Islamic Fundamentalists Play Growing Role in Syria Fight

Fundamentalist Islamic fighters are a growing presence in the Syrian opposition, increasing their influence as Western nations have failed to intervene militarily in the uprising against the Syria government, according to a report by the International Crisis Group.

The rise of fundamentalist, Salafi groups “can be explained as the natural, expected byproduct of heightened violence combined with receding hopes of a quick resolution,” the Brussels-based policy research group group said.

This is a “problematic” development for the Syrian opposition leaders since it worries their actual and potential foreign backers and validates the regime’s claim to be fighting “terrorists,” according to the report being released tomorrow.

“The West’s initial reluctance to act –- and enduring reluctance to act decisively –- coupled with early willingness of private, wealthy, and for the most part religiously conservative Gulf Arabs to provide funds, bolstered both the Salafis’ coffers and their narrative, in which Europe and the U.S. figure as passive accomplices in the regime’s crimes,” according to the report, “Tentative Jihad: Syria’s Fundamentalist Opposition.”

The opposition has a responsibility to curb the influence of the Salafis -- ultraconservative Sunnis who adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam -- and stem the slide toward radicalization, the ICG said. The lack of unity by international community is also a concern, the group said.

‘Bidding War’

“For as long as different countries sponsor distinct armed groups, a bidding war will ensue, and any hope of coordinating the rebels, disciplining them and restraining their most extremist members will be in vain,” according to the report.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has played up the issue of Salafism, portraying its crackdown on the uprising that began in March 2011 as a fight against armed militant extremists.

As a practical matter, the Salafis haven’t been particularly successful in their fighting,

“Large-scale attacks against regime forces in July and August 2012, during which Salafi groups assumed a highly visible role, ended in failure, deflating some of the preexisting faith,” the ICG said.

Also, the group said Syria isn’t particularly fertile ground for Islamic fundamentalists.

“Syria boasts a history of moderate Islamic practice and has long prided itself on peaceful, cross-confessional coexistence,” according to the report. “Its citizens have seen, firsthand, the calamitous repercussions of sectarian strife as civil war destroyed two of its neighbors, first Lebanon, later Iraq.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at dabunasr@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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