Anti-Assad Forces in Syria Are Growing More Islamist

Much of the Syrian public doesn't like President Assad, but fears the alternative.

"If I die, and they find my body, don't give me an Islamic burial, and I ask that no Muslim, no matter which sect he belongs to, be present at my funeral." Those were the instructions of Syrian intellectual Nabil Fayad in the will he wrote. Fayad is still alive. But the kidnapping attempt that he recently endured made it clear to him that his days are numbered and that he had better plan his funeral already.

Fayad, who is in his 40s, is a pharmacist and a scholar of comparative religion who has written many books about Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Among other things he studied Hebrew and Aramaic. He is a strong opponent of the radical Islamic parties.

In the same will he directly accuses his family of the kidnapping attempt that took place a few days ago when he was on his way to buy food for his household. He describes how a group of men in their 30s were waiting in ambush for him, and when he realized they were planning to kidnap him, he fled in the direction of a Syrian army checkpoint, and from there he continued under protection to his home.

A Sunni for Assad

Among the kidnappers, Fayad identified several members of his family, whom he names fearlessly. He says his family tried to kidnap him and perhaps even kill him because he opposed the extermination of Alawites by Sunnis, some of the latter being members of his family, and because he is a harsh and public critic of the Islamic movements. What apparently infuriated his relatives and his opponents were his penetrating statements on the program "The Opposite Direction" on Al Jazeera in early August, when he warned that bringing down the regime of Bashar Assad meant Syria would fall into the hands of the radical groups and that the extremist movements would take over the country. Fayad participates regularly in the regime's programs on Syrian television and expresses similar opinions, and is therefore considered a supporter of the regime, although he supports democratic reforms. Despite the threats to his life, he explains that he is unwilling to leave the country for Germany, Qatar or England. He travels to work by public transportation and continues to lead a normal life.

Fayad is not the head of any Syrian political movement and has no government post, but his words are a good reflection of the profound internal disputes among various groups in the Syrian opposition - as well as between the opposition and part of the Syrian public, the part that wants to bring down Assad's regime but is afraid of the alternative that will run the country in the future.

An example of this division is the reaction published on one of the Islamic websites to a program on Al Jazeera in which Fayad participated. The writer, Mohand Khalil, one of the radical Islamic commentators, attacked the anchor of the program, Faisal Qasim, himself a Syrian who has fled the country, for letting Fayad speak. "Fayad claims that he hates the United States and Israel, but at the same time he presents himself as a liberal who is protecting the Jews. Fayad is a scoundrel whose family has rejected him."

Khalil also had a serious complaint against the program's host for allowing "in a preplanned way" a man named Nidhal Naisa to speak. "Naisa is a thug, a man of the regime who claims that he opposes the regime," wrote Khalil. "But the difference between Naisa and Fayad is that Naisa is a member of the Nusayri community, who is defending his heretical community and its tyranny in the country, whereas Fayad is a dog who is barking for the regime, and nothing more."

Nusayris is the ancient name of the Alawites, which is a Shi'ite sect. This name was "replaced" by Alawites, because the former was too reminiscent of the people's closeness to the Nazarenes (Christians ) and isolated them from Islam. Now the term "Nusayri" is used by Sunnis in Syria to emphasize the "heresy" of the Alawites who rule the country. Fayad is a Sunni, and that is the source of the principal complaint against him, because how can a Sunni possibly support the regime?

Fear of Free Syrian Army

This dispute does not end with insults and curses on Internet sites and television programs. It leaks into the street and kills people. The fear of a takeover by religious groups, the frequent photos of fighters from the Free Syrian Army adorned with thick beards, the ancient Islamic names that the brigades of the free army have adopted, and the religious slogans that accompany their broadcasts have already caused tens of thousands of Christians to flee Syria. The Christians, a minority of about 2 million Syrian citizens, are a doubly "suspicious element": The Free Syrian Army sees them as supporters of Assad's secular regime, which has protected them over the years, whereas the regime sees them now as part of "the Western Christian world" that aspires to bring it down.

But murderous power struggles are taking place not only among the religious nationalist sects. The political opposition doesn't know exactly where it is headed, either, or with whom. For example, last week Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the Syrian National Council - the largest opposition group in exile - said, "Manaf Tlas and Riad Hijab will have no place in the temporary Syrian government because they didn't join the rebellion from the start." Tlas, the son of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas, who deserted the army last month, has become a celebrity. He travels around the world waiting for a high position in the new regime. Hijab was the prime minister who deserted to Jordan.

With all the discussions about the possibility of establishing a temporary government in Syria, it seems that even before Assad's downfall, the mediators will have to find a common denominator among the rival parties within the opposition and among various other groups inside Syria. Bringing down Assad is likely to seem like a simple task compared to the political battle that is expected to take place among his potential successors.