Almost half of Syrian rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, according to a new report by London intelligence and defense consultancy IHS Janes.
On Sunday, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper cited the report as putting the number of opposition forces at 100,000, broken up into around 1,000 groups.
The study said that around 10,000 fighters were jihadists like those groups linked to al- Qaida, including foreign fighters; 30,000- 35,000 were hardline Islamists whose ideology overlapped with the jihadists’, but were specifically focused on the Syrian war rather than global jihad; and another 30,000 fighters had an Islamic character – including the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups – leaving a small group of non-Islamist fighters fighting for more nationalistic goals.
Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post that the IHS Janes report confirmed previous opinions that the jihadists were a small minority even though they had a significant impact in some areas of the war. Zisser said he believed that a total number of 65,000 Islamist fighters focusing on Syria seemed a bit high, but he admitted he did not have any hard numbers to counter the report’s findings.
“In any case, when we are talking about Syrians, we have to remember that things are fluid – one day a person could be part of a certain group, and the next day, another,” he said, calling the report “interesting and indicative of radicalization as time goes by.”
Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who closely follows jihadist groups, told the Post that it was “difficult to truly know how many fighters there are among the different groups and ideologies.”
He added that the numbers were not necessarily the most relevant factor.
“What is important is understanding who is the most effective and best on the battlefield,” he said. “In that case, it is true that the best fighters on the battlefield are Islamists, Salafis, and al-Qaida-linked jihadis.”
Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and senior research fellow at the GLORIA Center who has traveled widely in Syria, described Charles Lister, the author of the study, as “one of the most serious analysts working in this area,” and said the report “offers the latest confirmation that the armed Syrian rebels consist of a clear majority of Sunni Islamists.”
Despite the difficulty of obtaining precise figures, he told the Post, “this latest report confirms the picture of an insurgency essentially divided into three parts: al-Qaida-linked groups, Salafi groups not linked to al-Qaida, and Muslim Brotherhood or more ‘moderate’ Islamist forces.”
This is in sharp contrast to some of the recent and now discredited claims, he said.
He was apparently referring to the recent controversy over a Wall Street Journal article from a few weeks ago by Elizabeth O’Bagy – an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War – which argued that Islamic radicals were not dominating the rebel forces.
O’Bagy was fired this month from her job at the institute for lying about having a PhD.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Senator John McCain have cited O’Bagy’s article, which stated that “moderate opposition groups make up the majority of actual fighting forces.”
According to an interview with The Daily Caller website, she admitted that she was also serving as a paid adviser to a pro-rebel lobby group in the US: the Syrian Emergency Task Force, for which she is the political director.
On Monday, meanwhile, UN human rights investigators said that hardline Syrian rebels and foreign fighters invoking jihad, or holy war, had stepped up killings, executions and other abuses in the north since July.
There are now a number of brigades made up entirely of non-Syrians, the investigators continued, underlining how the two and- a-half-year-old conflict has pulled in neighboring countries and widened sectarian fault lines across the region.
The UN investigators had previously said that gunmen from more than 10 countries, including Afghanistan and Russia’s Chechnya region, as well as al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra forces, were backing Syria’s mostly Sunni rebels.
“Now it is probably more. The point is that these extreme elements have their own agenda and certainly not a democratic agenda that they are seeking to impose,” investigator Vitit Muntarbhorn told Reuters.
“That is a major worry from our side of the fence.”
Paulo Pinheiro, the head of the investigation, told the UN Human Rights Council that one of the most active foreign forces was Al Muhajireen – a group whose name means “the emigrants.”
Pinheiro, reporting on suspected war crimes by both sides since July 15, said President Bashar Assad’s government had also continued a relentless campaign of air bombardment and artillery shelling across the country.
He said his team had documented attacks by government forces in 12 of Syria’s 14 provinces in the past two months, with shelling particularly intense in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.
An incendiary bomb dropped from a government warplane on a school in the Aleppo countryside killed at least eight students on August 26, and 50 more suffered horrific burns over up to 80 percent of their bodies, he said, citing survivor accounts.
Syria’s Ambassador Faysal Hamoui Khabbaz rejected the investigators’ report on Monday and accused the inquiry commission of “continuing politicizing and exaggeration.”
He denied the inquiry’s earlier charge that the government had bombed hospitals, adding, “There is no country that would destroy its own infrastructure.”
But Western diplomats called for perpetrators to face criminal justice for violations committed during the civil war.
“We condemn the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime which, in accordance with your reporting, amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court,” said EU Ambassador Mariangela Zappia in a speech.
Pinheiro said that his team was still investigating the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, and awaited a separate report that UN inspectors, led by Ake Sellstrom, were to issue later in the day.
“The use of chemical weapons is a war crime. There’s no dispute about that,” he told a news conference.