By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government grinds on with no resolution in sight, Syrians involved in the armed struggle say it is becoming more radicalized: homegrown Muslim jihadists, as well as small groups of fighters from Al Qaeda, are taking a more prominent role and demanding a say in running the resistance.
The past few months have witnessed the emergence of larger, more organized and better armed Syrian militant organizations pushing an agenda based on jihad, the concept that they have a divine mandate to fight. Even less-zealous resistance groups are adopting a pronounced Islamic aura because it attracts more financing.
Idlib Province, the northern Syrian region where resistance fighters control the most territory, is the prime example. In one case there, after jihadists fighting under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad staged significant attacks against Syrian government targets, the commander of one local rebel military council recently invited them to join. “They are everywhere in Idlib,” said a lean and sunburned commander with the Free Syrian Army council in Saraqib, a strategic town on the main highway southwest from Aleppo. “They are becoming stronger, so we didn’t want any hostility or tension in our area.”
Tension came anyway. The groups demanded to raise the prophet’s banner — solid black with “There is no god but God” written in flowing white Arabic calligraphy — during the weekly Friday demonstration. Saraqib prides itself in its newly democratic ways, electing a new town council roughly every two months, and residents put it to a vote — the answer was no. The jihadi fighters raised the flag anyway, until a formal compromise allowed for a 20-minute display.
In one sense, the changes on the ground have actually brought closer to reality the Syrian government’s early, and easily dismissible, claim that the opposition was being driven by foreign-financed jihadists.
A central reason cited by the Obama administration for limiting support to the resistance to things like communications equipment is that it did not want arms flowing to Islamic radicals. But the flip side is that Salafist groups, or Muslim puritans, now receive most foreign financing.
“A lot of the jihadi discourse has to do with funding,” noted Peter Harling, the Syria analyst with the International Crisis Group, adding that it was troubling all the same. “You have secular people and very moderate Islamists who join Salafi groups because they have the weapons and the money. There tends to be more Salafi guys in the way the groups portray themselves than in the groups on the ground.”
But jihad has become a distinctive rallying cry. The commander of the newly unified brigades of the Free Syrian Army fighting in Aleppo was shown in a YouTube video on Sunday exhorting men joining the rebellion there by telling them: “Those whose intentions are not for God, they had better stay home, whereas if your intention is for God, then you go for jihad and you gain an afterlife and heaven.”
What began as a largely peaceful, secular protest movement in March 2011 first took on a more religious tone late last summer as it shifted into an armed conflict waged by more conservative, more rural Sunni Muslims whose faith already formed an integral focus of their daily lives.
But greater attention has been focused on a Qaeda involvement in the uprising since mid-July, when fighters professing allegiance to the terrorist organization appeared during the opposition takeover of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. In one video, five fighters declared their intention to create an Islamic state. (Mainline Qaeda ideology calls for a Pan-Islamic caliphate.)
Still, there is, as yet, no significant presence of foreign combatants of any stripe in Syria, fighters and others said. The Saraqib commander estimated there were maybe 50 Qaeda adherents in all of Idlib, a sprawling northwestern province that borders Turkey. The foreigners included Libyans, Algerians and one Spaniard, he said, adding that he much preferred them over homegrown jihadists. They were both less aggressive and less cagey than the locals, said the commander, interviewed in Turkey and via Skype and declining to be further identified.