Extremists showing up on front lines in Syria

By Paul Schemm

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

Most of the rebels fighting in the north come from the countryside and have always been more traditional and religious than the more cosmopolitan urbanites of Aleppo.

Rebels often wear the beards associated with religious Muslims and pepper their conversations with references to their faith, but that does not necessarily mean they subscribe to ultraconservative views.

"Having a beard is not a symbol of extremists. It just means we're religious, like a woman wearing a headscarf or a Christian wearing a cross," said Abdel Malik Atassi, a young rebel in the town of Marea, as he gestured to his bearded comrades.

Atassi also noted that the fighters tend to me more religious.

"As a fighter, I am constantly close to death, so yes, I am more religious and I want to follow the prophet's traditions more closely in case I die," he added.

Rebel leaders like Abdel Aziz Salameh, one of the top commanders in the countryside, said that while he hopes for a future government system based on Islamic law, it will ultimately be the people's choice.

"We don't let the foreign fighters spread their way of thinking in our home," he told AP. "We don't need foreign fighters. We have 100,000 men who want to fight, but we don't have weapons for them."

While Salameh and other rebel commanders have pledged to respect Syria's pluralistic society, which includes many ethnic and religious minorities, the jihadis are increasingly framing this war as part of a regional struggle between the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam.

Assad and many of the top people in the regime belong to the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and the jihadis are framing the struggle in Syria as another front in the battle against what they perceive as heretical Shiites.

In the numerous online statements celebrating their nearly daily operations in Syria, Jebhat al-Nusra, or Victory Front, the largest jihadist group, often states that the attacks are to "avenge the Sunnis killed by the apostate regime."

Despite their smaller numbers, the jihadis bring experience in fighting guerrilla wars as well as their own supply lines for much needed weapons and ammunition, making them attractive to local Syrians to join.

"The infiltration of weapons and funding to these groups, as well as the ethno-religious component of the Syrian uprising, is likely to continue to serve as a source of attraction for many fighters, some of whom are ex-Free Syrian Army soldiers and many of whom are from foreign countries," noted the September report by the Quilliam Foundation about the role of jihadis in the rebellion.

The jihadis also have a reputation for heading straight to the front lines. Few were in evidence in the countryside, where many rebel units are involved in managing the civilian areas.

A French physician with Doctors Without Borders working near the front lines in Aleppo said in an interview last week that based on style of dress and what their companions said, half of the rebels he treated were jihadis, both foreign and Syrian.

In the end, the 12 bearded men who threatened the car full of journalists may have backed down because of wanting to maintain a good relationship with the civilians from the nearby village.

The more a rebel group is entrenched in the population, the more self-discipline it will exercise and the less likely it will engage in atrocities, Harling said. The problem with the jihadis and foreign fighters is that they often have few links with civilians.

"There is no jihadi precedent in the Islamic world that hasn't ended in one way or another in total failure, which makes it difficult to understand how it carries so much appeal," he said.

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