Syria’s moderate rebel groups launch ‘soft power’ plan to beat Islamists

They hope a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign – promising extra aid and public services  in opposition-held areas – will help counter similar efforts by more radical Muslim groups

Istanbul

In a bid to counter the growing influence in Syria of militant groups linked to al-Qa’ida, moderate rebels are launching a campaign to win the hearts and minds of civilians living in opposition-held areas.

Mimicking tactics used by the Islamic State of Iraq and as-Sham (Isis), an offshoot of al-Qa’ida, the Syrian opposition is to focus greater efforts on “soft power” by increasing the provision of badly needed humanitarian aid and services to areas in most need.

The move comes in response to an unprecedented campaign by Isis over the past year to win the support of Syrians living in the areas it controls and achieve its stated goal of creating an Islamic caliphate in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Used to working in the shadows, the radical Islamist group – the recipient of a steady flow of cash through an established, global funding network – has taken to holding “family fun days”, in order to distribute food in areas where it is scarce, and setting up its own schools and courts. In doing so, Isis has been able to gain a foothold in areas in which it would normally have been shunned.

But this has been at the expense of more moderate groups which do not have the same funding and wherewithal to do the same. The opposition-in-exile, together with its military wing, the Supreme Military Council (SMC) – a coalition of rebel groups backed by the West – hopes to use this “soft power” to marginalise Isis and win back support from Syrians living in rebel-held areas. “We realised that in order to fight al-Qa’ida we need to counter them not just militarily but on the social side as well,” a senior adviser to the SMC told The Independent. “We are doubling our effort on that front.”

The plan is based on the opposition’s belief that if Syrians have a choice of receiving support from radical groups such as Isis or their own members, they would choose the latter. It is also a way in which the moderate opposition hopes to counter the rise of Isis without having to confront it militarily and draw fighters away from the battle against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Despite the best efforts of its savvy social-media team, Isis is still viewed with suspicion by most Syrians. The group has gained a reputation for brutal sectarianism, which is rooted in its strict interpretation of strict Muslim sharia law. It has carried out public executions and is said to be behind a spate of kidnappings. Its fighters – the majority of whom are thought to be foreigners – stand accused by Human Rights Watch of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity for targeting civilians, particularly those from the Alawite sect to which President Assad belongs.

“People do not like Isis; their extreme beliefs are alien to the Syrian people. But they are also very desperate and cannot afford to refuse aid,” the SMC adviser said. “This is the only way to prevent al-Qa’ida from establishing themselves in Syria. They are a danger not only to Syria, but also to the West.”

The SMC said it had established offices in Aleppo, Idlib and the suburbs of Damascus in order to increase its distribution of food and medical supplies to civilians in contested areas. It is also planning to create a police force and become more involved in education programmes.

The Syrian conflict has dragged on for more than two-and-a-half years and caused the deaths of more than 100,000 people. During that time, the opposition has struggled to win the support of a large portion of ordinary Syrians. The Syrian National Council, based in Istanbul, has faced criticism for not doing enough to alleviate the suffering of the people it represents. It is sometimes referred to by the derogatory nickname of “the Five Star hotel opposition” – because it holds many of its meetings in hotels in Turkey.

Mohammad, an activist who works in Yabroud, a town north of Damascus which is controlled by a number of local moderate rebel groups, said: “Most people have lost hope in the opposition. They talk and talk without helping us and they take orders from other countries.”

Opinions of the opposition vary in different areas of the Syria, but the renewed focus on distributing services appears to have been prompted by the SNC’s realisation that Mohammad’s view is shared by many people on the ground in Syria. But with the war raging, the delivery of aid remains fraught with danger. Senior members of the opposition told The Independent their aid distribution efforts were often hijacked by Isis fighters, who then distribute it themselves. In order for the new campaign to work, the opposition will also seek to improve security for the aid routes.

The project faces further hurdles, however. The opposition’s main body for the delivery of aid, the assistance co-ordination unit, has faced accusations of mismanagement and corruption. Anger at the organisation came to a head last week, when 25 of its employees went on strike, calling for reforms in order to address “ the spread of corruption within the unit and [to] put an end to favouritism”.

The new front in the battle for hearts and minds comes against the backdrop of months of growing tension between more moderate rebel groups and Isis. This tension has spilled out into open conflict in many areas of the rebel-held north. In September, a rebel group under the SMC umbrella fought fierce battles with Isis fighters in the city of Azaz, near the border with Turkey. Clashes between Syrian rebels and Isis have also taken place across northern Syria, in Aleppo, Idlib and Latakia.

Video: How the US could destroy Syria's chemical weapons

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