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By Ryan Mauro (@RyanMauro)
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has privately pledged to “fight to his last bullet” in his ancestral hometown of Qardaha, vowing “if I go, none of Syria remains.” The daily pools of blood spilled by his madmen cause hearts to be warmed by signs of Assad’s impending fall, but one Syrian Christian opposition activist is loudly warning that light is not waiting at the end of the tunnel. Islamist hordes are.
Michel Kilo is no friend of the Assad regime, though most of his Syrian Christian brethren fear what awaits them once it falls. He is a long-time and well-known opposition activist. His joy over Assad’s defeat comes with an honest and bleak reality check. The fight against Assad will be followed by a fight against foreign-backed Islamists.
“[A democratic] future that felt certain has now become nothing more than a vague promise—which might not be kept by the Islamist groups known for their lies, lust for power and cooperation with foreign powers,” Kilo urgently writes about “our hijacked revolution.”
“It is very likely that we will be dragged into a deep pit of chaos, violence and civil war, and that serious efforts will be deployed to prevent any evolution toward democracy by stifling the voices of free, secular forces,” he says.
The same disappointment can be heard in the words of Riad al-Assad, the secular defector who originally started the Free Syria Army.
“I talked with America, Europe, and the media that they needed to support the leadership of the FSA [Free Syria Army]…If there is no support for the FSA…new groups would appear and the work will fall apart, because then we wouldn’t be able to control what was happening on the ground…And that’s where we are now,” he said in October.
He indicated that the original assault on Aleppo was launched by fighters who aren’t under his command. He called said “it was the wrong decision by the people who took it.” On the ground, Islamist militants including Al-Qaeda-linked terrorists are the ones taking the lead. An infantry base in Aleppo has just fallen to the Al-Tawheed Brigade. It is described as an “Islamist faction” even though it fights under the FSA name. It is unclear if the Free Syria Army affiliated with Riad al-Assad incorporated it into its ranks or if the Al-Tawheed Brigade Islamists decided to unilaterally use the popular name.
Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, is also growing. It makes up about nine percent of the rebel forces and after the U.S. designated it as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, 29 rebel groups responded by declaring their allegiance to the Al-Qaeda affiliate. The Telegraph acknowledges that this group is independent of the FSA but the time available to build the FSA as an alternative force is slipping away. “[M]any FSA leaders now recognize its strength and order their forces to cooperate with it,” it reports.
The Islamists are sidelining the secular Free Syria Army on both the military and the political levels. Earlier this month, Islamist rebels left the FSA out of a new joint command established in Turkey. The FSA said the 30-member council is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and is beholden to “external will.” A delegate said that two-thirds of the officials are members of the Brotherhood or are aligned with it. He described the body as a creation of Qatar and Turkey.
The newly-formed National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, recognized by the U.S. as the “legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, is going to bypass the FSA networks in delivering humanitarian aid. Of course, it’s willing to use FSA bodies and bullets to make sure it arrives.
The original opposition umbrella body, the Syrian National Council, lacked support on the ground and was widely seen by secularists as a vehicle for the Islamists. When the new National Coalition absorbed the Syrian National Coalition, there was a chance for a credible, secular-led umbrella body. The two vice presidents, Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, are popular secularists. The to-be-determined third vice president will be a Kurd and almost certainly a secularist. The president, Moaz al-Khatib, is a different story.
Al-Khatib is a “moderate Islamist”—“moderate” when compared to Al-Qaeda and incendiary Salafists. He is the former imam of Umayyad Mosque and today speaks with a very soft tone. His first message upon being elected was one against sectarianism, hoping to soothe the anxieties of Allawites terrified of a post-Assad Syria. He praises Muslim Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi as “our great Imam,” comparing him to the Tunisian whose suicide sparked the Arab Spring. That alone is enough to discredit Al-Khatib as the type of “moderate” that should lead the opposition.
His attitude towards Jews is what we should expect from a Qaradawi fan. He praises Saddam Hussein for “terrifying the Jews” and his website carries articles that say Jews are “gold worshippers” and “the enemies of God.” He preaches that Israel seeks the “collapse” of Egypt in order to redesign the Middle East based on sect, apparently too blinded by anti-Israel fervor to see that the residents of the region are doing a fine job of themselves.
Al-Khatib’s reaction to the U.S. designation of Al-Qaeda’s Jubhat al-Nusra should be considered a foreshadowing of things to come. He opposes it, saying “The decision to consider a party that is fighting the regime as a terrorist party needs to be reviewed.” In other words, the enemy of my enemy isn’t a terrorist. So what happens when there’s a new enemy like Israel? By this logic, an Al-Khatib-led Syria will continue to harbor Al-Qaeda as long as there’s a common enemy.
The U.S. now knows that when it decided to “lead from behind” by letting Qatar act as the gun store for the Libyan rebels, it armed Islamic extremists. Qatar favored the Islamists in its role in Libya to the detriment of secularists. Non-Islamist Libyan rebels warned us then. Non-Islamist Syrian rebels are warning us now.
Michel Kilo writes:
“If it is true that the regime is taking its last breaths and will fall before long, we ought to take immediate actions and put an end to the Islamist policies that took over the national council, and introduced non-nationalistic and non-Syrian thrusts into our revolution. These kinds of policies introduced a dangerous, dogmatic ideology into the revolution, one that poses a great threat to Syrian society.”
Kilo and other secularist activists in the Middle East and broader Muslim world recognize that the problem is ideology. What will it take for the West to believe them?
This article is also available on the Institute on Religion and Democracy website.