Field Notes: Interviews with Syrian Opposition Fighters

Antakya, Turkey – Having interviewed several FSA field commanders, I struggle with the meaning of the label “moderate” in the Syrian opposition context. It seems to mean vastly different things to different people and its political meaning mainly seems to be related to the type of resources a group has access to and the type of alliances the groups is part of.

Some more reflections below, as I try to find a meaningful way to frame the concept of “moderation”.


Moderation in the current context

Politicization of the rebellion and the emergence of extremist groups
The scattered nature of the shift from protests to armed insurgency carries implications for the ideological development of the opposition groups. With a repressive dictatorship having been in place for decades, the basis for ideologically driven armed movements was thin at best. People who joined the armed groups were mainly motivated by their anger over the regime’s aggression towards the protestors and by the immediate need for protection. This drew a wide variety of people into the ranks of the insurgencies which were themselves still building their military capacity.

The political glue holding these diverse ranks together did not consist of much more than the desire to topple the regime. Other than the development of military units, little institution building took place within the units that worked under the FSA flag or within the areas that came under their control. Due to the continued influx of recruits driven by the regime’s aggression and the general assumption that the regime would fall within a reasonable amount of time, it was not considered necessary to invest in the development of long-term policies for political mobilization, recruitment or governance within the rebel-held territories. But in the course of the armed conflict, the unified call for the toppling of the regime developed into an ideologically divided opposition, partly pushed by the fast proliferation of extremist groups.

It is worth noting that the armed resistance in Syria has been predominantly Sunni from its onset, which is a direct effect of the regime’s sectarian security strategy in response to the protests. From the beginning of the revolution, the regime portrayed the protests as the prelude to a Sunni armed uprising, thereby buying in the support of minority groups who tied their destiny to the regime’s survival (Hokayem 2013, pp. 47-53). Add to this the financial support primarily coming from (Sunni) Gulf countries and it is unsurprising that Sunni religious ideologies were the first to become mixed into the revolutionary discourse. In the beginning of the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood played an important role in this. Having been banned from Syria since 1980, Syrian members of the Brotherhood organized themselves in exile. These extended transnational networks proved crucial to the quick mobilization of political and military capital when the revolution developed into an armed struggle. A network of clerics in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates who were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and supportive of the Syrian revolution channeled their funds through their Syrian members. This placed figures with access to these networks in a strong position to develop their armed groups and created space for Islamist political agendas to gain prominence.

Islamism was not the only ideology that enabled links to political and military capital; Salafi Jihadism also connected rebel entrepreneurs to the resources required to build a military organization. By the end of 2011 the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda (AQI) was setting up cells in Syria, which led to the establishment of Jabhat Al Nusra in February 2012. Its aim to replace the Assad regime with a Sunni Islamic state in Syria and its Sharia law-based governance of territories under its control did not initially make the movement popular, but its consistent supply of funds and weapons did draw in fighters and helped the movement grow. Alongside the expansion of al-Nusra led by AQI, another Iraq based Al Qaeda-affiliate expanded its presence in Syria: The Islamic State of Iraq led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (Crisis Group 2014a, Vinatier 2014). Although the two AQI branches operated in coordination for a year or so, the groups eventually split in April 2013 when the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS – later to be re-named into the “Islamic State”) was announced and al-Nusra’s leadership declared its independence in response (International Crisis Group 2014a, pp. 5). ISIS’ advanced organizational capacity enabled it to capture large swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq which ultimately culminated into its declaration of a ‘caliphate’ in June 2014. ISIS currently controls most of Syria’s Deir Ezzor, Raqqa and Al-Hasaka governorates and parts of Aleppo province’s eastern countryside (Carter Center 2015a).

‘Moderation’ and access to resources
What started as an unpoliticized mass civil uprising has thus developed into a highly fragmented armed opposition to the Syrian regime, in which armed factions have come to gravitate around roughly three core strains of political positioning: secularism (marked by the desire to separate religion from the state), Islamism (which entails the ambition to establish an Islamic state in Syria, though not necessarily through violence) and Salafi Jihadism (which refers to the particular ideology of Al Qaeda, marked by imperialist Islamist ambitions and the persecution of disbelievers). For an armed group, positioning oneself into one of these categories is not only a matter of ideology, but also carries implications for the type of foreign investors that would be willing to provide financial support.

While Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the most important suppliers of weapons to the Syrian opposition throughout the conflict (Chivers and Smith 2013) the U.S. provided arms in secret before publicly committing to supporting the Syrian opposition through arms supplies in June 2013 (Carter Center 2014, pp.22-24). In addition to the organization of training in camps in Jordan and Qatar, U.S. support has included the limited delivery of RAK-12 multiple rocket launchers, the HJ-8 anti-tank guided missiles and BGM-71 TOW anti-tank guided missiles (Carter Center 2014, pp.22-24). Other Western countries have mainly limited their support to non-lethal aid such as communications equipment, night vision goggles, and bullet proof vests in addition to providing training to the rebels (Bayoumi and Bakr 2013). The U.K.’s contribution of non-lethal support has reportedly also included non-combat armored vehicles and body armor (BBC, 2013). Interviewees for this report observed major discrepancies between the support that is promised by Western donors and the actual support that reaches the armed groups. The discrepancy between the support that is received and the support that would be needed to build the required military strength to fight ISIS and the regime is even greater.

