Abdul Rahman, a quiet, even-tempered man, leads a collection of moderate Free Syrian Army battalions in Aleppo. He says groups like his are becoming harder to find as the 21-month uprising drags on and more groups lean either secular or Islamist extremist.
At a time when opposition fighters live and die by their ability to get equipment, Mr. Rahman says it’s become more difficult for those in the middle ideologically to get supplies, with most donors choosing to support hardened secularists or Islamists.
Recently, Rahman had to break with some of the battalions he formerly commanded, in part because some were involved in criminal activity and there were disagreements among leaders, but also because of shortages of equipment.
“The moderates are the majority of people here in Syria, but now they are decreasing without any support,” he says. “If it continues like it is now, extremist groups will have a lot of influence after the Assad government falls.”
'People are desperate'
Abu Karam, the leader of the opposition’s Abu Bakar al Sadeq battalion, says that a number of well-funded, hard-line groups are using their resources to enlarge their base of support. “People are desperate and they will take assistance from whoever is giving it,” he says.
Many Syrians are worried about what Rahman and other moderates describe as an increasingly polarized political landscape among the Syrian opposition. Hard-line groups exist among both the Islamists and secularists, but many Syrians say that conservative Islamist groups are gaining the most ground inside Syria right now. Throughout Aleppo, a number of civilians are also calling for a post-Assad government to be based on sharia, or Islamic law.
Despite moderates' fears, many Syrians, regardless of their affiliations and beliefs, say the trend toward conservative Islam is largely a response to decades of secular rule under the Assad regime and does not necessarily indicate the desire for an ultra-conservative regime in Syria.
“Wherever the extremists go, they try to impose themselves on the population. This is a civilian revolution, and it contains all the elements of our society,” says Abu Karam, the battalion leader.
Among the groups that have caused the greatest concern is Jabhat al-Nusra, a conservative Islamist group now fighting among the Syrian opposition. Last week, the US State Department classified the group as a terrorist organization, saying it had ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was a major force within the anti-US Sunni insurgency.
Many Syrians do not agree with the classification of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization and harbor conflicted feelings about the group. Its fighters, many of whom are foreign, have experience fighting in Iraq and Libya, among other places, and provide expertise to less-experienced fighters. The group is also well equipped. Both aspects make the militant organization critical to the opposition’s ability to effectively challenge the army of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ideologically though, the group represents a marked departure from Syria’s longstanding moderate tradition. Opposition fighter Abu Osama started fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra before the group had fully formed, but decided to leave when they asked him to pledge a loyalty oath that could require him to fight for Jabhat al-Nusra in other countries when the war ended. He’d also grown concerned about some of the group's ultra-conservative practices.
“They’re always accusing people of being infidels,” he says. “They consider [Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed] Morsi to be an infidel because he’s not applying the sharia law in Egypt.”
A number of opposition fighters now say that they fear an eventual battle with the group if and when Mr. Assad is no longer in power. Among those moderates who doubt such an extreme scenario, they still say they worry about the influence such a group could have on a new government in Syria.
“Jabhat al-Nusra is not going to accept someone saying, ‘Thanks for your help, now please go.’” says Abu Mohammad, commander of the opposition’s Dar al Wafa Battalion and a member of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. “We’re really betting on the awareness of the young people” to know better than to support Jabhat al-Nusra’s political agenda.