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The Civil War in the Syrian Opposition: How Long Can the Free Syrian Army Hold Off Its Islamist Rivals?

If you want to know where the fourteen month-old Syrian revolution against President Bashar al-Assad is headed, the case of Walid al-Boustani provides a useful rubric. Al-Boustani led an ill-fated “Islamic Emirate of Homs” that lasted only a few weeks. Apparently the locals did not appreciate having an “Emir” who kidnapped and murdered their people while claiming to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And so in March 2012 a local brigade of the Free Syrian Army executed the Lebanese-born al-Boustani, amidst accusations that the jihadist was not only a traitor to the Syrian revolution but also, in fact, an agent of the Syrian regime.

The incident is part of a larger clash that has mostly gone overlooked in the Western media—namely, the struggle between Syria’s two main armed opposition groups, groups that represent two radically different visions for Syria’s future. In that way, it’s not enough to simply know—as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out—that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with assistance from the CIA, are funneling arms and cash to certain Syrian rebel groups via intermediaries in Turkey. It’s also important to know that the other rebel groups—those with an Islamist political agenda—that the United States and its allies have decided not to support are distrusted by the Syrian people themselves. Indeed, Washington’s largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public’s broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels. But there’s no telling how much longer America’s strategic interests and the Syrian people’s sympathies will remain in sync.

THE FACTION OF the Syrian opposition that has been the main recipient of foreign arms is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella organization headquartered in Turkey and encompassing upwards of a hundred semi-autonomous battalions of defected Syrian soldiers and armed civilians. Though many individual units and fighters loyal to the FSA adopt a conservative Islamic idiom and may express their struggle as “jihad,” the FSA central leadership espouses pluralist, nationalist, and even democratic ideals, reflecting its broad base of support in Syria, as well as the influence of its international sponsors.

The second group (broadly construed) vying for primacy of the Syrian armed opposition is the constellation of independent, hardcore Islamist “kata’ib” (brigades) claiming to wage violent jihad against the infidel Assad regime and its Shia backers, Iran and Hezbollah. The independent jihadist opposition draws from an expanding domestic pool of young men who feel abandoned by the international community and emboldened by the popularity of their radical Islamist cause beyond Syria’s borders and over social media.

The good news is that, Syrians mostly distrust the hardcore Islamists. While much of the public is liable to celebrate any attack against government forces, they remain deeply suspicious of the numerous, independent jihadist groups taking root throughout the country. A public opinion survey conducted by the US Institute of Peace in September 2011 found that only 35 percent of Syrians see religion as an important issue in the anti-government demonstrations, with less than 14 percent preferring religious leaders or parties to lead a post-Assad Syria as compared to 66 percent who viewed “democratically-elected leaders” as the most qualified.

Compounding Syrians’ ideological unease with jihadists is the widespread concern that Islamist groups have either been infiltrated by, or are directly working for the Syrian regime. Western media mostly overlooked the story of Walid al-Boustani, the would-be Emir of Homs, but the video of Boustani’s “trial” and execution by the FSA stirred considerable speculation among Arab audiences, who focused not on Boustani’s specific crimes but rather on his ties to a discredited Al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group back in Lebanon, Fatah al-Islam, which is widely believed to be a tool of Syrian intelligence.

It is well-established that the Syrian government in the past facilitated the transit of fighters to Al-Qaeda in Iraq through Syria in order to fight American coalition forces—and some of these battle-hardened jihadists have likely come back to Syria. But the Assad regime’s understanding with Islamic extremists has always been to allow them to attack their common enemy as long as they did not operate within Syria itself. This deal with the devil spared Syria from terrorist attacks for nearly 30 years, but the upshot is that any jihadist group emerging in Syria today—especially one whose operations and rhetoric so neatly validate the regime’s narrative of a terrorist conspiracy—is immediately suspected of being a government creation.

The most prominent example of these deep-seated suspicions among Syrians is the popular perception of a group named Jabhat al-Nusra (JN, also known as the Al-Nusra Front), that has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings across the country. The majority of Syrians—according to anecdotal evidence from Syrian social media sites—believe that all of JN’s claimed operations were in fact perpetrated by the regime’s thugs. This, despite the fact that JN’s statements are carried over official Al-Qaeda internet channels, and despite assertions by Western intelligence agencies that JN is an Al-Qaeda affiliate bent on bringing down the Syrian regime.

Ultimately, it makes sense that Syrians seem to be mostly pragmatic about their revolution. With the Syrian opposition containing so many different sects, ethnicities, tribes, and political affiliations, an insistence on ideological purity is a hindrance to the greater goal of ousting the regime. Indeed, whereas independent jihadist groups are ideologically bound to reject any help from “infidels and traitor governments,” Free Syrian Army units freely accept cash and increasingly sophisticated arms, including anti-tank weaponry, from Gulf patrons, facilitated in part by non-lethal American assistance.

Given a choice between building on the FSA’s head start in arms, manpower and political connections, and starting from scratch with the jihadi brigades, Syrians clearly prefer to stick with the FSA. Even if most FSA-affiliated brigades still get 90 percent of their arms from sources other than the centralized leadership and derive little tangible benefit from its connections and legitimacy, there is no organization that commands more respect than the FSA. The question is: What happens if America and its allies are seen to be ineffectual in their aid to the popular opposition? Will Syrians turn to someone else for help?

Already there are reports that some rebel arms distributors are chafing at the strings Saudi Arabia has attached to its weapons transfers, while independent Salafi sheikhs and “honorable businessmen” stand ready and willing to support militant groups outside of the FSA’s umbrella. The independent Islamist brigades would be helped considerably if they organized their own umbrella organization to unify their ranks under the banner of jihad. (A new rebel group with moderate Islamist credentials calling itself the “Syrian Revolutionaries Front” tried to do just that earlier this month, though it seems that the effort immediately fizzled.)

If a unified jihadist opposition did manage to challenge the Free Syrian Army’s primacy in the coming months, it could be an ominous indicator of where Syria’s opposition is heading. We could see the Free Syrian Army’s central leadership beginning to placate the Islamists by adopting Islamist rhetoric or institutions such as a sharia council, or Saudi Arabia starting to hedge its support of the FSA by taking meetings with upstart Islamist “emirs.” Either way, it would mean that the jihad is very much on in Syria. It would also mean that the United States had better rethink its hands-off approach to the crisis.

Tyler Golson is an Arabic social media analyst with Concepts & Strategies, Inc.