(Photo: Wikipedia) (Reuters) – As the Syrian civil war got under way, a former electrician who calls himself Sheikh Omar built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Bashar al-Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, he said, here in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.
Omar’s group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries – hardline Islamists.
The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly.
The Islamists confiscated the brigade’s weapons, ammunition and cars, Omar said. “They considered this war loot. Maybe they think we are competitors,” he said. “We have no idea about their goals. What we have built in two years disappeared in a single day.”
The group was effectively marginalized in the struggle to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Around 100 fighters are all that remain of his force, Omar said.
It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.
The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated “terrorist” by the United States.
The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi’ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.
World powers fear weapons could reach hardline Islamist groups that wish to create an Islamic mini-state within a crescent of rebel-held territory from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert border with Iraq.
That prospect is also alarming for many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi’ites to tolerant Sunni Muslims, who are concerned that this alliance would try to impose Taliban-style rule.
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