical opinion to gibe at Alawites as deviant Muslims or even to openly brand them as apostates. Here are some terrifying excerpts:

ÔÇÿKeep in mind that these renegades (kafara), oppressors (bughat), and debauched people (fajara) combine all the forms of impiety (kufr), infringement (baghy), and obduracy (inad) as well as the manifestations of depravity (fisq), Manicheism (zandaqa), and heresy (ilhad). Those who tolerate their godlessness (kufr) and their heterodoxy (ilhad), whereas it is incumbent [upon the believers] to fight them and permissible to kill them, are infidels (kafir) like them. [ÔǪ] Concerning the iniquity, they rose against the obedience due to the imam [ÔǪ] for God said: {[ÔǪ]┬áFight ye (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of God.┬á[ÔǪ]}[15] This order is imperious. [ÔǪ] They mock at religion and scoff at the clear divine law. [ÔǪ] They deem licit what is forbidden and soil what is sacred. [ÔǪ] They are infidels (kafirun) who estimate that the great Koran is false and who publicly insult the Prophet [ÔǪ] through attributing this monumental event to his kin. [ÔǪ] It thus falls [to the believers] to eliminate these execrable (ashrar), irreligious (kuffar), and profligate (fujjar) people, may they repent or not, since it is not licit to let them as they are, [even] against the payment of the tribute (jizya), nor to grant them a safeguarding (aman), be it temporary or permanent. It is allowed to reduce their women to bondage since the servitude of the apostate (murtadda) [ÔǪ] is licit.┬á[ÔǪ] (Valter, 2003: 380-381)ÔÇÖ[16]

These two fatwas (and similar anathematizing opinions) have been forbidden in Syria since the 1970s and could therefore only be found in private or foreign research libraries. That was at least the case before the chaos that started in March 2011. It can be suggested that in many swathes of the Syrian territory controlled by Islamist (salafi, jihadi, takfiri[17]) groups, such aggressive literature is now available in order to galvanize ÔÇô if need be ÔÇô people against the regime. Not surprisingly, the relationships between majority Sunnis and minority Alawites can be summarized by a history loaded with sectarian blood spilling. After the 1305 fatwa started a series of aggressions: the 1317 Alawite revolt lead to a repression commanded by the Egyptian Mamluk sultan (some 20,000 dead plus the obligation to build a mosque in each village[18]); the 1516 repression by the Ottoman sultan Selim (some 10,000 dead); the 1811 four-month-long siege of the Alawite mountain by the Ottoman army; the 1832-1841 crushing of Alawite resistance by Muhammad AliÔÇÖs Egyptian army; many attacks by Ottoman forces (in 1834, 1847, 1858, 1870, and 1877). The ÔÇô theoretical ÔÇô end of sectarian massacres came after the promulgation of the 1909 Ottoman law on religious freedom that calmed down the old climate of religious hatred. But it was the French mandate (1920-1946) that decisively contributed to the easing of communal tensions[19] and which also encouraged the military promotion of Alawite, Druse, and Ismaili officers within the Troupes Sp├®ciales du Levant, which were to become the new national armed forces.

After the Baathist takeover in February 1963, the minorities started to break away from their ancestral marginalization since the new regime included many officers from communities that had previously been sidelined, who now began their gradual ascent within the state apparatus. In order to understand the depth and acuteness of the actual charges levied by Islamist forces against Alawites, the aftermath of the 1963 coup has to be briefly recalled. In spring 1964, a wave of nationalizations initiated by the secular, socialist, and pan-Arab Baath party ended in fierce urban demonstrations whose epicentre was at Hama (where a call to jihad was launched, which resulted in the shelling of the great mosque by government forces). In February 1966, an internal Baathist coup rendered the regime more virulently pan-Arab and Marxist. But the excesses of this adventurism led to another internal coup (November 1970) conducted by Hafiz al-Asad, the (Alawite) Minister of Defence, who later became president of the Republic. When a mildly secular constitutional project was proposed (1972-1973), troubles erupted in the conservative Muslim part of the population (since Sunni Islam would by implication no longer have to be the ÔÇô predominant ÔÇô religion of the state). From 1976 onwards, a political and religious Sunni opposition led by the Muslim Brotherhood, strongly supported by Jordan and Saudi Arabia who had their own political reasons for opposing the Asad regime, set the country ablaze with bomb attacks and assassinations. In June 1979, an assault against the Aleppo military academy resulted in the death of some 80 Alawite officer cadets. Riots in Hama and Aleppo followed, and the repression left some 2,000 dead in the latter city. The troubles extended to Jisr al-Shughur (south of Aleppo) where some 150 civilians were killed in March 1980 in reprisal after a violent Sunni opposition denounced the regime as secularizing and thus irreligious. Arrests, tortures, and executions became common in this context of fierce community feuds and expeditious emergency justice. In June 1980, around 500 Islamist political prisoners were massacred in Palmyra prison after a failed attack on president Asad. Then, in April 1981, a slaughter (some 400 people dead) was carried out in Hama in retaliation for a bloody aggression against a neighbouring Alawite village. The crisis culminated in February 1982 when an Islamist insurrection flared in Hama (with the killing of Alawites, Baathist party members, and Christians) before being ruthlessly crushed by the regimeÔÇÖs forces: part of the city was totally destroyed and an unknown number of people were killed (maybe up to 20,000 in about two weeks).[20] This marked the end of the Muslim BrotherhoodÔÇÖs opposition and even existence in Syria for years to come (Lef├¿vre, 2013).[21]

Parallel to those painful events, in an effort to rehabilitate the community theologically, doctrinally, jurisprudentially, and politically, Alawite sheikhs as well as secular personalities hailing (mainly) from the same sect initiated a process of justification. The idea was to lay down foundations that could prevent future religious confrontations. These initiatives were performed by private individuals, though with the regimeÔÇÖs acquiescence, with the aim of neutralizing conservative and militant Sunnism, which could also be called ÔÇô more blatantly ÔÇô Islamist detestation against the heretics (who had seized political power). Many leaflets and books, composed in the 1970s and 1980s but only circulated in limited circles, were consequently published in Syria (and in Lebanon) during the 1990s and distributed in some commercial places (book shops, rest areas on roads, airport). Like the regime, the authors hoped that these publications would cast a new and more favourable light on the Muslim minorities, but it remains highly doubtful that they had any noticeable impact on traditional Syrian Sunnis (not even to mention foreign reactionary Sunnism).[22] Significantly, even the (friendly) Lebanese Shiite clerical authorities do not seem to have given a lot of credit to these publications that strove to justify the AlawitesÔÇÖ Islamic orthodoxy. It can assuredly be sustained that these mutual doctrinal misunderstandings and even sectarian accusations were not greatly alleviated over time, and were ready to resurface when the March 2011 demonstrations rapidly turned violent. Current Syrian Islamist thinking is the poisoned fruit of decades of religious loathing and political repression, fanned by retrograde Sunni propaganda originating from Wahhabism and stirred up by large contingents of jihadi foreign fighters. On the other hand, it should be said that neither ÔÇÿthe AlawitesÔÇÖ nor ÔÇÿthe SunnisÔÇÖ are monolithic, in addition to the fact that strong secularizing tendencies have been at work over the past several decades.

The Muslim Brothers: Forerunners on the Wane

Whereas the Muslim Brotherhood had been the driving force of Islamist opposition to Baathist ideology, self-asserting Islamic minorities, and President Hafiz al-AsadÔÇÖs iron rule from the 1960s to the 1980s, they seem to have lost momentum some time after the 2011 demonstrations became a brutal conflagration. While many Brothers had been executed, and sympathizers rotted in jail, the Brotherhood more or less succeeded in maintaining some kind of discreet though pervasive presence on the social scene through its many celebrated martyrs and few prisoners who were now and then released, for humanitarian reasons or in the aftermath of partial amnesty measures.[23] That was particularly the case under the new president (2000-present) who issued liberation orders on a few occasions. Surprisingly, the main beneficiaries of these soothing endeavours to reconcile Syria with its past seem to have been Muslim Brothers and common law convicts rather than communists, leftists, and Alawite dissidents, who were probably considered as more dangerous to the regimeÔÇÖs stability. The relatively flexible attitude of the new president towards the Brothers had many reasons, with his new friendly relationship with ÔÇÿIslamistÔÇÖ Turkey playing an important role.

Therefore, about a month (April 2011) after the first public signs of discontent, the president took conciliatory measures (combined with repressive initiatives), like the liberation of Brotherhood-linked and Islamist prisoners, who consequently ÔÇô and perhaps on purpose ÔÇô took it upon themselves to fuel the Sunni opposition. But for reasons inherent in the nature of the conflict, including the rapidly deteriorating security situation, the formation of the nationalist FSA that galvanized energies and rapidly leaned towards Islamist rhetoric,[24] the emergence of radicalized armed groups, the uncoordinated material support of foreign ÔÇô particularly Gulf ÔÇô countries for different rebel groups, the Brotherhood lost much influence on the ground, at least militarily. The armed structure it contributed to creating in December 2012 (in the presence of its general spiritual guide, Muhammad Riyad al-Shuqfa) in coordination with the FSA, the Shields of the Council of the Revolution (HayÔÇÖat DuruÔÇÿ al-Thawra),[25] has not been very effective because of a lack of foreign material assistance and has declined rapidly; some brigades have even defected and joined other armed groups. Yet the Brotherhood is very influential in the external political opposition (a fact that this opposition tries to minimize), mainly for historical reasons in addition to Turkish and Qatari backing, though its contribution to the elaboration of a clear political line of thought has yet to be fully assessed.

