ALEPPO, Syria - Abu Bakr, a Syrian rebel commander on the outskirts of Aleppo, is a devoted Islamist determined to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But the radical allies that have joined the rebels in recent months alarm even him.
“Let me be clear. I am an Islamist, my fighters are
Islamists. But there is more than one type of Islamist,” he told
Reuters. “These men coming fought in insurgencies like Iraq.
They are too extreme, they want to blow up any symbol of the
state, even schools.”
Seventeen months into the uprising against Assad, Syria’s
rebels are grateful for the support of Islamist fighters from
around the region. They bring weapons, money, expertise and
determination to the fight.
But some worry that when the battle against Assad is over
they may discover their allies – including fighters from the
Gulf, Libya, Eastern Europe or as far as the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border area – have different aims than most
“Our goal is to make a new future, not destroy everything,”
Abu Bakr said, sighing as he rattled his prayer beads. “As
bloody as it is now, this stage is simple. We all have the same
cause: topple the regime. When Bashar falls, we may find a new
battlefront against our former allies.”
Abu Bakr and his comrades say they envision Syria as a
conservative version of Turkey’s moderate Islamist rule, not an
autocratic theocracy. They are unnerved by a recent kidnapping
of foreign journalists and attacks on state infrastructure.
Western powers have warily watched the signs of an
increasing presence of foreign Sunni Islamist fighters in Syria.
They fear a repeat of the mass sectarian slaughter that
followed the American invasion of Iraq. Sunni Islamist suicide
bombers affiliated with al Qaeda there are still targeting
security forces and Shi’ites in large-scale bomb attacks.
Some fighters who have come to Syria are idealists who
believe in jihad, or holy war, for oppressed Muslims, and would
probably return home in a post-Assad era. But others are al
Qaeda-linked fighters who may want a base in Syria.
Their numbers are still low, but enough to worry countries
fearing Iraq-style bloodshed in Syria, a country straddling the
lines of most ethnic and regional conflicts in the Middle East.
LOOK FOR THE BOMBS
Abu Bakr, a short man with a long black moustache, says
right now there is no choice but to allow foreign fighters. On a
summer night, he and his small daughter waved off a truck
crammed with rebels heading into Aleppo.
The fighters have brought in rocket propelled grenades and
boxes of homemade explosives. And wherever you find improvised
bombs, you’re likely to find foreign fighters, says a rebel
called Mohammed in another local unit.
“They brought a lot of bomb making experience from the
insurgency in Iraq. With their help, our bombs have 3-7
kilometre detonation range. Now, we can even set them off by
mobile phone,” said Mohammed, who still walks with a slight limp
from a freshly healed wound.
He was shot when his unit planted bombs near an airforce
base. Like other fighters interviewed by Reuters, he denied that
he had worked with radicals from abroad.
In some Aleppo neighbourhoods hit by heavy army shelling
over the past week, there were signs that foreign fighters
appeared to be present among rebels.
Some men crouching among gutted buildings wore shalwar
kameez, the loose trousers and shirts worn in Afghanistan and
Pakistan but uncommon in Syria. They had long beards cleanly cut
along their jaw line, a style associated with Salafism, an
austere Sunni school which seeks to replicate life in the age of
the Prophet Mohamed. As soon as journalists approached, the men
vanished into buildings.
Not all rebel groups work with foreigners, and not all
Syrian rebels work well with each other. In Aleppo for example,
the largest group is the 2,000 strong Tawheed Brigade. It says
it accepts foreign fighters, but only if they play by its rules.
“There are some really extremist battalions that don’t
cooperate well with us. They stay on their own,” said a fighter
from the Tawheed brigade.
“We’re trying to fold jihadis into our group so they back
off their more aggressive tactics. That doesn’t mean we aren’t
nervous. They could still turn and rebel against us,” he said.
The Tawheed brigade’s leaders, none of whom were military
officers, are trying to keep the battle in Aleppo more organised
than previous campaigns. Commander Abdulqader Salheen says they
aim to divide the city into nine administrative districts and
set up leaders for each area to streamline communication.
But there are several other brigades and dozens of
independent battalions working independently, and fights are
common. The Tawheed brigade’s advances in unifying the
three-week-old battle for Aleppo began to fall apart when
smaller groups complained they were not getting a fair share of
the weapons spoils from ransacked police stations.
