Days after U.S. officials confirmed that the CIA is arming the Syrian opposition, a British consulting firm has released a study claiming that nearly half of all Syrian rebels now fight for hardcore jihadist or Islamist principles.
The Telegraph received an advance copy of defense consultancy IHS Jane’s new report, which is due to be published later this week. It estimates that around 100,000 fighters are currently battling the Assad regime in Syria, but that they have splintered into as many as 1,000 separate factions.
One in ten rebels, including thousands of foreigners, have aligned themselves with powerful international terrorist groups, most linked directly to al-Qaida.
Around 30,000 to 35,000 more agree with that worldview, but focus largely on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Syria instead of actively seeking ways to spread the conflict beyond its borders.
A further 30,000 rebels are labelled “moderate” Islamists by IHS Jane’s, meaning they belong to groups that have at least some kind of an Islamic character.
That means that fewer than three in ten fighters identify with groups espousing secular nationalism, including the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
Move past the numbers and the outlook becomes more grim. Hardline Islamist rebels are among the best-trained and equipped, having taken over most economically-productive enterprises in the rebel-held north. This has helped them win the loyalty of long-suffering civilians in these areas, trading food and supplies for the hearts and minds of thousands of Syrians.
Jihadists have also targeted and attacked more moderate rebel factions, particularly in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. A new military offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in eastern Aleppo particularly singled out two moderate rebel groups, accusing them of “blatantly attack[ing] the Islamic state.”
“The insurgency is now dominated by groups with at least an Islamist viewpoint on the conflict,” said Charles Lister, author of the study. “The idea that it is mostly secular groups leading the opposition is just not borne out.”
While the State Department has provided non-lethal assistance to various rebel factions for months, The Washington Post reports that weapons shipments administered by the CIA only began arriving in Syria last week, after last month’s devastating chemical weapons attack against rebel-held areas in Damascus.
U.S. officials insist that the weapons and equipment will enhance the cohesion of rebel groups and will be provided only to secular groups with shared values. “We vet individuals who are getting our assistance to make sure they are not affiliate with terror organizations,” said Mark Ward, a senior State Department advisor on Syria assistance.
Still, the United States remains hesitant to provide the powerful anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons desperately needed by the rebels, limiting aid to light weaponry and other easily-tracked munitions.
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