Israeli analysts: Report confirms previous opinions.
Almost half of Syrian rebel fighters are jihadists or hardline Islamists, according to a new report by London intelligence and defense consultancy IHS Janes.
On Sunday, Britain’s Telegraph newspaper cited the report as putting the number of opposition forces at 100,000, broken up into around 1,000 groups.
The study said that around 10,000 fighters were jihadists like those groups linked to al- Qaida, including foreign fighters; 30,000- 35,000 were hardline Islamists whose ideology overlapped with the jihadists’, but were specifically focused on the Syrian war rather than global jihad; and another 30,000 fighters had an Islamic character – including the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups – leaving a small group of non-Islamist fighters fighting for more nationalistic goals.
Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post that the IHS Janes report confirmed previous opinions that the jihadists were a small minority even though they had a significant impact in some areas of the war. Zisser said he believed that a total number of 65,000 Islamist fighters focusing on Syria seemed a bit high, but he admitted he did not have any hard numbers to counter the report’s findings.
“In any case, when we are talking about Syrians, we have to remember that things are fluid – one day a person could be part of a certain group, and the next day, another,” he said, calling the report “interesting and indicative of radicalization as time goes by.”
Aaron Y. Zelin, the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who closely follows jihadist groups, told the Post that it was “difficult to truly know how many fighters there are among the different groups and ideologies.”
He added that the numbers were not necessarily the most relevant factor.
“What is important is understanding who is the most effective and best on the battlefield,” he said. “In that case, it is true that the best fighters on the battlefield are Islamists, Salafis, and al-Qaida-linked jihadis.”
Jonathan Spyer, a Middle East analyst and senior research fellow at the GLORIA Center who has traveled widely in Syria, described Charles Lister, the author of the study, as “one of the most serious analysts working in this area,” and said the report “offers the latest confirmation that the armed Syrian rebels consist of a clear majority of Sunni Islamists.”
Despite the difficulty of obtaining precise figures, he told the Post, “this latest report confirms the picture of an insurgency essentially divided into three parts: al-Qaida-linked groups, Salafi groups not linked to al-Qaida, and Muslim Brotherhood or more ‘moderate’ Islamist forces.”
This is in sharp contrast to some of the recent and now discredited claims, he said.
He was apparently referring to the recent controversy over a Wall Street Journal article from a few weeks ago by Elizabeth O’Bagy – an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War – which argued that Islamic radicals were not dominating the rebel forces.