I’m in Turkey interviewing members of the Syrian opposition from cities and towns in the north of Syria which are fully or partially controlled by their fighters.
The image of the Syrian opposition in the USA is of raging militants who want to establish an Islamic state. But most of the fighters are young soldiers or officers who defected because they couldn’t bear killing civilians, or else they are civilians - teachers, accountants, students, workers, farmers- who took up arms when the Syrian regime started bombing their towns.
One good example is Abdul Razak Tlas, a handsome, baby-faced 25 year old former Syrian army lieutenant from a famous Sunni family that produced a long- time defense minister. He was one of the first Syrian army officers to defect and became a hero of the Farouk brigade that defended residents of the Bab Amr district of Homs which was pounded to smithereens.
Tlas now sports a beard but he bristles when I ask him if he is a salafi, the militant believers who seek an Islamic state.
“I am a Muslim. Period,” he says.
“Ninety-five per cent of those who are labeled as salafis are indigenous Syrians and observant Muslims, not salafis in the true sense. Although their religion mandates them to fight against those who are killing their families, they do not espouse any extreme ideology. This is not a religious war.”
Most of these fighters, he says, would go back to their old jobs, once the war ended. But, echoing what I hear repeatedly from non-Islamist commanders, he adds that the small number of militant fighting groups is always well-supplied with funds and money from individuals in the Gulf states, while the non-Islamists get no weapons or funds from the West. And the longer the war lasts, the more attractive militant ideology may become to desperate young men who feel the world looks on as their towns and villages are bombed into dust.