By Vijay Prashad. This article was first published on Frontline.
Even as Jabhat al Nusra draws youth to its side by offering them a chance to lead a life of dignity, Syrians of various ideological hues are equally determined to keep the Gulf-funded jehadis at bay.
A SMALL village in the upper elevations of the borderlands between Syria and Lebanon awaits the slow drop in temperature. Jabhat al Nusra fighters who had been stuck in these upper redoubts fear the winter. They are already cut off from their supply lines and hemmed in by the Syrian and Lebanese armies, as well as by Hizbollah’s fierce determination to prevent their further movement into Lebanon. It is mid-October and alongside the road, just outside the village, sit six al Nusra fighters. They are all young, in their early twenties. Each has long hair and a beard—a Jesus look that does not match the various guns that are near at hand. One of them, Mohammed, with a Kalashnikov in his lap, is Lebanese. He has a college degree and has been with al Nusra for at least a year.
In early October, a week before this encounter, al Nusra fighters who had been encircled in the Qalamoun Mountains along the Syria-Lebanon border broke into Nabi Sbat, east of the Lebanese town of Baalbek. They clashed with Hizbollah fighters, who pushed them back into the hills. The sound of mortar fire and gunfire shook the valley. Hizbollah’s checkpoints are hidden in the hillsides of this undefined border. More such clashes are to be expected as al Nusra fighters try to reopen supply lines. Hizbollah officials say they are confident that they will be able to protect the roadways that link the Bekaa Valley, where the town of Baalbek is the great jewel, to Beirut and the coastline.
Mohammed does not dispute Hizbollah’s skilled ferocity. He says that the Hizbollah fighters are much more difficult to tackle than those of the Lebanese or Syrian armies. But the war has made this young man from a moderate family in the Akkar region weary. His eyes sparkle as he speaks, but there is already iron in his soul. “If I had a job,” he said, “I would not do jehad.” I ask him about Al Qaeda, the parent organisation of Jabhat al Nusra. He speaks idealistically, but is not versed in scripture or in the ideological squabbles between the jehadi groups. “I was trained in engineering,” he says, as if in apology. What gets him going is not Al Qaeda or al Nusra, the formal colours of his outfit. He is enamoured of the battlefield successes of the Islamic State (I.S.). Its sheer audacity impresses him. They care for nothing—not for borders or for the old order. Mohammed likes that. It excites him.
Across the battlefields of America’s War on Terror have emerged groups that speak for the youth—the Taliban (students) and al-Shabab (the youth). In many parts of the Arab world, those under thirty comprise close to three quarters of the population. This “youth bulge” comes alongside a colossal failure to provide jobs for these young people, many of whom are not only unemployed but also unemployable. There is no credible agenda to tackle this serious problem of joblessness. An International Labour Organisation study from 2013 (“Rethinking Economic Growth”) found that youth unemployment in the Arab world stands at 23 per cent, compared with a world average of 14 per cent. If jobs do come, said Mohammad Pournik of the United Nations Development Fund, they are secured through bribes or favours (wasta). “The real issue is the need for jobs with social dignity,” said Pournik, “rather than jobs that come at the expense of dignity.” Groups such as al-Shabab and al Nusra attract young men whose dignity has been offended in their failed search for a better life.
Mohammed thoughtfully answers my questions about al Nusra, his family and his future. He thinks that the money for al Nusra comes from the Persian Gulf countries. He is right. People like the Qatari national Khalifa Muhammed Turki al-Subaiy collected vast amounts of money that they handed over to conduits such as Ashraf Muhammad Yusuf Uthman Abd al-Salam, who is currently in Syria with Jabhat al Nusra. Mohammed does not tell me much about his family for fear that this will help the authorities identify him. But of his future, he is measured. His expectations are minimal. A mediocre formal education in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli came alongside the fulminations of a cleric in the city’s many mosques. It was from the latter that he found his way in the world.
An hour’s drive from the mountains, in a cafe in Beirut’s Hamra district, sits a group of young students. People across the city wonder how long it will take for al Nusra and the I.S. to seize their city. Some worry about the presence of al Nusra fighters in the Shebaa Farms towards the south of Lebanon. War games are the necessary tonic. If al Nusra attacked Lebanon’s south, this would draw Hizbollah fighters to defend the area. Such a move would weaken Lebanon’s defences in the north, opening it up to an Islamist assault. Others disagree. Hizbollah is well prepared to tackle both an assault in the south and the north. Yet others worry about an Israeli intervention. There is always the worry of an Israeli assault. Israeli aircraft frequently fly in Lebanon’s skies in a show of force. These worries are not idle.
