Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in the spring of 2011, the role of jihadi extremists in the rebel forces has been the subject of much commentary and debate. What started ostensibly as a domestic rebellion by pro-democracy activists against the Assad regime during the Arab spring has evolved into a complex Middle Eastern proxy war with strong sectarian currents. As in other Muslim countries affected by the Arab spring, Islamists have taken an increasingly prominent role in Syria. And while the West mulls over its response to the chemical attack in Damascus in Aug. 21, the US-Russian deal for the surrender of the Assad chemical arsenal, and rebel protests that the deal fails to tip the balance in their favor, the question must be asked: Who are the rebels now?
Yesterday the Telegraph reported that according to a recent study by the respected British defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, nearly half of the 100,000-some rebel fighters are “now aligned to jihadist or hardline Islamist groups.”
The Telegraph quotes the author of the study, Charles Lister, as saying:
“The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.”
The Jane’s study estimates that about 10,000 jihadists, including non-Syrians, are fighting for al Qaeda affiliates including the Al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; and that about 30,000 to 35,000 more are hardline jihadists focused primarily on the war in Syria, with “at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character.” This means, the Telegraph observed, that “only a small minority [about 25,000, or 25 percent] of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.”
The recent Jane’s estimate contrasts sharply with the picture drawn by Secretary of State Kerry on Sept. 3 when he told the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that reports the Syrian opposition has become increasingly infiltrated by al Qaeda were “basically incorrect.”
He went on to say: “The opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation, more defined by the breadth of its membership and more defined by its adherence to some, you know, democratic process and to an all-inclusive, minority-protecting constitution, which will be broad-based and secular with respect to the future of Syria.” In the same week, Kerry cited an article published in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 30 that said moderate groups, not Islamists, are leading the fight against the Assad regime. The article’s author, Elizabeth O’Bagy, who was also working as a consultant for the rebel Syrian Emergency Task Force, has since been fired by the Institute for the Study of War for falsifying her academic credentials. Elsewhere, Kerry has said that about 15-25% of the Syrian rebels are “bad guys.”
Kerry’s relatively rosy assessment also conflicts with the LWJ‘s reporting over the past two years on the activities of al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria. For example, in December 2012, we reported that since December 2011, the Al Nusrah Front had either claimed or was highly suspected in 45 separate suicide bomb attacks [see Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria claims another suicide attack]. Earlier this year, LWJ stopped trying to tally the number of suicide attacks in Syria; they were then at 67, of which 55 had been claimed by Al Nusrah, and have became increasingly prevalent [see Threat Matrix report, Al Nusrah Front seizes control of Syrian city of Raqqah].
We also noted in May that there were mass defections from the Free Syrian Army to the Al Nusrah Front [see Threat Matrix report, Free Syrian Army fighters defecting to Al Nusrah Front]. And we have reported that some other Islamist fighting groups besides the dominant Al Nusrah Front and the ISIL are not small; for example, in July we noted that the Qatar-funded Ahfad al Rasoul Brigade is said to have about 15,000 fighters [see Threat Matrix report, Qatar-funded Syrian rebel brigade backs al Qaeda groups in Syria].
As Tom Joscelyn testified on Sept. 10 to the House Committee on Homeland Security:
[A]l Qaeda and its allies dominate a large portion of northern Syria and play a key role in the fighting throughout the rest of the country. These same al Qaeda-affiliated forces have fought alongside Free Syrian Army brigades. There is no clear geographic dividing line between the most extreme fighters and other rebels.
Some of the more powerful Syrian rebel groups are closely allied with al Qaeda’s affiliates. Ahrar al Sham and its coalition of like-minded groups, the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), fight alongside al Qaeda’s fighters regularly. Brigades belonging to another Islamist coalition, the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), have coordinated their operations with al Qaeda’s affiliates and Ahrar al Sham in key battles as well.
And as we have also pointed out, al Qaeda-linked groups are now fighting on all Syrian fronts and are regularly fighting alongside Free Syrian Army units [see LWJ reports, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant overruns air defense base in Hama, and Al Qaeda, rebel groups vow to avenge chemical attack in Syria].
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, Israel, which had supported the proposed US strikes on the Assad regime, recently expressed concern to Secretary of State Kerry that a military strike in Syria could strengthen al Qaeda-linked groups and allow them to seize Assad’s weapons.
Despite protests by Syrian opposition officials that they are trying to separate themselves from the Islamists and that the rebel cause should be supported, the increasingly extremist nature of the rebel forces in Syria leaves much to be considered.