A prominent figure from the Brotherhood-connected opposition is Ahmad MuÔÇÿadh al-Khatib (al-Hasani), a former imam at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus and an important member of the Sunni establishment. He has been described as a ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ Islamist, whatever this expression may mean, since he has manifested his sympathy at various occasions for the Egyptian Qatar-based traditional preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, another ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ Islamist who does not favour secular governments either. Ahmad al-Khatib is also reported to have held in some instances derogatory judgments about Shiites, but he has also stressed in other statements that all denominations are legitimately constitutive of the Syrian nation (on the condition that they submit to shariÔÇÿa law). In addition, he clearly saw that the rising role of salafi militants and fighters could lead, with negative effects, to the portraying of the upheaval as extremist, and thus to the reduction of foreign assistance. When elected head of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC, the opposition in exile) in November 2012 (until March 2013), he immediately asked foreign powers to supply arms to the ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ FSA, some of whose brigades had started to become influenced by Wahhabi anathematizing ideology. But at the same time, he requested that the American administration (which reacted disapprovingly) should remove the Nusra Front from the list of terrorist organizations, on the grounds that it was also fighting to topple AsadÔÇÖs regime.[26] He stressed a few times that he approved the idea of negotiations with the regime; he even suggested that he could meet president Asad to find a solution to the mayhem.

During the recent siege of Kobane by IS in September 2014, al-Khatib wrote a poignant message on his internet site, asking all Syrians fighting the regime in order to gain their own freedom to help the Kurdish ÔÇÿbrothersÔÇÖ get rid of the IS plague. But it was not clear whether al-Khatib favoured some kind of autonomy or independence for the Kurds,[27] whom he depicted as genuine Syrians who had paid a high tribute to the revolution while standing for dignity.[28] Another message in November 2014 tried to give the impression that nobody among the Syrian (pacific and military) opposition was supporting Kurdish irredentism ÔÇô nor even the regime, according to him┬áÔÇô, which was a sufficient reason to attend the Moscow conference, a realistic position and a conciliatory attitude towards Russia, one of president AsadÔÇÖs staunchest supporters.[29] Al-Khatib rejected (January 2015) a second invitation to Moscow, arguing that the conditions were then not met to attend the planned talks, and that one of the preconditions to come and engage in negociations with the regimeÔÇÖs delegation was the release of prisoners, especially women and children. He has also stated clearly that Asad and his ÔÇÿgangÔÇÖ must eventually relinquish power, but not necessarily before a political transition is in sight.

Thus al-Khatib may be portrayed as a consensual and reasonable Islamist conveying a moral ÔÇÿnationalÔÇÖ rhetoric, close to the ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, ready to make concessions so as to spare his country more suffering. But things may have to be toned down a bit since some segments of Syrian society give the impression of being more aggressive and bent on sectarian revenge than al-KhatibÔÇÖs elaborate ÔÇô and sometimes equivocal ÔÇô argumentation suggests. For instance, in one obituary of the Brotherhood shaykh Abu Thabit Riyad al-Kharqi from the Damascus countryside who was killed in an ambush, the official site condemned the perpetrators as ghulat and khawarij, two very pejorative (and even insulting) terms with medieval sectarian connotations.[30]

When one considers regional parameters, Saudi ArabiaÔÇÖs hostile attitude towards the Brotherhood (particularly since March 2014 when it was declared a terrorist organization), in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and elsewhere, seriously limits the power the Brothers may try to wield in this conflict, as well as any influence they will endeavour to obtain in post-Asad Syria. Besides, other strong warring factions do not seem to share their relatively moderate ideology, and they may therefore be further marginalized in the future. But paradoxically, the advantage of this Islamist movement may reside precisely in its military weakness in comparison with JN and IS, two violent transnational organizations that have succeeded in rallying national, regional, and international support against them, to the point that Saudi Arabia and its allies (with the exception of Turkey for which the Kurdish PKK represents the greater threat) seem ready to change course in front of common foes. The Shields of the Council of the Revolution may benefit from this new Saudi perception. Although they are officially distinct from the Brotherhood, for tactical reasons, it is clear that they closely harmonize their actions with its leadership.

According to documents and videos on the internet, the Shields are at the centre of the Islamist spectrum.[31] They pretend to favour a more or less democratic (Islamic) system. Although strongly based on Islamic values, the new Syria they say they envisage would be pluralist: all existing communities would thus have a recognized place (on an equal footing?), contrary to the agendas of the pro-excommunication armed groups. Yet, at the same time, massacres by extremist Sunni groups of Alawite prisoners, Shiite soldiers, and minority individuals, in Syria or in Iraq, do not seem to have aroused much criticism nor even public expressions of repugnance on the part of the BrotherhoodÔÇÖs clerical leadership. In the same vein, videos posted by the ShieldsÔÇÖ information centre present a religious and martial discourse that calls for ÔÇÿrevengeÔÇÖ rather than victory (i.e. with a political agenda to be implemented later). Although this is highly understandable because of the regimeÔÇÖs ferocity, it does not bode well for national reconciliation.[32] If the US-led coalition continues to hit IS targets without seriously attempting to strike the regime, more radicalization will certainly loom among many Brothers. Worse, the recent engaging of the Russian air force, which reportedly strikes more ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ Islamist targets ÔÇô and accessorily civilians ÔÇô than EI, will certainly reinforce radical Islam.

Initially located in Idlib province, the Shields managed to gain a wider territorial presence through an alliance between the Brotherhood and the FSA, though they have remained rather weak because of a shortage of weaponry. The ShieldsÔÇÖ military power in 2015 remained rather low, in part because the BrotherhoodÔÇÖs branch in Aleppo has preferred to engage in civil activities (charity, proselytism, etc.) rather than in armed struggle. These internal disagreements, plus their limited access to arms, have led to the ShieldsÔÇÖ remaining a modest military force: a mere three brigades in Aleppo province and around twenty in Idlib.[33] Without more serious external aid, more fighters may defect and join wealthier, and thus more attractive, groups like JN (in northwest Syria) and IS (in central and eastern Syria). The Banner of Divine Unity (LiwaÔÇÖ al-Tawhid), active around Aleppo, has been backed by Qatar and linked to the Brotherhood. By the end of 2012, Tawhid declared its support for the SNC and envisioned a civil state based on Islamic law, which would offer guarantees to minorities. Yet, some time later, Tawhid issued another statement (with other groups) calling for the imposition of shariÔÇÿa, thus discarding the SNCÔÇÖs authority. Finally, in November 2013, a regime air strike killed a few commanders, which weakened the group, in addition to American pressure on Qatar to reduce its assistance. Armed groups connected to the Brotherhood, like the Faruq[34] Brigade, may be tempted to coordinate their actions, or even merge, with JN or IS, particularly now that the West is fighting these last two groups (and IS especially) much more than the regime, while the Russian air force is clearly targeting all Islamist factions (much more than EI). Since the Russian military aid arrived (September 2015) in Lattaquia in order to reinforce the Syrian air force, the military tide has turned in favour of the regime, yet the battle of souls is totally lost (because of huge military and civilian casualties in areas not controlled by EI) and more Syrians will assuredly be pushed into the ranks of extreme Islamist fighters.

For its part, the nuclear deal with Teheran must be viewed as an indirect strengthening of Iranian and Shiite foreign militias operating in Syria (and Iraq), and it has thus been highly criticized as a hard blow to the opposition. America and the West, not to mention Russia, have in this sense been accused of selling out the Syrian revolution in exchange for the nuclear arrangement. This criticism will probably become more and more acute in the future, and AsadÔÇÖs regime has already publicly rejoiced at this unexpected external assistance. Will the Brotherhood-affiliated armed groups be able to withstand the attraction of extremist organizations? And which kind ÔÇô if any ÔÇô of ideological stance should the leadership adopt to avoid the depletion of ranks? Because of the mayhem, violence, and destruction, caused largely by the regime, it is absolutely normal that frustration and suffering push people towards radicalization. Thus, whoever was initially at the ÔÇÿcentre of the Islamist spectrumÔÇÖ has in all probability moved towards the extreme edges. This mutation is even more natural when one considers the BrotherhoodÔÇÖs credo as articulated by the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb. If Qutb himself suffered more (in jail) than he inflicted pain, his works are notorious for their contempt and aversion for western civilization, for their condescension (at best) towards Jews and Christians, for their idealizing of selected retrograde elements from the prophetic period, for their elitist and militant description of the perfect Muslim community, for their uncompromising attitude towards any system deemed iniquitous and infidel, etc. As a result, QutbÔÇÖs thought is unambiguously the antechamber of Islamic legal authoritarianism and even Islamist terrorism.

