On day five of my recent seven-day visit in the Syrian countryside, an eighteen year-old kid named Mohammed from the militant Islamic Al-Nusra Front handed me a fresh picked wild flower. His beard was still short, as he was new to the Syrian Jihadist group. I am not sure how he would have reacted had he known I was Jewish, or that I had a massive Israeli visa lying dormant in my American passport, but I don’t think he would have been handing me flowers.
There is a war going on in the Syrian countryside for people like Mohammed. Not the war everyone sees playing out on their TV screens; between the Bashar Al-Assad Regime and the Syrian Opposition Forces, but a more subtle war, a war for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people. This war is being fought not with guns but with ideology: secularism vs. Islamic extremism. If extremism wins this war, Israel will have another Hamas-style government, this time knocking at the door of the Golan Heights.
Over the past year, Syria has seen a strong rise in the number and influence of Jihadist groups. However, the growth of Islamic Extremism is a new phenomenon in the Syrian population. One Syrian activist told me that “before the war there was no talk of Allah or Jihad…. The Syrian people do not have this mindset, we like smoking cigarettes and living life as we choose.”
However, throughout the Hama countryside, al-Nusra, the self-proclaimed jihadist rebel group, is gaining stronger footholds, not only militarily but also in the minds of the people.
Free Syrian Army Commander Jamil Radoon, a massive man sits with a cigarette hanging out his mouth. He refuses to smoke anything else but Marlboro Reds. His exhaustion shows as he rubs the creases in his forehead and fingers through his black prayer beads. Radoon is responsible for the entire Hama countryside and commands over 4,000 soldiers.
“I support what they (al-Nusra) are doing, defending for the Syrian People, but I do not support extremism,” Radoon says. His ambivalence is shared by a vast swath of Syrian rebels and civilians. They feel that while al-Nusra’s fighting power is necessary to win against Bashar al-Assad, its ideology is foreign to their values and way of life.
“We need them, but don’t agree with them,” says FSA solider Faisal Aleiway. “Everyone else has abandoned us, the United States, Britain, even the Arab countries. Now we are completely alone, and so we must invite all jihadist groups who defend us.”
The surge of Islamic extremism is not a result of a Syrian proclivity to extremism. Many Syrians, however, feel that extremists are the only allies against the massacres of the Bashar Regime. And on the ground this is true. For two years the Syrians have heard governments condemn the Bashar regime but seen no action. They watch Assad’s planes drop bombs on women and children and wonder why no government has stepped up to enforce a no-fly zone in a war that has killed more than 70,000 and displaced more than 1,000,000 Syrians. Thus, they can come to only one conclusion; the international community has abandoned the Syrian people.
The Syrian revolution began in 2010 with massive pro-democracy, pro-secular protests ignited by college students and intellectuals. They sought to topple the Assad regime through peaceful measures, but were met with gunfire and bloodshed. As the revolution transformed from peaceful protests to an armed movement, Assad regime soldiers and officers began defecting.
“From the first time I saw Assad Regime soldiers enjoying and joking in the humiliation and torture of our people I knew I had to defect,” Jamil Radoon told me. From these defections the core of the Free Syrian Army was established and now operates under the umbrella of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces headed by Moaz al-Khatib. The FSA and later the NCSROF have received numerous statements of recognition and pledges of aid. However, until recently, little of this support has materialized.
Now the Free Syrian Army is struggling to find the adequate humanitarian and military support to battle not only Bashar, but also Islamic extremism. A short man with glasses and a well-groomed beard approaches Commander Radoon. He is in charge of ensuring medical supplies. Radoon yanks his ear down and holds his head to the desk while he explains that, “there is not enough medical supplies, for our soldiers and our people.”
The al-Nusra Front, however has had no problem in garnering military and economic support. Their sleek black uniforms and superior weaponry show off their wealth. “Nusra is being funded by Sunni Muslim millionaires in the Gulf states that want to hijack our struggle for democracy and turn it into a Sunni-Shia battle for power” one Syrian pro-secular advocate explains. The lack of secular support is so evident that “secular militias will pretend to be extremists just to gain funding from a Gulf backer. They will post YouTube videos saying and doing jihadist actions even if they don’t hold these beliefs.”
In the town of Kfar Nabul, the battle of ideology is particularly evident. The al-Nusra Front is attempting to wrest control from the newly established civilian councils, however they are meeting resistance. Pro-secular activists held an anti-Nusra rally in the town square, with one banner reading:
“WORLD! YOUR CARELESSNESS PRODUCED EXTREMISTS LIKE ASSAD. NOW WE NEED EXTREMISTS TO GET RID OF YOUR PRODUCTS.”
“It’s really difficult for us,” one of the pro-secular demonstrators, tells me, “Al-Nusra has come here, they give the people food and petrol, and say this is the path to Allah . . . People have become disheartened, and without secular support more will turn to Islamic groups.” As he explains the situation, Nusra supporters stream out of the mosque following Friday prayers. They flood the street, chanting loudly, drowning out the smaller secular demonstration, and picking up young followers as they march by.
Where do Jews stand in all of this? Since the birth of Israel, Syria has been the most virulent enemy and detractor of the Jewish state. The Syrian people have been indoctrinated by an intensive anti-Israel propaganda campaign leading them to hugely distrust Israeli government and to a lesser extent the Jewish People. But now is an extremely important time in the Syrian mindset. For Syrians, everything they have been taught by the Assad regime is in question. In essence they are in a state of limbo. Consequently, the secularism that Assad’s Ba’ath party instilled is also in question.
With so much hanging in the balance, economically and militarily capable nations have a moral duty to support the forces of freedom in Syria, not just in their fight against the Assad regime, but against Islamic forces that threaten to seize the reins of power in post-revolutionary Syria. That is the right, the moral position, and that is why Jews should take that position. For Israel, there is even greater urgency, because nothing good can come of having an enclave of radical Islam perched on its northern border. For these reasons, the Jewish People must speak out and demonstrate support for a free and secular Syria.
Clearly, this is not a message that the Israeli government can send through official channels. The Syrians’ distrust is still too great and Israeli governmental support would only delegitimize the opposition forces amongst the Arab Community. However, Jewish and Israeli support through demonstrations, dialogue, and humanitarian efforts will have a huge psychological impact on the Syrian people.
As one FSA solider said “the people of Israel do not think Bashar is a dog. They do not believe in the sins he has made.” The Jewish and Israeli people must show that they support the Syrian people; that they are not alone and that even in the supposed “Little Satan,” we hear their cries and feel their pain. Western military support may increase, as has been seen in recent days, but this military support needs to be met with equal and greater vocal and humanitarian support from the Jewish people.
‘Jews for a Free Syria’ seeks to gain and organize support among Jewish communities throughout the world for a free, secular, and democratic Syria. If you support the Syrian people’s right to live in peace and self-determination and would also like to foster a new productive dialogue with the eventual Free Syria please vocalize your beliefs and also “like” our Facebook page. The organization is new and there is a need for videographers, activists, artists, etc. If you are interested, please message firstname.lastname@example.org
Through these avenues, a new relationship can be fostered with a Free Syria; a relationship based not on hostility, but on diplomacy, dialogue, and mutual humanity.