Syrian rebels take position in the northwestern Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur on January 25, 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
A Tuesday Washington Post report definitively concludes that Islamic extremists dominate certain areas of rebel-held Syria, and their power only seems to be on the rise. The revolution may have begun as a spontaneous democratic uprising against longtime leader Bashar al-Assad, but the eager activists appear to have been outnumbered by radicals eager to impose Islamic law.
After highlighting a case where an activist dropped an Islamic banner and was subsequently beaten with a pipe, calling it "incontrovertible evidence" of the changing power dynamic, the Washington Post writes:
After mutating last year into a full-scale war, [the uprising] is moving toward what appears to be an organized effort to institute Islamic law in areas that have fallen under rebel control.
Building on the reputation they have earned in recent months as the rebellion’s most accomplished fighters, Islamist units are seeking to assert their authority over civilian life, imposing Islamic codes and punishments and administering day-to-day matters such as divorce, marriage and vehicle licensing.
Numerous Islamist groups are involved, representing a wide spectrum of views. But, increasingly, the dominant role is falling to Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front. The group has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States for suspected ties to al-Qaeda but is widely respected by many ordinary Syrians for its battlefield prowess and the assistance it has provided to needy civilians. [Emphasis added]
Rebel fighters carry heavy weapons as they prepare to fight against Syrian regime forces in the village of Kurnaz, close to the western city of Hama, on January 27, 2013. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
The Jabhat al-Nusra forms some of the muscle behind the "Shariah Authority" Hayaa al-Sharia-- known colloquially as the Hayaa-- but other sects of the rebellion also support the Hayaa, giving them near-absolute control in some areas.
"For many Aleppo residents weary of the months of chaos after the takeover of their neighborhoods by unruly rebel fighters who have looted homes and shaken down civilians, the authority is welcomed as an attempt to restore order," the Washington Post writes.
But what of the bright-eyed democracy-seekers who started the revolution? The secular activists are reportedly beginning to face punishment at the hands of other rebels.
After well-known rebel doctor Othman al-Haj Othman took down a poster with the Muslim declaration of faith from his hospital wall, he was promptly arrested and held overnight in prison.
“They think the same way as Bashar. There is no difference,” he said angrily after his release. “Those people don’t represent the revolution. They don’t understand the revolution...They have power, they have guns, but they don’t have support. When there are free elections, you will see.”
But there is little hope of fair and free elections anytime soon, and neither rebel camp is anxious to launch a war on two fronts.
“I think the real war [for Syria's future] will start after toppling the regime,” longtime rebel Abu Mariam warned.