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The war without a front line

Who are the jihadists in the Syrian war? 


"Yes, this area is under our control," says a logistical from the Islamist coalition Ahrar al-Sham while pointing to a checkpoint on the map in front of him. "But to be honest, I would stay away if I were you. People who have passed here have disappeared. "

In Syria, there is no clear front line anymore, with the regime on one side and the rebels on the other. The maps for the UN brokers are all color-coded: yellow means Assad, red is for the rebels, green for jihadists, blue for the Kurds. And further: here you can find the Kurdish forces fighting with the rebels, while over there are the allies with Assad. Rebels backed by the United States, and rebels backed by Turkey. The map I am looking at now is no longer about defining geographical areas; the color code divides the terrain group by group, commander by commander. Rather than a map, it resembles one of those pieces of paper you find in a stationery store, patches designed for trying out pens of different colors. And there are more criminals than armed groups.

Multiple matches. After Aleppo's fall last December, warriors and activists who did not surrender moved to Idlib, a town about 59 kilometers southwest. Idlib is ruled by two militia groups: Ahrar al Sham and Tahrir al-Sham, which is the last name on the al-Nusra front – which in turn is described as Syrian Al Qaeda. "We all expect the regime to focus on Idlib now. And the city is completely demolishing, as they did with Aleppo. But it's not really necessary, ”admits the logist who drew the map sketch. "Most of the time I have to look behind other rebels, rather than the regime forces," he says. "We're going to wipe out Idlib on our own."

Since the start of Russia's intervention in support of Assad in September 2015, jihadists have disintegrated, splitting into countless militias. They all provide a little hovering defense for the use of sharia law – but they no longer have a political vision. They do not have a military strategy, either. Warriors are constantly moving from group to group, but not because of ideological differences. They move to where they can get more weapons, or where there are fewer air strikes. And it is only when I have completed the map that I discover that one important group is missing. Namely, the very reason why virtually the whole world is here: the Islamic State.

No matter who wins, nothing will change in Iraq.

For the jihadists, it is already over.

Assad may well be back in power in Syria – but in neighboring Iraq, fighting over Mosul is still raging. This is despite the fact that IS leader al-Baghdadi admitted defeat as early as February, urging his men to flee and disperse, or blow themselves up during attacks on the enemy. Al-Bagh-
dadi himself disappeared. "Instead, the Prophet himself has always been at the front, like any other warrior," I am told by a Tunisian who has just arrived. According to the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, about 2 new jihadists crossed the border from Turkey into Syria each month until recently. Today the number is closer to 000. "Is it as you expected?" I ask the Tunisian. He's looking at me. "It's the way it is," he says.

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 30, 2017 shows a member of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters, removing an Islamic State group flag in the town of Tabqa, about 55 kilometers (35 miles) west of Raqa city, as they advance in their battle for the group's de facto capital. The United States will soon start delivering weapons to Syria's Kurdish fighters, despite furious Turkish objections, a US military spokesman said. A first consignment of weapons is already in place for delivery and could be dispatched to the Kurds "very quickly," said US Colonel John Dorrian, a military spokesman for the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Baghdad. / AFP PHOTO / DELIL SOULEIMAN

Alien warrior from holiday paradise. In the last few months, IS has lost nearly 10 fighters. But the most important thing is that they have lost the Libyan city of Sirte, and are about to lose Mosul. It is expected that Raqqa in Syria will be the next. In that case, IS's three bastions will be history. In 000, when IS was at its height, the Islamic State had 2014 million inhabitants. The latest calculations from Rand Corporation indicate that the number is now down to 11 million. Jihadists still cross the border between Syria and Turkey, but the opposite way. They're coming back. But with an understanding of victory and defeat that sounds quite different than ours. For what matters, they say, is not the daily news; that's the story. The direction of the story. "Before 2,5/9, Islam did not exist for you," says a warrior who is still in Syria – let's call him Mohamad. “Now we are in the headlines every day, everywhere. Forget Raqqa, "he says," think of Hamtramck. Hamtramck has a Muslim majority and is located near Detroit. It's an American city. "

Rather than a radicalization of Islam, we in Europe are witnessing an Islamization of radicalism.

"In the beginning, no one believed that the Prophet would succeed," he said. "He was persecuted and harassed so much that he had to leave Mecca. And he triumphed in Medina. Defeat is not just the loss of a city, even if it is a capital city. Nor is defeat the death of a caliph, or the loss of an entire army. Defeat is only the loss of the will to fight. "

"When it comes down to it," says Mohamad, "where does al-Baghdadi come from? From Bin Laden's defeat. "

Mohamad is from the Maldives. And this points to the real problem: that we think we know the world. Especially now, with the internet: everything's on Google, right? You just need to apply. But even in this situation – how many of us know that the Maldives is a Muslim country? A country where sharia law applies? Also, an Afghanistan-like sharia law, complete with public whipping? It is the non-Arab country with the largest number of foreign fighters in terms of population. But who could imagine that?

