Rebels With a Cause, But Not Much Consensus

Syrian opposition fighters are committed to Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, but disagree on just about everything else.


As President Bashar al-Assad’s forces disintegrate, the Syrian civil war is devolving into a battle between Sunni rebel groups and Alawite-dominated militias fighting in support of the old regime. This may increase the rebels’ chances of victory, but it also means that the work to rebuild Syria after Assad falls will be even more challenging.

Although most discussions of Syria’s armed revolt center on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this body was, from the outset, never anything more than a franchise of loosely knit armed groups. FSA commanders captured headlines in late September when they announced they would move their command headquarters from the Turkish town of Antakya back into Syria. This move, however, is unlikely to have much of an impact: The high-ranking Syrian defectors who fled to Turkey have been unable to create an effective command structure and have too little credibility with the rank and file of the rebel movement, which is still mainly composed of civilians, to influence the revolt one way or another.

I spent most of August traveling around Turkey with my wife, pro-democracy activist Khawla Yusuf, to try to understand the dynamics that drive these rebel groups. We moved between the cities of Istanbul, Antakya, and Ankara to meet with activists and important rebel leaders who operate inside Syria. We had been in touch with most of these figures for months prior to the trip, and my wife had previously undertaken a number of trips to Turkey to meet them. Since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, I have also tracked the conflict through the Syrian Revolution Digest, a daily blog detailing emerging trends in the country.

What we learned confirmed our view that the FSA and its Antakya-based officers have long found themselves playing c as new realities unfold on the ground. The rebel movement’s real leaders are ordinary men from mostly rural backgrounds — all Sunni Arabs, often poorly educated, but extremely dedicated to the cause. Most had previously been known and respected in their local areas as successful traders, farmers, or, on occasion, preachers. But their own personal piety notwithstanding, few are actually committed Islamists.

One of the main rebel leaders at this stage is Jamal Maarouf, more commonly known as Abu Khalid, the founder of Syria’s Martyrs Brigades, a rebel group that now fields around 45,000 fighters. Abu Khalid’s troops in his home base of Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountainous area in the northern province of Idlib, are likely around 10,000 to 12,000 men — the rest of his fighting force agreed to join his ranks after developing a certain rapport with him over the past few months. A pious man and husband to three women — polygamy is pretty common in rural areas throughout Syria — Abu Khalid stands for traditional values, a mixture of Islam and rural mores, rather than political ideology. He does not advocate the establishment of an Islamic state, is wary of Salafi groups, and hates the Muslim Brotherhood. In operational matters, however, he cooperates with them all. It’s this pragmatic streak that distinguishes most rebel leaders.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Abu Khalid’s chief rival in Jabal al-Zawiya is Ahmad Abu Issa, founder of the Suqur al-Sham (“The Falcons of Syria”) Brigades, a hard-core Islamist group. A Salafi preacher, Abu Issa calls openly for the establishment of an Islamic state. He recently co-founded the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, an umbrella organization joining many Salafi rebel groups in the country.

Islamist groups like Abu Issa’s Islamic Front and the Muslim Brotherhood have a number of advantages over their pragmatist — one shouldn’t say secular — counterparts. They are supported by the governments of Turkey and Qatar, and they tend to play the media more effectively than others. They have also attempted to monopolize the supply channels for weapons and other assistance in order to buy rebel loyalties and marginalize their opponents. The Brotherhood is one of the Islamic Front’s primary backers, but not its only one. Independent Salafi entrepreneurs from Kuwait and other parts of the Persian Gulf are also backing different groups, making it harder for the Brotherhood to impose its vision and agenda on the rest.

Pragmatists like Abu Khalid used to rely on their own resources and support from local communities, but are now receiving some funding from Saudi sources as well. Saudi authorities have historically had deep differences with the Muslim Brotherhood — they look with gloom and dismay on its rise to power in Tunisia and Egypt — and are uncomfortable with the group’s attempt to control the Syrian rebellion as well as its cozy relations with their rivals in Qatar.

The result is a deepening divide between Islamists and pragmatists. And there are even splits within the Islamist camp: The Salafists are far more traditional and populist than members of the Brotherhood, who often come across to ordinary Syrians as too Westernized and elitist.