The Other Islamist Groups: In the Heat of Action

It can be asserted that the major differences between all the Islamist groups fighting the regime are more related to local allegiances, tactics, and interests than to clearly expressed religious ideology. Apart from JN and IS, the ideological disparities between them seem rather slim, since their main objectives are the fall of the regime, the punishment of those who have collaborated, the fight against regional Shiite militias, the imposition of Islamic morals and law, and the negation of Kurdish national aspirations, while the rest of their political agenda remains unclear. Whereas some strong groups have succeeded in maintaining a military presence throughout the war, others have weakened and merged into broader coalitions. Moreover, since the fighting scene is rather volatile, in spite of the stalemate, it is difficult to describe all the armed groups that have emerged since 2011. Instead, analysing representative ones will probably be sufficient to give an idea of current Islamist dynamics. If it is usual for groups to unite punctually against regime forces, they often squabble between themselves, and even kill each other, which seems to be an irrefutable proof that common ideology and shared political aims can regularly be overshadowed by fierce infighting about influence and booty. That is what happened in August 2015 after a battle in the northern Aleppo countryside.[35] The relevant Islamist groups were the Syrian Front (al-Jabha al-Shamiyya, recently dissolved), the Islamic (Islamist?) Movement of Free Syrians (IMFS, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya[36]), the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), Brigade 101 (a FSA infantry brigade around Idlib), and JN.[37]

The Syrian Front is a coalition of many armed groups active near Aleppo. It includes the Nur al-Din Zangi Squadrons (KataÔÇÖib Nur al-Din al-Zangi[38]), the Army of the Holy Warriors (Jaysh al-Mujahidin), the Islamic (Islamist?) Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiyya), the group Stand Upright As You Were Ordered (Istaqim Kama Umirta), the Front for Steadfastness and Furtherance (Jabhat al-Asala wa al-Tanmiya), the Syrian Hawks (Suqur al-Sham),[39] the Movement of Resoluteness (Harakat Hazm, linked to the FSA), and many other ones. An example of Islamic / martial rhetoric is the statement released in September 2015 by the Syrian Front (al-Jabha al-Shamiyya). The FrontÔÇÖs security branch in Aleppo declared that elements from the Lions of Divine Unity Detachment (Sariya Usud al-Tawhid) had eliminated three IS commanders, described as ÔÇÿextremist dogsÔÇÖ (kilab al-khawarij).[40] Probably to show that the USA is not viewed as a genuine and devoted supporter of the Syrian rebellion (especially since the Iranian nuclear deal) and to dissociate itself from supposed American duplicity, the Front has energetically denied the back-up presence in the village of MariÔÇÿ[41] of the American-trained and -supplied Armoured Brigade 30. The statement starts with these words: ÔÇÿIn the name of God the merciful and the compassionate. {And say: ÔÇÿWork (righteousness): Soon will God observe your work, and His Apostle, and the Believers: Soon will ye be brought back to the Knower of what is hidden and what is open: Then will He show you the truth of all what ye did.}ÔÇÖ[42]

The Islamic Front was created by the end of 2013 and then included the Movement of Free Syrians (IMFS), the Battalions of the Partisans of Syria (KataÔÇÖib Ansar al-Sham), the Truth Brigade (LiwaÔÇÖ al-Haqq), the Banner of Divine Unity (LiwaÔÇÖ al-Tawhid), the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), the Kurdish Islamic (Islamist?) Front (al-Jabha al-Islamiyya al-Kurdiyya), as well as others. The head of the deliberative (shura) council was Abu ÔÇÿIsa al-Shaykh (Hawks) while the military commander was Zahran ÔÇÿAllush (Army of Islam); the political structure was headed by Hasan ÔÇÿAbbud (Free Syrians). In the Damascene countryside, it is the Army of Islam that united (mid-2014) the other factions, whereas in northwest Syria, the reunification efforts have mostly been done under the auspices of the Free Syrians. Obviously, the situation on the ground is unstable and constantly evolving, and therefore difficult to grasp precisely because of ephemeral alliances and frequent splits. Yet it can be summarized as the expression of numerous and strenuous attempts to coordinate efforts between a range of armed groups whose shared characteristic is the use of religion-correlated names. Are all the common and proper names used significant, and to what extent do they carry an ideological message and constitute a political platform? This is difficult to assess, although the ideological background is unambiguously religious.

Zahran ÔÇÿAllush, although called ÔÇÿthe shaykhÔÇÖ owing to his (modest) Islamic / Islamist credentials, was (before his assassination in December 2015) essentially a warlord. As mentioned, he was a military commander of the Islamic Front and the chief of the Army of Islam.[43] Like many rebels, he assumed that the regime would only fall as the result of armed struggle.[44] Zahran was released from jail some months after the March 2011 protests under a presidential amnesty. He may have been freed more out of cynicism than for reasons of appeasement, that is, to radicalize the uprising on purpose so as to justify the ensuing fierce repression.[45] His previous popularity among Sunnis in Damascus, who first discreetly supported him, plummeted because of the rockets his group fired rather haphazardly at some parts of the capital.[46] These home-made rockets hit mainly but not exclusively Alawite, Christian, and central bourgeois suburbs (where there are some security buildings and government offices). The aim was to hit the regimeÔÇÖs structures as well as to punish the active collaborators (Alawites) and even the passive supporters (Christians and others).[47] In this sense, depicting Zahran and his group as ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ opponents falls far below reality. On many occasions, his forces and IS have clashed over territory. For Zahran, the Ghuta oasis was his own incontestable sphere of influence. ZahranÔÇÖs relationship with the FSA was described as turbulent because, once again, of matters of territorial control, political sway, and material perks. In addition to this, he declared time after time that he did not favour the idea of a secular government, all the more so if it were to be imposed from outside, i.e. by Western supporters of the exiled SNC (the political body that theoretically supervises the FSA).

While the Army of Islam fights AsadÔÇÖs regime because of its unlawful and criminal character, it has not refrained from indulging in petty criminal practices of its own, like the ÔÇÿdisappearanceÔÇÖ of local civil activists.[48] Zahran also angered local people because of his oppressive behaviour and corrupt practices. In December 2014, many Duma residents took to the streets to protest against corruption and trade monopolies.[49] Some time later, Zahran released a statement saying that ÔÇÿthe purging of the filth of corruption was overÔÇÖ, and that the culprits (the so-called Army of the Islamic Nation, or Jaysh al-Umma, the designated scapegoat) had been ÔÇÿrooted outÔÇÖ.[50] As well as enjoying Saudi support, ÔÇÿAllush also negotiated a rapprochement with Turkey which, together with Qatar, form the Sunni axis that supports the rebellion. Finally, more bent on action than on cerebral subtleties, when asked about the eventual benefits of attending the January 2015 Moscow conference, ÔÇÿAllush replied that he did not care and even had no television on which to follow the international news.

The Movement of Free Syrians is a coalition of various Islamist and salafi groups that united into a single structure, that is today one of the strongest. As in the case of the Army of Islam, most of the IMFS founders were originally Islamist political prisoners released during the Spring 2011 amnesty. The IMFS is active mostly in Idlib province and also around Aleppo and Hama. It is a powerful constituting element of the Army of Conquest (Jaysh al-Fath), founded in March 2015 with Saudi, Qatari, and Turkish support. When looking at the brigadesÔÇÖ names, it is clear that the movement has an explicitly Islamic (and even Islamist) character. These are the Qawafil al-ShuhadaÔÇÖ (the Columns of Martyrs), the Ansar al-Haqq Brigades (the Partisans[51] of Truth Brigades), the Tawhid wa Iman Brigade (the Divine Unity and Faith Brigade), the Hassan b. Thabit[52] Brigade, the Salah al-Din[53] Brigade, the Abu al-FidaÔÇÖ[54] Brigade, etc. Although it regularly coordinates its actions with the FSA, the IMFS does not follow the exiled SNCÔÇÖs directives. Financially, it apparently receives funding from private Kuwaiti donors (in particular), which gives it a margin of autonomy, and it also relies as well on Turkey and Qatar. Whereas it was under-equipped at the beginning, it has managed to acquire more sophisticated weapons and now constitutes a powerful organization.[55]

┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á The IMFSÔÇÖs ideology can be summarized as follows: ┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á┬á

ÔÇÿThe IMFS is an Islamic (or Islamist?) and reformist movement aiming at a complete renewal. It is one of the groups that have joined the Islamic (Islamist?) Front and merged into it. It constitutes a comprehensive military, political, societal, Islamic (or Islmist?) structure. It aims at bringing down the Asad regime in Syria and at building an Islamic state, whose sovereignty will rest only on GodÔÇÖs law ÔÇô how powerful and sublime He is ÔÇô that will be the sole reference, ruler, steering and organizational principle for individual behaviours, society, and stateÔÇÖ.[56]

Although the IMFS emphasizes its commitment to fight only within Syrian territory and not to launch a regional jihad, it seems that there have been some links between its leadership and that of al-Qaida in Iraq. That was at least the case with the now defunct military chief Abu Khalid al-Suri.[57] While the IMFS at first declared its intention to establish an Islamic state, it then backtracked and admitted ÔÇô sincerely? ÔÇô that the populationÔÇÖs state of mind and aspirations had to be taken into account. As is usual among radical Sunnis, the IMFS has painted the uprising in religious terms, i.e. as a jihad against supposed Shiite clout and expansion, namely against the ÔÇÿSafavidÔÇÖ (Iranian)[58] plot to spread Shiism in the Middle East. Similarly, regime supporters have been presented as infidels (kuffar) who legally deserve capital punishment. In a television interview with the Qatari al-Jazeera channel, the late leader Hasan ÔÇÿAbbud[59] stated that there are general convergences between his group and others, including JN and IS, which are fighting the regime and establishing an Islamic state, although (ÔÇÿtacticalÔÇÖ) divergences do exist.[60] Foreign attacks like the American air strike in November 2014 on IMFS targets will probably contribute to radicalizing the group.

