Opposition forces battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria now number around 100,000 fighters. A new study by IHS Jane’s, a defense consultancy, estimates that nearly half of the rebel forces are radical (al-Qaeda) jihadists or hardline Islamists.
UK Telegraph The stark assessment, to be published later this week, accords with the view of Western diplomats estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower.
Fears that the rebellion against the Assad regime is being increasingly dominated by extremists has fuelled concerns in the West over supplying weaponry that will fall into hostile hands. These fears contributed to unease in the US and elsewhere over military intervention in Syria.
Charles Lister, author of the analysis, said: “The insurgency is now dominated by groups which have at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict. The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.” Lister places the number of “genuine moderates” — rebels wholly loyal to the SMC — between 20,000 and 32,000.
The study is based on intelligence estimates and interviews with activists and militants. The lengthy fighting has seen the emergence of hundreds of separate rebel bands, each operating in small pockets of the country, which are usually loyal to larger factions.
Two factions linked to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also know as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) – have come to dominate among the more extremist fighters, Mr Lister said. Their influence has risen significantly in the past year.
The aim of moderate rebel fighters is the overthrow of their country’s authoritarian dictator, but jihadist groups want to transform Syria into a hard-line Islamic state within a regional Islamic “caliphate”.
Al-Qaeda has assassinated several FSA rebel commanders in northern Latakia province in recent weeks, and locals say they fear this is part of a jihadist campaign to gain complete control of the territory.
In early September, the group distributed black backpacks with the words “Islamic State of Iraq” stamped on them. They also now control schools in Aleppo where young boys are reportedly taught to sing jihadist anthems.