Fog of War

Just How Extremist Are the Rebels in Syria?

Jamie Dettmer on a new report that claims the Syrian rebels are more extremist than previously thought.

Alice Martins/AFP/Getty

Nearly half of the rebel forces battling to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are jihadist or hardline Islamists, a British defense consultancy has warned its private clients, thus contradicting claims by Obama administration officials that opposition ranks are predominantly moderate.

According to a study by IHS Jane’s for commercial clients, the rebels number around 100,000 fighters and are spread across more than 1,000 fragmented bands that are often at odds with each other. They are increasingly engaged in infighting over war spoils and the control of seized property, from oil wells to state bakeries, as they seek revenue.

Charles Lister, an insurgency expert with IHS Jane’s and author of the analysis, estimates that around 10,000 are jihadists fighting for al Qaeda affiliates (the Islamic State of Iraq and the smaller Jabhat al-Nusra), while another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who have less of a global jihad vision, but share a focus on establishing an Islamic state to replace Assad. Another 30,000 or so are more moderate Muslim Brotherhood Islamists.

He estimates that moderate nationalist fighters number only about 20,000, with the Kurdish separatists being able to field only 5,000 to 10,000. In recent weeks clashes have increased in northeast Syria between al Qaeda–affiliated jihadist rebels and Syrian Kurds aligned with Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The jihadists have sought to exert more control over their enclaves, while Kurdish militants have tried to snatch oil wells currently run by the al Qaeda affiliates.

On his Twitter feed, Lister concedes that it is a “rough science” to estimate rebel numbers and assess their ideological coloring, but he says he has based his calculations on open sources as well as on intelligence assessments and interviews with opposition activists and militants. He notes that while the al Qaeda affiliates don’t have the largest numbers, “they have the most resources and best weapons, and they have very good organization.”

His findings that nearly half of rebels subscribe to a hardline religious viewpoint on the conflict, and that a majority are Islamist in nature, is at odds with how Secretary of State John Kerry portrayed the Syrian opposition on Capitol Hill last week before Senate and House panels. That was when the Obama administration was seeking to secure congressional authorization for U.S. airstrikes to retaliate for an alleged August 21 chemical-warfare attack by Assad on rebel-held Damascus suburbs.

Under stiff questioning by opponents of U.S. intervention, Kerry said: “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.”

That remark prompted a sharp retort from Russian President Vladimir Putin. “He lies openly, and he knows that he lies,” the Russian president charged on the eve last week of hosting President Obama and other world leaders at a G20 summit in St. Petersburg. To smooth things over while they were negotiating the weekend chemical-weapons disarmament deal that has averted a U.S. strike for now, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov hazarded that the Kremlin received a bad translation of Kerry’s comments.

The study by IHS Jane’s, a respected geopolitical and risk consultancy that also publishes the authoritative Jane’s Defence Weekly, is likely to add to anxiety among U.S. lawmakers opposed to America being drawn into the Syrian conflict. Skeptics on Capitol Hill have argued that the Obama administration doesn’t really understand the ideological makeup of rebel forces and should refrain from arming the rebels—a view not shared by Sen. John McCain, who has fumed at what he sees as the Obama administration’s foot-dragging when it comes to making good on a pledge in June to arm the rebels aligned with the Free Syrian Army.

On Friday McCain continued to maintain that FSA rebels are moderates. “Al-Nusra and al Qaeda, primarily, are the bad guys, and the good guys are the Free Syrian Army,” McCain said in a newspaper interview. He is continuing to push the White House to supply advanced weaponry to the rebels, the price for his backing of President Obama’s threat to strike at Assad for the chemical-weapons attack.

Lister believes the division between good and bad guys is too simplistic for a civil war that is changing shape frequently and has become a series of mini-conflicts within the overall battle between Assad and rebel forces. Insurgent dynamics have been shifting the whole time, and when those “in the middle ground will pick sides” between moderates and militants, “most people won’t be choosing jihadists.”

While acknowledging that Lister’s overall assessment is a “good-faith effort to gain an understanding of a murky battlefield” and is based on an increasing rarity of on-the-ground research in Syria, Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, worries about the distinctions being employed between militants who follow radical ideologies. He draws little comfort from the idea that most, if they were able to choose, wouldn’t align with the jihadists.

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“How does one really differentiate between jihadists, Salafist Islamists, and many of the Muslim Brotherhood–aligned rebels?” he asks. “In the end my takeaway is that most of the rebels fighting in Syria are fighting in the name of religion, and that augurs badly for what happens after Assad in terms of establishing a stable, democratic Syria.”

Reporters and analysts who have been on the ground in Syria argue that as the conflict has been prolonged, it has become more sectarian and religious. FSA commanders have become increasingly unguarded in their remarks about Shiite and Alawite Muslims, who back Assad, and the vitriol has only increased since the August 21 chemical attack. Many view that assault as part of an effort to hasten the “religious cleansing” of Sunni Muslims and encourage them to flee.

Despite efforts to coax the FSA rebels to distance themselves from jihadists—the Obama administration fears any weaponry it may supply will be shared with fighters from the al Qaeda affiliates—many rebel commanders say they will continue to fight alongside the jihadists, considered the most effective and disciplined of the fighters.

Lt. Col. Mohammed al-Abboud, the deputy chief of staff of the FSA’s Supreme Military Command, who also heads rebel brigades on the eastern front, which includes the jihadist-dominated provinces of Dayr az Zawr and Ar Raqqah, told the NOW Lebanon news site that he will continue to collaborate with al Qaeda affiliates against the “common enemy.”

But as rebel groups jockey for power and resources, more infighting is breaking out. The jihadists have assassinated a handful of FSA-aligned commanders in recent months, and over the weekend al Qaeda–affiliated rebels battled Islamist opposition fighters in a town along the Iraqi border, killing at least five people. With disappointment growing in rebel ranks over the Obama administration backing off an airstrike, tensions are likely to only grow between the rebels.