Islamists dominate Syrian insurgency

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.

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  • irebukeu says:

    I for one am shocked, shocked to find so many Islamist s in this Jihad. I mean, who could have predicted this?

  • gb says:

    @irebukeu …lol…I agree completely, FSA doesn’t generally saw peoples heads off every time they capture a Syrian, but we see more and more of just that every day. It doesn’t take a study to see the haji’s are dominated by extremist islamists…

  • Scott J says:

    When Obama ran for president, he claimed that Iraq was the “wrong war” and that he would withdraw the troops. He did withdraw the troops, but only after negotiating with the Iraqis right up until the last month to keep them there.
    He claimed Obamacare would be paid for by a surtax on the rich.
    He claimed to know nothing of Fast and Furious, and his AG clammed up and won’t answer questions.
    We were told the U.S., Britain, and France were going to enforce a “no fly zone” over Libya to protect civilians. Instead, it was an all-out air war that crushed the Libyan military and culminated in a missile attack on Libya’s head-of-state, resulting in his execution.
    SOMEBODY ordered a rescue effort for our people in Benghazi to stand down, but we are not allowed to know who gave that order.
    We are told that nobody in the administration knew anything about the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS.
    And now Kerry tells us that only 15-25% of the Syrian rebels are extremists and that “the opposition has increasingly become more defined by its moderation.”
    Well, I’m sorry, Mr Kerry, but I don’t believe you, I don’t trust you, and I don’t believe or trust the man you work for.

  • Caleb says:

    Does Islamist automatically correlate to hard-line Salafi? Not really.
    I’d like to know an estimate of the more moderate Islamist groups.

  • gb says:

    Well you sure can’t trust the “expert” O’Bagy, she provided the well quoted intelligence assessment on the rebel force make up. She was just outed by Georgetown University as a fraud. She provided information presented to congress by Kerry, and parroted by Mccaine as part of the rational for supporting the rebel cause in Syria. There’s so many dumb asses in the government.

  • James says:

    Bill, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted on this board. Some of these posters I am honestly suspicious of as being Assad double-agents.
    A long time ago I posted the question of who is going to be the ‘Good Samaritan’ of the Syrian resistance. Is it going to be US, or are we going to allow it to be Al Qaeda?
    Just like what happened in Afghanistan after the Afghans expelled the Soviets we have allowed a vacuum to develop in Syria and Al Qaeda has filled that vacuum.
    This sorry and sad situation did not have to develop. We should have acted quickly and decisively to remove Assad from power in Syria early on in this conflict and this deplorable situation Syria now finds itself in would have never developed.
    Why don’t all you closet-case and clandestine Assad groupies that have been posting on this message board under pseudonyms come out and show yourselves?
    What has happened in Syria should come as no surprise. Assad should have been gotten rid of a long, long time ago and early on in this conflict.

  • Scott J says:

    If your comment was directed at me, I can assure you that I am a patriotic, flag-waving, American conservative, whose son is a Purple Heart Marine who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    Bill, you may give James my email address. James, if you want to discuss this respectfully, I am open to that.

  • . says:

    Al Qaeda does not recognize moderate elements.

  • Captain says:

    I think US waited too long to arm FSA.Where else syrian opposition going to get help?Ofcourse from other Muslim countries.And Assad is using social media to use in his favour.

  • Knighthawk says:

    Yeah james we’re all Assad groupies. :eyeroll:
    “We should have acted quickly and decisively…” – Not that agree with those comments but those words are not in the vocabulary of the present administration at least when it comes to foreign affairs.

  • James says:

    @Scott J
    Scott, with all due respects for your comments, I do appreciate the sacrifices made on behalf of our great nation by your son and others. However, I think we are making a big mistake concerning Syria.
    If you and others recall, the whole thing in Syria started as a revolution and eventually degraded into a civil war.
    If we had acted quickly and decisively early on in this thing Assad would be long gone; and, like Tunisia, it may not have resulted in anything near a perfect democracy. But, it would have been the best that could have been done and it would be no where near as bad as it is now.
    ” . . . those words are not in the vocabulary of the present administration at least when it comes to foreign affairs.”
    Read more:
    Knighthawk, unfortunately, I have to agree with you on that assessment.
    Let’s hope that Assad has had a bit of an epiphany on the sorry state he has led his nation into now.
    I’m sure the mullah regime (in Tehran) would love to accommodate him with a plush suite in Tehran should he choose to do his country a favor and leave Syria.
    In my honest assessment, the Syrian conflict is not about Syria per se, it is about Assad and the sooner Assad leaves, the better for all concerned. Misery knows no borders. In fact, as the saying goes, “Misery loves company.” Haven’t we seen it time and time again how Al Qaeda flourishes in such an environment?
    What can be done about the sorry state of affairs Syria finds itself in now? All I can think of is maybe another ‘Hail Mary’ play (or Operation Valkyrie) where possibly Syria’s military might expel Assad and join up with the FSA to expel the foreign jihad occupiers that have now congregated there.

  • Scott J says:

    “If we had acted decisively …”
    How? We acted decisively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are still in Afghanistan 12 years later. We acted decisively in Libya, and now the Libyan government seems to control nothing but the building it resides in. The rest of the country is completely lawless.
    Old saying: “You break it, you buy it.”
    If we had crushed the Syrian military and killed Assad or caused him to flee, then whatever outcome resulted would be on us. In my opinion, the jihadists would have come anyway, and then it would have been up to us to fix that, meaning a large “boots on the ground” operation, and another 8 – 12 years of funerals, amputations, and PTS for our troops (our children), not to mention the huge expense.
    I think we need to calm down and remember that when bad things happen in foreign countries it is not our fault. We need to remember how strong and capable we really are and not panic and wring our hands so much.
    We can deal with any outcome of this conflict.
    Assad’s generalship has been exposed as a joke. His army has been exposed as weak and incompetent. Should he and his government survive this war, Syria is not, and cannot be regarded as a serious threat to anyone, least of all the U.S. or Israel.
    If AQ wins this war, then my attitude will be different, for they are our avowed enemy. Allowing them to control Syria would be out of the question, and we are strong and capable enough to deal with that as we have proven in the recent past.
    But meanwhile, we have AQ-affiliated jihadists dying by the droves in Syria. So let them die there. Let’s just watch and make our move if or when we must.
    Bill, as I said, you may email James my email address. I don’t even know if he’ll see this answer to him. Keep up the good work, Bill.


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