- Kuwait Times Extra
ALEPPO: Huddled around a fire in a bombed-out building in Aleppo, foreign jihadists say they are fighting for a radical Islamic state in Syria – whether local rebels trying to topple President Bashar Al-Assad like it or not. Among their fellow revolutionaries and civilians, these foreigners draw both respect for their iron discipline and fear that if Assad falls, they may turn on former allies to complete the struggle for an Islamic caliphate. One Turkish fighter in the devastated Aleppo district of Karm Al-Jabal expressed an unbending determination to achieve a state under Sharia Islamic law that worries many Syrians, the West and even regional backers of the anti-Assad rebellion. “Syria…will be an Islamic and Sharia state and we will not accept anything else. Democracy and secularism are completely rejected,” said the fighter, who called himself Khattab. Sporting a shaggy beard and with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, he warned anyone who might stand in the way. “We will fight them, even if they are among the revolutionaries or anyone else,” said Khattab, who left his job as a driver to fight for two years in Afghanistan before moving to Syria six months ago.
A member of the Jundollah rebel unit, Khattab has little knowledge of Arabic – he spoke in the rubble- strewn building through a Syrian translator – and refused to be filmed or photographed for fear of being identified back in Turkey. The government of Turkey is itself Islamist but strongly opposes the radical ideology of Khattab and the militants who are rising among the rebel groups fighting Assad in a conflict that has claimed at least 60,000 lives. The United States designated Al- Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Al-Nusra Front, as a terrorist organization in December after it claimed responsibility for bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. However, many rebels and Aleppo residents say fear of the jihadists is overblown. The West is exploiting it to justify not sending desperatelyneeded arms to the rebels, they say, prolonging Assad’s hold on power. In Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, the radicals’ influence is obvious.
Many rebels drive through the shattered streets in cars emblazoned with black Islamist flags carrying religious slogans. Accounts differ on how much radical groups coordinate with units of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA). Many rebels praise the skills of the jihadists – often honed in Afghanistan or Iraq – saying they are among the bravest fighters although they tend to be reclusive. Some, however, are new recruits in the holy war in a country they call Al-Sham, recalling a greater Syria established after the Muslim conquest over 1,300 years ago. One such is Abu al-Harith, a stocky, fair, 27-year-old from Azerbaijan who spoke at a rebel base in Karm al-Jabal, a district so damaged it seems to have suffered an earthquake. “This is my first time to embark on a Jihad because … there was no one worse than Bashar. Even Stalin was merciful compared with him,” said the young man, who wore a ski mask and had a black badge bearing an Islamic religious slogan sewn onto his green fatigues. —Reuters
Read by 1231