Finally, a last military alliance can be mentioned, which is made up of about a dozen factions operating between Aleppo and Idlib. A common declaration announced in November 2015 that they were joining the coalition of Syrian Democratic Forces, formed by mid-October 2015 and composed of Arab, Kurdish, and Assyrian units. According to the statement released during the merging ceremony, the aim of the new (mildly?) Islamist alliance was to fight both IS and the ÔÇÿcriminal Baathist regimeÔÇÖ.[61]

A Jihadi Group That Tries to Refresh its Virginity

The Nusra Front is an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq and its presence in Syria dates back to 2011, although this was only announced officially at the start of 2012. This group stands at the vanguard of clashes against regime security forces. The rising influence of JN is due to abundant funding, efficient weapons (delivered from overseas plus arms and munitions captured from the regimeÔÇÖs own forces), and presence of highly motivated (local, Arab, and foreign) combatants. Estimates put the number of JN fighters at around 3,500 in 2013 and some 5,000 (or a bit more) in 2014.[62] In all probability, it was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an amir (military chief) from al-Qaida in Iraq, who sent Abu Muhammad al-Julani to Syria to set up a jihadi fighting group. Most (if not all) JN commanders originate from al-Qaida, like the Saudi ÔÇÿAbd al-Muhsin ÔÇÿAbd Allah Ibrahim al-Sharikh (killed in March 2014), the Kuwaiti Hamid b. Hamad al-ÔÇÿAli, Abu Yusuf al-Turki ÔÇÿthe sniperÔÇÖ (killed in an American air strike), and others. But after a while, around 2013, al-Baghdadi proclaimed that JN and al-Qaida had been merged to create the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an unilateral decision rejected by both Julani and al-QaidaÔÇÖs Egyptian leader al-Zawahiri. Some fighters defected from JN to ISIS with resulting infighting, in which some 700 JN fighters had been killed by June 2015. Although ideological similarities did not prevent regular military confrontation, there has also been some cooperation against common rivals whenever necessary.

JNÔÇÖs origins have ruined the reputation of this rebel movement because of its global insurgent and terrorist agenda. More problematically, this stigma has harmed the whole Syrian revolution (insofar as it can be dubbed so). In December 2012, the US declared JN a foreign terrorist organization. Yet, the French foreign minister surprisingly ÔÇô and rather scandalously ÔÇô declared in January 2013 that ÔÇÿJN is doing a good job [against Asad]ÔÇÖ. Hence the question of whether JN constitutes a threat, and to whom, remains open. In particular, the idea that JN may be a reliable ally in the fight against IS is highly doubtful since both currently carry out common operations (for instance in the Qalamun mountains north east of Damascus).[63] Whatever the assumptions, numerous and undisputable evidence shows that JN is responsible for the targeting of civilians, kidnappings (to raise money through ransom), car bombing attacks, and summary executions. But in contrast to ISÔÇÖs cruelty, or to some Islamist armed groupsÔÇÖ sheer venal criminality, JN does sometimes adhere to some form of moral rules. Thus in September 2014, 45 Fijian UN peacekeepers were unconditionally released after two weeksÔÇÖ captivity.[64] When thirteen nuns from the Christian village of MaÔÇÿlula (north of Damascus) were kidnapped in December 2013, JN appeared undoubtedly as an extremist Islamist organization. But owing to mediation (from Syria, Lebanon, and Qatar), they were finally freed (March 2014) without being harmed.

The Nusra Front has engendered opposition among many Syrians through the imposition of strict religious regulations (according to its narrow-minded and brutal perception of what shariÔÇÿa should be) in areas it controls, like the prohibition of smoking, which can be sanctioned by the amputation of some finger joints as a first warning. Yet, at the same time, some reports have cited cases of villages where the selling of tobacco was (and still is?) permitted, since JN has levied taxes on all these transactions in a mix of dogmatic rigidity and pragmatic mercantilism. In many instances, JN has also imposed strict and discriminatory rules on women and girls (concerning dress and public movement) according to their reactionary vision of Islamic law (Valter, 2014). They also seem to have recruited child soldiers, in total noncompliance with international ÔÇô secular ÔÇô conventions (the performance of IS is even more frightening: total brainwashing so as to make them cannon fodder). But apart from military might and (the nefarious) enforcement of shariÔÇÿa, JN also provides basic services (electricity, food distribution, and the like) in the areas under its control.[65] As an example of extreme brutality, a video shows a woman (in her fifties) shot publicly for supposed prostitution and adultery, with fighters placidly chattering in the background, allegedly in January 2015 in MaÔÇÿarrat al-NuÔÇÿman in northwestern Syria.[66] As this is unambiguously the type of ÔÇÿlegalÔÇÖ system that JN wants to impose in all Syria, this organization can certainly not be defined as moderate, since neither its goals nor its methods fall within the realm of reason and restraint.[67]

JN has been depicted as the first Syrian armed group to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks that killed civilians. Yet it seems, and this has been the case since the very beginning of the conflict, that other Islamist groups can also be considered as responsible for civilian casualties, for instance through random rocket launches (on supposedly enemy districts, even if civilian), not to mention intended and targeted murders of people suspected of even passive support for the regime. In any case, many of JNÔÇÖs attacks against regime forces have also killed civilians, such as in Aleppo in October 2012 when an officersÔÇÖ club and two hotels supposed to host militiamen (shabbiha) ÔÇô described as ÔÇÿdensÔÇÖ ÔÇô were blasted.[68] By mid-September 2015, reports had been released that some 45 regime soldiers captured during the surrender of the Abu Duhur air base (near Idlib) had been executed by JN. Whereas some press comments have suggested ÔÇô out of ignorance? ÔÇô that this was the first time JN had engaged in carrying out such a kind of collective execution, the mass shooting of prisoners (particularly Alawites) is a familiar JN modus operandi. In this sense, JN is absolutely not a moderate group. Although some cases of peaceful surrender have been reported, essentially under the FSAÔÇÖs control, many occurrences of summary executions (after torture) of regime soldiers or militiamen have also been widely documented and attributed to JN. Thus, in many instances, it is definitely not a magnanimous version of the shariÔÇÿa that has been implemented by JN, but rather an expeditious and cruel one.[69] When some 50 regime soldiers surrendered at Khan al-ÔÇÿAsal (west of Aleppo) after a battle against JN, they were almost all executed.[70] After another clash with JN (some two years ago), the captured soldiers were literally piled up and insulted (ÔÇÿYou, AsadÔÇÖs dogsÔÇÖ) before being collectively shot with yells of ÔÇÿAllah-u akbarÔÇÖ.[71] In these cases, it was not even a harsh shariÔÇÿa-based punishment but simply a brutal extrajudicial execution. In almost all the videos posted on the internet by JN in order to boast of their own atrocities, the following heinous expressions can be often heard: ÔÇÿthe Shiite Nusayri[72] occupationÔÇÖ, or ÔÇÿthe Nusayri pig from Qardaha [the native village of the Asad family], the militiamanÔǪÔÇÖ

Although religious minorities seem to have been targeted per se, the bulk of JNÔÇÖs hatred is levelled at Alawites. But the leader of JN stated in a May 2015 interview with al-Jazeera that ÔÇÿwe have to apply the lex talionis (thaÔÇÖr) against the AlawitesÔÇÖ for objective reasons: ÔÇÿexpulsion, torture, killing, rapeÔÇÖ. Not surprisingly for those who are acquainted with JNÔÇÖs ideology, Abu Muhammad al-Julani made it clear once again that Alawites would be spared only if they abandoned the regime (i.e. surrender in time) and relinquished their so-called heterodox creed (otherwise they would be considered as apostates deserving death).[73] Julani thus said during the interview that if an Alawite surrenders to JN and repents, he will not be killed ÔÇÿeven if he killed a thousand of usÔÇÖ. Yet available data clearly show the opposite. This scorning and threatening way of talking is reminiscent of al-QaidaÔÇÖs verbal style to which al-Julani swore ÔÇô once again ÔÇô allegiance in the Jazeera interview.[74] It may appear from JNÔÇÖs actions that all Alawite (or even Shiite) spaces constitute military targets, like the two villages of FuÔÇÿa and Kafriyya near Idlib, besieged and regularly attacked (though of little strategic importance), as happened in mid-September 2015 in an Uzbek-led JamaÔÇÿat Imam Bukhari (a JN affiliate) suicide raid. Christians are not called masihiyyun ÔÇô the followers of the Messiah ÔÇô but nasara, a rather depreciative term. But in spite of all this anathematizing terminology, Julani stressed that Christians and Shiites are only fought by JN when they fight against it.

