How Syria's uprising blurred moderate, extremist lines

The opposition failed to produce a leader who could unite factions and present a solid plan for a post-Assad Syria

Dr. Halla Diyab

Published: Updated:

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring the erosion of the 2011 Syrian uprising

The Syrian regime’s atrocities against civilians, and the help it is getting from Shiite militant group Hezbollah and Iran, has angered Sunnis worldwide. This has gradually changed the revolution from a mass Syrian uprising to a Sunni rebellion. Muslim Arab scholars have denounced regime atrocities, while some stay neutral and pray for an end to the conflict. Syrian Salafi preacher Adnan Mohammed al-Aroor issued a fatwa in 2012 calling for a Sunni jihad excluding non-Syrians.

Aroor was heavily criticized by Salafis who believe that fighting in Syria is the duty of every capable Sunni Muslim. Turkey’s porous borders with Syria, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s vision of Turkey as the champion of Muslims in the Levant, and his aspiration to have a Sunni regime in Syria, all enabled easy entrance of jihadists into Syria.

The opposition failed to produce a leader who could unite factions and present a solid plan for a post-Assad Syria

Dr. Halla Diyab

The regime’s failure to deal civilly with demonstrators’ demands, and the deeply-rooted distrust of the Assad family when it comes to democracy, militarized the revolution. There was an arbitrary use of violence towards demonstrators, and the supply of arms by Russia, Turkey and Gulf states escalated the conflict. Targeting unarmed civilians created doubt and distrust between the Syrian people and the army, and the regime’s use of force made Syrians lose hope for dialogue.

The opposition worked harder on seeking international acknowledgment than building strong political support inside Syria. The uprising was taken for granted, under the assumption that Assad would fall quickly. Opposition members, most of whom have for decades resided outside Syria, lost touch with the true aspirations of youths inside Syria. There is a very limited role - if any - for youth activists in the opposition leadership.

The dominant Brotherhood presence in the opposition Syrian National Council has isolated secular members, and has secured reported funding and recognition by Qatar and Turkey. The opposition failed to maintain its independence from other countries, serving the interests of its regional funders, not the Syrian people.

Uniting factions?

The opposition failed to produce a leader who could unite factions and present a solid plan for a post-Assad Syria. Meanwhile, the Geneva talks with the regime keep failing to resolve the conflict. The ideological divisions within the political opposition are echoed through the various military brigades.

Those in the Free Syrian Army are well-trained defectors from the national army with a secular ideology. However, they are relatively few in number, because the military is controlled by Bashar’s brother Maher, and because soldiers fear for their lives and their families if they defect. Defecting is too risky for some, given the blurred vision of Syria’s future.

The rise of Islamist militants in Libya paved the way for the belief that Islamists could defeat dictators. Islamist militants enticed Libyans to go and fight Assad to help build an Islamic state in Syria. The rise of the Brotherhood in Egypt boosted the presence of Brotherhood fighters in Syria, but they were soon discredited after the fall of Mohamed Mursi. During his presidency, clerics led by Saudi Mohammed al-Arifi who called for jihad in Syria from Egypt.

Arifi, who is known for his sectarian sermons, was one of the clerics who legitimized jihad in Syria. Arab and Western jihadists started to pour into the country, some driven by moral responsibility toward their fellow Muslims, others indoctrinated to fight for an Islamic caliphate in the Levant.

While the international community was preoccupied with Syrian chemical weapons attacks and the push for Assad to step down, Islamist factions were increasing in number and building alliances with other Islamist brigades in Syria. They consist of Syrian civilian volunteers with no military background, but bitterness toward Assad's atrocities. The dividing line between moderate and extremist rebel groups was blurring.

The third part of this article will be published later this week.

Dr. Halla Diyab is an award winning screen-writer, producer, broadcaster, a published author and an activist. She has a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from the University of Leicester. She carried out research in New Orleans, USA while working on her thesis “The Examination of Marginality and Minorities in the Drama and Film of Tennessee Wil-liams”. She holds an MA in Gender and Women Studies from the University of Warwick. She has written a number of scripts for TV dramas countering religious extremism and international terrorism resulting in her being awarded Best Syrian Drama Script Award 2010 and the Artists Achievement Award 2011. She is a regular commentator in the Brit-ish and international media and has recently appeared on Channel 4 News, BBC Newsnight, BBC This Week, CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 News, ITV Central, Al Jazeera English, and BBC Radio 4, to name a few. She is a public speaker who spoke at the House of Commons, the Spectator Debate, Uniting for Peace and London’s Frontline Club. She has worked in Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria and is an expert on the Middle East and Islamic culture. As a highly successful drama writer, she has been dubbed ‘one of the most influential women in Syria’ in 2011. She also produces documentary films for UK and international channels. She is also the Founder & Director of Liberty Media Productions which focuses on cross-cultural issues between Britain and the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter: @drhalladiyab

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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