Syria’s Islamist Rebels

In the uprising against al-Assad, fighters of a dedicated Islamist bent have drawn scrutiny. By Mike Giglio.

The small gathering last night in Antakya, at a popular cafe in the center of town, was like many others in this Turkish city near the Syrian border of late. A few Syrian activists and a rebel soldier were casually smoking cigarettes and shooting the post-Iftar breeze with talk of the ongoing conflict across the way.

It was announced that a new face would soon be stopping by, and the mood slightly tensed. Someone grumbled about extremists. The woman in the group, dressed in a low-cut shirt, briefly worried if she should cover up.

Mohamed Aisa, 32, wears the conspicuously moustache-less long beard that marks a salafist—a strict and passionate adherent to fundamental Islam. He sat down, smiled, and surprised the group by plopping two packs of Winston Reds on the table and lighting a cigarette. “Salafis say you shouldn’t, but because I’m the leader I can smoke,” he said.

In the armed uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Aisa belongs to a contingent of the struggle that has drawn increasing scrutiny in recent weeks—fighters of a dedicated Islamist bent. He commands about 70 armed men based in Syria’s mountainous Jabal al-Akrad region, and he said he’d just received a request from another 20 men wanting to join. He said the group works independent of, though often in coordination with, the Free Syrian Army, which has been pushed as the official rebel fighting front. And it was for salafists only, with regular religious instruction from Aisa—something he thought helped its appeal. “When people hear about us, they want to join us, because they want to work in God’s name,” he said.

Aisa, who founded the group six months ago, keeps his family in Antakya, like many rebel fighters do. His group was on a break, so he’d come to Turkey for a brief visit, and also to gather supplies. Over the course of the conflict, Turkey has played host to the Syrian opposition, setting up refugee camps along the border and allowing rebel fighters and supplies to cross with relative ease. In the process, Antakya and the surrounding border area has come to feel like a buzzing hub for the rebel cause.

The official FSA brass, made up of defected officers from the Syrian regime, lives at a dedicated refugee camp outside the city. Resting fighters can be found holed up in apartments, and wounded ones fill hospitals and a growing number of convalescent homes.

Over tea, smugglers talk of running people and aid, and sometimes weapons, from Turkey into Syria. “Anyone who comes to Antakya feels that the revolution is here,” says the Antakya-based founder of a fighting group across the border.

As the conflict in Syria continues to grind along, reports are gaining steam that jihadist groups and even al Qaeda are taking the opportunity to insert themselves more forcefully in the mix. Issa, who calls himself a salafist and jihadist both, says he has even forbidden his fighters from flying a religious flag that looked similar to the al Qaeda one, conscious of how that would play in the international press. (He insisted there is no Qaeda presence in Syria but expressed sympathy for the group—“Not terrorists. Never.”) As concerns over Islamist fighters grow, they have been felt in Antakya too, a kind of ground zero for the international feel of the conflict on the other side of the border.

There is occasional talk of foreign fighters making their way through town as they head into Syria—one such rumor, of a group of Libyans carry flak jackets arriving at the local airport, was cited recently in The New York Times. The nearby border crossing of Baba al-Hawa in Syria is reported to be a gathering point for jihadist fighters, and two Western journalists were recently kidnapped by what they said were foreign jihadist after crossing into the area from Turkey. They were held for a week, threatened, shot and eventually released. Debates over the role of extremists in the conflict, meanwhile, often peppers conversation in town. Even leading members of the FSA military council have admitted to jihadist concerns.

In Turkey, foreign military officials have spoken against the prospect of extremism in Syria, while encouraging secularism in Arab Spring countries such as Egypt, so the government is likely sensitive to talk of extremist elements among its guests, notes one journalist with a national daily here. For all the rumblings, though, there has been little public discourse on the subject by Turkish officials, or even in the press, says David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is monitoring the situation in Turkey and Syria.

For one, Pollock notes, “the Turks have been quite active and effective in controlling Syrians and others—whether refugees, political activists, or fighters—on their soil.” More importantly, he adds, the extremist situation, while expanding, still appears to be playing only a peripheral role in the conflict. “The overall presence of real jihadist active in Syria is actually very small, even if occasionally sensational,” he says.

In addition, Turkey may already be acquainted with many of those who are receiving newfound attention for fighting under the Islamist banner of late. Aisa, who owned a clothing store before the revolution began, had been fighting with the FSA before branching off six months ago to form his own group.

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A man who gave his name as Atham Samo has been in Antakya for a full year, he said, on behalf of one the Islamist fighting fronts getting the most attention in recent weeks—Ahrar Al Sham, which some have credited for the bombing in Damascus earlier this month that killed four members of Assad’s inner circle. He described himself as a smuggler, overseeing the distribution of aid. “My friends sent me here to send help, and to continue my support,” he said. “It’s easy, because Turkey makes it easy.”