- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Syrian opposition isn’t fighting just a brutal Iranian-backed regime accused of killing civilians with chemical weapons; it’s also battling within itself.

Moderate Syrian rebel groups are locked in combat with al Qaeda-linked extremists who have joined the opposition against Bashar Assad’s regime and are fighting other rivals to win the hearts and minds of villagers as they try to gain support in the countryside.

“Those different groups with those competing agendas are starting to fight one another. They’re fighting for control over territory. They’re fighting for control over people. They’re fighting for control over wealth. They’re fighting to fight their way,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, a former CIA official who now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Moderate rebels began to realize the threat from al Qaeda-backed insurgents after one of those groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, killed a leader of the Free Syrian Army, the opposition umbrella group led by Syrian army defectors, according to several organizations in Washington that maintain contact between Syrian rebels and the U.S. government.

Syria’s moderate rebels refer to this realization of the danger posed by the Islamists as the “sahwa,” or awakening.

“It was a watershed moment. After that, moderate rebels [realized that] al Qaeda in Syria is a threat almost on par with the Syrian regime,” said Oubai Shahbandar, vice president for Middle East operations for the Syrian Support Group, which is charged with distributing U.S. aid to rebels.

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Al Qaeda gains strength

The al Qaeda affiliates are gaining strength in the 2-year-old war against Mr. Assad. Thanks to funding and weapons from wealthy Persian Gulf states, the Islamists are the most organized, equipped and effective fighters of the opposition groups, which consist of a loose confederation of hundreds of militias.

Al Qaeda also is gaining support by providing villages with health care, blankets, fuel, wheat and other supplies captured from regime stores. They also have implemented courts under Shariah, or Islamic, law, which some villagers welcome as a sense of order amid the chaos of the civil war, which has cost an estimated 100,000 lives.

Moderate rebel groups under the Free Syrian Army are distributing aid and providing services through local government councils that have sprung up in places they control. However, those efforts lack sufficient funds and support to compete with al Qaeda, said Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Washington-based nonprofit Syrian Emergency Task Force, who travels frequently to Syria to support these councils.

He said the United States should realize that it has an opportunity to do more to help the moderate rebels in their campaign to spread their influence in the countryside.

“There’s huge room to empower the good guys and marginalize the bad guys all while fighting a very cunning regime,” said Mr. Moustafa, a former congressional aide to Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who served in the Senate. “The other two options are either warlords or religious extremists.”

Mr. Mouaz said more than 100 local civilian-run councils have sprung up at the town, village and provincial levels in areas controlled by the rebels. Their structures vary from place to place but are linked loosely with a partnership with local military units under the Free Syrian Army.

They consist of small teams of about 20 leaders who oversee education, finance, relief and aid distribution, infrastructure, human rights, public safety, media relations and judicial administration. They exist in Aleppo, the suburbs of Damascus, Idlib, northern Latakia, Hama and other areas controlled by moderate rebels.

The system would provide Syrians with an alternative to al Qaeda and could fill a void in government if the Syrian regime is toppled, Mr. Mouaz said. The United States has provided $117 million in communications and medical equipment to the opposition, as well as training to at least 1,500 leaders of these councils.

Doubts about ‘awakening’

However, he said, more needs to be done. For example, he said, the United States should channel all humanitarian aid through these councils to bolster their credibility against al Qaeda, as well as equip civilian police with uniforms and weapons, and support civil law and judicial systems.

“We must empower the emerging awakening against the transnational terrorist groups,” said Mr. Shahbandar, a former Defense Department official.

“Empowering moderate rebels is in America’s national security interests at a time when al Qaeda sees Syria as the front lines of an international terror campaign,” he said. “It’s still not too late.”

He likens the situation to the Sunni Awakening during the Iraq War in 2006, when moderate Sunnis began to reject al Qaeda extremists.

Although supporting these councils is a part of the U.S. policy in Syria, intelligence officials are skeptical about an “awakening” of moderate rebels. Pentagon officials doubt that any rebel groups would promote U.S. interests, even if Washington backed them.

Syria has about 1,000 armed rebel groups, 80 percent of which are under the Free Syrian Army umbrella, Mr. Mouaz said.

But with no end in sight to the civil war, supporting the local councils is the only prudent measure against al Qaeda extremists, advocates say.

“Right now, we still have a chance to support the right people in a situation that we simply can’t ignore,” said Mr. Mouaz, who recently met with high-ranking Pentagon officials.

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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