Some units have even withdrawn back to the countryside over
disputes. Tempers are short and everyone has lost siblings,
cousins and friends. Most fighters are young, anywhere from 15
to 28 years old, and they are grappling with one of the
bloodiest conflicts in the region. Confusion reigns.
At an abandoned military site held by rebels in Aleppo, one
young fighter with a scuffed up kalashnikov drew a blank when
asked what unit he was in. He consulted a comrade, who told him
they were part of a newly formed “Victory Battalion”.
One of the most effective and elusive groups in Aleppo now
sending reinforcements into Damascus is called Ahrar al-Sham,
“The Free Men of Syria.” Its fighters accept the bulk of
jihadist foreign fighters in Idlib and Aleppo, rebels say.
“They’re extremely effective and secretive. They coordinate
with us to attack the regime but they don’t take orders from
anyone. They get weapons and explosives smuggled from abroad
that are much better,” said a rebel in Aleppo called Anwar.
Other groups are amateurs working alone, and it shows.
When the army fires its helicopter gunships and mortars on
them, they crouch in an alley while dust and concrete rains down
on them. They peek over their rifles or grenade launchers, and
It’s little surprise then that battle-hardened fighters from
abroad, with wads of cash from the Gulf, appeal to rebels. One
opposition activist said that groups like Ahrar al-Sham get
money from Gulf Islamists in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
“In a period of several months when I was checking, they
sent about 3 million Kuwaiti dinars ($10.6 million) to
hardliners like them,” he said, requesting anonymity.
At a hotel in one Turkish border town, men in short white
robes and Salafi beards whisper in the lobby as the reception
desk sorts a stack of Saudi and Kuwaiti passports.
“We’re getting so many guests from the Gulf now, and
Islamists from Europe too. Sometimes groups as big as 25 people.
And if they get chatty they tell me all about the money they’re
sending in. One guy told me he alone brought more than
$100,000,” said a hotel employee who also asked not to be named.
Given their willingness to put their money and their lives
on the line, foreign radicals and the ideas they represent could
have a growing influence.
The concrete alleyways of rebel-held areas are now littered
with graffiti slogans such as “Hey apostate regime, the Islamic
Syria is coming,” or “The people demand (Islamic) Sharia law”.
But most rebels don’t have clear answers for what they mean
when they say they are Islamist or want an Islamic state.
“We want to build a state where our citizens are equal,
Muslims and minorities,” said the young rebel Anwar, as he
watched an Islamic TV station from a safe house in Aleppo.
“We want to be able to choose our own future, not have it be
determined by poverty or our religion.”
The fighters from Syria are mostly poor, uneducated young
men from rural areas. Decades of repressed anger have helped
shape their ideas. Most say that as members of the country’s
Sunni Muslim majority, their families were harassed and
discriminated against by security forces.
Elite members of President Assad’s Alawite sect, an
offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, hold most of the power in the
security forces and government. The Assad family brutally
crushed an Islamist Sunni uprising in the 1980s. Tens of
thousands were massacred in the city of Hama.
“My brother was tortured and arrested for a year in 2008 for
criticising the regime in a cafe. I had neighbours interrogated
for growing a beard and going to prayers more often,” says
Anwar, who comes from a tiny farming and smuggling town on the
Like most rebels, Anwar and his friends have grown long dark
beards, which they see as a defiant fashion statement.
“We could never grow them before the uprising. This is the
tough rebel look,” laughs one of his friends.
Commander Abu Bakr says that while he objects to the severe
radical approach, he too hopes for an Islamic state.
“Let’s first get rid of the regime, re-establish stability,
have national dialogue, and then gradually try to create the
Islamic state and give people time to get used to it,” he said.
“I don’t want to immediately impose Sharia law and start
cutting off people’s hands for stealing. I believe in Sharia.
But if we force it on people, we will create fear. We have to
assure minorities we will treat them well.”
Rebel fighters are exhausted and can’t afford to take on new
opponents, said fighters from northern Idlib, in a convoy
heading to the battle in neighbouring Aleppo. Amr, a 20-year-old
rebel, said his comrades had their hands full trying to topple
the government and maintain order in areas they control.
“We already are fighting the regime and now we’re fighting
crime. We just don’t have time to deal with these extremists,”
he sighed. “But don’t worry, their day will come.”