Of an estimated 100,000 people involved in hostilities against the Assad regime, only several hundred seek to turn Syria into phase one of a global Islamic caliphate, according to Syrian social media and contacts on the ground. On the other hand, several thousand adhere to a moderate-Islamist ideology similar to that of the Muslim Brotherhood. This shows that the vast majority of those fighting Assad did not enter the conflict to promote a particular stream of political Islam, but rather to defend their neighborhoods from Assad’s military.
After decades of secular rule, the majority of the Syrian civil and armed opposition still seeks a relatively civil state under some influence of Islamic sharia law. Extremist Salafism and other ultra-conservative trends known for religious intolerance and anti-Western sentiment are limited to a minority of the population in comparison to other states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, jihadists are only a fraction of the foreign fighters streaming into Syria to support the rebels. Many moderate Islamist and secular fighters continue to join rebel ranks with pan-Arab motivations brought about by the Arab Spring. Expatriate Syrians are also returning home to fight.
Unfortunately, the lack of Western intervention is contributing to the rise of Islamism and jihadism among the opposition. And it’s fueling feelings of abandonment by the local population.
Across Syria, many moderate rebel militias are growing beards and taking on other Islamist features in order to compete for funds donated by jihadists and their supporters in the Persian Gulf. The growing strength and capability of well-funded jihadist militias has forced prominent commanders in the opposition Free Syrian Army to vie for their cooperation by sliding into religious conservatism. How genuine the shift is remains to be seen.