BEIRUT — This week's takeover of Syrian rebel posts by al Qaida-linked fighters undercuts Secretary of State John Kerry's assertion to Congress earlier this month that moderates make up the bulk of the guerrilla movement against President Bashar Assad's regime and are growing stronger.
Kerry told Congress that Islamist extremists make up only 15 to 25 percent of the rebels. But a closer examination of the composition of fighting groups suggests that his figure is low.
Charles Lister, an analyst for IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center in Great Britain, circulated a study this week that showed that al Qaida-linked fighters and "hard-line Islamists" who coordinate closely with them number more than 40 percent of the anti-Assad forces. "Genuine moderates, with a distinctly nationalist-secular outlook," Lister said, account for 20 to 25 percent of the estimated 100,000 anti-Assad fighters.
Even some units that nominally are under the control of the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council espouse radical ideology that opposes elections and other hallmarks of a democratic vision for Syria.
Battles of the past few days have only supported the assessment that Islamists, not moderates, hold sway in the anti-Assad movement. Al Qaida-linked fighters seized Free Syrian Army strongholds, most notably the town of Azaz near the Turkish border, amid intense firefights.
Attacks on foreign journalists by al Qaida-linked Islamists have risen so dramatically in the last few days that for the first time since the conflict began in 2011, Peter Bouckaert, the director of emergencies for Human Rights Watch, warned all foreign reporters Thursday to stay out of northern Syria.
"The risks can no longer be managed, even with the strongest security," said Bouckaert, who administers a Facebook page on logistics and security for war correspondents.
The changes in the fighters' makeup are at odds with the words of politicians such as Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, who's been a vocal supporter of arming the "moderate" rebels as a counterweight to al Qaida's influence. McCain caused much fanfare when he slipped into Syria on a secret trip in May, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. visitor to rebel-held territory.
Asked whether McCain could make the same trip today, Bouckaert was categorical.
"Absolutely not," he said. "He might be able to hop across the border in some places, but going deep into Syria would be impossible because ISIS is operating in many places they weren't before."
He referred to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, an al Qaida affiliate made up primarily of foreign fighters (Sham is the Arabic word for the region that includes Syria). McCain's office didn't respond to a request for comment.
American pundits and officials are fond of sorting Syrian rebels into three broad categories: the "good rebels" affiliated with the Supreme Military Council, the conservative Islamists of an umbrella group called the Syrian Islamic Front, and the extremists in al Qaida-affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the Nusra Front.
Analysts who study the rebel forces complain that such broad catchalls overlook the complexity and nuance of the 1,000 or more anti-Assad militias.
In the case of the Supreme Military Council, for example, several units not only have adopted overtly sectarian and religious rhetoric but also have shown signs of only a nominal relationship with the council's leadership, preferring to align themselves with the much more effective fighters of Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, along with their allies.
One such group is the Sheikh of Islam Ibn Taymiyya Battalion, a fighting unit in Tel Abyad, a town in eastern Syria across from Akcakale, Turkey.
The group proclaims loyalty to the Supreme Military Council and describes itself as part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. But Aymenn Tamimi, a student at Oxford University who studies jihadist groups that operate in Syria and Iraq, said the battalion had aligned itself with Ahrar al Sham – an Islamist group that follows the literalist ideology of the more radical factions – as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in battling local Kurdish militias.
"Its logo claims FSA affiliation, but I know it is an ally of ISIS," Tamimi said. "If you look at the Facebook posting dated 19 August, they feature a post with the ISIS banner on it."
"What this shows is that the name FSA and the banner are not all that helpful in determining who is 'moderate' or not," he added.
The role of Ahrar al Sham is also disputed. While Lister doesn't include it among al Qaida-affiliated groups, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell did during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes."
Even the term "moderate" is problematic, and it has a meaning on the Syrian battlefield that's different from the one it has in a Washington think tank. Advocates of the U.S. arming Syrian rebels talk about the need for a "federal, democratic Syria" as one way to determine whether a rebel group is moderate.
But, Tamimi said, many large rebel groups, including Liwa al Tawheed, a military council-affiliated group that's taken the lead in fighting in Aleppo, "are hostile to this concept," particularly if it means granting autonomy to Syria's Kurdish minority, concentrated in the country's northeast.
The name of Sheikh of Islam Ibn Taymiyya Battalion indicates its extremist leanings. The name references an early Islamic scholar whom many al Qaida adherents consider an intellectual innovator who advocated a doctrine of rejecting and even killing fellow Muslims who fail to uphold the tenets of the religion. Such thinking, labeled "takfiri" in Arabic, argues that Muslims who advocate for any system of government beyond the most rigid interpretations of the Islamic state are heretics subject to death at the hands of "real" believers.
Such thinking is on the fringes of mainstream Islamic thought. Blind adherence to the ideology can breed especially dedicated and ruthless fighters, and might be one reason that fighters from Nusra and the Islamic State compose the most effective rebel units, a fact that's forced the U.S.-backed military council to coordinate with them.
"They have trucks that give them the ability to move and lots of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq," said Abu Omar al Homsi, a commander with the council-affiliated Farouk Brigades in Homs province. "They'll appear and join with our offensives, and of course we have to coordinate with them on some level. Even if we know that one day we might have to fight these people, most commanders have decided to deal with that problem after we deal with the bigger problem of Bashar."
Lister has said the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham has another important quality that most military council groups lack: the ability to coordinate military resources in 11 of Syria's 14 provinces. With most rebel groups operating on a hyper-local basis, that gives the Islamic State, and to a lesser extent Nusra, the ability to see the fight against Assad in broader geographical terms and an advantage in determining how to effectively manage their resources.
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