Islamists find foothold in Syria revolt (REUTERS) By Erika Solomon BEIRUT, LEBANON 03/29/12 9:06am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Sheikh Abu Abdullah Zahed, a Lebanese Muslim cleric with
influence amongst radical youth, is part of a growing effort to push
the uprising in Syria towards militant Islam.
Hardline Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are maneuvering for influence over
Syrians across the border who have spent the last year fighting to
topple President Bashar al-Assad.
"At first Syrians called on the West and NATO. Now they are calling
on God," said Zahed, sitting in his library, where black Islamic
flags hang on the walls.
As opposition groups abroad squabble over politics and Assad´s army
pounds rebellious cities, Muslim hardliners want to make religion the
unifying basis of the revolt.
Radical Islamist elements are still on the fringe, but that´s enough
to make a headache for opposition activists who are struggling to
convince Syrian minorities to support a revolt led mostly by the
country´s Sunni majority.
Foreign powers joining exile opposition leaders at a "Friends of
Syria" meeting in Istanbul this week will also want proof of whom
exactly they are making friends with, if they are ever to consider
arming rebel forces.
"We don´t want to accidentally wind up supporting extremist groups,"
said Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, in
Washington. "The fundamental question is: What happens in the future?
And does our involvement make this turn better or worse?"
Some activists are already uneasy about a series of car bombs that
hit Syria´s two main cities. An unknown group called Al-Nusra Front
claimed the attacks on a website that posts messages from many al
"There is a growing radical presence inside Syria and I think they
were behind the bombings. I´m afraid controlling them could be a
losing battle," said an activist. He asked not to be named for fear
of angering fellow opposition members, who are reluctant to discuss
potential radical infiltration.
STEREOTYPED BY BEARDS
Zahed, a Lebanese sheikh with a long beard and a leather jacket over
his blue robe, sits in front of shelves of gold embossed religious
books. He offers the Islamic flags that hang behind him to people who
join anti-Assad protests in his hometown of Tripoli.
"At first no one raised anything other than the Syrian flag. Now some
are raising the Islamic flag," Zahed said.
Assad has long raised the specter of Islamic extremism and
says "terrorists" are behind Syria´s bloody uprising.
Activists say they lead a grassroots, inclusive movement but are
unfairly stereotyped because many of them are religious.
"I want a pluralistic state that is democratic and belongs to
everyone. Why are people so afraid? Yes, our revolution has
Salafists, we have Islamists. Everyone is participating in the
revolution," said a Syrian activist in Tripoli who calls himself al-
Shami, which means "the Syrian".
He tugs on his brown, bushy beard: "Do we have to shave our beards so
people don´t feel threatened? We´re not terrorists."
It is hard to know what impact radical groups are having in Syria,
which has restricted access to journalists. But here in Lebanon there
are signs they are gaining ground.
From the seaside city of Tripoli to border towns along the rocky
foothills of Syria where rebels and refugees cross the frontier,
Salafists are showing up in greater numbers.
When night falls on the border, dancing Syrian protesters set tires
ablaze and fly their colorful independence flag. But as the flames
grow higher and the night wears on, they are overtaken by young men
whose black banners emblazoned in white Arabic script declare: "There
is no God but God."
Members of this hardline, austere brand of Islam say they are drawn
to the revolt because their religion says they should aid the
But some clearly resent Syria´s minority Alawites, an offshoot of
Shi´ite Islam, to which much of Syria´s powerful elite belong,
including the president. Many Sunnis feel the government
discriminates against them in favor of Alawites.
Some Syrian activists sheltering in Lebanon say Salafist clerics
don´t represent them but are taking over at rallies.
"I try to speak at protests and some sheikh comes up and takes over.
These protests are for the people not the sheikhs. Then we are all
accused of being Salafists and sectarians," shouts Musaab in Wadi
Khaled, a farming village on the mountainous border with Syria.
Salafists say they are gaining followers because they offer food and
money to refugees as well as supplying many doctors and clinics that
treat wounded Syrians smuggled into Lebanon.
"The state has fallen short in terms of helping the Syrians but we
are happy for it. People who come here for help will leave with more
Islamic thinking," said the cleric Zahed.
"CALL US TO JIHAD"
Some Islamists are struggling to prove that their conservative views
do not make them militants who can´t work with foreign powers.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most organized
opposition group abroad, includes followers from many Islamic
backgrounds. It is in Turkey this week meeting with foreign powers
along with secular and minority leaders.
The group has set out a platform for a future Syria that is
democratic and pluralistic. But it has yet to convince minority
groups who are wary of the balance of power and fear Islamists will
change their tone if the uprising succeeds.
But activists in Syria say it is that radicals next door that have
some activists worried. They point to calls for jihad, or holy war,
by some protesters.
"If the Syrians call us to jihad we will do it, God willing. The UN
can call it international terrorism or whatever they want," said
Sheikh Salem al-Rifai at his Tripoli mosque, as crowds of men filed
out from afternoon prayers.
Minor Syrian clerics have already called jihad but many Syrian
sheikhs are wary and appear to be holding off an irrevocable
escalation that would allow in foreign fighters.
There are already reports of Iraqi, Libyan and Lebanese fighters
entering Syria and activists say they may be motivated by Sunni
Many Lebanese and Syrian Sunnis harbor deep resentment against
Alawites and the Assad government for bloody crackdowns in both
countries, particularly the late president Hafez al-Assad´s crushing
of a 1982 Islamist revolt in Hama. His forces razed parts of the city
and killed more than 10,000.
One man´s view that is eagerly awaited is exiled Adnan Arour, an
influential cleric who has said Alawites loyal to Assad should
be "ground into dog meat".
Last month he hinted he was close to "ringing the bell" of jihad but
wanted to see more solidarity among the rebels first.
RACE FOR ARMS
In the meantime, groups such as al Qaeda could appeal to poorly armed
rebels facing tanks and artillery.
Zahed, the Lebanese sheikh, said al Qaeda sympathizers were certainly
interested in Syria but he had seen no evidence that the militant
network was setting up a base in Lebanon or Syria.
"Al Qaeda would need more time. It´s like opening a new branch of a
restaurant. You can´t just show up and start right away. It takes
months to find the right place and the staff."
Gulf Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both called for arming
the anti-Assad rebels. While they have not yet won wide support for
this, light weapons are already being smuggled in.
Some analysts say it is time to arm the rebels to stop radicals from
gaining ground. But skeptics say there is no guarantee that rebels
will not turn against their benefactors.
Al-Shami, who plans to leave Lebanon to join a rebel unit, is
suspicious of outside involvement.
"We don´t want outsiders to lead our revolution, not secular, not
Muslim Brotherhood, not Salafists," he said.
But that doesn´t mean they won´t accept help. "We are drowning right
now," he said. "If someone reaches out his hand to me, I will take
it." (Editing by Giles Elgood) (© Thomson Reuters 2012. 03/29/12)
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