Eighteen months into the Syrian uprising, the country's Sunni Arab insurgency is now fighting a largely sectarian war against a regime dominated by religious minorities, most notably the Alawite sect to which the Assad family belongs. While the exiled opposition movement in Turkey and elsewhere remains reasonably pluralistic, the armed insurgency that took off in mid-to-late 2011 has always been a Sunni Muslim Arab affair.
This climate of sectarian polarization has triggered a slow but certain "Islamization" of the armed movement. Ultraconservative Salafi-jihadis, in particular, have made rapid inroads among the rebels. They tend to organize in small, close-knit groups, but their ideological impact is visible across the rebel movement, with other factions increasingly adopting their religious discourse.
Even the most well-known insurgent alliance, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose umbrella term used by several inter-related insurgent networks, is hardly the secular movement it is portrayed as in the West, where it is represented by a small coterie of exiled military defectors. In Syria, the main body of FSA networks has come to resemble a Sunni sectarian movement, which is increasingly influenced by Islamist ideology. For example, when a group of Western-backed FSA commanders established a Joint Command recently, they were seen to represent the most "secular" element of the armed uprising. But virtually all of the participants were Sunni Arabs, and in a nasty slap to minority sensibilities, they invited as their guest of honor Adnan al-Arour, a Salafi preacher infamous for his incitement against non-Sunni religious groups.
The reasons for this shift towards overt sectarianism and Islamic radicalism are complex and interrelated. The war's sectarian polarization is a self-reinforcing process, which automatically brings religious distinctions to the fore. Fighters are naturally drawn to religion as a tool to cope with the strains of war -- there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes. Foreign funding is also a factor, with most major donors (including Salafi networks, Syrian expats, and the governments of Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) favoring Islamist rebels over more moderate groups. As the New York Times reported Monday, most of the weapons donated or financed by conservative Gulf Arab states have gone to hard-line Islamists of one stripe or another. Finally, the growing trickle of foreign fighters coming in through Turkey contributes not only resources and guerrilla know-how, but also an aggressive strain of religious radicalism.
Jihadis still make up a minority of the Syrian rebel movement and do not represent the opposition as a whole, but they punch far above their weight in terms of both military effectiveness and ideological influence. As such, they will play a role in the battle for Syria's future, though it remains to be seen just how large of a role that will be.
The following is a list of Syria's most significant jihadi and Islamist armed groups.
Here's your next big al-Qaida franchise. Jabhat al-Nusra emerged in January 2012 under the unwieldy name Jabhat al-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham min Mujahedi al-Sham fi Sahat al-Jihad or "The Front for Aid to the People of the Levant by the Mujahideen of the Levant on the Battlefields of the Jihad." It isn't the biggest jihadi group in Syria, but it is the most notorious, having skillfully employed urban terrorism to draw media attention.
U.S. intelligence has indicated that the group is a spinoff from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an al-Qaida faction, and while many Syrian opposition groups claim that Jabhat al-Nusra is a regime creation, the jihadi community has embraced it with open arms. It is supported by numerous Salafi-jihadi ideologues, including the influential Mauritanian scholar Abul-Mondher al-Chinguetti, Lebanon's Abul-Zahra al-Zubeidi, as well as Abu Mohammed al-Tahawi and Mohammed al-Shalabi (Abu Sayyaf), leaders of the Salafi-jihadi current in Jordan. However, neither al Qaida nor Jabhat al-Nusra itself has commented on the allegations of an ISI connection.
Jabhat al-Nusra is active across all Sunni areas of the country, but most of its attacks have occurred in the Damascus region. It also has a powerful presence in Syria's eastern border region, and to some extent in the rebel strongholds of Idleb, rural Aleppo, and northern Hama Province. It has built its reputation on media-grabbing suicide attacks on landmark government and military installations. Recent examples include the Sept. 26 raid on the Syrian Army General Staff headquarters in Damascus, and the Oct. 3 triple suicide bombing in Aleppo.