Syria’s opposition can topple President Bashar Assad without foreign military intervention, the regime’s most prominent defector said today. But the growing influence of jihadist rebels is raising concern that, as one observer notes, “those taking the shots…. will be calling the shots”after Assad’s departure.
But the opposition needs weapons and assistance, said Manaf Tlass (far right), a general and former member of Assad’s inner circle.
“The Syrian people must not be robbed of their victory, they must be given support, aid, arms,” Tlass told French television, while insisting that foreign military intervention “could not provide a solution” to the conflict.
Tlass’ defection in July was hailed as a resounding triumph by many Syrian opposition activists. But many in the opposition are deeply suspicious of Tlass, saying he is just trying to vault to power. In the weeks after he abandoned the regime, Tlass began touring regional powers to garner support for the uprising.
“My role is to unify, bring together my people, that is my role,” he said.
Increasing evidence of jihadist influence indicates that the revolt is “moving towards a new and more radical phase,” according to a new report from Quilliam, the London-based anti-extremist institute.
“The jihadi groups in Syria use mainly guerrilla warfare tactics and, more specifically, urban guerrilla warfare,” the report notes, but they are also preparing for a post-Assad transition. “It is clear that they are in the process of creating their own infrastructure and organizations independent of the fighting, since they plan to become independent organizations following the regime’s overthrow.”
The jihadists probably only make up about five per cent of rebel fighters, but they wield influence disproportionate to their numbers, a Washington forum heard today.
They are organized, well-funded and ideologically-motivated, said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani. Their growing influence is reminiscent of Iraq in 2003-04, he told the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
The jihadists’ growing influence was observed by Jacques Bérès, a doctor with the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders.
“It’s really something strange to see,” he said, according to Reuters. “They are directly saying that they aren’t interested in Bashar al-Assad’s fall, but are thinking about how to take power afterward and set up an Islamic state with Shariah law to become part of the world emirate.”
Dr. Bérès called the high proportion of foreign Islamist fighters in Aleppo a sharp contrast to his impressions on trips this spring to makeshift clinics in the cities of Idlib and Homs.
Activists and rebel fighters who have been interviewed over the Internet consistently describe far lower numbers of foreign fighters and Islamist militants, and the few reported interviews with Islamists have provided little agreement on what kind of government they envision— whether along the lines of Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example.
“Some of them were French and were completely fanatical about the future,” he added, according to Reuters.
The French government is coming under growing pressure to pursue a Libya scenario and press for foreign military intervention.
“Everybody knows that not a lot is necessary any more to finish off the government,” the philosopher and commentator Bernard Henri-Levy said, suggesting that the Turkish air force might be sufficient. “We just need a pilot in the plane.”
The militarization of the conflict is also marginalizing pro-Western, liberal and democratic activists within the opposition, while enhancing the power and influence of the well-funded Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist groups, observers suggest.
“Those activists are still there, but they are now all affiliated with Free Syrian Army groups, and that’s a big change,” says Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
The revolt is rapidly evolving… It’s more militarized now, with the rebels governing towns in villages under their control.
“We have to understand one fact. Those that are taking the shots against the Assad regime will be those that are calling the shots after Bashar al-Assad is gone,” Tabler says.
The jihadist network in Syria has adopted militant Islamism as its ideology and was established in two main phases, according to Quilliam’s Noman Benotman and Emad Naseraldin:
1. A pre-revolution phase: This phase began in 2003 with the beginning of the Iraq war and was highly influenced by al-Qaeda ideology and rhetoric. Syria was the main gateway from which most of the Arab foreign fighters infiltrated Iraq. The Syrian jihadi link was led initially by Abu Musab Al- Zarqawi who, at a later stage, appointed Lebanese jihadists to take responsibility of the logistic and military work in Syria, with some influence from neighboring countries.
2. The revolution phase: This salafi jihadist network is comprised mainly of radical Sunni members who joined various groups after the revolution had started. This phase has been characterized by low-level urban guerilla warfare, combined with several terrorist techniques.