Jihadists Vie for Supremacy in Syria

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The Faroukh Battalion is by far the largest jihadist group in Syria, boasting about 5,000 fighters. They are considered Salafists and are also the largest fighting force in the opposition. They proved themselves in the fight for Homs where it is estimated they lost 30% of their force. They have a large contingent of Syrian army defectors, but they refuse to join the FSA, preferring to remain independent.

There is also believed to be a brigade of Libyan jihadists, and a loosely organized group of Palestinians, Libyans, and Syrians known as the Tawid Brigade. The foreign fighters come from most Arab states, as well as the caucuses, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. There are even fighters from Great Britain, as a British reporter discovered when he was captured by two jihadists trying to sneak into Syria:

“I ended up running for my life, barefoot and handcuffed, while British jihadists — young men with south London accents — shot to kill,” Cantlie wrote of the pair’s attempted escape early in their captivity.

“They were aiming their Kalashnikov at a British journalist, Londoner against Londoner in a rocky landscape that looked like the Scottish Highlands,” he wrote.

Recently, there was an effort to unite the jihadists into a single organization. A group calling itself the “Syrian Revolutionaries Front” has been trying to get off the ground without much luck. But as the jihadists get organized and better armed, a natural alliance among like-minded Islamists may emerge to challenge the FSA for supremacy. This may be facilitated by a change in the flow of arms to Syrian rebels. Currently, most of the arms come in through Turkish conduits made possible by US intelligence and communications. But some of the arms distributors are unhappy about restrictions placed on who gets the weapons and may seek to set up their own distribution network that would include jihadists.

That would be a disastrous turn of events and would not bode well for the post-Assad political environment. The jihadists have already established their hatred of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and other Syrian minorities. Sectarian massacres and the mass flight of refugees would be a consequence if the extremists managed to get their hands on sophisticated weapons and sought to impose their will.

This is why the FSA says they will fight the Islamists after Assad is gone to prevent the revolution from degenerating into chaos. A high ranking FSA officer told the BBC that the FSA sees the jihadists as “a real threat after the Assad regime falls,” adding, “The jihadists’ ideology contradicts with what the FSA is fighting for.”

That may be true. But in a worrying sign of what might be coming, a commander in Saraqib told the New York Times that after inviting some jihadists into the local military council, they rejected all names for the expanded group that included any references to Syria. “They consider the entire world the Muslim homeland, so they refused any national, Syrian name,” he said.

A video surfaced of the fight in Aleppo with a song playing in the background: “The Koran in our hands, we defy our enemy, we sacrifice with our blood for religion”  were some of the lyrics.

And an member of the Local Coordinating Committee complained in an interview:

“[T]he Islamic current has broken into the heart of this revolution.” When a Muslim Brotherhood member joined his group in Idlib, he said, inside of a week the man demanded that the slogans that they shouted all included, “There is no god but God.”

“Now there are more religious chants than secular ones,” Adel groused.

Ammar Abdulhamid, one of the most knowledgeable observers of the Syrian civil war, told Prof. Barry Rubin that whoever is running the military opposition to Assad will have a leg up on the political front when the war ends. “The main actors have to be derived from the ranks of the revolutionary movement inside Syria. Only when such actors become in charge can the Syrian people be assured that their revolution has succeeded.”

If those “main actors” are jihadists, it will make things difficult for Syria, for the region, and for US interests in the future.

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