Syria: A revolution divided

A rebel wearing a chequered keffiyeh and a headband that reads in Arabic: 'There is no God but God, Mohammed is his messenger', flashes the V-sign for victory.
Si Mitchell

IDLIB DISTRICT, Syria — Like thousands of his fellow students, Diojen joined the revolution to bring freedom, democracy and dignity to the Syrian people.

But more and more these days, he said, he is being asked to bring Islam too.

Diojen said he has become disillusioned by the changing course of the revolution, which he says is being co-opted by religious and sectarian extremists within the Free Syrian Army. These extremists, while still the minority, are hoping for an Islamic government when all is said and done, Diojen said.

“If the revolution is for a new dictatorship, what are we dying for?” he asked, adding that his greatest fear is not for himself but for Syria's diverse minority population. “The real revolution will start when this one ends.”

Diojen has earned his revolutionary stripes. He was among the first to protest at his university in Aleppo, Syria's economic hub and an area of hold out support for President Bashar al-Assad. He is also part of the team that publishes the revolutionary magazine called “The Pen of the Nation.”

But Diojen is a pseudonym, which he is forced to use because he fears repercussion from both the government and those leaders in the Free Syrian Army who appear to be fighting against not just the Assad regime, but other religious groups as well. 

“I think in the Middle East we need to constantly fight for democracy,” he said. “At this time I cannot talk openly about my political beliefs, but one day I will be able to. That’s what revolution is all about.”

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The majority of Syrians, like Diojen, are Sunni Muslim. Allawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority here, dominate the government. There are also a number of other minority groups, including Christians and Kurds.

Over time, the Syrian conflict has taken on sectarian tones with claims the government is targeting Sunni families. Diojen and others fear Syria’s revolution is slowly becoming a “Holy war” between Sunni and Allawite, an allegation the Free Syrian Army leadership adamantly reject. 

“Claims of a sectarian war are Bashar’s excuse to stay in power,” said rebel commander Ahmed al-Sheikh, who heads eight battalions in the conservative Muslim area of Jabal al-Zawia.

Al-Sheikh said there are many Allawites working with the Free Syrian Army.

“We are not fighting on the basis of sectarian identity," he said. "We are fighting all those who maltreated us. We are doing this on equal footing, regardless of sect.” 

Al-Sheikh, and many of his men, admit that their ultimate goal is the establishment of an Islamic state. But they are careful to add that they intend for such a government to be inclusive of other minorities.

“Islam teaches us to take our rights and give others their rights,” said Asad al-Ibrahim, a battalion leader serving under al-Sheikh. “I hope as Muslims we will take the advantage of leadership after crushing the regime and show all people how Islam will give everyone their democratic rights regardless of religion.” 

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Diojen is skeptical. Not only does he disapprove of the religious fervor motivating many of the fighters, he also doesn't approve of the fight itself. He said the best way to change Syria is instead by peaceful action and international pressure. His opinions, however, have led to anonymous death threats.

Student activists like Diojen are not alone. Some members of the Free Syrian Army are also apprehensive about the course of the conflict. 

Fighters like Nader Ajini, who calls himself a “moderate Muslim,” say they worry that international support is flowing directly to the more extreme, violent elements of the Free Syrian Army. Although religious extremists are a minority, Ajini said they receive the vast majority of funding and weapons and the pressure is mounting on moderates to join them.

“Knowing that we have nothing to fight with, a religious militant leader offered me a Kalashnikov with magazines, immunities and money to join their Islamic group,” Ajini said. “I refused his offer because I just want to fight the regime to get freedom and democracy for my people. Many people are now exposed to this kind of blackmailing.” 

An activist and university professor who also considers himself moderate, Abdul Aziz Ajini said that in his home town of Kureen only about 15 rebels believed in establishing an Islamic state. He said the vast majority, 150 or more, were moderates fighting for democracy.

Aziz Ajini too said most of the international funding was headed to this small group. 

“What is happening now is not only dangerous for people in Syria, but it’s dangerous for the entire region,” he said. “We are a multicultural nation. We cannot afford to think along sectarian lines or it will lead to civil war.”

Aziz Ajini said the finances fueling the religious movement are coming from both Gulf states and the West. 

“It’s government support but not explicitly,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s members of parliament or specific parties. Other funding comes from businessmen, influential families, religious groups or private organizations.”

He said this funding needed to be applied fairly across all groups or stopped. 

“The West is fighting Al Qaeda everywhere else but they are supporting it in Syria,” he said.

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Safwan, a leader in one of Syria's socialist parties, agreed the extremists in the Free Syrian Army were growing in number. But though he did not believe it to be a major threat, he asked for his family name to be withheld for fear of repercussions from both the government and rebel forces. 

“The Syrian community is not extremist. But conditions have developed that have created this element. If democracy does not prevail, extremism will grow,” Safwan said during a casual gathering of party members in the northern Syrian city of Ariha earlier this week. “When violence prevails, people turn to extremism for answers, but at this time they are not so powerful. We can handle them.”

Safwan said in the beginning the revolution was about politics, not religion. The people were calling for freedom of opinion, free organizations, the right to opposition parties. The early protests called for an end to a draconian emergency law, which the country had been under since 1963. The protests were a call for “freedom and dignity,” he said. 

“It was the violent reaction of the government that changed the course of the revolution,” Safwan said. “We are now entering into dangerous territory, with Islamic militants cooperating with outside forces.”

Safwan said the solution is to return to a peaceful revolution, but he admitted that would require international support and pressure on the Syrian regime.

“The hardest part is waiting for what the big players will decide. People are dying every day and the world has nothing to say,” he said. 

At a Free Syrian Army meeting in Kureen last week, there were mixed messages regarding the role of Islam in the revolution.

About 40 Free Syrian Army fighters gathered in a bombed-out classroom. One of the fighters read a letter sent by commanders in Homs. While the letter emphasized Islam and required all members to attend courses on Islamic culture and regulations, it did made clear the ultimate goal of the fight. 

“All people in the [Free Syrian Army] are equal regardless of their beliefs, ideas and religious inclinations. We are working for one purpose — to defeat the regime,” the letter read.