Julani has accused the West, and America in particular, of nurturing imperialist objectives in the Middle East to the detriment of Arab countries and (Sunni) Islam. Yet, he has not gone as far as to utter an irremediable condemnation, so as to leave the door open. But he has declared that America is using the Asad regime, with which it even collaborates militarily (in a reference to air strikes on the same targets). In a half-veiled warning, he has even added that the whole international system has to be held responsible for the ÔÇÿfabrication of false godsÔÇÖ (tawaghit, a derogatory term with a clear religious sense). Furthermore, in a not very credible attempt at portraying his group as independent (from al-Qaida and other militant Islamist organizations), moderate, and purely Syrian, Julani has said that they only accept (pious) individual donations (tabarruÔÇÿat fardiyya) but not conditional support (daÔÇÿm mashrut) from abroad, plus the booty (ghanaÔÇÖim) taken from the regime forces. Apart from toppling the Asad regime, JN aims unambiguously to establish an Islamic (or Ismalist) emirate (imara) in Syria, as officially announced by al-Julani in a September 2014 speech (a short time after the creation of the Islamic/ Islamist caliphate in northwest Iraq by IS), yet with the following toning down (in a formal concession to the shura principle): the other main Islamist groups ÔÇô and particularly ÔÇÿthe sincere fighters and the pious scholarsÔÇÖ ÔÇô must come to a preliminary agreement.[75] He reiterated this theme in similar terms during the Jazeera interview: ÔÇÿthe establishment of a well-guided Islamic/Islamist powerÔÇÖ (iqamat hukm islami rashid) which would not be a basis from which to attack America and the West. It is not clear whether or not JN wants to establish a caliphate in the future. But in this eventuality, there will be a harsh competition between it and IS, whose self-declared caliphate has been criticized as illegitimate by the leader of JN (in his famous interview with al-Jazeera) in the sense that it is ÔÇÿnot based on Islamic lawÔÇÖ (i.e. proclaimed without the consensus of the learned and pious Muslims?).[76]

In a second interview with the same TV station (4 June 2015),[77] al-Julani embarked on a broad survey of Islamic history to show the WestÔÇÖs perfidy. Apart from that, nothing new emerged except that he stressed vigorously (more than the first time) the irreparable gap between JN and IS, probably in an attempt to alleviate American animosity and to present the group as a reliable partner devoted to the fight against terrorism. In addition, the purpose of the interview was to present JN as a genuine Syrian movement (in spite of its rather large foreign contingent), only committed to the toppling of the dictatorial Asad regime, for the sake of national and regional stability. The audience was therefore manifold: international (JN is not terrorist), (Sunni) pan-Arab (JN counters Iranian influence), and local (JN has a purely national agenda). Since the US-led coalition is too big to oppose (and moreover is busy enough confronting IS), the ideal scapegoat to mobilize people and reassure sceptics remains the traditional Iranian foe with its ÔÇÿdeviantÔÇÖ Shiite creed and imperialist plans, plus its stooges (pro-regime Alawites and Hizbollah). This second Jazeera interview must assuredly be viewed as an endeavour to restore a tarnished image. Besides all this, the common points between the two parts of the interview were the speakerÔÇÖs sartorial appearance ÔÇô Julani dressed in a rather typical Syrian way (to exhibit his nationalism), apart from the black veil upon his head (to stress that he is a pious and militant Muslim) ÔÇô and the flashy furniture.[78]


Concluding Remarks: An Upheaval Hijacked by Non Intellectual Islamists

Nothing particular will be said here about IS, the most vicious of all the Islamist terrorist organizations, since it very much resembles the others, as well as JN, but for the technicalities of its killing process and also for its tactical methods. In spite of many differences, the long-term strategy of all the Islamist groups seems more or less the same, with some nuances of course (the FSA being at one end of the spectrum and IS at the other). In this way, one can hardly pretend that there is any secular armed opposition, and it is an acknowledged fact that all Islamist movements are ÔÇô by definition ÔÇô averse to secularism and to the tolerance of Islamic diversity as well as of religious minorities. They may also have a problem with democracy, since only GodÔÇÖs will[79] is supposed to prevail. IS is for its part a terrible ÔÇô and rather rich ÔÇô killing machine more than anything else, and the terms ÔÇÿcaliphateÔÇÖ or ÔÇÿstateÔÇÖ have been totally usurped. It is essentially and primarily a criminal organization. Although it pretends to be strictly following GodÔÇÖs orders, one can legitimately ask where is the mercy of God, which the Koran mentions in almost every verse? Indeed, it looks as if only the ÔÇô relatively few ÔÇô verses calling to jihad, warfare, revenge, reprisal, punishment, killing, enslaving, destruction, intolerance, and the like have been taken into consideration by the leadership of IS, which is composed of manic preachers prone to excommunication and frustrated Baathist officers with long experience of bloody repression (Ju├írez Becerra, 2014). It seems however that some of these officers, affiliated to the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order, have contested ISÔÇÖs austere and brutal interpretation of Islam (like the destruction of archaeological sites and the persecution of minorities).

It can be assumed that the KoranÔÇÖs bellicose message (many verses) and the ProphetÔÇÖs brutal acts ÔÇô although the Koran states just once (XXXIII, 21) that the Prophet is the pre-eminent model ÔÇô constitute an a-historical archetype for Syrian (and international) reactionary Sunnism (and probably Shiism also), not to mention extremist Islamists, with IS at the forefront. For IS, rebelling against GodÔÇÖs will (which they pretend to represent) is absolutely prohibited and severely sanctioned. Muhammad thus sometimes indulged in cruelty in the heat of military action, like after the battle of the ditch (khandaq, in 627) when he cold-bloodedly ordered the decapitation of some 600-700 men from MedinaÔÇÖs Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe (plus the enslavement of women and children), suspected of collusion with the enemy. After a big hole (khudud) was dug in the market place, men were beheaded in front of Muhammad, who was often impassive, sometimes sarcastic. One of the executed men ÔÇô a particularly fierce adversary of the Prophet ÔÇô was wearing an orange-red tunic (hulla shaqhiyya, an allusion to dates when their tawny colour turns red) (al-Waqidi: 1993, vol.┬á1, 512-513). How not to draw parallels between this murderous ritual and the many gruesome executions carried out by IS?[80] After the takeover of Khaybar oasis (628-629), Muhammad acquiesced in the torturing of the Jewish chief Kinana, apparently to know where he had hidden his valuables, before commanding his execution (an event mentioned in classical Arabic sources). On 19 August 2015, a photograph was released on social media, showing the decapitated body of the former director of antiquities at Palmyra, Khalid al-AsÔÇÿad. He was 82. After having been reportedly tortured in order to reveal where he had hidden antiques, his throat had been slit before his head was totally cut off by some IS executioner. Yet the Prophet generally showed clemency. And God depicts himself in the Koran as merciful. But where is mercy to be found with IS? During the conquest of Mecca (630), Muhammad granted an almost general amnesty, which excluded six men and four women (even then, not all were executed) since the only thing the Prophet could not tolerate was felony and any questioning of his status of messenger.[81]

Another example is connected to the treatment of captives, and some of the ProphetÔÇÖs deeds have been taken by Islamists (especially IS) as examples legitimizing atrocities. At the beginning of the prophetic predication, there was some kind of compassion towards male captives (LXXVI, verses 8-9). After the victory against the polytheists at Badr (624), the attitude became more bellicose (VIII, 68/67-72/71): {It is not fitting for an Apostle that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land. [ÔǪ] If they have treacherous designs against thee, (O Apostle!), they have already been in treason against God, and so has He given (thee) power over them.} Just after Badr, Bilal, the first muezzin, required that a captive be put to death; similarly, other prisoners were executed and some injured people were finished off. Yet, in a sura probably revealed some time after Badr, a passage seems to recommend, half-heartedly, to spare prisoners, probably for future trading (XLVII, 4-5/4). The Koran does not forbid slavery and the Prophet himself possessed a few female slaves as concubines.[82] During the (preventive) expedition against the rebellious Banu Mustaliq tribe (627), for instance, the female captives were offered to the warriors as refreshments. But in spite of the Koranic permission to make the most of captive women unhesitatingly, the ProphetÔÇÖs example also showed sometimes a relative amount of magnanimity as well as pragmatism. But according to some fatwas, assuredly used by IS (and other extremists), the rape of ÔÇÿheterodoxÔÇÖ women is licit on the basis of the Koranic concept of mulk al-yamin, and enslaved ladies and women would have supposedly a legal and protected status. The attitude of IS fighters towards the women of the enemy combines savage masculinity (humiliation, rape, sadism, torture) with formal respect for Islamic law (understood in an inhumane way). When they capture women hailing from minority communities (Alawites, Druses, Yazidis, Christians, etc.), if they do not kill them straight away, they enslave them before raping or selling them. Rape and human trade cannot apparently be carried out outside a prescribed legal framework (Khadduri, 2006).