Even without staunch opposition from Saudi Arabia and the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood would face an uphill climb in dominating the post-Assad political scene. The Assad regime’s crackdown in the 1980s effectively eradicated the Brotherhood’s bases of support, transforming it into an exile movement with little connection to Syrian realities. And because the Brotherhood’s leadership has not changed since that period, its ethos and worldview remain dictated by its past experiences.

On the ground, the Muslim Brotherhood exerts its influence through the military revolutionary councils — small groups of rebels, defectors, and activists formed in each province. But along with the Salafists’ Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria and the pragmatists’ Syria Martyrs Brigades, none of these groups will likely last long. Personal, regional, and ideological divisions, coupled with greed and lack of a unified political vision, make them too fragile to last. They also do not account for perhaps half of Syria’s armed factions, which remain unaffiliated. Strictly secular groups, however, are few, poorly armed, and disorganized.

But the armed rebellion is only half the story. As the casualties and defections in Assad’s army mount, it increasingly resembles a predominantly Alawite militia, supported in certain regions and neighborhoods by Christians and occasionally Sunni Arab and Kurdish recruits. These pro-Assad militias are a mixture of Syrian army troops, official security forces from the dreaded intelligence services and the police, and civilian fighters.

The militias are more organized and better armed than the rebels, and they have a central command structure led by Assad and his top generals. The militias also receive assistance from Iranian and Russian experts, and they are leading the onslaught on rebel territories across the country.

The emergence of Salafi groups has helped create a self-perpetuating cycle that strengthens the militias’ belief that their fate is intertwined with the Assad regime. The civic motivations of the early days of the revolution have given way to sectarian hatred and a desire for revenge. In this environment, the militias feel that they have no choice but to fight to the bitter end. Of course, the militias’ own atrocities — such as the sectarian cleansing of the mixed Sahel al-Ghab region in Hama province, as well as in the city of Homs, where they have forced out as many as half a million Sunnis, according to estimates by local activists — have turned their sectarian nightmares and Assad’s lies into self-fulfilling prophecies.

The pro-Assad militias have bought Assad’s line that the revolution is a foreign conspiracy and that the Sunni majority plans to eradicate the Alawites, long considered heretics, and transform Syria into a Salafi emirate. Most members have likely been involved in atrocities, but they truly believe that they are fighting for their lives and those of their families. In their minds, they are preventing future atrocities against their communities. Efforts to dispel this worldview and integrate these militias into the post-Assad political order will be one of the central challenges in the weeks and months ahead.

Assad’s rhetoric about an “international conspiracy” aside, foreign intervention in Syria goes both ways. Just as rebels are now enjoying support from some 3,500 foreign fighters — mostly from Gulf states, Libya, Tunisia, Chechnya, Somalia, and Sudan — pro-Assad militias have also drawn thousands of supporters from Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

As rebels gain control of more and more Syrian territory, questions about their vision for the country’s future have taken on a new urgency. And there are real challenges ahead: Islamist groups seem ideologically incapable of understanding the real implications of minority rights. Could pragmatists be able to compensate and bring Islamists on board? Some pro-Assad militias, especially those based in coastal areas and those that have not directly taken part in atrocities, could also still be reconciled to the post-Assad political order — but not without extraordinary international mediation.

These questions will linger so long as Syrian opposition groups remain unsuccessful in connecting combatants inside the country with the international community. Some steps have been taken: Over the last few months, the U.S. Institute of Peace held a series of meetings and workshops on transition in Syria in cooperation with scores of Syrian opposition members and activists from the Syrian diaspora. The meetings took place in Berlin and culminated in August in a 120-page transition plan. But the plan went nowhere beyond highlighting basic concepts and challenges involved in managing transitions, and it failed to produce a strictly Syrian vision. If this is the best that international mediation can produce, the future looks bleak indeed.

The key lies in providing rebel leaders like Abu Khalid with the tools needed to topple the Assad regime — and then to come together with those like Abu Issa to build a new, inclusive political order. Without creating military parity on the ground, including neutralizing Assad’s air power, a political solution will be impossible. And without a political process that involves both rebels and militias, any effort will fail. Military means alone will not be sufficient to help any side prevail.

For months, Syrian opposition members, rebels, and activists have heard that the United States will not act until after the presidential election. As such, many now expect a clear policy to emerge by the end of the year. If the next American president fails to provide such a policy, the conflict may well spiral out of control, dragging neighboring countries along with it.