Ironically, Sinjar is also the birthplace 1,200 years ago of the Alawite brand of Islam that Assad and Syria’s ruling elite follow. Its followers, persecuted by the Sunni Muslims around them, fled west to the safety of what are now Syria’s coastal mountains.
The ability of the rebel religious factions to mount a cross-border military raid as well as establish aid programs to deliver bread and other necessities to civilians within the areas they control underscores the weaknesses of the more secular rebels with whom the U.S. is allied.
That’s clear in Bab al Hawa, just across the border from Turkey, where two buildings symbolize the differences between the secular rebels’ Supreme Military Command and Ahrar al Sham. The building used as the headquarters of the military command is largely empty, while the other has become a bustling Islamist courthouse, filled with visitors and activity.
The lone official in the military command’s headquarter, a defected colonel named Mousab Saadedine, said the group had not yet received any aid from the U.S. and criticized the U.S. characterization of Nusra as a terrorist organization.
“The West has distorted their image,” he said. “The (Syrian government) helped in putting a spotlight on this group, but most of them are our countrymen, our brothers.”
Saadedine said that it was natural that there would be conservative religious fighters amongst the rebel ranks. Islam is the predominant faith in Syria. “I want to ask one thing: Are we Buddhists?” he said, breaking into a smile.
On the Turkish side of the border, trucks full of aid waited to cross into Syria. Many of them bore the markings of IHH, a Turkish charity that has close links to the Turkish government and has been criticized in the West for supporting the Palestinian political party Hamas. IHH often uses fighting groups outside the military command structure to distribute aid – to Ahrar al Sham, in particular.
The difference between the two groups is noticeable.
“Quite frankly, the folks we talk to don’t have traction on the ground,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.