Charles Kinbote, narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and ex-king of a fictional country called Zembla, writes extensively throughout the novel of his troubled past. As king, he was overthrown by groups of extremists and later held captive in his palace, presumably for execution. After some time in captivity, with the aid of a friend he performs a daring escape that eventually lands him in America. He ascribes the success of his escape to “the streak of stupidity that fatally runs through the most competent tyranny”. 

Writing in America, Kinbote paints an uncomplimentary picture of the extremists who seize his country. They are, by his judgement, predatory simpletons, amusingly incapable of the most menial tasks, such as killing the people they are told to, which leads me to my next paragraph.

Many would have heard about the recent beheading in Syria (if it can honestly be called a ‘beheading’). Mohamed Fares Marroush, a wounded rebel fighter being treated in a hospital, was beheaded after he was heard “muttering the names of Shiite religious figures” whilst heavily anaesthetised. The executioners were members of ISIS. Mohamed was a member of Ahrar al-Sham, one of the more extreme jihadist groups in Syria – and an ally of ISIS.

It’s strange how you can find yourself laughing at the ridiculous, almost farcical, stupidity (because nothing demonstrates Kinbote’s “streak of stupidity” more than unknowingly beheading one of your comrades) that led to this mishap before remembering that somebody has had their head crudely hacked off for the crime of muttering some words under anaesthetic.

But this is how Syria’s jihadist groups operate. As plenty have said before, and many will say hereafter, the Syrian Revolution has effectively been hijacked by these jihadist groups. (I have already written about this myself in an earlier post.) Moderate voices, through lack of weaponry and inadequate finance, have ebbed to a feeble murmur, allowing power to steadily drip to the Islamist groups.

Many of the extreme, Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are composed mostly of foreigners. The civil war attracts foreigners who see themselves as defenders of Islam, and it has been estimated that around 1,000 different rebel groups are operating within Syria, with 100,000 fighters overall. (Europeans comprise about 10% of these foreign fighters in Syria.)

This huge influx of foreigners has resulted in frequent rebel infighting and now the complete the fracture of the opposition as a whole: In September, after much fighting between moderate rebels and hardline Islamists, Kurds and Islamists (and even Islamists and Islamists), thirteen rebel groups declared their independence from the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SNC) and called for an “Islamic framework based on sharia.” The groups that announced their break from the SNC included ISIS, the Nusra Front and Liwa al-Tawhid, some of the most effective rebel groups fighting in Syria.

With the ascent of these Islamist groups, Syria has become the foreign zealot’s earthly paradise, a real playground for the budding jihadist. No, really. Everybody in Syria, from steadfast Islamists to covert Iranian militias, acknowledges the importance of winning the Syrian people’s approval, but Syria’s jihadists are the ones who really know how to win friends and influence people.

The Atlantic article I just linked is hilarious, both in content and in writing. Its introductory paragraphs describe a “fun day” hosted by Al-Qaeda affiliates in a bizarre bid to win the much-coveted hearts and minds of the Syrian people. They have also presided over a children’s ice-cream-eating competition in Aleppo. What is more bizarre (my opinion, it’s not a competition) is the Instagram selfies, with such hashtags as #syria, #mujahideen and #jihad.

The absurd nature of all this belies the brutality these groups exercise both on the battlefield and in their spheres of control. There exists a duality in the comedy and the tragedy of Syria’s holy war. The comic element is found in the Instagram selfies, the cries of “Allahu Akbar!” during tugs-of-war and, in some perverted way, the beheadings(I have seen people joking on Twitter about ISIS’s alleged “behead first, ask questions later” policy. I can’t say that I didn’t smirk.) 

The tragic element is obvious – it is that all of this farcical nonsense is set against a backdrop of indescribable brutality and suffering. Many of the jihadists fighting in Syria are, by ideology, lunatics who look back to a hugely romanticised Islamic caliphate as an ideal for the troubled present. Like the extremists of Pale Fire, they are in many cases simple-minded, their goals are often contradictory and their endeavours often risible – but, also like Kinbote’s extremists, they are brutal and capable of great savagery. 

As a result, Syrians and non-Syrians alike will continue to regard Bashar al-Assad and his thuggish militias as one of the lesser evils in Syria – the necessary glue to hold together a country beset by religious and ethnic discord. The Syrian opposition will either continue to fracture into smaller, mutually-hostile factions, or power will continue to gradually drip away from the moderate forces and concentrate into the hands of the extremists under a unified Islamic coalition. The more likely of the two, I think, is the former. Stupid mishaps, that are symptomatic of most extremists groups (like beheading your allies), can and will lead to some form of conflict. In Syria, anyone can become an ‘enemy of Islam’, it’s only a matter of waiting.