By all accounts, Sunni Islamists are leading the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and are on track to become the paramount political force in Damascus after he's gone. The mainstream Syrian Muslim Brotherhood dominates the Syrian National Council, the opposition's primary political umbrella and diaspora fundraising arm, while more militant Salafi-jihadist groups are assuming a steadily greater role in fighting regime forces on the ground. Even the supposedly secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) is exhibiting an Islamist character, with one leading commander recently exhorting Syrians to "go for jihad" and "gain an afterlife and heaven." Many outside observers find the Islamist character of the revolt disconcerting, with some even counseling indirect U.S. military intervention as a means of suppressing it.
Unfortunately, there's not much the United States can do about it. Islamist political ascendancy is inevitable in a majority Sunni Muslim country brutalized for more than four decades by a secular minoritarian dictatorship. Moreover, enormous financial resources are pouring in from the Arab-Islamic world to promote explicitly Islamist resistance to Assad's Alawite-dominated, Iranian-backed regime. Providing "secular" rebels with additional money and arms won't reverse the effects.
Fortunately, while the Islamist surge will not be a picnic for the Syrian people, it has two important silver linings for U.S. interests.
For starters, the Assad regime would not be in the trouble it's in today were it not for the Islamists. Though the March 2011 uprising was initially broad-based, the Arab world's most sophisticated internal security apparatus easily pacified protesters outside of heavily Sunni areas. But the mixture of faith and politics proved impossible to contain: Since banning Muslims from attending prayers was politically unthinkable, mosques became the focal points of massive anti-government demonstrations that quickly overwhelmed the regime's capacity to clear the streets without bloodshed.
Islamists -- many of them hardened by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq -- are simply more effective fighters than their secular counterparts. Assad has had extraordinary difficulty countering tactics perfected by his former jihadist allies, particularly suicide bombings and roadside bombs. The Islamists' ability to shatter the calm even in high-security neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo is slowly stripping away the regime's outer layers of non-Alawite support. Militant Trotskyists just don't pack the same punch.