In Syria’s largest city, rebellion takes on an overtly religious tone

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2012 

— Two months into the battle for Syria’s second largest city, the airstrikes have become a part of daily life. Sometimes they are deadly accurate, taking out the rebels for whom they are intended. Just as often, they seem to miss.

A rebel headquarters in a former police station in the northeastern neighborhood of Hanano stands as testament to this. Though its windows are all broken, it has been missed at least four times, the intended strikes landing in a nearby park, an empty lot and destroying a five-story apartment building a full block away.

The battle for Aleppo that began with a rebel offensive in mid-July has settled into a stalemate. The rebels here control largely the same neighborhoods they took in the initial offensive. But there is something different here – a distinctly religious tone that this reporter hadn’t heard elsewhere in more than seven months covering Syria’s rebellion.

“This is not a revolution, it’s a jihad,” shouted one man, angry, as he stood near the rubble of the apartment building mentioned above. Behind him, men worked with a bulldozer, trying to reach people they believed were still alive under the rubble.

As the death toll in Syria continues to rise, and the end of hostilities seems no closer at hand, the words from February of a Syrian activist, who fiercely defended the democratic and non-sectarian nature of the rebellion, resonate.

“If no one else comes to help, of course people will turn to religion. When you are dying, of course you will become more religious,” he said.

The fight for Aleppo, much better planned and coordinated than perhaps any rebel offensive so far, offers a window into what things might look like after the Syrian government falls. Liwa Tawhid, one of the largest groups fighting here, had even made contingencies for policing rebel controlled neighborhoods and laid out plans to set up schools. Their plan for schooling includes religious instruction, and their council for making decisions about the fate of prisoners includes an expert in Islamic law.

At a mosque being used as a base for fighters in another neighborhood, a sign warning civilians against entering was another sign of the religious drift. The sign referred to the men inside as “mujahidin,” which translates as holy warriors, as opposed to “thowar,” which means revolutionaries.

Last Tuesday, at another rebel base, members of Ahrar al Sham, a group whose members describe themselves as Salafis, followers of a conservative strain of Islam some of whose followers also are thought behind last week’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere, handed out leaflets delineating the difference between mujahids and other rebels. It used the perjorative term “shabiha” – a Syrian word that usually refers to pro-government militiamen accused of carrying out some of the war’s worst atrocities – to refer to non-mujahids.

The leaflet had multiple aims, including criticizing rebels who might loot or use their weapons carelessly. But it also explained that a mujahid prays, and “Knows very well that God will give us victory if we apply his law by studying it and spread it between people nicely.”

The mujahid “Uses his weapon to support the oppressed people and their rights in a way that God accepts and nothing else,” the document continued.

Under Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, who preceded him in the presidency, the imams of mosques across Syria were appointed by the government. Elections were single party exercises, with only the Syrian Arab Baath Party, which espoused a secular state, allowed to organize. Religious proselytizing frequently earned a prison sentence.

So it is no surprise that religious men would be on the frontlines of the fight to end Assad’s rule. Hafez Assad’s government brutally repressed any opposition, and the most serious challenge to his rule was an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Many rebels say they expect that after the fall of Assad, parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood would contest elections.

In Aleppo, Jabhat al Nusra, another Salafi group that has been known primarily for claiming bombings against government targets, is an actual fighting force here, with an identifiable base of operations from which it carries out guerrilla strikes. Members of the group declined interviews.

“We are fighting only for God,” one of them said, refusing to be identified. “Not to be in the press.”

But they know what their image is outside Syria. “They say in the West we are Al Qaida,” one Jabhat fighter scoffed, meaning it as a denial.

Discussing such issues can be a delicate task for an American journalist in a place where “Are you Muslim?” is not a strange question as introductions are being made. On the frontlines, some fighters stress that Islam and Christianity share many common tenets.

“We all have the same goal, the fall of the regime,” said Yousef Abboud, a leader of Liwa Tawhid. “Every country has some people who are more religious.”

Then he added an assertion frequently made by religious conservatives in the region: “I believe Islamic law is preferred by most people in Syria because it protects people’s rights,” he said.

Other fighters assert that the strength of the religious fighting groups here has more to do with the fact they appear to be better financed than other groups. “Many people join Ahrar al Sham and Jabhat al Nusra because they have money and weapons,” said one fighter who declined to be named with Suqqor al Sham, another rebel group fighting here.

He said he believed the religious conservatives will lose their fervor once the fighting was done.

In the meantime, however, jihadis and non-Syrian Muslims and Arabs coming to Syria to join the fight, bringing with them various levels of expertise and religious fervor, are welcomed here, though their numbers are small; during a reporting trip, none was encountered. But the general sentiment is that no one else is coming to help.

The shelling goes on around the clock, as do the flyovers and attacks by Syrian air force jets and helicopters. Despite the danger, people still stand in lines for hours to get bread, sometimes scattering as a helicopter or plane flies low. The bakeries themselves have become targets as well, with two being hit in as many days last week.

Another frequent sight is people with as many suitcases as they can carry looking for the first ride out of the city.

On Tuesday, in front of another destroyed building in the city’s Haidariya neighborhood, a crowd shouted “Allahu akbar” as three children and their mother were pulled alive from the rubble. God is great indeed, if that’s what you want to call whatever force saved those four people. The neighborhood is sympathetic to the rebels, though a visit to the area earlier in the day had revealed no discernable military targets.

Enders is a McClatchy Special Correspondent. Email:; Twitter: @davidjenders

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