Radical Islamists are overtaking the moderate opposition in Syria, and al Qaeda affiliated groups are on the rise, supported by the Gulf states. But how dangerous are the so-called "jihadists"?
The resistance in Syria is changing its face. In many regions, Islamist hardliners are now pushing the secular and moderate rebels aside. According to a new study by defense intelligence analysis organization Jane's, almost half of the rebel fighters in Syria, of which there are around 100,000, are now Islamists of one kind or another. Around 10,000 of them are jihadists, the study said, who are prepared to continue their struggle across Syria's borders.
But the situation in the war-torn country is complicated. Michael Stephens, Syria specialist at British think tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), said all figures concerning the size of opposition groups should be considered with care. In any case, it is difficult to determine exactly what the ideological affiliations individual fighters or units might adhere to. Though Islamists and jihadists all have a generally religious ideology, they could have differing aims and structures, he added. "Probably only 2,000 to 3,000 are real extremists that we have to worry about," he told DW.
Jihadists want a new caliphate
Members of the global organization "Holy War" are considered particularly radical. They do not simply want to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. Their aims - unlike those of many Islamists - reach far beyond Syria. They want to make the country part of a large theocracy extending across the Middle East. Many volunteers have come from other Arab states, as well as from Europe and Asia, to take part in this struggle. "We know that a few hundred are from northern Europe," said Stephens. He said there are Islamist cells in northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, who help volunteers to get to the war zone via Turkey.
The most famous of the jihadist organization is the al-Nusra Front, which is thought to have close relations with the terrorist network al Qaeda. Some estimates say it has 5,000 armed fighters, but Stephens says that is an exaggeration. The RUSI expert adds that not all of al-Nusra's fighters are necessarily extremists - some he says, have simply joined the group because it is better organized and less corrupt than some secular organizations.
But the Front is thought to be behind a number of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. On top of this, "The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant," an umbrella organization for a number of smaller Islamist groups, has gained more influence. It is also considered an affiliate of al Qaeda.
The various jihadist groups are often able to count on the same sponsor in various rich Arab Gulf states, says Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Center at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
And yet while these groups all have their own structures, they share a desire to replace a secular state with a theocratic one. In areas of Syria under their control, they have already given the inhabitants a taste of what that means. Militia commanders in those areas have set themselves up as judges and ordered hands to be hacked off and executions carried out, Salem says. Women, meanwhile, are oppressed - even if not as harshly as under the Taliban in Afghanistan. Non-Muslims face violence. "That is certainly not the type of Islam that the Muslims in the towns and other places are used to and accept," he said.
Criticism of Western hesitation
But without massive help from abroad, the Syrians will not be able to get rid of the jihadist, according to Salem. That is why he supports delivering weapons and training to secularist resistance fighters like the Free Syrian Army. He says that Western hesitation to arm the moderate rebels against Damascus is dangerous. "This will give a boost to the jihadists, because they will tell their guys in the Free Syria Army, 'Look, your friends don't help you.'"
The extremists, meanwhile, obviously have a lot of money and weapons from private or even state sources in the Gulf states. If that does not change, their influence will grow, says Salem.
The shifting of power within the opposition ranks could also soon change the West's attitude to the conflict. Until now, the US has only threatened air strikes against the Assad regime. But if the jihadists become more powerful and end up threatening Western interests, Salem thinks US attacks on these groups could also be possible.
He adds that Washington and the Iraqi government are already negotiating over a stationing US drones in Iraq, which are meant to support Baghdad in their fight against al Qaeda fighters in their own country. "I think it is possible that the US, with Iraq, and with the Syrian opposition, could eventually develop a policy to go after some of these jihadist groups," he said.