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Fears Of Terrorists Infiltrating Syrian Rebel Forces

The conflict in Syria has already cost some 10,000 people their lives, according to U.N. estimates. Rebel fighters must rely on outside help to combat the Assad regime, which means money from Gulf states and fighters with jihadist objectives.

Gabriela Keller

DAMASCUSWhile chaos and violence continue to escalate in Syria, rebel groups realize they must turn to outside players, including Gulf State governments and extremist groups .

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is still generally short of weapons, ammunition and money. But "some groups are armed to the teeth, while others can hardly afford bullets. That naturally leads to conflict," says Ahmed, an activist from Hama.

The FSA is not an army with a central command: it is a collective movement made up of citizen fighters and militias. This structure increases the danger that rival interest groups exploit individual battalions to their own ends. "If you're contributing money, you want something for that money," Ahmed says.

Most of the money is apparently flowing in from the Gulf States. The Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia and Qatar decided last month to finance the FSA to the tune of several million dollars.

But Islamist groups are also playing a significant role. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has succeeded in building a significant amount of influence. "We have been supporting our Syrian people for a while now with humanitarian and financial aid," says Mulham al-Drubi, a leading member of the party.

Many activists fear that ideological baggage is attached to the payments. "The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists in the Gulf States are in a position to collect donations in the mosques," human rights advocate Wissam Tarif says. "The money has turned some FSA groups into virtual mercenary units pushing a political agenda."

The results can already be felt, says Tarif, who's noticed a marked increase in religious tension. What is also striking is the way the appearance of the rebels has changed: videos show that many fighters have started sporting Salafist-style beards. Black banners bearing texts from the Koran are also appearing more and more.

Teaming up with the "bad guys'

Fear has been growing for a while now in Syria that the regime's brutality could start to push rebels into the arms of extremist groups. "The international community talks and talks, but every day people are dying here," says Walid Fares, an activist from Homs, a rebel stronghold. "If nobody else comes to our help, we will end up teamed with the bad guys."

As Fares speaks, shots can be heard in the background. Fares lives in the Khalidija area under FSA control, but hardly a day goes by when government forces don't attack.

Right now, there are increasing signs that foreign extremists are being sent into Syria. In February, al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri called for members to support the fight against the Assad regime. In late April, two Lebanese members of the Fatah al-Islam terror group, which has ties to al Qaeda, were killed near Homs. And for several weeks Syria has been repeatedly shaken by bomb attacks that repeat the same pattern of attacks perpetrated in Iraq.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said that he assumes al Qaeda was behind last week's double attack in the capital of Damascus that killed at least 55 people and injured 370 others. Two representatives of Syria's National Council told the al-Arabiya news channel, however, that the attacks were carried out by terrorists whom President Bashar al-Assad's government had been keeping in jail "in reserve for bad times."

Crossing over from Iraq

Most opposition fighters say they've never seen any foreign fighters, but these claims are not necessarily reliable. The rebels know that it would hurt them if the impression spreads that the rebels have been infiltrated by al Qaeda.

Hasrid, an activist in Damascus, is one of the few rebels prepared to admit the presence of extremists from neighboring countries. "They contacted us," he says, adding that the jihadists found it difficult to integrate into FSA units.

"These people are idiots who are doing this to be killed," he says. "The FSA fighters at least possess basic notions like the instinct to survive, and professionalism. They don't have anything in common with these loudmouth foreigners who come here and want to set them on the path of victory over the infidels."

One cannot discount the real possibility that the regime is using the extremists to its own ends, to discredit the protest movement, says a well-known western political scientist in Damascus who wished to remain anonymous. "They wouldn't stop at using a jihadist threat to exploit the situation."

But Amer, an activist from Deir Assur in the eastern part of the country, reports that about a month ago an al Qaeda delegation from Iraq came to his city. "There were about 20 of them. They said they could help, but in return we had to follow their rules," he says. Local FSA leaders turned the men down. "They told them: ‘you're not welcome here.""

Amer does admit that militant Islamists are entering Syria at a nearby border crossing, and that a dozen Syrians have returned to Deir Assur from Iraq. They had left Syria to join in the fight against the U.S. occupation, and are now back – trained, experienced fighters on the side of the rebels.

Robert Mood, who heads the U.N. observation team stationed in Syria, says that he sees no chance of a permanent end to the violence unless the conflicting parties sit down for some serious dialogue. According to U.N. estimates, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far.

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Photo - Freedom House

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