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Q&A: Who are Syria's rebels?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 15 Mar 2013 03:00 PM
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LONDON (AlertNet) – Dozens of armed groups have sprung up in Syria, but who are they and what are their objectives? And how are they linked to the political opposition coalition in exile, now recognised by many countries as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people?

AlertNet asked Syria expert, Christopher Phillips, associate fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, to shed some light on the groups, which vary in size from a few hundred to several thousand fighters.  

1. How were Syria’s rebel groups set up? 

Areas where President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were attacking them, people needed to come together to fight back. So early on the brigades were often based around Homs – where there were a lot of attacks – and more recently they’ve been based around Aleppo and Idlib.  

Most of the rebels seem to have started on a local base … very few have been able to gain a national appeal. 

2. How are they funded? 

They are getting a lot of funding either from wealthy Syrians within Syria, but more from wealthy expatriates often living in the Gulf. And we know that some money is coming from private citizens from those countries – in addition to Syrian (expatriates).  

We’re not sure whether or not Saudi Arabia and Qatar and other states have been sending funds themselves. When I was in southern Turkey in the summer (of 2012) I met a lot of Syrians and Turks who swore absolutely blind that the weapons and the money are coming direct from the Saudi and Qatari governments, but that’s something they (the governments) officially denied.  

The key point is that we’ve seen in the past that it’s possible for Saudi Arabia and Qatar to stop private (individuals) funding (the rebels) if they want to, and they’re not doing that. And I think that must be seen as tacit support. 

3. What do the rebel groups look like now? 

There are groups fighting with different purposes. They have the same first step – defeating Assad. Their second step after that’s achieved is more varying. The big question is whether or not they can maintain that shared aim … or are you going to see (them) fighting one another?  

One of the complaints that a lot of people are saying on the ground in Aleppo and other places is that the supposedly moderate militia – ie the non ultra Islamists – are really run by proto warlords, people who started off fighting the good fight but in their need to pay their militiamen, to support themselves, started to pursue economic activities.  

You’ve heard a lot of stories of factories in northern Syria being dismantled and sold off to Turkish businessmen, a lot of government facilities being raided not for weapons – as originally thought – but for their material goods and selling them off on the black market.  

That does suggest that those groups are thinking about enriching themselves off the back of this conflict. And that has led to a lot of resentment towards those groups and swelled some of the support for the jihadists, who are seen as purer and not motivated by material concerns, and actually are there to fight Assad. 

4. How powerful are the extremist Islamist groups? 

It’s very difficult to quantify. They are perceived by Syrians at the moment as very powerful.

Power is not necessarily a reflection of the number of supporters and fighters they have. One of the most powerful groups, Jabhat al-Nusra – quite a radical Islamist, al Qaeda-esque group – by all accounts doesn’t have that many fighters but the fighters it has are very well trained and very well armed. 

I would have traditionally said that Syrians are quite anti-extremism, so even if Jabhat al-Nusra play a significant role in toppling Assad, in any kind of elections or power struggle afterwards, the majority of the population would reject that kind of approach.  

The question is whether the traumas of the civil war have pushed people towards a more radical approach. 

5. What links do the rebel armed groups have with the political opposition? 

When we talk about the armed rebels we are not talking about a single united group at all. It is a patchwork of different groups.  

Broadly speaking there have been multiple attempts by the (political) opposition in exile – first the Syrian National Council and now the Syrian National Coalition – with strong encouragement from the West, to try to gain the sworn loyalty of a substantial mass of the rebel groups.  

A lot of it has been about control of finances … the distribution of weapons and funds (by the Syrian National Coalition and previously the Syrian National Council) … (in) a specific attempt to try to bind together the rebels on the ground with the politicians in exile. 

The reality, however, is that the real influence of these exiles is limited and it’s a question of if the rebels like the message they’re selling.

6. What are the future prospects for Syria? 

It’s a huge mess. It’s incredibly difficult to see how anyone will be able to reconstruct this shattered society and shattered state.  

And unfortunately what looks like might happen is that either another dictatorial figure will emerge and say look, the only way we can stay together as a state is by embracing some kind of neo-authoritarianism, or alternatively you have an open political system which is dominated by violent sectarianism and massive disputes.

Those seem to be the two options available at the moment.

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