Defiant Syrian rebels offer stark choice

Hassan Abboud (seated) and members of the Islamic Front

As Syrians in government-held territory vote in a presidential election set to give Bashar al-Assad a third term in office, the BBC's Paul Wood finds defiance from war widows and rebel leaders in areas controlled by the opposition.

Umm Obeida had a message for Bashar al-Assad from herself and the other war widows: "If the regime thinks we are feeling despair because we have lost our husbands, they are wrong. We will meet them in heaven."

She would follow her husband into martyrdom if that would get rid of the president, she said.

Eyes half visible but still glittering under her black niqab, she declared: "I would sacrifice myself and my children for the sake of God and justice."

We were in a camp in the northern city of Idlib for the widows and children of fallen fighters.

Some had been in the camp almost since the uprising began three years ago. But there was none of the war weariness we found on other trips to Syria.

Widows of fallen rebel fighters in Idlib province Umm Obeida and Fatma Fahal are staying at a camp run by the Islamic Front

Their villages had been destroyed, they said, and no-one would return home if the price of peace was for Mr Assad to stay.

"This election is a mockery," said another widow, Fatma Fahal. "It shouldn't happen. My husband and his three brothers didn't martyr themselves for God and country just for people to go out and vote for Bashar."

'No half measures'

The camp is run by the Islamic Front, one of the biggest rebel groups.

The front's political leader, Hassan Abboud, told me: "Our people will never again accept Bashar after all the bloodshed, the millions of refugees, the relentless shelling, and the systemic surrender or starve tactics against besieged areas.

"So we will not accept any pressure for half measures. The people want the regime out. This is what everyone took to the streets for at the beginning and we will continue until we achieve it. These are elections of blood. Our reply to them will be on the battlefield."

The BBC's Paul Wood asks what kind of election can take place in Syria's blasted landscape

In conversation, Mr Abboud is a gentle, scholarly man, respected by his men for his Koranic learning.

The Islamic Front are a fearsome bunch, with long beards and wild hair, and combat vests stuffed with ammunition. They surrounded him as he talked to me below a flag displaying the beautiful, cursive script of the Shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith.

Driving across northern Syria, the black flag with the Shahada fluttered over rebel checkpoints everywhere. Approaching each one, there was a moment of doubt.

You could not tell until you were very close which variation of the flag you were seeing. Did it belong to the Islamic Front, or to al-Qaeda's offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS)?

Western governments face a similar puzzle in trying to decide who's who in a crowded field of Islamist groups fighting among themselves and against the regime.

'Tolerance'

Mr Abboud's Islamic Front is in a bitter struggle with ISIS.

He denounced them, saying: "They are the bearded version of the 'shabiha' [the feared pro-regime militiamen]. ISIS does not reflect Islam in any way. Islam is a religion of peace. It is not a religion of slaughter. ISIS represents the worst image ever of Islam."

One important distinction between ISIS and the Islamic Front, said Mr Abboud, was that he would never pledge loyalty to outsiders. Our struggle is limited to Syria, he stressed.

Hassan Abboud of the Islamic Front Hassan Abboud said Syrians would never again accept Bashar al-Assad after all the bloodshed

"We are an independent organisation. We are not part of any group."

And unlike ISIS, he said, the Islamic Front did not use suicide bombers. He told me: "You might have to accept being martyred in battle but you should not seek it."

Mr Abboud said the Islamic Front also did not follow the "takfiri" doctrine, which holds that society has reverted to a state of unbelief, legitimising attacks on other Muslims. Islam could encompass diversity, he explained.

In a Syria ruled by the Islamic Front, members of President Assad's Alawite sect would not be ejected - "they've been here since the 9th Century" - women would drive, go to university, and wearing the hijab would be a personal choice for them (though not wearing it would be a sin), according to Mr Abboud.

Mr Abboud painted the Islamic Front as part of Syria's moderate, tolerant tradition of Islam. Still, in his Syria, the constitution would be religious, not secular.

"Our ideal governing model is based on Sharia," he said.

But, he continued, Christians and other religious minorities had nothing to fear.

"There is a misconception in the West about Sharia. It's not just a set of punishments... Sharia carries all the values of liberty and justice. We will not force it on anyone. We hope that the people would willingly call for Sharia."

Two Syrias

The Islamic Front recently issued a declaration seen by many as an appeal for Western support. Would he accept help from the US?

Paul Wood (right) interviews Hassan Abboud Mr Abboud told the BBC's Paul Wood that he would accept help from the US

"Yes, of course... without conditions from them that would control the future of Syria. I am not talking about military intervention. Syrians can liberate their country. We just need the means."

The "secular" armed opposition in Syria - if it ever truly existed - has now dwindled to almost nothing. If Western governments want to affect events here, they may have to do business with the Islamic Front and groups like it.

There are now two Syrias.

One is run by men who fight for God, not democracy. The other is ruled by a secular but authoritarian regime accused of many crimes against its people.

The choice between the two will not be decided at the polls.

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