The city of Raqqa in northern Syria was once the residence of Harun al-Rashid, the famed fifth caliph of the Abbasid empire. That was the golden age of Islam, which produced the poetry, scientific thought and philosophy in which the moderate Hanafi stream flourished. The city subsequently went through centuries of ups and downs, through times of ruin and of prosperity, until last week it seemed to return to days of old, to the era of the great Islamic conquests, when a radical Islamist organization seized control of it.
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For the first time in many generations, a dhimma (protection agreement) was signed between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – an Islamist branch of Al-Qaida – and leaders of Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. Members of ISIS gave the latter three options: accepting the agreement, converting to Islam, or risking death.
According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.
The agreement permits the Christians to follow their religious practices, but they are prohibited from building new churches or rebuilding destroyed ones.
Furthermore, the accord states that Christians may not prevent members of their community from embracing Islam if they so desire. They are forbidden from bearing arms, from engaging in commerce involving pork with Muslims, and from acting against Muslim interests – for example, by giving shelter to spies or persons wanted by ISIS. Moreover, if Christians learn of a plot against the Islamic State, they must report it.
In return, the Christians are to be granted protection of life and property, but should they violate the terms presented, this protection is revoked.
The agreement is based on and accompanied by citations from Koranic texts and Islamic religious rulings, and includes threats and warnings which make it abundantly clear that ISIS is the dominant force to reckon with.
This is a model that the radical organizations seek to impose on all of Syria – a concept that strikes fear not just among Syrian Christians, but even among Sunni Muslim organizations not known for their ideological moderation.
The response from rival groups has not been long in coming. Al-Nusra Front, led by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, issued an ultimatum to ISIS warning that if its people do not cease their attacks on the front, and if they don't sign a reconciliation agreement, they are in for “a dreadful battle.”
Al-Nusra became Al-Qaida’s official representative in Syria after ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi defied an order by Al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri to dismantle the front's forces in Syria and go back to fighting in Iraq. This blatant defiance led Al-Zawahiri to openly disavow ISIS, but this does not seem to have impressed the ISIS leader much, as he continues to spearhead an independent front within Syria.
It was Al-Bahgdadi's forces, in fact, who assassinated Abu Khalid al-Suri, a close friend of Osama bin Laden and a top Al-Qaida official, who worked alongside Al-Joulani. Friendship with Bin Laden is no longer a reliable insurance policy, apparently.
The power struggles between the two radical groups that have seized partial control of some Syrian towns and villages is forcing the Free Syrian Army to take a stand. The paradoxical result is that the Al-Qaida stand-in – Al-Nusra – is now considered a more desirable ally of the rebels than ISIS because it relies largely on Syrian support, while ISIS has recruited many volunteers from Arab and Western countries.
Al-Nusra has also been “kinder” to civilians. True the group's militants decapitated civilians suspected of supporting the Syrian regime, but it also is better at keeping order and maintaining the food supply to the civilians under its control. In addition, Al-Nusra and the Islamic Front – an umbrella organization for several Islamist groups – are currently cooperating in an effort to created a united front against ISIS.
For its part, the Islamic Front is also an ally of the FSA and is considered a “moderate organization” with which the American administration can negotiate in order to build a more significant military coalition that will strengthen the rebels. These negotiations have yet to yield any results, however, since the divisions among the various groups fighting in Syria will allow nothing more than ad-hoc cooperation in specific areas at present.
While this abundance of rival organizations may be confusing to some, it's not to President Bashar Assad, who continues to bolster his standing as the preferred option for Syria, and is working to make this a reality. Although the presidential election is not due to take place until July, his campaign is well underway. Assad’s people are plastering major cities with posters supporting his presidency and calling on citizens to register to vote.
The regime is expected hold the election in areas under its control, and thereby gain legitimacy for its continued rule. Washington is trying to block the voting, but at this stage it looks like its efforts would be better spent in collecting gold dinars for the Christians, who have become the latest symbol of the West’s resounding failure to stop the slaughter in Syria.