Assad Plays the Islamist Card

The Syrian government has long used Islamists to justify its rule by making the Assad regime look acceptable while doing its best to hide the existence of its secular opponents from the world. The Syrian government has sponsored Islamic extremists to the hilt (including al-Qaeda), while casting itself as the barrier to stop their ascent. Now, the regime is employing the same trick to frighten its citizens and deter the West from challenging it.

Riad al-Turk, a secular democratic opposition leader, says Assad’s political strategy includes “using the threat of the Islamists taking over and arguing that our people are not yet qualified to practice democracy.”

As soon as the uprising began gathering steam, one of Assad’s advisors immediately blamed it on Muslim Brotherhood theologian Yousef al-Qaradawi. The first casino was closed and the ban on teachers wearing niqabs and burqa was rescinded, helping Assad to frame the struggle as one between Islamism and secularism. When it released 270 political prisoners, all but 14 were Islamists. The regime also agreed to allow for the forming of a “moderate Islamist party loyal to the regime” under the leadership of Ayman Abdel Nour, a close personal friend of Assad. He was also told to create an Islamist satellite station. The regime wants to co-opt its Islamist opponents while undermining the secularists.

The regime refuses to even admit that its security forces are killing people, attributing the deaths to “armed gangs” and “terrorists.” There have been accounts of the victims’ families being required to sign statements affirming that the deaths came at the hands of these vaguely defined murderers before being given the bodies for burial. The regime has also claimed that it is combating “an armed insurrection by armed groups belonging to Salafist organizations, especially in the cities of Homs and Banias.” Protesters in Homs reacted by chanting, “We want freedom, not Salafism.”

This is simply the continuation of a shrewd strategy. The regime has permitted Islamic extremists to hold anti-American rallies in the open while fighting to make sure the secular opposition is not seen or heard. The late Abu Qaqa is an excellent example of this. He preached jihad and called for Sharia-based governance, yet was not put behind bars. Qaqa was involved in the flow of foreign extremists to Iraq and his former second-in-command, Abu Ibrahim, suspects he was an agent of the regime. Government personnel attended his rallies and Baath Party officials were present at his funeral.