ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) - As the Syrian civil war got under way, a former electrician who calls himself Sheikh Omar built up a brigade of rebel fighters. In two years of struggle against President Bashar al-Assad, they came to number 2,000 men, he said, here in the northern city of Aleppo. Then, virtually overnight, they collapsed.
Omar's group, Ghurabaa al-Sham, wasn't defeated by the government. It was dismantled by a rival band of revolutionaries - hardline Islamists.
The Islamists moved against them at the beginning of May. After three days of sporadic clashes Omar's more moderate fighters, accused by the Islamists of looting, caved in and dispersed, according to local residents. Omar said the end came swiftly.
The Islamists confiscated the brigade's weapons, ammunition and cars, Omar said. "They considered this war loot. Maybe they think we are competitors," he said. "We have no idea about their goals. What we have built in two years disappeared in a single day."
The group was effectively marginalized in the struggle to overthrow Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Around 100 fighters are all that remain of his force, Omar said.
It's a pattern repeated elsewhere in the country. During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory in Syria, Reuters journalists found that radical Islamist units are sidelining more moderate groups that do not share the Islamists' goal of establishing a supreme religious leadership in the country.
The moderates, often underfunded, fragmented and chaotic, appear no match for Islamist units, which include fighters from organizations designated "terrorist" by the United States.
The Islamist ascendancy has amplified the sectarian nature of the war between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Shi'ite supporters of Assad. It also presents a barrier to the original democratic aims of the revolt and calls into question whether the United States, which announced practical support for the rebels last week, can ensure supplies of weapons go only to groups friendly to the West.
World powers fear weapons could reach hardline Islamist groups that wish to create an Islamic mini-state within a crescent of rebel-held territory from the Mediterranean in the west to the desert border with Iraq.
That prospect is also alarming for many in Syria, from minority Christians, Alawites and Shi'ites to tolerant Sunni Muslims, who are concerned that this alliance would try to impose Taliban-style rule.
REPROBATES AND OUTLAWS
Syria's war began with peaceful protests against Assad in March 2011 and turned into an armed rebellion a few months later following a deadly crackdown. Most of the rebel groups in Syria were formed locally and have little coordination with others. The country is dotted with bands made up of army defectors, farmers, engineers and even former criminals.
Many pledge allegiance to the notion of a unified Free Syrian Army (FSA). But on the ground there is little evidence to suggest the FSA actually exists as a body at all.
Sheikh Omar told the story of his brigade while sitting in a cramped room at his headquarters, a small one-storey building surrounded by olive tree fields in Aleppo province. Wrapped around his chest he wore a leather bandolier that held two pistols, grips pointing outwards, ready to be drawn by crossing his arms.
He said he was from a poor background in rural Aleppo province. When he and a handful of others had started a rebel group to oppose Assad, fear had made it hard to recruit. The rich and law-abiding were scared. Only outlaws and reprobates would join him at first.
"We were looking for good people. But who was willing to work for me and help me? Those who used to go to bars, to fight with people and steal. Those are the people who allied with me and fought against the regime." As he spoke some of his remaining fighters tried to interject; he silenced them, saying he wanted to be honest.
Much more at link: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/19/us-syria-rebels-islamists-specialreport-idUSBRE95I0BC20130619