'Islamist posturing' is a strategy to raise funds, says Syrian rebel

A rebel from a Free Syrian Army brigade, in eastern Damascus. The fighters mix symbols of the Syrian revolution with those from jihadist groups. Photo sent in by Tayssir Syria.
 
 
The Free Syrian Army was once the main armed opposition force against Bashar al-Assad, but its influence has diminished as its fighters defect to Islamist brigades, which tend to be better financed and, as a result, better armed. The rebels who defected said their decision was based on pragmatism rather than religious belief.
 
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), an armed branch of the coalition supported by western countries, was for a long time the main opposition force in the rebel areas of Damascus. But for the past few months fighters have been abandoning its ranks to the exent that certain experts are referring to the FSA as an “empty shell”. On the ground, it has to compete with various Islamist rebel groups, including the “Army of Islam”, an Islamist group that positions itself as relatively moderate and is one of the best-organised in Damascus.
 
According to its spokesperson, the Army of Islam is an alliance of 50 different rebel groups that came together last September. The group boasts several thousand fighters and is very active in the areas surrounding Damascus. According to several experts, the Army of Islam is mainly funded by the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, which are allegedly attempting to provide an alternative to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the area.
 
In Damascus, the Army of Islam competes with other, more radical rebel brigades, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Al Nusra Front.
 
The larger Syrian rebellion’s funding comes from a range of sources — including rich businessmen, political organisations, and foreign states — and typically flows through intermediaries, such as foreigners living in Syria. Many of them come from Gulf States. When interviewed by FRANCE 24 in December 2012, Fabrice Balanche, Syria expert and director of the Research Group on the Mediterranean and the Middle East , explained that “Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia supports the Salafists. The rebel brigades are competing with one another to impress [donors] and receive funding”.
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“We bend in any direction to attract potential donors, whatever our actual beliefs”

Tayssir Syria (not his real name) is a fighter that lives in the eastern suburbs of Damascus, in Ghouta. He is part of a moderate brigade, whose name he does not wish to reveal. He claims that his brigade is still part of the Free Syrian Army and is not part of any the main Islamist groups in the area. Nonetheless, his brigade receives funding from foreigners.
 
We are always in need of funds to help the civilians of cities that have been destroyed or to purchase arms and munitions. Funding is the key to this war, and it’s one of the disasters of the revolution. But every time you try to raise money, the first question you’re asked is, “Where do you situate itself within Islam?” or “Will you give your brigade an Islamic name?”
 
Often, when these potential funders realise that ours is not a Salafist brigade, they stop funding us. That’s why, in the videos made by our brigade, we like to recite verses from the Korean and to include Islamic symbols in the background… We are all salesmen, in a way: we must bend in any direction to fit our potential donors, whatever our actual beliefs, and the donor is always right.
 
“If our donors want us to rename our brigade ‘Syrian soldiers for Madonna’, we’d do it!”
 
Once, I was with a soldier from the Free Syrian Army brigade who was on the phone with his girlfriend. Right afterwards, he got a call from one of the brigade’s donors. His tone changed completely: he was speaking like a radical Islamist, like someone who would never have had a girlfriend. When he hung up, I asked him, “Doesn’t it bother you to have to put on this kind of act?” He answered, “If our donors want us to rename our brigade to the ‘Syrian soldiers for Madonna, we’d do it!”
 
There is a huge number of moderate fighters that are now part of Islamist brigades. For instance, many have joined Liwa al-Islam [an Islamist group that is now part of the Army of Islam] because they can pay fighters a regular salary, which the Free Syrian Army is unable to do. But I know these people: once the war is over, they’ll stop this charade and go back to normal. Once Bashar al-Assad has fallen, the real threat will actually come from Al Qaeda’s influence and from the real Islamist leaders within these groups, those that have a political agenda.
 
“I’m afraid that my son will grow up believing that this is a normal environment”
 
I am not religious, which all my brigade comrades know, even the most religious ones. Nonetheless, we still fight side by side. But it’s just a question of time: if the war goes on for a long time, I think the fundamentalist influence will really take root here. I have a son who is now growing up in this context. I am afraid that he may believe this environment is normal, and that I will have a hard time clearing his head from such beliefs.
  
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Lucy Provan.
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