Two young women say that if the I.S. enters Beirut, they will take up arms and fight. They have no training, but a great deal of determination. Rumours are afoot that the various sectarian factions—not too far removed from their own internecine battles—have opened up their arsenals and distributed weaponry. Lebanon is worried, but prepared. It will not fall easily. This is a land that has withstood and defeated an Israeli occupation as well as survived its own 15-year-long civil war. But nerves are frayed. Acts of violence against Syrian refugees are a sign of the frustration. There is an unwarranted suspicion that the refugees harbour jehadi groups. Lebanon’s government has now decided to no longer allow Syrians into the country, where there are already more than a million refugees to add to the four million Lebanese.
Not far away, in the Metro al-Madina theatre, a band called al-Rahel al-Kabir (The Great Departed) runs a popular show that mocks the I.S. and its caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. “Oh master,” they sing, “you will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other.” In Beirut, famous for traffic jams, al-Rahel al-Kabir praises al-Baghdadi for trying to reduce the traffic by blowing up human beings. It is uncomfortable satire. Jokes are legion against the I.S.’ decrees. One suggests that cow udders must not be allowed to be visible. “I swear to God,” goes one of the songs, “if I was a cow, I would be wearing a bra.” This is gallows humour that often needs little more from the artists than embellishment. The raw material from the territory of the I.S. is tragically absurd (such as the decree against diapers).
Mouataman al-Baba is a Syrian businessman who is in a hurry. He wants to inform the Europeans that there is no possibility of creating a new armed, moderate Syrian force to take on both the I.S. and the government of Bashar al-Assad. In other words, al-Baba believes that the entire conceit of the United States’ policy—to bomb I.S. and to create a new moderate Syrian group—is an illusion. It is simply not possible. He does not know the U.S. He believes that the Europeans are more rational and would be more willing to hear his message.
We are sitting in Beirut near the old Green Line that divided the city during its civil war. Al-Baba speaks with the credibility of a man with an insider’s knowledge who has moved away from his earlier commitments. In 2011, al-Baba financed the purchase of arms for the Syrian rebels near Damascus. He threw himself into the Syrian uprising, using his money and his contacts. In early 2012, al-Baba wrote to the United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan saying that people like him were ready to pay for the revolution. They wanted no Gulf Arab money to come into their fight. “We have a network to help and support people,” he wrote. But Gulf Arab money and influence swept into the rebellion, he now admits. Al-Baba soured of the endeavour. He fled Syria that summer. In November 2012, he published an essay called “Syria and the Raped Revolution”. The revolution is over, he wrote. The jehadis have taken it away from the Syrian people. Voices like that of al-Baba were not heard over the din. When he was with the revolt, the studios of al-Arabiya and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) welcomed him. When his views changed, he could not get on the air. His Syrian voice was no longer of interest.
Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian dissident who had become an important voice of the rebellion after 16 years in Syrian prisons, went underground in 2011. He fled to his native city of Raqqa, which fell to the I.S. in March 2013. In an open letter, “Farewell to Syria, for a while”, written in October 2013, Saleh wrote that his city had been taken over by “the spectres of horror of our childhood, the ghouls”. The situation in Raqqa, Saleh writes, is deplorable. It was hard to watch “strangers oppress it and rule the fates of its people, confiscating public property, destroying a statue of Haroun al-Rashid or desecrating a church, taking people into custody where they disappeared in their prisons”. He fled Syria for Turkey. In December 2013, Saleh’s wife, Samira al-Khalil, the well-regarded communist, was abducted in Douma (near Damascus) along with her comrades Razan Zeitouneh, Wael Hamada and Nazem al-Hammadi from the Violations Documentation Centre. The kidnapper was most likely Jaish al-Islam, a Saudi-backed group that hopes to become the “moderate” army of the Western imagination. The whereabouts of the four activists are unknown. Their fate is as uncertain as that of the beloved priest of Deir Mar Musa, Paolo Dall’Oglio, who went to Raqqa in July 2013 to negotiate with the I.S. That he was kidnapped is known. Beyond that is silence.
Endless cups of juice and plates of biscuits come between al-Baba and myself. We are talking about the barbarism that has taken hold of Syria. Al-Baba has six cell phones on the table before him. He wants to create a network against the encroachment of the jehadis into his beloved Syria. Al-Baba is not alone, and he knows it. There are many Syrians who are horrified by what has happened to their country. People like al-Baba do not see themselves as responsible for the emergence of the jehadis. They wanted a more just and free Syria. The Syrian government had blocked the space for their ambitions. It was not capable of genuine reform. Into the breach came Gulf Arab money, pushed along by a naive West, suggests al-Baba. This is what ruined Syria.
My mind wanders to the al Nusra fighters who are sitting on the side of the road, polishing their Kalashnikovs. Their future had been sidelined. They were not seeking democracy or human rights, or free markets. What they wanted was dignity. They have found something in this struggle, and will not so easily withdraw from it, aerial bombardment or not.