World Review | Syrian rebel victory could see spread of radical Islam around Mediterranean

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Syrian rebel victory could see spread of radical Islam around Mediterranean

Syrian rebel victory could see spread of radical Islam around Mediterranean
A Syrian rebel flag flies over a make-shift camp on the Syria-Turkey border sheltering more than 20,000 who have fled their homes (photo: dpa)

THE West may have to deal with more than it bargained for in its enthusiastic support of the Syrian revolutionaries fighting to bring down President Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime.

Not only is there concern over the rebels’ ability to win the brutal civil war, but Islamic fighters from outside Syria’s borders have joined the fray leaving the West concerned that by supporting the rebels, it is in fact supporting jihadists and the spread of a fundamentalist Sunni arc around the Mediterranean.

The enthusiasm of the West and Islamist revolutionaries concerning the impending downfall of the Assad family's tyrannical regime has now been superseded by doubt over the opposition's motives and, increasingly, over its ability to win the fight.

The Alawite clan of the Assads has, until now, represented order.

The regime's strong rule allowed Syrians to see themselves as united. The regime's ability to count on the support of more than half the population remains its main strength.

In training and resources, its police and military is also vastly superior to that of the other Arab regimes that have fallen to revolutionaries. These are factors the West has taken stock of.

For the United States, just out of Iraq and on the verge of quitting Afghanistan - it would be unthinkable, until proven otherwise, for it to consider getting involved in direct military action against the Ba'ath regime.

The US position is not helped by Russia's support for President Assad, which is all the stronger since Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has a lot more to lose in the event of President Assad’s downfall than the Americans stand to win.

The Syrian regular army remains powerful, regime forces having, for instance, succeeded in driving back the rebels from the periphery of Syria’s capital, Damascus.

Homs, generally known as the ‘capital of the revolution’, has almost entirely returned to the control of the regular army. In Aleppo, revolutionaries have not succeeded in occupying the town.

The rebels can only pride themselves on having gained ground in the east and the north. They have failed to gain control over the main towns.

These factors allow President Assad to hope he will maintain his position; so long as no international intervention is launched.

It is primarily Sunni-Arab rural areas that are the rebels' breeding ground, but deep splits among the rebels mean they are now unable to launch victorious attacks.

Within the revolutionary forces, jihadists are gaining the upper hand over other movements by proving, as they have done everywhere else, that their religious purity keeps them from the intimidating behaviour of the armed troops.

Faced with this competition from the Islamists, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has lost the ground it held initially as the revolution’s leading force owing to its habit of plundering areas it is liberating

However, opportunities for looting have dried up in war-torn areas such as Aleppo, leaving the FSA's fighters unwilling to return to the frontline. Islamist forces, equipped and funded as they are by the Gulf's oil monarchies, do not share these concerns.

For the time being they have gained superiority, though their radical methods are generating fear among the population. In some districts of Aleppo, Islamists have, for instance, forbidden women from driving cars. Wearing the hijab is now compulsory, and the summary executions they perform are putting them on a par with the armed regime supporters, the shabiha.

It is in part because Islamist fighters have joined the fray that Western powers are now reluctant to intervene.

The West’s aversion to the regime of the Assad family runs deep, but its involvement in a general war against jihadists, whether it be France’s engagement in Mali or that of the US in Afghanistan, puts it in a poor position to then support jihadists in Syria.

Syrians are not the only ones to make up the opposition movement. Rebels also include foreigners and extremists with a vision of Syria as an Islamic state ruled under Sharia.

It would be dangerous policy, for the West to assist in spreading a fundamentalist Sunni arc all round the Mediterranean.

It remains clear, however, that Syria's population has now become so divided as to make a partitioning of the country unavoidable. It is unlikely that President Assad will be able to win, but it is equally certain he will be unwilling to lose.

Charles Millon

Charles Millon is a French politician who served as France’s Minister of Defence from 1995 to 1997 in Alain Juppe’s government and French Ambassador to the United Nations from 2003 to 2007. ...

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