Among the worst cases of ISÔÇÖs viciousness was the slaughtering of some 1,500 (mostly Shiite) cadets at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit in Iraq in June 2014, after they were exhibited like sacrificial sheep. Another dreadful case was the massacre committed at Tabqa, a military air base in northern Syria, when some 220 captured government soldiers were gruesomely killed in a filmed mass execution (August 2014). Some ÔÇÿprimitiveÔÇÖ weapons (like knives and swords) seem to be considered by executioners as genuinely Islamic, in addition to ÔÇÿarchaicÔÇÖ ways of execution (like throat slitting, beheading, crucifixion, and even burning), except when IS killers resort to shooting to save time. ISÔÇÖs strategy has aimed at instilling terror from the very beginning: after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq (when IS was part of al-Qaida), in 2006 when it became an autonomous offshoot, and from 2013 onwards when it turned out to be totally distinct. The general tactic has been to rely on the lethal exaltation of jihadists and on the insurrectionary expertise of ex-Baathist officers, in order to create an atmosphere of fear and infuse total submission.[83]

Moreover, one of ISÔÇÖs distinctive features is that it shows an absolute neglect for recognized borders, since its geo-political constructions derive from the provinces of the Islamic ÔÇÿgolden ageÔÇÖ. IS constitutes a well-centralized terrorist structure whose (erroneously reported as deceased) first chief, the self-declared caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, possesses some academic credentials in theology (through a doctorate prepared in Baghdad). The violence that manifests itself through punishment by fire is symptomatic. A video was released (February 2015) showing the terrible execution of a Jordanian pilot (hailing from a tribe notorious for its magic practices) whose war-plane had been shot down. He was locked in a cage and burnt alive. The famous historian al-Tabari (d. 923) gives in his History interesting details about the first caliph, Abu Bakr (al-Siddiq), whose onomastic similitude with Abu Bakr (al-Baghdadi) is far from being a sheer coincidence. Confronted with a revolt contesting the political and fiscal centralism of Medina, Abu Bakr fought this ÔÇÿapostasyÔÇÖ (ridda) with cruelty (even if he was sometimes accommodating).

Tabari cites a letter from Abu Bakr to his officers (Tabari, vol.┬á3, 251): ÔÇÿ[ÔǪ] I order that nobody be fought nor slain before being reminded of [the commands coming from] GodÔÇÖs Apostle. [ÔǪ] War will be waged against whomever will refuse. Then rebels will find no shelter against my ire, and my soldiers will burn them, exterminate them, enslave women and children.┬á[ÔǪ]ÔÇÖ In another letter, Abu Bakr declares (ibid., 252): ÔÇÿMy generals will accept nothing but submission (islam). [ÔǪ] Who will be impervious to my orders will be fought, and if God gives us preponderance, they will be liquidated by fire and steel.┬á[ÔǪ]ÔÇÖ When recalling the battle of Buzakha (north of Medina), Tabari gives these details (ibid., 262): Abu BakrÔÇÖs general Khalid b. al-Walid, ÔÇÿthe Sword of IslamÔÇÖ, carried out ferocious reprisals to avenge atrocities committed against Muslims. He burnt alive rebellious people, bound others hand and foot before crushing them with stones, pushed some off the summits of cliffs, threw others into wells head first, and riddled the remnant with arrows. Another version of the same event presents Abu Bakr transmitting the following instructions to Khalid (ibid., 263): ÔÇÿ[ÔǪ] If you find anybody who has murdered a Muslim, kill him in an exemplary way in order to scare the others.┬á[ÔǪ]ÔÇÖ[84] Few things are common between the two Abu Bakrs, except the name, chosen intentionally by the leader of IS who wants to be the first caliph of the Islamic revival and the first ÔÇô contemporary ÔÇô successor of the Prophet.[85] But whereas Abu Bakr al-SiddiqÔÇÖs cruelty may be understood as a response to a brutal environment, Abu Bakr al-BaghdadiÔÇÖs criminality can only be explained as an expression of systematic and pathological brutality directed towards specific groups: other rebellious Syrian factions, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians,[86] Alawites, Druses, Ismailis, not to mention the West and its allies (with the dubious exception of Turkey, at least until quite recently). Yet for Syrians stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, the Asad regime is often worse than IS, which can represent an attractive, well-equipped, and efficient structure. This criminal gang, with its preposterous yet terrifying religious aura, has succeeded in mobilizing frustrated, unemployed, and marginalized Muslims around the world.


The regime bears a huge responsibility for the impulse given to Islamist groups, because of its nihilist brutality. On the other side, the breeding ground for Islamism was very fertile because of the traditional character of much of Syrian society, which has been almost unable ÔÇô with the exception of now largely marginalized civil activists ÔÇô to express itself other than in religious terms. For different reasons ÔÇô the terrible repression exerted by the regime, the reactionary trends of Syrian Sunnism, the accumulated religious and community hatreds, the involvement of foreign actors┬áÔÇô, the upheaval has very quickly taken on a militant religious aura, to the detriment of a political perception which could have maintained some doors open to the (still remote) perspective of a national reconciliation. In the meanwhile, armed Islamist groups are engaged more in military action than in reflecting on new power relations, so as to save what remains of the country, even on Islamic principles.

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Professor St├®phane Valter is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Le Havre. His last book co-edited with Jean-Fran├ºois Daguzan Les forces arm├®es arabes et moyen-orientales (apr├¿s les printemps arabes), 2014.


[1]Ma├«tre de conf├®rences (habilit├® ├á diriger des recherches) in Arabic language and civilization at Le Havre University. The author is profoundly grateful to Professor Peter Sluglett for his minute reading and relevant remarks which have greatly enhanced the quality of this paper.

[2]Moreover, many Orientalists, from the late nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, have used the term Islamism when they actually intended to refer to Islam.

[3]From the Hanafi and ShafiÔÇÿi schools.

[4]A medieval split from mainstream Imami Shiism, founded in Iraq (city of Kufa) by the end of the eighth century, and then established in the Syrian coastal mountains (beginning of the eleventh century).

[5]A split almost a century ago from the Alawites with whom they are often erroneously amalgamated, because of different tribal allegiances and dissimilar doctrinal creeds. In spite of these disparities, both share ÔÇô differently ÔÇô a sense of marginalization, which explains why the regime has always viewed Murshidis as natural allies.

[6]Ismailis represent a minority trend within Shiism (some 15 million people all around the world), but they were very active in the Middle Ages, with the Tunisian-Egyptian Fatimid dynasty (882-1171), the Nizari branch whose headquarter was the Alamut citadel (in Iran, 1094-1256), and the proselytising missions in Central Asia. They live today mainly in India, Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria. The Druses are an eleventh century split from (Egyptian Fatimid) Ismailism. They call themselves muwahhidun, or adepts of GodÔÇÖs unity. They live in Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, and their creed resembles that of the Alawites (metempsychosis, initiation, allegoric teachings, etc.).

[7]Among the other Islamic characteristics: a Ministry for Religious Affairs, a grand mufti of the Republic, Islamic celebrations officially recognized, the authorization for women to be veiled the way they deem appropriate, the administrative weekend falling on Friday (and also Saturday since the mid-2000s), state-financed institutes for the memorization of the Koran, a faculty of theology within the University of Damascus, the implementation of shariÔÇÿa for family and personal matters, imams and religious staff in mosques remunerated by the state, religious programs on state television and radio, the organization by the state of the small (ÔÇÿumra) and ÔÇÿbigÔÇÖ (hajj) pilgrimages to Mecca, the attendance at important Islamic feasts by the head of state, etc.

[8]T. Pierret is also good on the Muslim Brethren, as well as detailing the splits in the Sunni hierarchy between, for example, Aleppo and Damascus. The English edition of his book was finished in early 2012, that is, after the conflict had started.

[9]d. 1328 in Damascus.

[10]This fatwa was partially translated by Edward Salisbury, Journal of the American Oriental Society, tome II, 1851. A more complete French translation by Stanislas Guyard, ÔÇÿLe fetwa dÔÇÖIbn Taimiyyah sur les NosairisÔÇÖ, appeared in Journal asiatique, sixth series, Vol. XVIII, August-September 1871, p.┬á158-198.

[11]The very depreciatory term for Alawites (a word that indicates a kinship with ÔÇÿAli, the ProphetÔÇÖs cousin and son-in-law) since ÔÇÿNusayriÔÇÖ refers to an obscure medieval (ninth century) eponymous Iraqi propagandist.

[12]A tenth-eleventh century breakaway from Ismaili Shiism, characterized by extremist doctrine (influenced by Mazdeism, messianism, and chiliasm) and deeds (bloody anti-feudal revolts in southern Iraq, massacres of pilgrims, the pillage of Medina and Mecca, stealing of the Black Stone from 930 to 952, etc.).

[13]A generic ÔÇô and very derogatory ÔÇô term employed by Sunnis to designate all Shiites, and especially those who rely on an allegoric reading of the Koran, which supposedly enables them to practise antinomianism, i.e. the neglect of direct religious commandments.

[14]Although people may not have known the precise wording of the text, its broad content was ÔÇô even vaguely ÔÇô sufficiently recognized to sound the Sunni tocsin against supposed heretics.

[15]Sura XLIX, The Inner Apartments, (al-Hujurat), verse 9.

[16]For a French translation and the Arabic reference.

