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Sunday, November 18, 2012 | 21:17 Beirut Subscribe to NOW Lebanon RSS feeds
Overblown fears of Islamists in Syria
Shane Farrell , August 26, 2012
Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri who endorsed Syria’s armed opposition in February, 2012. Some fear a strong Islamist current among the rebels, but others feel these fears are overblown. (AFP Photo)

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.

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Newest First | Oldest First Comments ( 6 )    
Posted by
Ghadanfar Rokon Roll
August 28. 2012
I don't understand what's all the fuss about, the ayatollah and other Iranian leaders some wearing the exact same uniform as the dude in the picture above, screaming the exact same things he screams about a great Satan, tumors and cancers, were very please to inform us about the impending creation of the Islamic middle east from Tunisia to Libya, Yemen and Egypt why not Syrian. The ayatollah's local finger shaking servant and bon vivant Hassan Nasrallah himself has already told us about how he longs for an Islamic Lebanon under Islamic law, why else does need his sectarian foreign weapons. I think he would enjoy exchanging finger shaking techniques with a potential Syrian lookalike and jihadist brother from another mother while reminiscing about when this land was an Islamic land before the Christians came as invaders.
Posted by
August 27. 2012
Hala Do you really believe that the FSA aren't butchering innocent Syrians? ? Why can't you just accept that Shias, Sufis & Alawites have their own interpretation of Islam? Isn't it insulting to attack their beliefs? Why don't you just leave them alone? Why do you care how they pray? There are so many Christian, Hindu, Bhuddist etc sects but they leave each other alone. So many innocent people died when Europeans were intolerent of each others sects. They came to their senses deciding to LEAVE EACH OTHER ALONE. Time for Sunnis to leave the other sects / religions alone. They aren't Sunnis so you have no business to tell them how to pray or what to believe. Nobody has the right to tell a Sunni how to pray or what to believe. Concentrate on the real issues in the middle east : jobs, equality, freedom, investment in infrastructure, corruption, nepotism, colonialism, authoritarianism, torture. Everyone mind their own religious business.
Posted by
August 26. 2012
What a load of bull. The FSA terrorist organization is another affiliate of Al Qaeda that aims to import Wahabism into the Levant with the help of their February 14/Saudi-Wahabi subordinate coalition allies. The true Lebanese patriots will NEVER allow Wahabism to overtake Lebanon. Long live Lebanon! Long live freedom! Long live democracy! No to the February 14 Saudi-Wahabi subordinate coalition! No to Al Qaeda! No to Wahabism! No to terrorism!
Posted by
August 26. 2012
@Karim, chill out man. Repeating these slogans may make you feel better, but look around. What is worse Wahabism in the Levant which chokes freedom or Wali al- faqih? Both are 7th Century ruling paradigms that choke freedom. Is the antidote for Wahabism to be Wali al- faqih? Then the cure is as bad as the disease. The FSA could just as easily be the political opponents of the Assad Regime. Because Syria is a one party state where opponents of the regime have no political venue to express themselves, then they have to do it by taking up arms and going down to the street. This erodes order, even the order established by a police state and where order is broken down, the state is reduced, then space is created for non-state actors like al Qaida. It is part and parcel of the Assad survival strategy to cause an alternative political current to break down the state before it can be born and then hope that most of the people will not want to see their state broken down.
Posted by
August 26. 2012
You don't have to be in the majority to rule and terrorise people. Whether they are the majority or not, these fanatics are in the FSA. They launch diatribes against the Alawites and Shias, and the Druze & Christians will fare no better with them. They are backed by Wahabi money and they are sectarian to their core. You have to fear for all the communities in Syria including the average Sunni.
Posted by
August 27. 2012
1- the existence of jihadis in syrian revolution is used as excuse for world countries so they don't arm FSA or help them with isolated areas / killing minorities in Iraq in first was by saddam(the same Party as Assad whose Alawi "part of Shi'a) & now by Shi'a to sunnis  2-wahabi is not a movement or whatever , wahabi is Attributed to Mohammad ben abdulwahab a man who made people awake he Taught them what islam is they were Pleading and praying to the graves & dead a lot of them didn't know how to pray they were ignorant about islam , he taught us that islam work with sense , logic, Shiites ,  Sofies & other sectors hate him because he said it clearly that what they are doing is not Islam , young generation hate him because they are ignorant they watch TV when say that a couple of terrorist are wahabi or some countries are or their parents told them that extremist are wahabi from KSA ,if islam countries are all wahabi you would not see Khamenei (big boss of Shi'a) urge all Shiites to
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