The Saudi effort may just work: Significant grassroots hostility is building in liberated Syrian areas against foreign-funded extremists and al Qaeda affiliates. These tensions do not always develop into sustained clashes -- for almost all rebel groups, toppling the regime is the priority, not fighting extremist forces, which have proved indispensable in the battlefield.
According to an activist based in the northern city of Raqqa, when clashes erupted between the al Qaeda-affiliated ISIS and Ahfad al-Rasoul in August, local residents threw their support behind one or the other side -- but the strongest condemnation was for the infighting itself. "When they see the regime's warplanes shelling the city without a single shot in their direction, they get angry at the fighters who could do something," the activist explained.
The size of extremist groups is not an accurate indicator of the support for their ideology within Syrian society. Fighting groups are also not ideologically homogenous, as many fighters join groups for their effectiveness on the battlefield and discipline -- not their religious beliefs. Ahrar al-Sham members in Daraa, for example, can be remarkably different in terms of religiosity from members in more conservative northern areas such as Idlib or the Aleppo countryside.
The situation inside the country is more fluid and nuanced than many groups' hard-line slogans would suggest. Moderates can be members of hard-line groups and vice versa. Some groups, such as Suqour al-Sham, include both secular members and Islamist veterans of the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. For example, a former judge at Aleppo's cassation court, a secular Syrian who does not pray, nevertheless supports an Islamic identity to the state.
For this reason, many moderate fighters are more concerned with the foreign networks and leaders than the rank-and-file members of hard-line groups. "We are not too worried about Jabhat al-Nusra," said one FSA-affiliated officer in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor who said he worked in intelligence operations. "Once the fighting ends, we'll bring them back. We know them. They're our brothers, cousins, and neighbors -- they're the sons of our tribes. Our true struggle will be against [ISIS] and the Nusra leaders."
The FSA is still salvageable as a moderate force. But the way the Syrian battlefield is shifting should be a wake-up call for the opposition and its backers: The project of establishing a counterweight to extremists, which will be necessary to salvage Syria's future, has so far been feeble. A true alternative would be the creation of a rebel organization that is not a club for vetted seculars, but a structure that includes all actors -- of varying levels of religiosity -- that can help to curb extremism. If the opposition continues to be disconnected from the dynamics on the ground, however, it will only lead more moderate forces into the extremists' orbit.