[17]Salafi means literally ÔÇÿthe one who adheres to the teachings of the first generations of MuslimÔÇÖ, and usually refers to Saudi-inspired Wahhabi ideology. Jihadi signifies ÔÇÿready to perform the holy warÔÇÖ. And takfiri is the Arabic word for ÔÇÿanathematizingÔÇÖ.

[18]Apart from the esoteric teaching and subsequent neglect of canonical prayers, the traditional rarity of mosques is also due to extremely poor living conditions, with no money available to build such costly edifices.

[19]Reports by French officers frequently mention the gruesome discovery of impaled Alawites, as deterring examples, in the mountain and surrounding countryside.

[20]The data given on the Syrian BrotherhoodÔÇÖs site are much bigger. See www.ikhwansyria.com.

[21]The simple fact of belonging to the Brotherhood has long been punishable by the death penalty.

[22]Other attempts were also made by the Lebanese theologian Musa Sadr (1928-1978) to present the Alawites as real Shiites. Similarly, a few books were published by Druse authors about their community.

[23]Internal rivalry between Hama and Aleppo has been another reason for the chronic weakness of the movement. See Raphaël Lefèvre, New Leaders for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, 11.12.2014, http://carnegie-mec.org/2014/12/11/new-leaders-for-syrian-muslim-brotherhood, accessed on 27.9.2015.

[24]Although clearly functioning in close synergy with moderate Islamism, the FSA has also been capable of setting up tactical alliances with ÔÇÿheterodoxÔÇÖ Islamic sects, like the Druses. In September 2015, when the Druse shaykh Wahid BalÔÇÿus was killed in a bloody explosion, his community immediately accused the regime and then started to coordinate military actions with the FSA, which controls some areas around the city of DarÔÇÿa.

[25]n.a., Al-MuÔÇÿarada al-Musallaha fi Suriya, 5.9.2013, http://www.aljazeera.net/home/print/f6451603-4dff-4ca1-9c10-122741d17432/2516d32c-6872-4461-bb17-332985343ca5, accessed on 23.9.2015. And n.a., Bayan TaÔÇÖsis Qiyadat HayÔÇÖat DuruÔÇÿ al-Thawra fi Suriya, 30.9.2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecldcfDTPOE accessed on 31.8.2015.

[26]Howard LaFranchi, For Newly Recognized Syrian Rebel Coalition, a First Dispute with US (+ video), 12.12.2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Foreign-Policy/2012/1212/For-newly-recognized-Syrian-rebel-coalition-a-first-dispute-with-US-video, accessed on 25.9.2015.

[27]In a recent message posted on the official site, the BrotherhoodÔÇÖs general controller Muhammad Hikmat Walid reiterated his refusal of partition, thus showing that Arab chauvinism vis-├á-vis Kurdish national aspirations transcends ideological or religious differences (among the regimeÔÇÖs supporters as well as the opposition).

[28]See the site darbuna.net (ÔÇÿOur PathÔÇÖ): MuÔÇÿadh al-Khatib, IhdaÔÇÖ ila Ikhwa Akrad Kuthur, 19.9.2014, http://www.darbuna.net/blog/2014/09/19, accessed on 10.10.2015.

[29]MuÔÇÿadh al-Khatib, Hal Tashriq al-Shams min Musku?, 11.11.2014, http://www.darbuna.net/blog/2014/11/11, accessed on 10.10.2015.

[30]Ghulat signifies those who exaggerate, i.e. those who profess extremely deviant doctrines (reincarnation, metempsychosis, antinomianism, and the like), while khawarij refers to a sect notorious for its violence and excommunicating practices. In the contemporary context, ghulat are Shii sects or offshoots (e.g. Alawites, Druses, Ismailis), while the term khawarij is a reference to Sunni extremism (e.g. JN, IS).

[31]The very meaning of this expression is debatable; if one extreme represents excommunicating and terrorist groups, and if the supposed centre is occupied by ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ Islamists (like the Brotherhood), what does the other extreme consist of? Atheist Muslims committed to secular and nationalist ideology? As this makes little sense, it may be preferable to define the Shields and the Brotherhood as Islamist structures, more or less violent according to circumstances, and sometimes even close to groups like JN or IS via their modus operandi and discourse.

[32]See the video, n.a., The Religious Hymn: The Time of Incursion Has Come, 14.11.2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQjTHNN1c2w, accessed on 15.11.2015.

[33]See Rapha├½l Lef├¿vre, The Syrian BrotherhoodÔÇÖs Islamic State Challenge, 11.2.2015, http://pomeps.org/2015/02/11/the-syrian-brotherhoods-islamic-state-challenge, accessed on 28.10.2015.

[34]Surname of ÔÇÿUmar, the second caliph, famous for his unbending way of settling matters. ÔÇÿUmar is rather hated among Shiites.

[35]Once the regime forces had been defeated, Islamist groups quarrelled about the military spoils, which allowed a successful counterattack and led to the rebelsÔÇÖ being driven out from the conquered village (Bashkawi).

[36]The new name since January 2013.

[37]n.a., n.t., n.d., http://aranews.org/2015/08/%D9%81%D8%B5%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84-%D8%A5%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%AA%D9%84%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%BA%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%85-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84/, posted on 26.8.2015, accessed on 30.10.2015.

[38]Nur al-Din (d. 1174) was a Turkish military commander (atabeg) who enjoyed a large autonomy in northern Syria, conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul, and fought the Crusaders.

[39]The Syrian Hawks (Suqur al-Sham), operating around Idlib, merged in March 2015 with the more influential IMFS.

[40]n.a., Al-MuÔÇÖassasa al-Amniyya fi al-Jabha al-Shamiyya Tatabanna Ightiyal 3 Qada li-DaÔÇÿish bi-Halab, 31.8.2015, http://www.orient-news.net/?page=news_show&id=90244, accessed on 17.9.2015. The official statement says: ÔÇÿPraise be to God, the detachment [ÔǪ] has been able to perform the first liquidating operation against three khawarij dogs. [ÔǪ] God is the master of action and successÔÇÖ.

[41]Some 25 km north of Aleppo.

[42]IX, 105. The translation is taken from The Holy Quran, Text, Translation, and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Damascus, Dar al-Mushaf, (first edition in 1934?). n.a., Bi-al-Wathiqa al-Jabha al-Shamiyya: al-Firqa 30 al-Mudarraba Amirikiyyan Ghayr Mawjuda fi al-Rif al-Halabi, 5.9.2015, http://www.almjhar.com/ar-sy/NewsView/2212/99918/%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%AB%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%A9_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%A9_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%A9_30_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%A9_%D8%A3%D9%85%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%83%D9%8A%D8%A7_%D8%BA%D9%8A%D8%B1_%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AC%D9%88%D8%AF%D8%A9_%D9%81%D9%8A_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%8A.aspx, accessed on 20.10.2015.

[43]He was born in 1971 in Duma, a city in the eastern Damascene countryside, his main stronghold and a hotbed of rebellion, repeatedly and severely shelled by the regime with many civilian casualties each time. He is reported to have had three wives. Although the Koran allows men to have four synchronic spouses (on the condition of equity, plus the slave concubines, here without any condition), few Syrians used to have so many. But because of male haemorrhage and in order to provide unwedded ladies with a dowry as well as to care for deserted widows, it may be that polygamy has become more widespread, out of humanity, as Sayyid Qutb stated in his Koranic exegesis, Fi Zilal al-QurÔÇÖan.

[44]Yahya Alous, WhoÔÇÖs Who: Zahran Alloush, 7.9.2015, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Who/29781/, accessed on 11.10.2015. His father was one of the salafi movementÔÇÖs leaders in Duma before he left for Saudi Arabia. Zahran studied Islamic law and jurisprudence (shariÔÇÿa and fiqh) at Damascus University. He then continued his Islamic studies in Saudi Arabia. Back in Syria, he was linked to a salafi proselytizing group and arrested in 2009.

[45]Yet this analysis does not seem totally convincing since the course of events has been completely unfavourable to the regime (in the sense that the country is largely destroyed).

[46]Rockets do hit randomly but, to be fair, the regimeÔÇÖs response is not always very precise either. In September 2015 for instance, about 70 rockets hit the mostly Christian residential district of QassaÔÇÿ in central Damascus every day.

[47](Islamist?) Although not very destructive, these rockets have managed to kill scores of innocent people and instil terror, rather than garner significant backing for the Army of Islam.

[48]Razan Zaytuneh, a Syrian human rights lawyer and a civil society activist, was abducted in December 2013 in Duma, with her husband WaÔÇÖil Hamadeh (a co-founder of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria) and two colleagues, Samira Khalil (a political activist) and Nazim Hamadi. Before the kidnapping, Razan had warned friends that she had received threats emanating from armed groups in Duma (first of all the Army of Islam).

[49]n.a., Duma Tanqalib ÔÇÿala Zahran ÔÇÿAllush, wa al-Jaysh al-Suri Yaqtarib min Muhasarati-ha,

17.11.2014, https://www.almayadeen.net/ar/news/syria-EJaXhceCCkWENKPmAOQlbw/%D8%AF%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84%D8%A8-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B2%D9%87%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B4-%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%8A%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%AA%D9%87%D8%A7, accessed on 8.3.2015. Apparently, ZahranÔÇÖs own warehouse was well supplied with foodstuffs whereas the regime-imposed blockade was causing severe food shortages.

