Who is fighting for what in Syria?

The Daily Telegraph reports: Opposition forces battling Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria now number around 100,000 fighters, but after more than two years of fighting they are fragmented into as many as 1,000 bands.

The new study by IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy, estimates there are around 10,000 jihadists – who would include foreign fighters – fighting for powerful factions linked to al-Qaeda..

Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hardline Islamists who share much of the outlook of the jihadists, but are focused purely on the Syrian war rather than a wider international struggle.

There are also at least a further 30,000 moderates belonging to groups that have an Islamic character, meaning only a small minority of the rebels are linked to secular or purely nationalist groups.

The stark assessment, to be published later this week, accords with the view of Western diplomats estimate that less than one third of the opposition forces are “palatable” to Britain, while American envoys put the figure even lower. [Continue reading…]

In a recent report for Foreign Policy, Charles Lister wrote about the confusion that arises in most Western media analysis and political discourse by the continuing insistence on a simplistic division of rebels into two camps: moderates and extremists. He wrote:

I have spoken with members of all groups mentioned in this article and as shocking as it may sound to some, the large majority of them seem, outwardly, to have what they perceive to be Syria’s best interests at the forefront of their minds, at least for now. However, the tactics and rhetoric employed by many are clearly unpalatable by most Western standards.

While it is incontrovertibly the case that jihadists (or "extremists") represent a minority of the total insurgent force, true genuine "moderates" — by Western standards of supporting the establishment of a non-religious, liberal state preferably founded on democratic principals — also do not represent a majority. The largest portion of insurgent fighters in Syria is in fact represented by "Islamists," some less socially and politically conservative than others. Crucially, this does not preclude them from being potentially valuable leaders of a future Syria or even as future friends of the West, but it is important that this crucial element of the opposition is included within the minds of today’s policymakers.

Domenico Quirico, an Italian war correspondent who was just released after being held hostage by rebels for the last five months, spoke bitterly about his experience and described Syria as “a country of evil”. But, BBC News reports:

Paradoxically, he said, “the only ones who treated us with humanity were those closest to al-Qaeda”, because they had an attitude towards prisoners – a code of conduct – that other captors lacked.

It’s ironic that the Bush-Cheney view of the world ended up being swallowed whole by so many opponents of Bush and Cheney. Progressives and Tea Party kooks seem to be of one mind in their reactions to anyone who gets labelled “extremist”.

The fact is, the opposition in Syria, is not fundamentally different from any other opposition movement. Opposition movements build their solidarity around the thing they are opposing. For instance, opponents of the war in Iraq covered the political spectrum, from far left to far right, liberal, conservative, and libertarian.

Why should a movement to topple a dictatorial regime be any different?

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