The Civil War in the Syrian Opposition: How Long Can the Free Syrian Army Hold Off Its Islamist Rivals?

Al-Boustani led an ill-fated “Islamic Emirate of Homs” that lasted only a few weeks. Apparently the locals did not appreciate having an “Emir” who kidnapped and murdered their people while claiming to wage jihad against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. And so in March 2012 a local brigade of the Free Syrian Army executed the Lebanese-born al-Boustani, amidst accusations that the jihadist was not only a traitor to the Syrian revolution but also, in fact, an agent of the Syrian regime.

The incident is part of a larger clash that has mostly gone overlooked in the Western media—namely, the struggle between Syria’s two main armed opposition groups, groups that represent two radically different visions for Syria’s future. In that way, it’s not enough to simply know—as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out—that Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with assistance from the CIA, are funneling arms and cash to certain Syrian rebel groups via intermediaries in Turkey. It’s also important to know that the other rebel groups—those with an Islamist political agenda—that the United States and its allies have decided not to support are distrusted by the Syrian people themselves. Indeed, Washington’s largely hands-off approach to the Syria crisis has so far been greatly assisted by the Syrian public’s broad rejection of the hardcore Islamist rebels. But there’s no telling how much longer America’s strategic interests and the Syrian people’s sympathies will remain in sync.

THE FACTION OF the Syrian opposition that has been the main recipient of foreign arms is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella organization headquartered in Turkey and encompassing upwards of a hundred semi-autonomous battalions of defected Syrian soldiers and armed civilians. Though many individual units and fighters loyal to the FSA adopt a conservative Islamic idiom and may express their struggle as “jihad,” the FSA central leadership espouses pluralist, nationalist, and even democratic ideals, reflecting its broad base of support in Syria, as well as the influence of its international sponsors.

Tyler Golson is an Arabic social media analyst with Concepts & Strategies, Inc.

The above article was published in tnr.com on June 25th, 2012 (8:05 p.m.).

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