SYRIA: «Yes, this area is under our control,» says a logistician of the Ahrar al-Sham, while pointing at a checkpoint on the map in front of him. «But to be honest, if I were you, I would stay away. People who have gone through this way, have gone missing.»
Who are the jihadists in the Syrian war?
In Syria there is no clear front line anymore, with the regime on one side and the rebels on the other. The maps of UN mediators are all colour coded: Yellow means Assad, red is for the rebels, green is for jihadists, blue for the Kurds. And further: here you’ll find the Kurdish forces that are fighting alongside the rebels, while over there are the ones that are in alliance with Assad. Rebels backed by the United States, or rebels backed by Turkey. The map I am examining now is not focused on defining geographical areas anymore; the colour coding divides the terrain group by group, commander by commander. Rather than a map, it looks like one of those paper sheets you might find in a stationary shop, for testing pens in different colours. And there are more criminals than armed groups.
Multiple battles. After the fall of Aleppo last December, fighters and activists who didn’t surrender moved to Idlib, a city some 59 kilometres to the southwest. Idlib is ruled by two militias: Ahrar al-Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, which is actually the latest denomination of the al-Nusra Front – which in turn is described as the Syrian Al-Qaeda. “We all expect the regime to focus on Idlib now. To raze it to the ground just like they did with Aleppo. But there is no need for it,” admits the logistician who sketched the map. “Most of the time, I have to watch my back for fellow rebels, rather than for the regime forces,” he says. “We will wipe out Idlib by ourselves.”
Since the start of Russia’s intervention in support of Assad in September 2015, jihadists have been in disarray, fragmented into countless militias. They all advocate, vaguely, the enforcement of Sharia law – but they don’t have any political vision anymore. Nor do they have a military strategy. Fighters move endlessly from one group to next, but not because of ideological differences. They relocate based on where they can get more guns, or where there might be fewer airstrikes. And it is only when my map is done that I realise there is one essential group missing. The very group that all the world is supposedly here for: the Islamic State.
“Whoever wins, nothing changes in Iraq.”
For jihadists, it’s already over. Assad may be back in power in Syria – but in neighbouring Iraq, the battle for Mosul is still going. This is despite the fact that ISIS leader al-Baghdadi already conceded defeat in February, urging his men to flee and scatter, or to blow themselves up in attacks on the enemy. Al-Baghdadi himself disappeared. “The Prophet, instead, has been always on the front line like any other fighter,” I’m told by a Tunisian who has just arrived. According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, there were approximately 2 000 new jihadists were crossing every month from Turkey into Syria until recently. Today, that number is closer to 50. Is it as you expected it, I ask the Tunisian. He looks at me. “It is what it is,” he says.
Foreign fighter from holiday paradise. Over the course of the last few months, ISIS has lost about 10 000 fighters. But most importantly, it lost the Libyan city of Sirte, and it is about to lose Mosul. It is expected that Raqqa, Syria will be next. If so, the three strongholds of ISIS will all be history. In 2014, at its height, the Islamic State had 11 million inhabitants. According to the latest estimates of the Rand Corporation, that number is now down to only 2,5 million. Jihadists are still crossing the border between Syria and Turkey, but in the opposite direction. They are coming back. But with an understanding of victory and defeat that sounds quite different from ours. Because what matters, they say, is not the daily news; it’s history. The direction of history. “Before 9/11 Islam didn’t exist for you,” I’m told by a fighter who is still in Syria – let’s call him Mohamad. “Now we hit the headlines every day, everywhere. Forget Raqqa,” he says, “think of Hamtramck. Hamtramck has a Muslim majority, and it is near Detroit. It is an American city.”
“In the beginning, no one thought that the Prophet would succeed,” he said. “He was pursued and harassed so much that he had to leave Mecca. And he triumphed in Medina. Defeat is not the loss of a city, should it even be a capital city, nor is it the death of a caliph, nor of a whole army: Defeat is only the loss of the will to fight.” “In the end,” Mohamad says, “where does al-Baghdadi come from? From the defeat of bin Laden.”
And Mohamed is from the Maldives. And this points to the real problem, which is that we assume we know the world. Especially now, with the internet: it’s all on Google, isn’t it? You just need to search. But even so, how many of us know that the Maldives are a Muslim country? A country ruled by Sharia law? And an Afghanistan-like Sharia law at that, complete with public flogging? It is the non-Arab country with the highest number per capita of foreign fighters. But who would ever imagine it?
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