While Gulf funders have provided support to armed groups across the whole political spectrum, the lethal and non-lethal support from Western donors is strictly limited to groups that reject jihadism and promote Western values. To obtain this support armed groups go through an extensive vetting process managed by the MOC offices in Jordan and Turkey (Al Jazeera 2015, Crisis Group 2014a) Most of the groups that receive support from the MOC fight under the FSA flag. While the vetting process is mainly meant to exclude opposition leaders who have ties to ISIS, Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups (Al Jazeera 1015), the MOC has also largely excluded Islamist groups which indicates that obtaining Western support through the MOC requires a secular outlook. Yet, many interviewees pointed out that armed groups that base themselves on Islamist ideology differ greatly in the ways they concretize their ideology. Some groups adopt Islamism and envision an Islamic state in Syria, but also adhere to democratic values and respect minority rights. According to this definition, some argue that groups such as Jesh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which control significant territory in Syria, could be considered moderate in the current Syrian context. An affiliate to a secular armed group in Syria’s coastal region considered Ahrar al-Sham moderate and an affiliate to an FSA unit in Aleppo even indicated he could see Ahrar Al-Sham becoming part of the FSA in the future. Yet, a retired FSA military officer cautioned to say that the movement’s signaling of a more moderate stance does not correspond to the discourse among their fighters. Even with regards to Jabhat al-Nusra, some argue that their profile and practices vary from area to area and that they could be considered moderate in some areas. The recent statement from al-Nusra’s leader Abu Mohamed al-Golani that the movement does not have jihadi ambitions beyond Syria and is committed to the protection of Syrian minorities also indicates a move towards a more moderate stance. Yet, most interviewees placed the movement squarely in the extremist block, referring to their repressive policies towards secular activists and their clashes with FSA units. However, Turkey openly admits to supporting Ahrar al-Sham, which it considers moderate, and has recently joined hands with Saudi Arabia in providing support the Jesh al-Fatah coalition, of which al-Nusra also forms part (Sengupta 2015). While the label “moderate” is thus reserved for secular groups from the perspective of Western donors, the support provided by Western donors is becoming increasingly irrelevant to the overall picture of the armed opposition. Moderate Islamist groups are currently best positioned to attract the required funding and build the organizational capacity to pose an alternative for ISIS as well as the regime.

Moderation and realities on the ground
While a secularist agenda opens channels to Western support, articulating Western values and cooperating with the West has become increasingly unpopular among potential Syrian recruits as the West has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many Syrians by not intervening against the regime despite the use of chemical weapons against civilians. Especially now that such an intervention is taking place against ISIS, skepsis towards the West has become even more prevalent. Meanwhile, the inability to create a unified structure, incidents of corruption and periods of ineffectiveness among various FSA-associated units have weakened the reputation of the FSA-label on the ground, especially in the northern parts of Syria. At the same time, ISIS, al-Nusra and moderate Islamist groups have made significant advances due to more steady supplies of weapons and stronger organizational capacities, accomplished with the support of funders in the Gulf and Turkey. ISIS and al-Nusra not only pay salaries to their fighters, but also provide humanitarian aid to the soldiers’ families. For the purpose of gaining legitimacy among the Syrian population, then, it is more strategic for armed groups to distance themselves from the ‘moderate’ label and profile their Islamic identity more prominently. Jesh al-Mujahedeen, an umbrella movement of armed factions active in Aleppo province, is an example of a coalition that was successful due to combining an Islamic profile with moderate practices and includes brigades that have their origins in relatively secular FSA-units.

In the Syrian context, where any form of ideological discussion or political life was repressed during the decades of Bath-rule, it is difficult to gauge how much popular support the three main ideological positions – secular, (moderate) Islamist and jihadi-Salafism – actually have. This lack of political awareness and exposure to ideological debate was also put forward by one interviewee as an important explanation for the attraction that ISIS’ ideology has for Syrian young men. One also needs to take into account the highly professional propaganda employed by these groups, especially ISIS, of which rival groups do not possess the resources to compete with. One FSA affiliate from Aleppo commented on the defection of FSA soldiers to ISIS that “half of them did so for the salaries […] while the other half joined [ISIS] for their ideology.” But these numbers cannot be taken as absolute and both motivations have to be seen within the militarized Syrian context within which ideologies are being developed. The war has gravely affected economic activity and employment opportunities have depleted while prices have been driven up. Joining an (extremist) armed group that provides economic support has to be partially understood in respect to these dire economic realities. In addition, many fighters have been affected by their experiences of the war and have radicalized in response to their daily exposure to extreme violence and the losses inflicted on their comrades and families. These experiences combined with the lack of strong secular groups that provide an alternative, have also driven people into the ranks of extremist groups. Whether they would also support the ideologies of these groups during peace time is difficult to assess.

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