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Some Rebels Worry About Extremists, but Assad Comes First

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Posted on Aug 22, 2012
Photo by Mahmoud Hassinno

Free Syrian Army soldiers gather near the Turkish-Syrian border.

By Reese Erlich

ANTAKYA, Turkey—Free Syrian Army leader Abdul Salaam types on his Dell laptop while a comrade sitting nearby taps a text message on his iPhone. Eight of his fighters lounge around an apartment living room late one night. Their 150-man brigade, Ahrar Syria (Free People of Syria), even has its own Facebook page.

While the brigade sports modern techno gadgets, it lacks sophisticated arms and ammunition. So instead of fighting in the battle of Aleppo, the militants help smuggle refugees and injured fighters from war-torn Syria into Turkey.

Members of Ahrar and other armed opposition groups are angry at the U.S. for not giving them enough backing. “We haven’t gotten any arms from the U.S.,” Salaam said. “If we had arms, Assad would have fallen by now.” He also favors establishing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria as the U.S. and NATO did in Libya.

At the same time, Ahrar and other opposition groups strongly oppose U.S. policy in the region. They want the return of Syria’s Golan Heights, seized by Israel in the 1967 War. They support Palestinian rights and oppose U.S. aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of those political views make Washington very happy. Opposition leaders assume that the U.S. is searching for pro-American leaders to take over once Assad falls.

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“The Americans haven’t supported the revolution strongly enough because they are still looking for someone who can ensure their interests in the future,” said Omar Mushaweh, a spokesman for Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood, living in Istanbul.

While the regime of President Bashar al-Assad accuses the rebels of being controlled by the U.S., the reality is more complicated. Syrians, even those seeking military aid, reject U.S. domination of their revolution.

So far, the Obama administration has refused to establish a no-fly zone. In August, the State Department announced that it would provide $25 million for “nonlethal assistance” and $64 million for “humanitarian assistance.” Nonlethal aid includes satellite phones, other communications gear and body armor.

In addition, the CIA prowls the border regions to vet various FSA factions to determine which ones should receive arms supplied by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other regional governments.

The Obama administration seeks to arm some groups while preventing arms falling into the hands of extremists. But it ain’t so easy.

In March 2011, spontaneous demonstrations broke out across Syria calling for an end to the Assad dictatorship. During the early days, religious and nonreligious Syrians came together to call for reform. But as fighting intensified, a range of Islamist groups gained influence.

Nasradeen Ahme is a fighter with another faction of the Free Syrian Army. He says the Islamic groups now have the upper hand because of their superior organization, weaponry and fighting skills. Ahme says the secularists lost the initiative.

“The nonviolent resistance has been overshadowed by the armed groups and armed struggle,” Ahme said. “You can’t be part of the nonviolent movement now.”

Ahme and other fighters interviewed for this article say there are several political trends among the Islamist groups. Ultra-right-wing Islamists would rule Syria according to a strict interpretation of Shariah law. For them, the enemy is anyone— military or civilian—who collaborates with the Assad regime.

Center-right Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, oppose such killings. Brotherhood representative Mushaweh criticized the rebels who threw bodies off a roof in Aleppo and then publicized it on YouTube two weeks ago.

“We reject all kinds of field executions,” he said. “All prisoners of the Assad regime should be subject to later trial.”

Mushaweh said the Muslim Brotherhood favors a moderate version of Shariah law. He said the new Syria would model itself on modern Turkey, which is governed by a parliamentary system and respects different religions. Minority and women’s rights would be protected, he said.

“We will not force women to wear the hijab (head covering). It will be by choice.”

Some secular Syrians don’t trust the Brotherhood’s rhetoric, however. Miral Biroredda, spokesman for the Local Coordinating Committees in Hasakah city, said the “Islamists say they want a democratic country, but I don’t believe them.”

However, both secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood agree on the danger posed by ultra-right Islamist fighters from Iraq and other countries now operating in Syria. One such group recently kidnapped two Western freelance journalists.

Such groups, Mushaweh said, “are very limited in number. They do things that don’t reflect the uprising.”

While ultra-rightists may gain temporary popularity because of their fighting skills, activists say, Syrians will reject such groups if Assad is overthrown.

“These foreign extremists won’t be allowed to stay in Syria,” Biroredda said. “When the regime falls and the civil movements rise again, these people will go back home.”

Biroredda and other activists say only free and fair elections can determine how much popular support secularists, center-right and ultra-right Islamists may have. And that won’t happen until Assad is out of power.

Back at the Antakya apartment, FSA leader Salaam continues to type and talk simultaneously. “We want freedom of expression, free press and free elections,” he said.

As for a more detailed plan for the future, he said he’d leave that to the politicians.


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