Two events in February of this year turned rumblings of an Islamist presence in the Syrian uprising into a hard reality. The first was the endorsement of Syria’s armed opposition by Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a video aired just after a string of deadly car bombs exploded in Damascus, which some blamed on the organization. The second came shortly thereafter, when a little-known brigade called the al-Nusra Front (or Jahbat al-Nusra) took credit for deadly car bombings in Aleppo and Damascus.
While the al-Nusra Front has taken center stage in Western media reports, Islamists are present in other groups such as the Kataeb al-Sahabeh, based in the Damascus area, and Ahrar al-Sham operating in Aleppo, according to Maher Esber, a Syrian pro-democracy activist based in Lebanon. These groups are seemingly foreign funded, and well-armed and organized, at least according to reports by journalists who recently travelled to rebel-held areas in the north of the country.
The al-Nusra Front is believed to have ties to Al Qaeda. Its presence is confirmed in Aleppo, though rebel fighters have mentioned that the group is also in Homs, Idlib, the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere in Syria. According to Yara Nseir, another Lebanon-based Syrian activist who recently visited northern Syria, the al-Nusra Front is causing frustration among Free Syrian Army (FSA) members who are critical of the group for tainting the rebellion with an air of extremism and for adopting tactics they don’t approve of. Other groups, such as Ahrar al-Sham, are less extremist and cooperate with FSA members in operations directed against government troops, according to Nseir.
The presence of such Islamist groups has raised alarm among many commentators and (particularly Western) nations, who are worried about the direction the opposition is taking. Concerns of weapons ending up in the hands of Islamists, moreover, was one of the reasons given by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to justify the country’s decision not to arm Syrian rebels.
But are concerns over the Islamist influence among rebels overblown?
A detailed report on the armed opposition by Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War suggests so. It states that “the majority of evidence through early march 2012 indicated that while Syria’s insurgents may be inspired by Islam, they are not radical jihadists.” According to numerous journalists who visited Syria in the past month, as well as experts who spoke with NOW Lebanon, the above statement holds true.
Justin Vela, a reporter who recently interviewed followers of al-Nusra in Aleppo, estimated that there are around 300 members of the group in the area. Speaking to NOW Lebanon by phone, Vela said that while painting an accurate picture of the make-up of Syrian rebels remained extremely difficult under the circumstances, he estimated that fighters with indirect connections to extremist groups such as Al Qaeda make up just one or two percent of the total number of insurgents in the area.
While total figures are difficult to come by, the Institute for the Study of War report put the number of rebel fighters in Syria at 40,000 as of March 2012. Since then, Michael Weiss, research director at the of the London-based think tank the Henry Jackson Society, believes the numbers have likely increased as defections have become more frequent and as the pattern of noncombatants joining the war effort continues.
Several reports even suggest that fighters in brigades with extremist ideologies may not necessarily subscribe to their beliefs. A June article published by Reuters, for example, quotes an activist who claims that some rebel groups adopted Islamist slogans and made jihadist-style videos to “please their financiers in the Gulf.” Also, some of these groups may attract members more as a result of superior funding and equipment than because of shared ideology.
When asked about the presence of Islamists in Syria, Nadim Shehadi, an associate Fellow at Chatham House, replied “I can’t tell you the number of calls I’ve received on this topic,” a subject he feels “is diverting attention from more important matters [regarding the Syrian conflict].” He, along with Weiss and others, feels the Islamist threat is exaggerated and that the confirmed presence of a small group of Islamists is being used by the press and people who don’t support intervention to justify their position.
Although reports suggest extremism is not widespread in Syria at present, Shehadi and Weiss feel that a prolonged conflict will see numbers of extremists increasing. “We saw this in Iraq with the killing of minorities,” said Shehadi. “The longer it takes for the international community to intervene in Syria—diplomatically and militarily—the more we will see extremism,” he added.
Assem Bazzi contributed reporting.