Things are going from bad to worse in Syria. The counterattack by President Bashar Assad's forces on Aleppo is turning the once thriving city of 2 million souls into a charnel house. Bombings, strafings, artillery and tank fire are reducing entire neighborhoods to rubble while people flee by the hundreds of thousands.
But, as the Guardian reports, hundreds of foreign jihadists have infiltrated into Syria over the last few months in order to fight Assad's forces in the name of Allah. Many have attached themselves to units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Others have sought out domestic Syrian jihadist groups, independent of the FSA, who are just now starting to organize themselves into a fighting force. If they are successful, the Islamist fighters could challenge the FSA for supremacy and replace them as the main group of fighters battling the Syrian army.
Already there are signs that the jihadists are receiving plenty of money with which to purchase arms and equipment from wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. And while the US, the West, the Gulf States, and Turkey are all refusing to supply the FSA with tanks, artillery, and other heavy weapons out of fear that they would eventually fall into the hands of extremists, the FSA is in danger of eventually being absorbed into an Islamist army that would be in an excellent position to dominate a post-Assad Syria.
But there is a catch to this rosy scenario for the jihadists: nobody trusts them. In fact, some of the major jihadist groups in Syria are widely believed to be tools of President Assad's government. The FSA looks with a jaundiced eye on any Islamist group that has taken up arms, and a poll taken last year shows that the Syrian people themselves appear to be dead set against a religious dominated government (although we were assured by all the "experts" of the secular nature of the Egyptian rebellion as well).
Who are the jihadists in Syria? There's al-Qaeda, of course. They may be small in number but they're strength is rising as law and order breaks down and they can operate more freely. Most of the al-Qaeda fighters are veterans of fighting the US in Iraq and are adept at setting roadside bombs. They have carried out at least two dozen attacks, according to an expert at Rand Corporation.
Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Al-Nusra Front is a domestic Syrian terrorist group that has welcomed some foreign fighters into its ranks in recent months. They have carried out more than 120 attacks since they were formed early in the year, including many car bombs that have killed dozens of civilians.
But Al-Nusra has a credibility problem. They are widely seen to be acting on the behalf of the Syrian government. Tyler Golson of The New Republic reports:
The majority of Syrians—according to anecdotal evidence from Syrian social media sites—believe that all of JN’s claimed operations were in fact perpetrated by the regime’s thugs. This, despite the fact that JN’s statements are carried over official Al-Qaeda internet channels, and despite assertions by Western intelligence agencies that JN is an Al-Qaeda affiliate bent on bringing down the Syrian regime.
Another jihadist who set himself up as an Emir in the "Islamic Emerite of Homs" may, in fact, have been acting under the orders of the Syrian government. Walid al-Boustani showed up in the city of Homs with a few fighters claiming to be with the Syrian opposition. But after several kidnappings and murders to enforce his will, the people turned on him and an FSA unit moved in to depose him. It turns out, the Lebanese-born Boustani was a member of Fatah al-Islam -- a Lebanese al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group thought to be a tool of Syrian intelligence.
So, it is not so farfetched to think that some of the jihadists groups may be more interested in serving Assad's government rather than overthrowing him. Many of the fighters are veterans of the Iraqi jihad against America. Their entry into Iraq was facilitated by the same Syrian government they now say they want to bring down.
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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