Hardline Sunnis find foothold to push Syria’s revolt toward militant Islamism
Sheikh Abu Abdullah Zahed, a Lebanese Muslim cleric with influence amongst radical youth, is part of a growing effort to push the uprising in Syria towards militant Islam.
Hardline Sunni Muslims in Lebanon are maneuvering for influence over Syrians across the border who have spent the last year fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
“At first Syrians called on the West and NATO. Now they are calling on God,” said Zahed, sitting in his library, where black Islamic flags hang on the walls.
As opposition groups abroad squabble over politics and Assad’s army pounds rebellious cities, Muslim hardliners want to make religion the unifying basis of the revolt.
Radical Islamist elements are still on the fringe, but that’s enough to make a headache for opposition activists who are struggling to convince Syrian minorities to support a revolt led mostly by the country’s Sunni majority.
Foreign powers joining exile opposition leaders at a “Friends of Syria” meeting in Istanbul this week will also want proof of whom exactly they are making friends with, if they are ever to consider arming rebel forces.
“We don’t want to accidentally wind up supporting extremist groups,” said Joseph Holliday, of the Institute for the Study of War, in Washington. “The fundamental question is: What happens in the future? And does our involvement make this turn better or worse?”