If the Rebels Win the Syrian Civil War, They Have Islamists to Thank

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The debate over Syria has shifted over the past few days away from the eminent possibility of a US military strike, to more of a diplomatic tour de force. The US and Russia are holding high level talks about the Russian plan to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control. The Russians are talking to the Syrian government about it. Washington is consulting its allies, but there's one group with a lot at stake in these talks that no official seems to be talking to–the rebels in Syria who are fighting the Assad government. There are many factions from the relatively moderate Free Syrian Army to the various Islamist groups, some affiliated with al-Qaeda. Martin Chulov is The Guardian newspaper's overseas correspondent. He's in Beirut now, but recently returned from rebel-held areas in the north of Syria. I asked him earlier how the influx of foreign fighters into Syria has affected the rebellion.

Martin Chulov: Well, that was one of the reasons that I did go back to the North. We hadn't been for a couple of months, primarily because it has become dangerous. The foreign fighters that you speak of are taking prominence in some parts of the north of the country. They are trying to assert their will to impose themselves in the communities that reluctantly host them. The journey into Aleppo was very different to the other journeys I've taken before. I've traveled there perhaps a dozen times in the last year, and this was the very first time that we could see a Jihadist presence. There were al-Qaeda flags flying above some buildings, banners painted outside schoolhouses and other civic buildings, and there were extremists or Jihadists at I guess quite regular places along the road, including roadhouses, restaurants and just generally strolling about town. Now, that doesn't mean that the cohort of the opposition is now extremists, but it does mean that a substantial minority among them are certainly trying to impose their will and transform the nature of this revolution from one that is fighting to reorientate a nation state, to one that becomes a center stage for a global jihad. And that is very, very different to the original values of the revolution.

Werman: And you say that's a minority among the rebels. Are we talking less than 25%, because some Syrian Americans that I've met here who support Assad say it's as high as 50%.

Chulov: It's really hard to quantify, but I think I wouldn't go as high as 50%, and I think 20% to 25% is probably closer. And among those assuring that that number is close to the mark, among them are people that are not necessarily rusted onto a al-Qaeda ideology. There are people that are fighting alongside these guys who do think that they are the only ones who can actually get this war finished, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the mainstream opposition, which is better organized than it was, it certainly doesn't mean that they have fallen by the wayside just yet.

Werman: So that's kind of the disparate makeup of the rebels right now. How do Syria's rebel groups see this decision to back away from a military strike right now?

Chulov: Well, they're certainly split right down the middle right now. The Jihadists were convinced that the talk of a strike against the Assad regime a punitive measure because of the chemical attack of August 21, was actually not going to be under the regime. It was a ruse to come after them. A lot of these people had fought the Americans in Iraq and elsewhere, and they were very aware of the strength of Americans and their power and the precision of their weaponry, so they had evacuated their bases. A lot of their senior figures have scattered to farmhouses and factories around the countryside. There are big guns that have been hidden. And in the last day or so they're still not believing that this, I guess this muted airstrike has been stood down for now, but they still think something is coming, so they are reasonably battle ready and looking toward the skies. On the other hand, the more mainstream groups were eagerly anticipating the Americans coming across the horizon, but they saw that as their opportunity to finally get some sort of tactical gain on the regime they were going to try and advance under American air cover. The last 48 hours has shattered that. They're trying to regroup, they're quite despondent and even despairing today, even saying that this is something that we shouldn't have ever trusted was going to happen in the first place…we're back to where we started, friendless, with everybody thinking that we're al-Qaeda just like the minority Jihadists among us.

Werman: Martin Chulov, The Guardian newspaper's Middle East correspondent, just back from the rebel-held areas in northern Syria, speaking with us from Beirut. Martin, thank you very much.

Chulov: You're welcome.