As President Bashar al-Assad's forces disintegrate, the Syrian civil war is devolving into a battle between Sunni rebel groups and Alawite-dominated militias fighting in support of the old regime. This may increase the rebels' chances of victory, but it also means that the work to rebuild Syria after Assad falls will be even more challenging.
Although most discussions of Syria's armed revolt center on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), this body was, from the outset, never anything more than a franchise of loosely knit armed groups. FSA commanders captured headlines in late September when they announced they would move their command headquarters from the Turkish town of Antakya back into Syria. This move, however, is unlikely to have much of an impact: The high-ranking Syrian defectors who fled to Turkey have been unable to create an effective command structure and have too little credibility with the rank and file of the rebel movement, which is still mainly composed of civilians, to influence the revolt one way or another.
I spent most of August traveling around Turkey with my wife, pro-democracy activist Khawla Yusuf, to try to understand the dynamics that drive these rebel groups. We moved between the cities of Istanbul, Antakya, and Ankara to meet with activists and important rebel leaders who operate inside Syria. We had been in touch with most of these figures for months prior to the trip, and my wife had previously undertaken a number of trips to Turkey to meet them. Since the beginning of the revolution in March 2011, I have also tracked the conflict through the Syrian Revolution Digest, a daily blog detailing emerging trends in the country.
What we learned confirmed our view that the FSA and its Antakya-based officers have long found themselves playing c as new realities unfold on the ground. The rebel movement's real leaders are ordinary men from mostly rural backgrounds -- all Sunni Arabs, often poorly educated, but extremely dedicated to the cause. Most had previously been known and respected in their local areas as successful traders, farmers, or, on occasion, preachers. But their own personal piety notwithstanding, few are actually committed Islamists.
One of the main rebel leaders at this stage is Jamal Maarouf, more commonly known as Abu Khalid, the founder of Syria's Martyrs Brigades, a rebel group that now fields around 45,000 fighters. Abu Khalid's troops in his home base of Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountainous area in the northern province of Idlib, are likely around 10,000 to 12,000 men -- the rest of his fighting force agreed to join his ranks after developing a certain rapport with him over the past few months. A pious man and husband to three women -- polygamy is pretty common in rural areas throughout Syria -- Abu Khalid stands for traditional values, a mixture of Islam and rural mores, rather than political ideology. He does not advocate the establishment of an Islamic state, is wary of Salafi groups, and hates the Muslim Brotherhood. In operational matters, however, he cooperates with them all. It's this pragmatic streak that distinguishes most rebel leaders.