The "Islamist" military units fighting in the rural areas surrounding Aleppo and Idlib are not part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA is the largest armed faction among rebel groups, yet also the least coordinated. FSA officials say that while they collaborate with these Islamist units, they do not have any influence over these groups. Furthermore, many here are keen to keep the nature of these groups a secret, including details pertaining to their religious affiliation, their politics and their manpower.
After repeated questioning, an FSA commander in the Hama countryside stated: "Yes, there are non-Syrian fighters among our ranks in the Al-Nusra Front, as well as in the Free Syria brigade. However, these non-Syrians represent a small percentage of fighters in these brigades, less than 20% of the former and 5% of the latter."
Fighters in the rural areas surrounding Aleppo did not want to talk about these people, merely saying that now was the time to fight against the regime. Anyone who visits the towns and villages surrounding Aleppo and Idlib will note that these areas are not prime breeding group for extremist Islamist groups. The people here are religiously moderate. Western and Arab journalists who are not fasting for the holy month of Ramadan will encounter little difficulty here. Syrian women are not subject to discrimination or separation from male society. They wear a headscarf, but not in a conservative fashion. There are no women who wear a full face veil, except those doing interviews with journalists who wear the veil to hide their identity.
The search for non-Syrian fighters is not easy. In Saraqib — a town in the countryside of Idlib — an official from the Al-Nusra Front refused to meet with us. However, there were a number of fighters standing outside of his office who told us that they were Libyans, and also noted that their brigade consisted of some Jordanians and Saudis. Hasan Abdel Rizak, a military commander from Tarb — a town in the Aleppo countryside — refused to speak about Islamist militant units, preferring to speak about Syrian fighters.
Syrians here are very bitter about the international media's focus on non-Syrian fighters within these armed Islamist units. The Free Syria brigade, which took control of the Bab al-Hawa crossing along the Syrian-Turkish border, is a topic of strong criticism in these rural towns.
Rumors have spread among normal citizens claiming that individuals within these groups are trying to lead the revolution and exploit the war. Local residents say that the groups' audacity in taking control of the border crossing was merely a show of strength. The Free Syria brigade would have preferred that the border crossing be taken from the Turkish side, to facilitate the entrance of journalists. On the other hand, the Farouk brigade would rather have maintained their position on the Syrian side, allowing them to protect it from likely attacks by the regime army aimed at regaining control of the crossing.
Islamists are certainly a minority among the Syrian fighters, however they are the most organized and thus the most likely to be covered by media outlets. For example, when the electricity is cut, only the Islamists have satellite browsers to connect to the Internet. Furthermore, while visiting various Islamist installments, we noticed that they were in possession of gas canisters, a commodity that has been hard to come by in Aleppo and Idlib since the Syrian regime stopped sending gas the these regions.
Islamists are also the only ones who receive regular salaries for fighting in these rebel units. When we asked Ayman, a fighter from the town of Dana in the Aleppo governorate, about the source of his income, he said that he was a full-time fighter in the Free Syria brigade and received a monthly salary. On the other hand, Hasan Abdul Rizak, the leader of Mustafa Abdul Rizak's brigade in Atarab — a brigade under the direct control of the FSA and its commander, Riad al-Asaad — said that since the fighting began nearly a year ago his fighters have received only a single payment from the Syrian National Council (SNC).
This disparity in resources between Islamists and non-Islamists has led to sensitivities and conflicts between different militant groups. Abu Zayd, an official in the Free Syria brigade, responded to a question posed by Al-Hayat as to whether or not Islamist groups received more money in comparison to other militant groups. He stated: "Everyone is receiving [foreign] support, however we [Islamists] receive all of the aid that is sent to us, while the aid sent to the other groups stops in Istanbul and never reaches Syria."
In reference to the identity of those that send aid to the Free Syria brigade, he said: "They are Syrian expatriates living in the Gulf in addition to Arab and international charities." He refused to reveal the identity of these charities. According to Abu Zayd, his brigades purchase arms though general weapons dealers.
The Al-Nusra Front, which many Syrians say is a group with close ties to al-Qaeda, has an elite character and is tightly closed to the general public. This group sets up military installments in cities and villages alongside FSA headquarters and groups from the Free Syria brigade. It does not have many members, and social and political sensitivities regarding the group are rising. However, Syrians that are new to the political and military scene do not possess the proper language to curb these tensions. Furthermore, the terrifying absence of the SNC and other foreign opposition bodies does not help when dealing with a confrontation of this kind.
In the context of examining Islamist groups involved in the Syrian revolution, it is necessary to point out that the Muslim Brotherhood has no presence in the midst of all this clamor.