Backlash builds as Syria's jihadists wear out welcome

Islamists' hardline brand of radical Islam gets rebels and civilians increasingly offside

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 3:51am


In the early days of the Syrian uprising, when the rebels were desperate for assistance from any quarter, jihadist fighters were welcomed. But a spate of abuses is now fuelling a backlash.

"Out, out, out, the [Islamic] State [of Iraq and Syria] must get out," protesters shouted at a rally in the town of Manbij this week, referring to an al-Qaeda front.

The video of the rally is one of many showing how civilians and mainstream rebel fighters alike are turning against the more hardline Islamist factions.

The rebel forces seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad are disparate, but many espouse political Islam of one form or another.

There are two main al-Qaeda-linked factions, both with Iraqi origins, according to Washington - the al-Nusra Front, which has operational independence, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Numerous smaller groups, many of them composed almost exclusively of foreign fighters, are also operating on the ground.

We reject this oppressive brand of Islam … We are Muslims. You're just fakes

Unlike the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, which has received weapons from several Gulf Arab governments as well as promises of US arms, the jihadist groups rely on private donations.

But there are enough wealthy benefactors attracted to their fundamentalist vision to ensure a steady stream of weapons and volunteer fighters.

That has helped them become a fighting force out of proportion to their numbers, and they have captured several population centres. But their imposition of extreme Islam has alienated civilians.

In Raqa, the only provincial capital in rebel hands, the al-Nusra Front is accused of detaining dozens of men.

"My father has been held for a month by the Front. They think they're Islamic … I want my father to be free," weeps a little girl in one Raqa protest, footage of which was posted online.


"We reject this oppressive brand of Islam … We are Muslims. You're just fakes," a woman protester cried in another video from Raqa, demanding the release of the men held by Nusra.

Reports emerged on Wednesday that a Raqa-based activist who has documented the uprising against Assad since its early days has been detained by ISIS.

"The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria detained the media activist Mohammad Nour Matar on Tuesday evening outside its base … after he stood alongide a woman who tried to stage a sit-in," Matar's brother Amer said.

In Idlib province in the northwest, whose border with Turkey has allowed foreign jihadists to join the fighting in numbers, dozens of mainstream rebels were killed in a battle with ISIS last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fighting broke out after rebels protested against the detention by the jihadists of a 12-year-old boy accused of uttering a blasphemous phrase.

"We haven't seen many such battles, but it is clear the anger against the Islamic State and other jihadists is on the rise across Syria," observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.