Kuwait recently joined Saudi Arabia in criminalizing the participation of its citizens in jihadist activities abroad, as part of measures intended to curb the outflow of radicalized youth to battlegrounds in the region, notably Syria and Iraq. European nations, such as France and the United Kingdom, have also taken legal action to reduce the involvement of their citizens and residents in the on-going conflicts in the Middle East. Targeting the flow of new militants adds pressure to a movement that, in Syria at least, has suffered serious, mostly self-inflicted, setbacks. This is a moment of opportunity for the Syrian revolution to recapture some of its physical and moral ground from radical elements, and for the world community to deal a serious blow to this threat.
There are two competing visions of radical jihadism in Syria articulated by two rival groups. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), based in western Iraq, is overtly seeking to expand as the core territory of a global caliphate. By dispatching funds and fighters to Syria’s civil war, ISIS has incorporated Syria into its dominion. It has also received pledges of allegiance from a previously unknown group in Lebanon and support from a radical formation in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. However, this centralized model is challenged by the distributed approach endorsed by the central core of al Qaeda, still led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s former lieutenant. Syria, according to Zawahiri, is the domain of the al-Nusra Front, while ISIS ought to restrict its presence to Iraq.
The reality on the ground is quite different from the bitter discord and deliberations conducted in cyberspace. Both ISIS and al-Nusra are part of a complex network of bands, gangs, and formations that have occupied territory and exert some control over local society and the economy in areas from which the Syrian regime has been evicted. Allegiance to either ISIS or al-Nusra ― or any other party, including the regime ― is a function of incentives and coercive measures applied to local groups. While some localities have succeeded in maintaining the original spirit of the revolution, large swaths of Syrian territory have devolved into a parallel Islamic order ― complete with self-styled governors who are often notorious figures with criminal backgrounds, kangaroo courts consisting of untrained judges dispensing harsh punishment at will, and shadowy “shura council” of jihadists elevated to the status of communal leaders. In reality, these are little more than groups of bandits.
Many regions under regime control have regressed into similar patterns, with cult-like expressions of devotion to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in lieu of enforced radical religiosity. This is a testimony to the Assad regime’s failure over the past four decades to create a stable socio-economic and cultural order. Still, the deplorable jihadist performance in managing territory has exposed weaknesses, including to a broader Islamist ideology. In fact, the blatant absence of an Islamist political or economic program, the ideology’s incompatibility with local religious practices, and its reductionist character have resulted in a reversion to unqualified coercion.
To no avail, Zawahiri has issued messages trying to fill the substantive void in the jihadist agenda. The competition for resources between the two rival al Qaeda-inspired groups in Syria has degenerated into a fratricidal war ― one in which the Syria-rooted al-Nusra is aligned with non-al Qaeda affiliates against its former, foreign-led incubator.
Al Qaeda’s claim to be at the vanguard of an Islamist order has been put to the test and has failed woefully in Syria. Yet, judging by its record, the ability of this organization to redefine and reposition itself cannot be easily dismissed. Only a proactive opposition plan to resolve the Syrian conflict, one that asserts a vision of a pluralistic democratic state, can turn al Qaeda’s current setback into a defeat of radicalism. In addition to stemming the flow of jihadists, friends of Syria in the region and in the transatlantic community need to help a hesitant opposition take serious steps toward articulating such a bold new vision for Syria.