One of the biggest arguments against further U.S. support of the Syrian opposition is that “the rebels are terrorists aligned with al Qaeda.”
But the notion that the Syrian opposition is dominated by al Qaeda is a myth.
“They have a presence, and they’ve captured some territory. But [al Qaeda fighters are] in the minority,” Major Issam Rayyes, a former Syrian Army communications officer who defected in June 2012 and now serves the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told The Weekly Standard. “Congress is making a mistake in thinking the opposition is al Qaeda.”
Liz O’Bagy, an Institute of The Study of War researcher who made trips to various parts of Syria in the last year, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that “the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards.”
O’Bagy’s post has been criticised for being biased toward “moderate” rebels — which O’Bagy defines as those who have respected women’s and minority rights while calling for a civilian government — nevertheless, jihadist experts agree that the fear of an “al Qaeda takeover” is exaggerated.
“Rebel units are distributed across a broad ideological spectrum, with secular units at one pole and Salafi jihadists at the other, and most falling between the two,” according to a new report by experts Jeffrey White, Andrew J. Tabler, and Aaron Y. Zelin of The Washington Institute. “A major differentiation among Islamic units is between those that are Islamic with a national or Syrian agenda and those with a global jihadist mission.”
O’Bagy estimates that supporters of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS — the two main al Qaeda-linked groups — probably involve about 5,000 to 7,000 fighters while the number of rebels participating in offensive operations is about 80-100,000 rebels.
So a subset of Syrian rebels are certainly linked to al Qaeda, but terrorists only make up about 10% to (at the very most most) 20% of the opposition.
Two stories, one from an FSA fighter and one from an ISIS fighter, shed light on why the Syrian rebel picture is so complex.
Maher is “a member of Liwa al-Islam, the strongest rebel brigade in Damascus province, which counts both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra as allies.”
A former university student, Maher joined Liwa al-Islam after he beat a security officer unconscious for beating up a woman and the security forces subsequently raided the office he shared with other Damascus activists.
The goals of Liwa al-Islam are the same [as those of the FSA]: to remove the current government and create an alternative that would be formed by the people who have been working for it most effectively on the ground. Most of these people identify as Muslims.
… the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria does not exist on the ground as it does in the media. They are concentrated in the north, where you often have foreign fighters entering from outside Syria. In Damascus and its suburbs where I am, they are practically nonexistent.
Farhan al-Juma is “a fighter with the al Qaeda-backed group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)” because he because he thinks that they are the most effective fighting force for the time being.
“As a battalion, we support ISIS, but we haven’t pledged allegiance. Once Syria is free we are able to walk away,” al-Juma told Syria Deeply. “It is up to each fighter whether they will be loyal to ISIS or not.”
As I leave, he shakes my hand. I am a woman. “Would I do this,” he asks, “if I was al-Qaida?”
So Maher is an Islamic FSA fighter with a Syrian agenda who respects women’s rights. And Farhan is an Islamic ISIS fighter with a Syrian agenda who respects women’s rights.
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