In the case of the Supreme Military Council, for example, several units not only have adopted overtly sectarian and religious rhetoric but also have shown signs of only a nominal relationship with the council’s leadership, preferring to align themselves with the much more effective fighters of Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, along with their allies.
One such group is the Sheikh of Islam Ibn Taymiyya Battalion, a fighting unit in Tel Abyad, a town in eastern Syria across from Akcakale, Turkey.
The group proclaims loyalty to the Supreme Military Council and describes itself as part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. But Aymenn Tamimi, a student at Oxford University who studies jihadist groups that operate in Syria and Iraq, said the battalion had aligned itself with Ahrar al Sham – an Islamist group that follows the literalist ideology of the more radical factions – as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham in battling local Kurdish militias.
“Its logo claims FSA affiliation, but I know it is an ally of ISIS,” Tamimi said. “If you look at the Facebook posting dated 19 August, they feature a post with the ISIS banner on it.”
“What this shows is that the name FSA and the banner are not all that helpful in determining who is ‘moderate’ or not,” he added.
The role of Ahrar al Sham is also disputed. While Lister doesn’t include it among al Qaida-affiliated groups, former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell did during an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.”
Even the term “moderate” is problematic, and it has a meaning on the Syrian battlefield that’s different from the one it has in a Washington think tank. Advocates of the U.S. arming Syrian rebels talk about the need for a “federal, democratic Syria” as one way to determine whether a rebel group is moderate.
But, Tamimi said, many large rebel groups, including Liwa al Tawheed, a military council-affiliated group that’s taken the lead in fighting in Aleppo, “are hostile to this concept,” particularly if it means granting autonomy to Syria’s Kurdish minority, concentrated in the country’s northeast.
The name of Sheikh of Islam Ibn Taymiyya Battalion indicates its extremist leanings. The name references an early Islamic scholar whom many al Qaida adherents consider an intellectual innovator who advocated a doctrine of rejecting and even killing fellow Muslims who fail to uphold the tenets of the religion. Such thinking, labeled “takfiri” in Arabic, argues that Muslims who advocate for any system of government beyond the most rigid interpretations of the Islamic state are heretics subject to death at the hands of “real” believers.
Such thinking is on the fringes of mainstream Islamic thought. Blind adherence to the ideology can breed especially dedicated and ruthless fighters, and might be one reason that fighters from Nusra and the Islamic State compose the most effective rebel units, a fact that’s forced the U.S.-backed military council to coordinate with them.
“They have trucks that give them the ability to move and lots of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Abu Omar al Homsi, a commander with the council-affiliated Farouk Brigades in Homs province. “They’ll appear and join with our offensives, and of course we have to coordinate with them on some level. Even if we know that one day we might have to fight these people, most commanders have decided to deal with that problem after we deal with the bigger problem of Bashar.”
Lister has said the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham has another important quality that most military council groups lack: the ability to coordinate military resources in 11 of Syria’s 14 provinces. With most rebel groups operating on a hyper-local basis, that gives the Islamic State, and to a lesser extent Nusra, the ability to see the fight against Assad in broader geographical terms and an advantage in determining how to effectively manage their resources.
Hannah Allam contributed to this article from Washington.