Fighters of the Martyrs Brigades in Idlib Province
Writing for Foreign Policy about his observations inside Syria in August, Ammar Abdulhamid writes about different factions within the insurgency. His article, when read in connection with Monday's story (see separate EA feature) that Qatar and Turkey are holding up arms supplies until the insurgents "unite", also points to another division --- between Saudi Arabia's selection of groups to back and those assisted by Qatar, Turkey, and presumably the US and European countries:
One of the main rebel leaders at this stage is Jamal Maarouf, more commonly known as Abu Khalid, the founder of Syria's Martyrs Brigades, a rebel group that now fields around 45,000 fighters. Abu Khalid's troops in his home base of Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountainous area in the northern province of Idlib, are likely around 10,000 to 12,000 men --- the rest of his fighting force agreed to join his ranks after developing a certain rapport with him over the past few months. A pious man and husband to three women -- polygamy is pretty common in rural areas throughout Syria --- Abu Khalid stands for traditional values, a mixture of Islam and rural mores, rather than political ideology. He does not advocate the establishment of an Islamic state, is wary of Salafi groups, and hates the Muslim Brotherhood. In operational matters, however, he cooperates with them all. It's this pragmatic streak that distinguishes most rebel leaders.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Abu Khalid's chief rival in Jabal al-Zawiya is Ahmad Abu Issa, founder of the Suqur al-Sham ("The Falcons of Syria") Brigades, a hard-core Islamist group. A Salafi preacher, Abu Issa calls openly for the establishment of an Islamic state. He recently co-founded the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, an umbrella organization joining many Salafi rebel groups in the country.
Islamist groups like Abu Issa's Islamic Front and the Muslim Brotherhood have a number of advantages over their pragmatist --- one shouldn't say secular --- counterparts. They are supported by the governments of Turkey and Qatar, and they tend to play the media more effectively than others. They have also attempted to monopolize the supply channels for weapons and other assistance in order to buy rebel loyalties and marginalize their opponents. The Brotherhood is one of the Islamic Front's primary backers, but not its only one. Independent Salafi entrepreneurs from Kuwait and other parts of the Persian Gulf are also backing different groups, making it harder for the Brotherhood to impose its vision and agenda on the rest.
Pragmatists like Abu Khalid used to rely on their own resources and support from local communities, but are now receiving some funding from Saudi sources as well. Saudi authorities have historically had deep differences with the Muslim Brotherhood --- they look with gloom and dismay on its rise to power in Tunisia and Egypt --- and are uncomfortable with the group's attempt to control the Syrian rebellion as well as its cozy relations with their rivals in Qatar.
The result is a deepening divide between Islamists and pragmatists. And there are even splits within the Islamist camp: The Salafists are far more traditional and populist than members of the Brotherhood, who often come across to ordinary Syrians as too Westernized and elitist.