[50]n.a., ÔÇÿAllush Yunhi Tathir Duma fi 6 saÔÇÿat, wa Tadarub al-AnbaÔÇÖ Hawla Masir QaÔÇÖid Jaysh al-Umma, 4.1.2015, http://www.shaamtimes.net/news-detailz.php?id=20973, accessed on 20.8.2015.

[51]Ansar: the supporters from Medina who granted refuge to Muhammad during his emigration (hijra) from Mecca.

[52]Hassan b. Thabit was among a group of three poets from Medina (together with KaÔÇÿb b. Malik and ÔÇÿAbd Allah b. Rawaha) whom the Prophet had engaged to counter his foesÔÇÖ diatribes and sully the honour of his adversaries.

[53]Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, 1138-1193, one of the most powerful Muslim military chiefs during the Crusades, of Kurdish origin. He toppled the Shiite Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and pledged allegiance to the Sunni caliph in Baghdad. He also conquered Jerusalem.

[54]1273-1331, emir of Hama, also a famous geographer.

[55]According to reports, the IMFS, along with other groups, established in April 2015 the Fatah Halab (the Conquest of Aleppo) joint operations room.

[56]n.a., n.d., TaÔÇÿrif bi-al-Haraka, http://ahraralsham.net/?page_id=4195a, accessed on 28.2.2016.

[57]He was released from jail in Syria in December 2011 and killed in February 2014. n.a., Man Huwa Abu Khalid al-Suri wa Kayfa Qutila?, 24.2.2014, http://www.all4syria.info/Archive/132991/, accessed on 14.11.2015.

[58]The Persian Safavid dynasty (1501-1736) adopted Shiism as its official dogma. The use of this term is very pejorative.

[59]Killed in September 2014 and replaced by Abu Jabir Hashim al-Shaykh, both a soldier and an Islamist propagandist. He was jailed in 2005 and freed in 2011.

[60]n.a., Al-Jazira, LiqaÔÇÖ RaÔÇÖis al-HayÔÇÖa al-Siyasiyya fi al-Jabha al-Islamiyya, 22.12.2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUCsLy-h35Y, accessed on 12.9.2015. If physiognomy has any scientific value, ÔÇÿAbbud at least looked less fanatical and obdurate than the self-proclaimed IS caliph or the Army of Islam warlord, and he was able to articulate a (deeply Islamist) program.

[61]These factions are: Rebel Army Faction, Brigade 30, Martyrs of Idlib Countryside Brigade, ÔÇÿAyn Jalut Brigade, Infantry Brigade 99, Hamza Brigade, QaÔÇÿqaÔÇÿ Brigade, Special Forces Brigade 455, Saljuq Brigade, Regiment 102, Ahrar al-Shamal, plus tribal forces from Aleppo and its countryside, the Kurdish Front, PeopleÔÇÖs Protection Units, and WomenÔÇÖs Protection Units.

[62]n.a., Jabhat al-Nusra, 1.10.2015 (updated), http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/493, accessed on 20.10.2015.

[63]Mehdi Hasan, The Rebranding of the Nusra Front, 5.6.2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/06/rebranding-nusra-front-isil-syria-qaeda-150605062901260.html, accessed on 19.9.2015.

[64]The Italian reporter Domenico Quirico, taken hostage in Syria (April ÔÇô September 2013) by Mafia-like factions of the so-called ÔÇÿmoderateÔÇÖ FSA-linked armed opposition, said that the only persons to respect them were JN fighters, who shared their food with them whereas others just gave them unsavoury left-overs.

[65]For example, in Aleppo, JN has reopened a number of bakeries and controlled the supply of flour.

[66]Tom Wyke, The Execution that Sickened Even IS, 15.1.2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2911241/The-execution-sickened-ISIS-Woman-accused-adultery-shot-Al-Qaeda-Syria.html, accessed on 23.9.2015.

[67]JN has been highly critical of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood because of the supposed illegitimate concessions the latter seemed to be prepared to make towards the West. And the same could be said, according to JN, of the Syrian Brothers, who rely too much on the West and its international conferences.

[68]n.a., Militant Group al-Nusra Claim Suicide Bombings in Aleppo, 4.10.2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/04/us-syria-crisis-aleppo-idUSBRE8930BE20121004, accessed on 5.11.2012.

[69]n.a., Al-Jaysh al-Hurr YuÔÇÖakkid Iltizama-hu bi-al-Qawanin al-Dawliyya fi MuÔÇÿamalat Asra al-Nizam, 1.8.2012, http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=688956&issueno=12300, accessed on 25.9.2012.

[70]n.a., Syrian Rebels Execute 51 Soldiers and Possible Civilians in Khan Al Assal, 27.7.2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vc48uAlpGw#at=19, accessed on 15.5.2014.

[71]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHMrInazHi0. This video has been deleted. Accessed in August 2013.

[72]See supra.

[73]Julani said in substance that their places of worship as well as their tombs and cemeteries are not in accordance with Islamic law, in an implicit yet clear reminder of Ibn TaymiyyaÔÇÖs fatwa.

[74]There was a previous interview with al-Jazeera in December 2013. n.a., Al-Julani: Hizb Allah ZaÔÇÖilÔǪ wa Laday-na ThaÔÇÖr maÔÇÿa al-ÔÇÿAlawiyyin, 25.5.2015, http://www.aljazeera.net/programs/withoutbounds/2015/5/25/-%D8%A8%D9%84%D8%A7-%D8%AD%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AF-%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%AD%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7, accessed on 28.5.2015.

[75]n.a., Abu Muhammad al-Julani Yubashshir bi-Qiyam Imarat al-Sham al-Islamiyya, 11.7.2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nGUj86jwrk, accessed on 20.7.2014.

[76]n.a., Nusra Leader: Our Mission is to Defeat Syrian Regime, 28.5.2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/05/nusra-front-golani-assad-syria-hezbollah-isil-150528044857528.html, accessed on 3.6.2015.

[77]n.a., Nusra Leader: No End to Conflict with ISIL in Syria, 3.6.2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/06/nusra-leader-conflict-isil-syria-150604021024858.html, posted on 4.6.2015 (accessed on 12.6.2015). And http://www.assabeel.net/arab-and-world/item/113136-%D8%B4%D8%A7%D9%87%D8%AF-%D9%84%D9%82%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%B2%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%85-%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AC%D8%B2%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%AB-%D9%85%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%B1, accessed on 10.8.2015.

[78]Aron Lund, Abu Mohammed al-GolaniÔÇÖs Aljazeera Interview, 29.5.2015, http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/abu-mohammed-al-golanis-aljazeera-interview-by-aron-lund/, accessed on 4.6.2015. For their part, the ÔÇÿkitschy gilded chairs and the silly little coffee-tablesÔÇÖ appearing on the screen, according to some analysts, ÔÇÿseem identical to those used in the governorÔÇÖs palace in Idlib cityÔÇÖ. Whatever the place and notwithstanding the questionable taste for showy fittings, this seems in total contradiction with the ProphetÔÇÖs austere way of life that Julani should be supposed to follow insofar as he is a salafi, i.e. one that abides by the standards of the first generation of Muslims. Classical Islamic wisdom says on this topic: ÔÇÿGold fatally enraptures whom longs after itÔÇÖ, and ÔÇÿGold is one of SatanÔÇÖs snaresÔÇÖ, as well as ÔÇÿHow swift is the evanescence of gold and hasty the vanishing of silver!ÔÇÖ These proverbs are cited in Abu Mansur al-ThaÔÇÿalibi (d.┬á1038), al-LataÔÇÖif wa al-ZharaÔÇÖif, Cairo, Maktabat al-Adab, 1993, p.┬á165-166.

[79]The hakimiyya, as Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi said.

[80]Dressing victims in orange could also be, of course, an exorcizing method for surmounting the agonizing experience of Guantanamo.

[81]This information is mentioned, among many others, by Ibn Hisham (d. 828), MuhammadÔÇÖs biographer; by the historian of MuhammadÔÇÖs military campaigns, al-Waqidi (d. 822); by the classical polygraph and exegete al-Tabari (d. 923).

[82]For example, ÔÇÿMa malakat aym─ünu-kumÔÇÖ, or ÔÇÿ(A captive) that your right hands possessÔÇÖ, IV, 3.

[83]Christoph Reuter, The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State, 18.4.2015, www.spiegel.de/international/world/islamic-state-files-show-structure-of-islamist-terror-group-a-1029274.html, accessed on 20.6.2015. For internal purges, see n.a., Tanzim al-Dawla al-Islamiyya TuÔÇÿdim 112 ÔÇÿUnsur-an…, 31.8.2015, http://aranews.org/2015/08, accessed on 15.9.2015.

[84]To be fair, horrible videos filmed by regime thugs themselves, involved in torture and killing, have been circulated on the Internet (out of bravado?). They show prisoners being burnt alive.

[85]The caliphate was abolished by Ataturk in 1924.

[86]n.a., ISIS Imposes Non-Muslim Tax on Christian Men in Qaryatain, 8.9.2015, http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Features/29785/ISIS_Imposes_Non_Muslim_Tax_Christian_Men_Qaryatain/, accessed on 28.10.2015.