Outside of the luxury tourist destinations, the Maldives is a land of violence and heroin – and most of all, poverty. The country has only 350 inhabitants, and collects as much as $ 000 billion in tourism each year; they could have been like Switzerland. But the Maldivian economy is owned by a network of businessmen with close ties to each other. The entire rest of the population is housed together in the capital Male, typically in two-room houses with ten people in each. A survey on street violence showed that 3,5 percent of blacks feel insecure even when they are at home. On Himandhoo, an island that just a few years ago was an Al Qaeda emirate, I was told by the young boss at Chuck Café, who is trying to challenge the ban on music: We are not on Al Qaeda's side, the answers they give are wrong answer the right questions. Questions that concern us all. Demand for changes.

Western jihadists. Our attention is completely focused on Western jihadists, who are often in their twenties and with leaflets telling about drugs, theft, petty crimes; they turn to Islam to get another chance. For a kind of reconciliation. Looking for a role, an identity. A purpose in life. Rather than a radicalization of Islam, we in Europe are witnessing an Islamization of radicalism, says the French sociologist Olivier Roy. But no matter how interesting – and challenging – Western jihadists may be to us, they are still only a few hundred. And it is important that they are quite different from other jihadists. For jihadists like to talk about a universal caliphate; but now they seem to be strongly influenced by national background. Earlier, they tore down the border fence between Syria and Iraq. In Syria, the only real choice is between supporting Assad or going against him, and many Syrians see the jihadists simply as a minor evil. In Iraq, however, there is a showdown between the Shiite majority and the Sunnis who once held power through Saddam. For jihadists, Syria and Iraq are the same country. But it's not the same war.

And so it is everywhere. Jihadists have different sources of motivation. And different goals. If fighting in Syria for someone from the Maldives means fighting for justice, young men travel from Tunisia to Libya for the same reason that previously brought them to Italy and Europe: the search for work. They do not want a caliphate; they want a salary. They are hungry. In Tunisia, unemployment is so high and so chronic that a wave of suicides swept across Kasserine province in the southern part of the country in October. But how many of us heard about it? Read about it?

Search Amazon for a book about the Maldives. You will only find Lonely Planet.

TOPSHOT – Shiite fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary units sit under an Iraqi flag as they advance towards the village of Shwah, south of the city of Tal Afar on the western outskirts of Mosul, on December 13, 2016, during an ongoing operation against Islamic State (IS) group jihadists.
Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary forces said they retook three more villages southwest of Mosul, completing another phase in operations aimed at cutting the jihadists' link to Syria. / AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE

Second-class life. When it comes to Islamic fundamentalism, the only structural reason analysts point to is the division between Sunnis and Shiites. In other words: the same hatred inherited from the ancestors that we have seen so many other places: Serbs and Croats, Hutu and Tutsi, Arabs and Jews. It all started in 1979, we are told, with the revolution in Iran. It made the country once again an important international player; a leading nation for the oppressed, who pressured Saudi Arabia, a country with a greater sense of luxury than charity, to follow. That is, to support jihadists of all kinds. The rivalry over hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia is, of course, of great importance, but that is only part of the picture. Today, eight individual billionaires own as much value as half of the world's population combined. In the Arab part of the world, 60 percent of the population is under 25 years of age; without a job, without property, without freedom. And what is most critical – without hope. Nothing. Why should they say they are happy with a second-class life?

Many jihadists are disappointed, but disappointed with IS, not with the jihad project itself. The answer they found may have been wrong, but they have at least tried to find an answer to the right question. "We did not fail," I was told in Iraq by an al-Qaeda deserter. "We just did not try properly."

"You are here to cover the 'liberation' of Mosul," he told me. "No matter who wins, nothing will change in Iraq. "Iraqis no longer even use the word liberation." Despite all the money the United States has spent rebuilding the country, no one in Baghdad knows the name of their own mayor. No matter what your problem is – a leaking, leaking plumbing – the one you have to go to is not the local government or the police, but a specific clan or a particular militia. The recruitment of the special forces deployed in Mosul says an awful lot: All the members have brothers, sons, fathers who have been killed by jihadists. "It simply came to our notice then.
host men, ”a general explained to The New Yorker. Because at this stage, there is one thing that holds Iraq together: blood. The thirst for revenge. Nothing else.

And this is what undermines our war against extremists: Extremists are on both sides of the front line.

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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