The jihadist phenomenon in Syria, however, is not only exaggerated, but reversible – at least for now. Indeed, atrocities by the Syrian opposition have been committed by moderate and extremist rebel factions alike. What’s important in the arm-or-not-arm discussion is how the opposition as a whole visualizes the future of Syria.
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.