(Reuters) – As the Syrian civil war got under way, a former electrician who calls himself Sheikh Omar built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Bashar al-Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, he said, here in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.
Omar’s group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn’t defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries – hardline Islamists.
The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar’s more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly.
The Islamists confiscated the brigade’s weapons, ammunition and cars, Omar said. “They considered this war loot. Maybe they think we are competitors,” he said. “We have no idea about their goals. What we have built in two years disappeared in a single day.”
The group was effectively marginalized in the struggle to overthrow Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Around 100 fighters are all that remain of his force, Omar said.
It’s a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists’ goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.
The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated “terrorist” by the United States.
The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi’ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.
The Islamists are more energetic and better organized. The main two hardline groups to emerge in Syria are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda offshoot that has claimed responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings, including several in Damascus in which civilians were killed.
But Islamist fighters, dressed in black cotton with long Sunni-style beards, have developed a reputation for being principled. Dozens of residents living in areas of rebel-held territory across northern Syria told Reuters the same thing, whether they agreed with the politics of Jabhat al-Nusra or not: the Islamists do not steal.